Origin-of-wealth saga resumes

THE IDEA of a legal whip to discipline those in society who have obtained their property in rather “interesting” ways re-emerges from time to time whenever politicians are taken by a sudden populist urge to prove their devotion to transparency, the fight against money laundering, cronyism or organised crime.

THE IDEA of a legal whip to discipline those in society who have obtained their property in rather “interesting” ways re-emerges from time to time whenever politicians are taken by a sudden populist urge to prove their devotion to transparency, the fight against money laundering, cronyism or organised crime.

There are certainly many other ways to deal with people who amassed fortunes overnight and manage to avoid giving answers to inquiries about their lavish villas or luxury cars which could hardly be afforded from salaries as public officials, but none of those methods are as politically spectacular as getting a new law passed just a couple of months before upcoming elections.

After an almost four-year tug-of-war over whether there is any need at all for such legislation, which would require people to prove the origin of “suspiciously” lavish property, now the country is suddenly blessed with two such proposals: one submitted by Prime Minister Robert Fico and one offered by former justice minister Daniel Lipšic. What prompts two politicians from opposing political camps to submit very similar legislation at the same time, less than half a year before the national vote? Political gain.

Fico recorded a video-commentary for his blog where he explains why Slovakia urgently needs such a law. The prime minister is not a novice in submitting such legislation. He took the initiative before, back in 2005, but the law that germinated from his efforts was short-lived: the Constitutional Court ruled it to be at odds with the country’s constitution.

One of the court’s objections to the 2005 law was that it switched the burden of proof from the state to the charged citizen. The other failing of the 2005 law, in the opinion of the court, was its retroactivity. Now, neither Fico nor Lipšic is offering a remedy for these defects as both drafts again suffer from the same problems. Fico is suggesting that the way out of this complicated legal dilemma is to modify the constitution and then to re-introduce almost the same law from 2005.

The prime minister was quick to explain that his draft is tuned for “extreme situations” and regular people need not fear its effects. Yet, this specious argument sounds far too familiar and emerges any time the state offers legislation which might somehow be at odds with constitutional rights. Fico also argues that since the law pertains only to property which exceeds €300,000 or €450,000 it creates certain guarantees that it would apply only in exceptional situations. Fico’s draft also specifies that the law would cover only property acquired after 1990. Legal experts, however, suggest that this does not stop the legislation from being considered to be retroactive.

Lipšic tuned his proposal in a way that it applies only to property exceeding 500-times the minimum monthly wage and his legislation gives no time limit for acquired property to which the law would apply.

If a decade ago, when there was already plenty of criticism of fast-tracked wealth accruing to certain individuals, parliament had then produced a law requiring people to prove how and from what sources they had acquired suspiciously lavish wealth, probably some well-known politicians would now be lingering in places other than the parliament building.

The piquant aspect of this whole prove-the-origin-of-your-wealth saga is that Vladimír Mečiar, boss of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, along with Ján Slota, Mečiar’s counterpart in the Slovak National Party, Fico’s allies since 2006, have been adamantly against any such bill becoming law. But it is almost impossible to believe that these two politicians are driven by reasons such as worry about a possible clash with important pillars of Slovakia’s constitution.

Mečiar is the owner of the (in)famous Elektra villa, which has become one of the most well-known symbols of the quickly-acquired wealth of Slovak politicians and is even more illustrative of the kinds of preposterous stories that have been told to explain ‘how’ it was managed. Years after Mečiar was forced from government, journalists keep inquiring about whose pockets paid for this Trenčianske Teplice edifice. Their thirst for credible information still remains unquenched. Yet Mečiar now co-rules with Fico. As for Slota, there are media reports too numerous to mention detailing the luxurious grownup toys that the SNS boss has at his disposal.

Well, after all, if Fico in the end fails to enact this legislation due to a lack of support from his two coalition partners he could still appear as the honest politician trying to fulfil his promises to go after those who improperly stuffed their own pockets. At the same time he might even try to appeal to those voters who have objected to the presence of Mečiar and Slota in his government. The problem is, however, that Fico is toying with something quite important – the constitution – just to make the hearts of potential voters beat faster.

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