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A roundup of the year in news

SIX Cabinet ministers have resigned or been dismissed from the ruling coalition since June 2006 and relations with Hungary are often stormy. Yet the coalition – Robert Fico’s Smer party, Ján Slota’s Slovak National Party (SNS) and Vladimír Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) – is entering the new year with record popularity among voters.

Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, paid their first-ever visit to Slovakia on October 23 and October 24.(Source: SITA)

SIX Cabinet ministers have resigned or been dismissed from the ruling coalition since June 2006 and relations with Hungary are often stormy. Yet the coalition – Robert Fico’s Smer party, Ján Slota’s Slovak National Party (SNS) and Vladimír Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) – is entering the new year with record popularity among voters.

The government can boast a number of successes in 2008. Slovakia began the year already six weeks into its membership in the Schengen passport-free zone, and by July was approved for the euro, which it adopts on January 1, 2009. Also, the United States announced on October 17 that Slovakia, along with five other formerly communist Eastern European countries and South Korea, had been accepted into the Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens of those countries to visit the US without a tourist visa.

Cabinet sheds ministers

In late January, defence minister František Kašický, a Smer nominee, resigned after his ministry violated procurement laws by announcing an inflated tender for cleaning services.

The violation included Sk1.5 billion for snow removal and Sk900 million for cleaning services as well as an additional Sk1.5 billion for cleaning the barracks during the summer, according to the Sme daily, which broke the story.

Kašický was replaced by Jaroslav Baška, the ministry’s state secretary. The resignation also led to a purge of the ministry’s personnel department and the cancellation of the cleaning contracts.

Then, on June 3, health minister Ivan Valentovič, a Smer party nominee, announced he was resigning for personal reasons. His successor, Richard Raši, who was appointed the same day, took over a department that was heavily indebted and had been at the centre of some of the government’s most contentious proposals.

Under Valentovič’s leadership, private health insurers were banned from using their profits for anything other than channeling them back into the health care system, and the privatisation of health care facilities was halted. Among his first moves after becoming minister was abolishing the Sk20 fee that patients had paid to see their doctor. The government also drew up a list of hospitals that are guaranteed contracts with state-run health insurers. Only state hospitals made it onto the list.

Observers have characterised the Valentovič era as part of a move towards creating a single, state-run health insurer. Fico hand-picked Valentovič’s successor, citing Raši’s experience as a physician and manager.

On December 17 Foreign Minister Ján Kubiš resigned to take up a senior UN position (see story on page 1 of this issue).

Accusations of cronyism

Environment Minister Jaroslav Izák, an SNS nominee, was dismissed on July 22 for approving subsidies to political contacts and supporters from ministry funds. One subsidy, for Sk200,000, went to the mother-in-law of the head of the Environment Office, which is part of the ministry. Another subsidy from the Environmental Fund went to Jozef Ďuračka, an SNS MP, and Jozef Minďáš, the head of the state forest company.

In addition, environmentalists and observers criticised Izák for lack of transparency and yielding to lobbyists.

SNS boss Ján Slota picked Ján Chrbet, a member of the parliamentary economic policy committee, to succeed Izák. Chrbet is an associate in several family-owned toxic waste processing plants and biofuel production plants. His name figures in four private companies, one of which is currently in liquidation.

The Environment Ministry will distribute Sk1.8 billion in EU structural funds this year. Katarína Šašková, the daughter of an SNS MP, was appointed the head of the Eurofund section at the ministry, the Sme daily reported.

On August 14, Mečiar requested that Fico sack former agriculture minister Zdenka Kramplová. Her predecessor, Miroslav Jureňa, had been dismissed eight months earlier.

According to media reports, Kramplová was dismissed because of a controversy surrounding the HZDS’s recent annual report, which she certified.

A review of the report in June by a parliamentary committee found that a Sk10 million loan to the HZDS was apparently repaid by two party supporters – the owner of an indebted company and an 82–year–old pensioner. The pensioner told the media that his cash donation of Sk7 million had been delivered to HZDS headquarters in a plastic bag.

Finance minister in hot water

In mid-June, Prime Minister Fico publicly condemned his finance minister, Ján Počiatek, for meeting the boss of a Slovak financial group in Monaco. Fico called the meeting “unethical” and “immoral” given his government’s proclaimed hostility towards such firms.

Počiatek and the former general director of Bratislava airport, Karol Biermann, met Ivan Jakabovič, a partner in the J&T financial group, aboard Jakabovič’s yacht in Monte Carlo a few days before the European Central Bank revalued the crown's central parity on May 28, according to Plus Jeden Deň, the tabloid daily which broke the story.

Former finance minister Ivan Mikloš declared that the switch to the euro in Slovakia “already has its victors,” naming the financial groups J&T and Istrokapitál and saying that they made hundreds of millions of crowns by buying the Slovak currency at the right time.

Počiatek offered his resignation, but Fico declined it.

The European Commission called on Slovakia to investigate whether any information was leaked. After a long investigation, the National Bank of Slovakia (NBS) said in early September that no information concerning the revaluation of the Slovak crown had been leaked.

Slovak-Hungarian tensions

Tensions in Slovak-Hungarian relations escalated in the second half of the year, prompting the prime ministers of Slovakia and Hungary, Robert Fico and Ferenc Gyurcsány, to meet on November 15.
On November 1, a football match in Dunajská Streda, a south-western town with the largest proportion of ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia, was the most recent cause of tension between the countries. At the football match, Slovak police confronted hooligans in the crowd, most of whom had travelled from Hungary.

While Hungarian political representatives described the police’s actions, in which several people were injured and dozens arrested, as disproportionate, the Slovak authorities have insisted that the measures taken were justified.

After the match, extremist groups held demonstrations near the Slovak Embassy in Budapest; in one of these, a Slovak flag was burned. On November 10, members of the right-wing Hungarian Jobbik party and the Hungarian Guard, a right-wing organisation whose members dress in military uniforms resembling those of World War II-era Fascists, tried to block Slovak-Hungarian border crossings.
On November 8, 28 Hungarians dressed in such military uniforms marched through Kráľovský Chlmec, a majority-Hungarian border town, and were arrested by Slovak police as they tried to leave.

Both Fico and Gyurcsány condemned extremism, insisting that the relationship between the countries cannot be dictated by radicals.

However, political analysts suggested that Slovak-Hungarian relations began worsening before November, following anti-Hungarian statements by SNS chairman Ján Slota, who repeatedly disparaged Hungarian Foreign Affairs Minister Kinga Göncz.

"This lady with the dishevelled hair; she could take more care of her appearance," Slota said on June 6, referring to Göncz.

On October 5, Slota said: “I can compare her to [Sudeten Nazi leader Konrad] Henlein’s people and that moustachioed man from the pub in Munich, who said the same kind of things as that lady I have already mentioned several times today. Maybe she is already growing a moustache.”

Coalition remains popular

Yet public support for the governing coalition has increased, except for the HZDS.

Smer claimed 48 percent support in December, according to a poll by the ÚVVM polling agency of the Slovak Statistics Office. The SNS was second with 13.2 percent. The HZDS was fifth, at 7.6 percent.
Among opposition parties, the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) came in third with 11.7 percent and the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) was supported by 8.6 percent. The Christian-Democratic Movement (KDH) was sixth, at 7.2 percent.

In mid-October, Fico was still the most trusted politician in Slovakia, backed by 31.4 percent of those polled in a ÚVVM survey. This was a slight decline from the 32.4 percent he held in September.
President Ivan Gašparovič came in second, at 14 percent. The trust in SDKÚ deputy chairperson Iveta Radičová grew to 11.2 percent, up from 6.7 percent in September.

Condition of the opposition

This year also included some alienation among the opposition parties. For several months SDKÚ and KDH leaders did not officially meet their SMK counterparts after SMK MPs voted with the governing coalition parties to ratify the Lisbon Treaty.

The SDKÚ and KDH argued that the SMK undermined the opposition’s strategy of using ratification of the treaty as a lever to force the ruling coalition to compromise on the controversial new Press Code in late April.

However, in late November, the SDKÚ and KDH said they would resume cooperation with the SMK.
The SDKÚ and KDH invited the SMK to discuss proposals for easing the impact of the financial crisis and agreed to cooperate over an amendment to the Education Act on textbooks used in ethnic Hungarian schools.

In late February, four members of the opposition KDH left the party due to what they called the KDH’s deviation from Christian Democratic ideals.

Among those unhappy with where the party is heading are the co-founder of the KDH, František Mikloško, and former KDH vice-chairman Vladimír Palko, who ran a failed campaign for party chairman last summer. Pavol Minárik and Rudolf Bauer were the other departing members.

All four members remained in parliament as independent MPs. In July, they announced the founding of a new party, the Conservative Democrats of Slovakia (KDS).

Several other new political parties emerged over the year. Robert Nemcsics, a former member of the New Citizen’s Alliance (ANO), announced a new civic-liberal party with the working name Liga (League) in early October. And Richard Sulík, the co–author of Slovakia’s tax reform and the flat tax, announced in late November that he is launching a new political party, Sloboda a Solidarita (SAS - Freedom and Solidarity).

Antagonism toward media

Prime Minister Robert Fico’s attitude toward the media and journalists remained rather antagonistic throughout the year. Fico has several times described the media as the political opposition.

Over the past year, journalists have exposed a series of serious political scandals including the suspicious transfer of land which resulted in the sacking of the head of the Slovak Land Fund, and the Defence Ministry cleaning contract, subsequently cancelled after media attention, which resulted in the resignation of the defence minister.

According to the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists (SSN), a recent court decision to fine Radio Viva Sk1 million for libel “does not contribute to freedom of expression in Slovak society.”

In October, the Bratislava Regional Court ruled that a private radio station, Radio Viva, which previously broadcast as Radio Twist, had to pay Sk1 million (€33,194) in damages to Jozef Soročina, a judge in the Michalovce District Court, who was the unnamed subject of an October 2004 evening news story broadcast on Radio Twist by reporter Katarína Kudjaková.

The story concerned a press conference given by the then-Interior Minister, Vladimír Palko, and former Justice Minister, Daniel Lipšic, in which they alleged that Soročina – identified at the time only as Jozef S – had issued a fraudulent writ of execution against the Allianz-Slovenská Poisťovňa insurance company.

At the press conference, held on October 7, 2004, Palko announced that the police suspected Soročina of fraud.

The Radio Twist reporter, who is now a spokesperson for the Special Court, inserted a sentence of her own between two recordings of Palko’s speech.

According to the Bratislava Regional Court ruling, signed by Judge Katarína Stránská, the chairperson of the panel of judges hearing the case, the reporter should have inserted the words “according to Palko” into her sentence. By not doing so, the court ruled, she expressed an “evaluating judgement” and thus interfered with the public reputation and dignity of the judge.
The court’s decision "makes journalists insecure in doing their jobs and may lead to speculative lawsuits concerning protection of personality," the SSN said.

Press Code and Education Act

The country’s new Press Code, which the ruling coalition passed in April, has attracted considerable international scrutiny.

The Slovak government said the changes were necessary since the country’s existing media legislation, written in 1966, did not sufficiently protects the rights of individuals or the plurality of public debate. Media organisations agreed that Slovakia was in need of a new Press Code, but were highly critical of the way the government shaped the legislation. The code grants a right of reply even in cases in which the printed information was correct, and the right to a correction even if the published information was not libellous.

The right to reply had been among the major concerns expressed by the Organization for Co-operation and Security in Europe (OSCE) and the Association of Publishers of Periodical Press.

OSCE press freedom representative Miklós Haraszti said that the Press Code goes against the country's international commitments to protect the freedom of its media.

The association of publishers listed its objections to the Press Code in a leaflet entitled “The Seven Sins of the Press Code”. On March 27, all national Slovak dailies, except Šport, printed the document on the otherwise blank front pages of their publications.

Meanwhile, the country’s opposition challenged the legislation at the Constitutional Court.

Lisbon Treaty burdened

After a months-long tug-of-war between the ruling coalition and opposition, parliament on April 10 ratified the Lisbon Treaty, which replaces the European Constitution that French and Dutch voters rejected two years ago. The SDKÚ, KDH and SMK had originally conditioned their support for the treaty on the ruling coalition withdrawing the controversial Press Code. The opposition did so since the treaty required at least 90 votes for ratification.

But a couple of hours before the vote to ratify, the SMK announced that it was backing out of a long-standing agreement with its fellow opposition parties. The SDKÚ and KDH did not attend the vote. The SMK said that its decision should be interpreted as support for an international document rather than a sign of warmer relations between the SMK and Fico’s coalition.

The KDH was the only opposition party that has publicly criticised the treaty. The SDKÚ maintained it was ready to vote on the treaty once the Press Code was withdrawn.

The new Education Act, or more informally the school law, was passed on May 22. It replaces legislation dating from the mid-1980s, which was considered obsolete by both the drafters of the new law and its critics. President Ivan Gašparovič signed the Education Act into law on June 17, ushering in the ruling coalition's vision for elementary schools and high schools.

The law came to force in September and in the first stage it affects only the first grade at elementary schools and the first grade at secondary schools. The reform will be further refined over the next three years.

Education Minister Ján Mikolaj said that the reform will reduce the volume of content that students must memorise, instead allowing a focus on practical usage of information. Class sizes will also be reduced, according to the minister.

The new legislation obliges students to learn more foreign languages from the third grade, with a second foreign language from the sixth grade. The state will now define a curriculum that schools must teach, and each school will also be able to add their own education programmes. Another change is that nursery schools will become part of the school system.

The law has also enforced changes to the financial status of schools. The state will now pay for the costs of educating 5-year-olds at nursery schools. Private schools will lose 15 percent of their subsidies if they violate any of the regulations. However, state schools will not lose money if they violate the law.

The opposition had asked the coalition to withdraw the bill and re-work it, or at least delay reform by a year to allow teachers time to prepare for the changes proposed.

Martin Fronc, a former education minister and currently a KDH MP, called the law a missed opportunity.

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