THE OLD sheep farm at Kalná Roztoka, in Slovakia’s easternmost Snina district, once held over 2,000 sheep. Today, the farm buildings stand empty between clumps of weeds at the end of a rough track. The gate in front of the shuttered administrative building is chained and locked.
In the transition from communism to the free market, many agricultural cooperatives have suffered the same fate. But the farm at Kalná Roztoka was not a victim of ‘transformation’ – instead, it was hijacked by what its former owner calls a local cabal acting in brazen violation of the law. Ján Vovčík, a former forester with a law degree, used to own the farm through his Agri-Tajch company, and kept over 200 sheep on it in the 1990s. Now, the buildings Vovčík recovered through restitution are the property of a former policeman dismissed from the force a decade ago for cigarette smuggling.
A big man who is conscious of his bulk – “I’ve put on a little weight”, he wheezes – Vovčík is not shy about denouncing those who relieved him of his property. “This is simply an absurd and arrogant violation of the law,” he says.
Anything is possible
If Slovakia is a small country of limitless possibilities, then the same is doubly true of Snina district, with its 40,000 inhabitants and infinite range of legal outcomes.
“Out here, pretty much anything is possible,” says Vovčík’s legal representative, who doesn’t wish his name to be published for fear of local repercussions.
Back in 2002, the municipality of Kalná Roztoka sent Vovčík a local tax bill of almost Sk30,000 (€993) for the previous two years, levied on the farm’s agricultural buildings and its 4,855 square metres of land. The only problem was that Vovčík didn’t own the land – on the contrary, it had belonged to the local Greek Catholic diocese since 1998.
The tax notice that Vovčík received from then-Kalná Roztoka Mayor Vasil Kerekanič on April 22, 2002 advised him that “appeals to this decision can be submitted within 30 days”. But when Vovčík sent in a protest against paying tax on land that wasn’t his, Kerekanič dismissed it because it had arrived after May 10 – a period of 15 days, not the previously advertised 30. The mayor also told Vovčík he was not allowed to appeal the decision, rather than sending Vovčík’s appeal higher to the tax office in Banská Bystrica, as the law required.
In a surprisingly frank admission of his error, Mayor Kerekanič wrote to Vovčík on February 20, 2003, saying “I issued a decision where it was stated that your appeal against the taxes levied had been rejected. In issuing this decision a mistake was made on our side in not taking into account the appeal period, which was 30 days. For this reason, please regard my decision on rejecting your appeal as null and void.”
A month later, however, Kerekanič confirmed the validity of the tax decision, opening the door for the courts to issue an order for the ‘debt’ to be collected.
Kerekanič has since died. Current Kalná Roztoka mayor Ladislav Hakulin refused to answer questions about the case. “I have no interest in making any comment,” he said.
The following year, court executor Ján Ferko was empowered by the Humenné district court to collect the debt, which now stood at Sk64,000. When Vovčík appealed, Humenné court judge Jana Kurucová turned him down, saying the court was not allowed to examine the validity of the original tax decision. In fact, Slovakia’s Execution Code requires courts to examine all stages of executions and overturn them in cases where “the execution should never have started because the decision to execute was invalid at the time it was issued”.
Nevertheless, on July 11, 2005, a public auction of Vovčík’s farm property was held. Here again, curious discrepancies occurred. A court evaluator, Jozef Galanda, set the value of the farm buildings for the auction at Sk2.4 million, even though in 1999 he had pegged the same assets at Sk8.5 million.
The entire farm property was sold, instead of individual assets that would have been enough cover the debt, such as an Avia farm truck. And the buyer was Andrej Fedorko, a former policeman who had been fired from the corps 10 years earlier for cigarette smuggling. The buildings are now owned by Ján Glogovský, another policeman fired in the late 1990s for smuggling.
Vovčík protested the auction results, and to his surprise was this time upheld by Kurucová at the Humenné court. However, the municipality of Kalná Roztoka appealed – even though by law it was not allowed to, as it had not submitted an objection at the auction itself – and the Prešov regional court cancelled Kurucová’s decision and returned the case to her for another verdict.
This time, she overruled Vovčík’s objections, and approved the auction results.
Leafing through Vovčík’s legal file, it is difficult to understand how a tax debt of Sk30,000 that should never have been levied in the first place could have cost a man his entire farm.
On the other hand, it proves impossible to verify, or even to follow, Vovčík’s explanations of who went to school with whom, and how his enemies conspired together to defy the law. Snina is, after all, much smaller than Slovakia, and its internal allegiances are hidden from outsiders.
In mid-July, Vovčík appealed to the General Prosecutor’s Office to take immediate action to remedy his situation. The General Prosecutor in turn has passed his file on to the Special Prosecutor’s Office.
In the meantime, Vovčík is preparing to demand Sk20 million in compensation.
15. Sep 2008 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson