THE CONTINUING reluctance of President Ivan Gašparovič to appoint Jozef Čentéš, who was elected by parliament to be Slovakia’s next general prosecutor on June 7, 2011; the €150,000 in damages awarded to Štefan Harabin, the president of Slovakia’s Supreme Court in a court case in which he sued the Office of the General Prosecutor; and the criminal prosecution of Zuzana Piussi, a documentary maker, for making a film about the critical state of Slovakia’s judiciary all make the approaching anniversary of the Velvet Revolution a rather gloomy prospect.
No revolution is accomplished overnight and it can take decades for changes to reach the darkest corners of society. As long as society feels that the rule of law does not apply to everyone, especially those who manage to climb into the highest posts, and as long as people who search for the truth face intimidation, penalties and even prison, the Velvet Revolution will remain incomplete.
At present, a large part of the population does not trust the country’s judiciary, and fear they will enjoy the other benefits of freedom – to travel, study languages and run their own businesses – only up to the point that they need to seek justice within the country’s courts. Problems with the judiciary are like a dark cloud from which injustice can at any time rain down on anyone. This is why efforts to downplay this problem threaten to ultimately rebound with the force of a tsunami.
A survey by the Institute for Public Affairs think tank published in July 2012 suggested that mistrust in judicial institutions continues to prevail in Slovakia: the Supreme Court, led by Harabin, was trusted by 37 percent of those polled, while 54 percent said they did not trust it.
Only 28 percent of respondents said they trusted the regular courts, with 67 percent saying they did not.
The poor performance of Slovakia’s justice system in settling disputes contributed to Slovakia achieving its worst-ever ranking in the latest World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Competitiveness Report. Slovakia’s competitiveness ranking, as judged by the WEF, dropped from 69th to 71st place out of the 144 countries surveyed. In terms of the efficiency of its legal framework in settling disputes, Slovakia was ranked a woeful 140th among 144 countries worldwide.
Leading diplomats and business leaders have been warning that the lack of integrity among some judges is not just a moral issue: it has a direct effect on Slovakia’s economic fortunes, affecting investment decisions by companies and potential employers.
When observers speculated earlier this year about how Robert Fico and his Smer party’s present performance might differ from their first stint in government, the 2006-2010 coalition with the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and the Slovak National Party (SNS), they suggested that Fico’s approach to the rule of law would be one of the decisive issues. It was Fico’s ruling coalition partner HZDS that brought Harabin, with all his baggage, back into the political mainstream – and it was actually Fico’s own party Smer which helped secure Gašparovič’s re-election.
The sound engineer working on ‘The Disease of the Third Power’, the documentary by Piussi, chose to remain anonymous – “out of fear”, according to the film’s credits. This is a telling detail. Fear is rarely a healthy attribute of a democratic society: respect for the law is.
As several critics of the state of Slovakia’s judiciary have pointed out, it is not that judges in Slovakia are generally corrupt; the problem is rather that those who are not fear to speak out about corrupt practices by some of their peers. As a result, judicial self-regulation simply does not work.
One small consolation from the furore over the film is that ‘The Disease of the Third Power’ (an English-subtitled version of which is available online under its Slovak title, Nemoc tretej moci) is now being widely circulated and watched via social networking sites. Fortunately, technology has advanced sufficiently that the judges the film addresses, sitting in their stuffy courtrooms, can no longer stop people from hearing the message, just as one cannot stop light reaching the darkest corners of a room once the windows are opened wide.
5. Nov 2012 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová