A round-up of the year in news

THE ECONOMIC crisis was far from being Slovak politicians’ only problem in 2009. The past year has been marked by conflicts over minority issues, particularly problems in relations with the Hungarian and Roma minorities living in Slovakia, but also by significant changes in the country’s judicial system and by several affairs bearing signs of corruption and cronyism within the ruling coalition.

Hungarian President László Sólyom (centre) was denied entry to Slovakia in August.Hungarian President László Sólyom (centre) was denied entry to Slovakia in August. (Source: TASR)

THE ECONOMIC crisis was far from being Slovak politicians’ only problem in 2009. The past year has been marked by conflicts over minority issues, particularly problems in relations with the Hungarian and Roma minorities living in Slovakia, but also by significant changes in the country’s judicial system and by several affairs bearing signs of corruption and cronyism within the ruling coalition.

Language: a bone of contention

The amendment to the State Language Act drafted by the Culture Ministry and passed by parliament on June 30 upset the Hungarian minority in Slovakia, but also generated tensions in the already sensitive relationship between Slovakia and Hungary.

The amended law introduced fines of up to €5,000 for the use of incorrect Slovak from September 2009, and enabled stricter official supervision of the use of ‘correct’ Slovak. According to the law, doctors, nurses and caretakers in health-care and social facilities in municipalities in which a significant proportion of people belong to ethnic minorities may speak with patients and clients in the language of those minorities. Outside such areas, these public employees may only use Slovak. If texts on memorials and plaques are written in both the state language and a foreign language, the foreign inscription may not be bigger than the inscription in the state language.

The opposition Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) denounced the law, describing it as putting citizens who belong to a minority at a disadvantage and violating the principle of equality. Several state officials from neighbouring Hungary also made statements condemning the Slovak Language Act.

By contrast, Slovak politicians from the ruling coalition claimed that the act strengthens the position of national minorities in Slovakia.

The international community was kept busy evaluating language and minority rights in Slovakia. The opinion of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) High Commissioner on National Minorities Knut Vollebaek on the question of whether the act is in accordance with international standards on human and minority rights was published on the website of the Slovak Foreign Affairs Ministry on July 22. In the document, the high commissioner concluded that the amendment pursues a legitimate aim and is in line with international standards – but added that there are some elements that might raise issues of compatibility with international standards and with the constitutional principles of the Slovak Republic.

Vollebaek visited Bratislava on September 16, following a visit to Budapest the previous day, and met all the significant players: parliamentary deputies, representatives of the SMK and Most-Híd (another party representing Hungarian speakers), Vice Prime Minister for National Minorities Dušan Čaplovič, Prime Minister Robert Fico, Foreign Affairs Minister Miroslav Lajčák – who had invited Vollebaek to Slovakia – and Culture Minister Marek Maďarič, whose department prepared the law change at the heart of the dispute: the amendment to the State Language Act.

Vollebaek called on the Slovak government to draft implementation guidelines to prevent the law from being misinterpreted. Slovakia agreed, saying that representatives of all the concerned parties, including representatives of the Hungarian minority and representatives from Vollebaek’s office, would take part in drafting the guidelines.

The ministry finished the draft in November and Vollebaek stated, in his final statement on the cooperation, that the current version of the government's proposed guidelines represents a good foundation for implementation of the provisions of the revised State Language Act and for supervision of fulfilment of the obligations which result from it.

The government's guidelines for implementation of the amended State Language Act should become effective as of January 1, 2010. Until then, the Culture Ministry will not issue fines stemming from violations of the law.

Sólyom sent home, PMs meet

A meeting of the Slovak and Hungarian prime ministers intended to demonstrate efforts to improve bilateral relations, which was originally planned for early July 2009, was postponed indefinitely after the language law controversy erupted, as Hungary said it would make no sense at that time. Events over the summer, however, led both countries to agree to a date sooner than they might have expected.

In particular, relations suffered a serious blow on August 21 when the president of Hungary, László Sólyom, was prevented from paying an unofficial visit to the Slovak town of Komárno where he was invited by the local authorities to help unveil a statue of Hungarian King Stephen I.

On August 20 the three highest representatives of the Slovak government, Prime Minister Fico, President Ivan Gašparovič and Speaker of the Parliament Pavol Paška issued a joint written statement saying that President Sólyom was not welcome in Slovakia on August 21 for several reasons – including the ongoing tensions between the countries because of Slovakia’s new controversial State Language Act and the sensitivity of the date: August 21 is the anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by several Warsaw Pact countries, including Hungary, in 1968.

However, since Slovakia and Hungary are now fellow members of the European Union and the Schengen Area, which guarantees border-free travel within Europe, the Slovak government found itself in the diplomatically awkward position of having to invoke special powers normally used only to stop suspected terrorists or known criminals from crossing state borders if it wished to prevent Sólyom from entering Slovakia

Nevertheless, on August 21 the Slovak authorities decided to deny Sólyom entry into Slovakia. The Slovak Foreign Affairs Ministry officially conveyed a message to Sólyom, asking him to disregard his invitation to Komárno.

Sólyom did not cross the border and instead convened a press conference on the Hungarian side of the bridge between the Slovak town of Komárno and the Hungarian town of Komárom. He said that the diplomatic note issued by Slovakia to deny him entry was an unprecedented measure in relations between two allies, Slovakia and Hungary. The note denying entry reached Sólyom while he was at the Hungarian-Slovak border.

Hungarian state representatives turned to the international community to complain about the decision of the Slovak government, but international organisations including the European Union refused to engage, insisting it was a bilateral issue which had to be solved by the two countries themselves.

Partly as a result, Slovakia’s premier Robert Fico met his Hungarian counterpart Gordon Bajnai on September 10 in the Hungarian town of Szécsény. There they signed a joint declaration. In reference to Slovakia’s State Language Act, Fico and Bajnai declared that they would both respect the recommendations of Vollebaek.

“The significance of this meeting is that it will help to calm some emotions,” Fico told a press conference after the meeting.

However, he also pointed out a sensitive point in current relations: the fact that SMK deputies were to take part in a session of the Forum of Hungarian Deputies of the Carpathian Basin, a body which according to Fico “institutionalises the relationship between the Hungarian Republic and Slovak citizens”.

Judiciary in turmoil

On June 22 Slovakia’s Judicial Council elected Štefan Harabin, then justice minister, to the post of president of Slovakia’s Supreme Court, the occupant of which also heads the council of judges that oversees the operation of all courts in Slovakia.

He won the votes of 15 members of the 17-member Judicial Council; his opponent, Supreme Court Justice Eva Babiaková, did not receive a single vote. Harabin had been serving as a justice of the Supreme Court when appointed justice minister; his duties as a judge were suspended while he held ministerial office.

Several non-governmental organisations held a joint protest in front of the Justice Ministry building where the Judicial Council vote took place on June 22. That protest followed a rally on June 19 that attracted several hundred people and started with the reading of a transcript of a telephone conversation recorded in the 1990s between Harabin and Baki Sadiki, a suspected Albanian drug mafia gang chief in Slovakia. The recording suggests that Harabin, who was a judge at the time the conversation was recorded, was on familiar terms with the suspected criminal.

Both protests were initiated by the political ethics watchdog, the Fair-Play Alliance, which also launched an electronic protest petition through a website, www.cervenapreharabina.sk, meaning “Red Light for Harabin”. The alliance argued that the ‘first person’ of the judiciary should be a candidate with an unblemished record who performs tasks independently with deep respect for justice, truth and ethics. Such a person, according to the alliance’s website, should be able to lead by example, which they said Harabin could not.

After his election, a trickle of testimonies by individual judges who claimed that critics of Harabin within the judiciary were being harassed evolved into an open petition signed by 105 Slovak judges. The petition, published in September, was entitled “Five Sentences” and alleged that the judicial authorities were seeking to penalise judges for their opinions. The petition came just a few weeks after 15 judges wrote an open letter to Slovakia’s three highest constitutional officials, as well as to the justice minister and Slovakia’s Judicial Council, warning about what they called abuse of disciplinary proceedings against certain judges.

The letter cited the cases of disciplinary proceedings against Judges Anna Benešová, Darina Kuchtová, Milan Ružička and Robert Urban to support their claim that disciplinary proceedings had been turned into a tool of intimidation. Benešová, a judge of the Bratislava Regional Court, spoke openly in an interview with the Sme daily about the court’s management having put pressure on her to give preference to complaints filed by Harabin.

Supreme Court Judge Peter Paluda was temporarily suspended on September 8 after he filed a criminal complaint against Harabin for what he called abuse of power. The former vice president of the Supreme Court and the honorary chairman of the Association of Judges of Slovakia, Juraj Majchrák, who has been a critic of Harabin and was also his competitor as a candidate for the post of Supreme Court president in 2003, faced three disciplinary proceedings against him within three months, Sme reported.

In late June, shortly after becoming Supreme Court president, Harabin attracted the attention of Slovak as well as international media freedom watchdogs when it was reported that he had sent out-of-court settlement proposals to four Slovak news publications demanding huge payouts as damages for negative allegations about him that appeared in their publications. Harabin claimed the stories had harmed his reputation.

The representative for media freedom of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Miklós Haraszti, stated in his regular report to the OSCE Permanent Council on July 2 that he was monitoring the case involving the letters sent by Harabin to the three publishers – of the Sme, Pravda and Plus Jeden Deň dailies and to the Plus 7 Dní weekly (Plus Jeden Deň and Plus 7 Dní share the same publisher). In his letters, Harabin requested that the sums be sent to his account within 40 days, in compensation for non-pecuniary damages he alleged he had suffered.

The total sum requested from all periodicals was €600,000. Harabin alleges that between 2008 and 2009 the periodicals published a series of libellous articles which linked him to organised crime.

Special court ruled unconstitutional

Slovakia's Special Court, which was set up to tackle high-level state corruption and organised crime, was ruled unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court on May 20. However, the court said that verdicts issued by the Special Court would remain valid.

The verdict came as a result of the efforts of a group of 46 ruling coalition deputies, mostly members of Vladimír Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), who argued that the introduction of an extraordinary judiciary – the Special Court’s judges are independent of and paid differently to the rest of the judiciary – violates the principles of the separation of powers and judicial independence and argued that when the court was established there was no acute public interest or emergency situation.

Slovak Justice Minister Štefan Harabin welcomed the ruling, calling the Special Court a “media bubble for over half a billion crowns”. By contrast, his predecessor, Daniel Lipšic, said that decent people would not celebrate the dissolution of the court.

The challenge to the court’s existence attracted international attention and was closely observed by diplomats.

According to the Constitutional Court, the Special Court was created in a way which interfered with the separation of executive and judicial power to the advantage of the executive power, by which it violates the principles of a democratic state, particularly the guarantees of judges’ independence.

National Security Office (NBÚ) security clearance is mandatory for Special Court judges. Radoslav Procházka, who represented those opposing the dissolution of the court in the legal process, said he did not see a single relevant reason why it would not have been enough simply to cancel compulsory security screening for Special Court judges and expressed the belief that no such reason existed.

Prime Minister Fico subsequently came up with an initiative to create a Specialised Criminal Court to replace the Special Court, a proposal which was approved by the Slovak Parliament on June 18 after all the opposition and Smer party deputies present voted in favour of a law establishing it.

The new court’s competences go beyond those of the Special Court: it will also hear cases of premeditated murder, subversion involving public procurement and public auctions; falsifying, changing and unauthorised production of money and shares; and abuse of authority by public officials.

Growing suspicions of official corruption

The past year has been marked by several major corruption cases, of which the most striking were the bulletin-board tender case, the emissions quotas sale case and the land restitution case.

Bulletin-board tender

In 2008, under then-minister Marian Janušek, the Construction Ministry announced a public tender worth €119.5 million (Sk3.6 billion) for consulting and legal services, using EU funds – but the tender notice was posted only on a bulletin board within the ministry building, in an area to which the public does not normally have access. The tender was won by the only bidder, a consortium which included two companies, Zamedia and Avocat, which are close to Ján Slota, the chairman of the Slovak National Party (SNS).

After the doubts cast on the tender by media reports, auditors from the Public Procurement Office (ÚVO) and the Supreme Audit Office (NKÚ) were sent to the ministry to clarify the details. The ÚVO announced on April 9 that it had found serious errors made by the ministry in the controversial tender. Fico subsequently called on Janušek, an SNS nominee, to resign over the scandal. Janušek was then replaced in his post by another SNS nominee, Igor Štefanov, who, as the media later reported, worked as a high official at the ministry and whose signature appeared on several contracts related to the tender.

Since he was appointed minister the opposition has initiated three non-confidence votes in Štefanov, without success.

The European Commission (EC) also started looking into the tender. In April, it requested all the documents pertaining to the tender to investigate whether it was in line with EU rules.

Meanwhile, Štefanov agreed on May 18 to end the contract in question, which had been signed with a consortium of companies including Zamedia, Consulting & Management, European Consultants Organisation and Avocat.

After informing Slovakia that it would not reimburse any expenses incurred under the contract, the EC closed its infringement procedure against Slovakia in November. However, the tender is now being investigated by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF).

Land in Tatras gets same owners as in 2007

The end of the year saw the repeat of a scandal that back in 2007 had cost Agriculture Minister Milan Jureňa and the senior management of the state-owned Slovak Land Fund (SPF) their jobs. Just as in 2007, the GVM company, whose owners have close ties to junior coalition partner Vladimír Mečiar, gained valuable state property in the High Tatras mountain resort area for a fraction of its market value. The property was originally held by the SPF.

On December 2 Fico announced the dismissal of SPF director Miroslav Mihalík and the entire board of the fund. However, this time around, unlike in 2007, there were reported links not only to the HZDS but also to Smer: lawyer Juraj Rybanský, the head of the restitution department at SPF, is Fico’s cousin.

The scam was based on Slovakia’s restitution process, in which people whose land was confiscated by the communist regime can apply for compensation. According to the law, if the land they originally owned cannot be returned, they can be awarded property in a different part of the country. The Slovak Land Fund, staffed mostly by coalition nominees, oversees restitution, but many claims have not been addressed, and the process has been dogged by corruption. In 2007 the fund was controlled by Mečiar’s HZDS.

Two years on, the scenario was repeated. As in 2007, restituents were awarded compensation by the land fund in the form of property in two sought-after High Tatras locations – Veľká Lomnica and Stará Lesná – which they immediately signed over to GVM. The company thereby gained 140 hectares (1.4 million square metres) of arable land, worth about €10 per square metre, for €0.30 per square metre. The property is estimated to be worth over €15 million and will be worth much more if GVM manages to have it rezoned for development.

Hot air weakens the SNS

Perhaps the most notorious scandal, which is still dragging on and which continues to attract international attention, emerged much earlier, in April, when media and opposition politicians first expressed doubts about the price and the buyer of Slovakia’s excess CO2 emissions quotas.

Interblue Group, the company that had bought quotas for 10 million tonnes of Slovak emissions at a bargain price refused (and still refuses) to communicate with the Slovak media. Indeed, almost nothing is known about the company’s management, ownership structure or beneficiaries. It was registered in Washington State in the USA in June 2008, shortly before the purchase of the quotas, the Trend weekly reported. There were suspicions that the company had links to the ruling coalition, particularly to the SNS, which at the time of the sale controlled the Environment Ministry.

After criticism escalated, Prime Minister Fico called on then-minister Ján Chrbet to publish the details of the contract with Interblue Group, which the minister refused to do, arguing that the company had categorically refused to allow this. He was subsequently sacked from his post – for political reasons, Fico said. He was succeeded by another SNS nominee, Viliam Turský, who after his appointment on May 20 published the text of the contract – without revealing the amount of quotas sold, the price at which they were purchased, the address of the purchasing company or even the name of the person who had signed the contract for the buyer.

By then the media were speculating that Slovakia might have lost over €120 million on the sale to Interblue Group, as the sales price, calculated from the available documents, appeared to have been less than €5 per tonne, while Slovakia’s neighbour Hungary was known to have sold its own excess quotas for more than €12 per tonne during the same time period, in October 2008.

However, Fico said he would consider the emissions quotas sale a ‘closed case’ unless the media or opposition provided evidence that the sale was unfavourable to Slovakia. In response, the media published several reports, among them an interview with a former Czech environment minister, Martin Bursík, who confirmed to Sme that the Czech Republic did not sell its own quotas for less than €10 per tonne.

In June, the Environment Ministry unexpectedly decided to reveal what was left out of the first version of the published contract and it turned out that Slovakia in fact sold its quotas to Interblue for €5.05 per tonne. Other surprising parts of the contract were two appendices signed later, in December 2008 and February 2009, that bind Slovakia to spend the proceeds of the sale on green projects – and which give Interblue Group the authority to decide what constitutes a green project. If Slovakia were to abide by these conditions, an additional sum of €1 per tonne would in theory be paid by Interblue for the first 15 million tonnes of quotas.

The Slovak government assigned the money from the sale of quotas to a programme to subsidise thermal insulation of houses, which was supposed to be classified as a green project, meaning that Interblue Group should pay the additional €15 million to Slovakia. However, the money had still not been paid as this issue of The Slovak Spectator went to press.

Meanwhile, another dubious tender, this one valued at €85 million, for fly ash removal from power stations, was revealed by the media in August. After this and other smaller mis-steps had added to the months-long emissions-quotas controversy, Fico not only sacked minister Turský but – in an unprecedented move which went against the coalition agreement – stripped his junior ruling coalition partner, the SNS, of its power to nominate senior officeholders at the Environment Ministry, including the minister.

Deputy Prime Minister Dušan Čaplovič was then nominated by Prime Minister Fico to serve as caretaker-minister until the appointment of Jozef Medveď in late October.

Čaplovič’s main job at the ministry was to begin to tidy up the mess left by the previous, SNS-nominated ministers: the bargain-basement sale of Slovakia’s emissions quotas, a dubious tender for disposal of power station fly ash and the leasing of valuable land near Bratislava at a price of just a few cents per hectare. While he managed to cancel two of the murky deals within a few weeks, the contract with Interblue Group remains on the table for Medveď to resolve.

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