“I’M AT work now and will be back home around 5 pm.” This is one of the numerous satirical status updates that Slovaks have been spreading across the internet to mock the latest Interior Ministry rule, which requires Slovakia’s inhabitants by law to report to the authorities whenever they leave the country for more than 90 days.
The amendment to the Act on Reporting Citizens’ Residencies was passed by parliament on May 16. Several Facebook groups were immediately formed in response, with people offering updates on their whereabouts to ridicule the law that the ministry defends as one that could reduce red tape for Slovakia’s inhabitants. If President Ivan Gašparovič signs the amendment, citizens planning a stay abroad exceeding 90 days will be required to report it to the authorities, on pain of punishment, as of July 1.
The amendment was passed by the ruling Smer party after a heated debate in parliament, which ended with opposition MPs walking out of the chamber before the vote. Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) MP Peter Osuský, who tried unsuccessfully to have the measure removed from the draft law via an amending proposal, said that it interferes with people’s right to free movement and privacy, the TASR newswire reported.
Lucia Žitňanská from the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) said people are outraged because they feel bullied by the state and are afraid of it abusing its power.
“People apparently do not trust the interior minister since they are afraid he wants to control them and to know where they are at any moment,” she said in a televised debate with Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák on public-service Slovak Television (STV) on May 19.
The opposition parties called on President Ivan Gašparovič not to sign the amendment to the Act on Reporting Citizens’ Residencies, saying that it interferes in people’s personal rights and privacy.
The minister, however, maintains that the state needs to possess up-to-date information on its citizens, stressing that if the ministry knows the whereabouts of citizens and legal residents, it will be able to inform them about possible seizures of their property, inheritance or other important, official matters.
“It is by no means a repressive tool for the state against its citizens,” the ministry wrote in an official statement, adding that the measure is not new and the obligation to report extended stays abroad has been part of the law since 1998. The latest amendment only changes the wording of the law, from “will report” to “is obliged to report”.
The state does have a certain right to know where its citizens are staying, since it is responsible for keeping records of its citizens’ residence status for the purposes of delivering court or official documents, according to lawyer Peter Chrašč.
“On the other hand Slovakia is a member of the EU, [which is] based on free movement of persons as one of its basic principles,” Chrašč told The Slovak Spectator, explaining that free movement means citizens have no obligation to apply or cancel their residence when staying outside their native country for a longer period of time. This is, however, not the case with many non-EU countries.
“That means a legal measure that doesn’t observe this difference is not applicable in practice,” Chrašč said.
In response to the public outrage that erupted after the law was passed, the interior minister said that the state will not automatically fine people who do not report their stays abroad. The fine will be imposed only in the event that one’s failure to report an extended stay abroad results in damage, he said. The maximum fine will stand at €33.
“We are not interested in controlling [people]; people are creating problems for themselves [if they don’t report],” Kaliňák told a press conference on May 17, as quoted by the SITA newswire.
The ministry insists that the administrative measure will simply help to reduce bureaucracy.
The ministry is not introducing anything new by the law, it is only making communication between citizens and the state easier, the minister insisted.
“Even though the amendment introduces this obligation explicitly and clearly, it will be a big problem for the state to verify whether a citizen has fulfilled this obligation or not,” Chrašč told The Slovak Spectator, adding that the state would have to bear additional costs to monitor its citizens who are staying abroad for longer than 90 working days for personal, work or tourist reasons.
“Putting this amendment into practice and sanctioning its violations will be very problematic, in some cases even impossible,” Chrašč said.
The law envisages the creation of a new government database that will log the movements, residency status and whereabouts of every Slovak citizen and resident of Slovakia, which is to be prepared within the Operational Programme for the Informatisation of Society (OPIS) project to create a central state database, often referred to as eGovernment.
The Registry of Natural Persons, which is scheduled to launch on January 1, 2014, will gather personal data of the citizens and inhabitants of the country residing in and outside Slovakia’s territory.
This also includes foreigners who have applied for residence in Slovakia and foreigners who were granted asylum in the country, as well as foreigners without residence on Slovakia’s territory, but who are recorded in the country’s database based on the law on the residence of foreigners.
“Public administration bodies will no longer have to verify the data for their own needs from various available resources, but only from one resource,” the ministry said when explaining the benefits of the registry in its official statement, adding that this should be the basis for the introduction of eGovernment.
The ministry promises that the centralised registry will eliminate the need for people to provide their data to each state office, and that the ministry and other users of the database will only be allowed to use the data for purposes defined by the law.
Such centralisation of data, although helpful in easing the bureaucratic burden for citizens that many have been calling for, might however seem suspicious to Slovaks, experts say.
“People, mainly the middle and older generation, still actively remember the communist system and how it controlled citizens,” sociologist Milan Zeman from the Institute of Sociology of the Slovak Academy of Sciences told STV, adding that the registry of personal data might evoke comparisons with the old system.
Radka Minarechová contributed to this report
27. May 2013 at 0:00 | Michaela Terenzani