Refugee crisis affects Slovak politics

PARLIAMENTARY elections are nearing: throughout 2015 that has been the explanation for most actions of Slovak politicians generally and the ruling party in particular.

Refugees seeking asylum in Austria arriving at Gabčíkovo.Refugees seeking asylum in Austria arriving at Gabčíkovo. (Source: SME)

The political scene has been shaped by the aftermath of the scandal in health care that occurred in late 2014 and has brought about the biggest personnel changes in the second government of Robert Fico. The past year also saw two no-confidence motions against Health Minister Viliam Čislák, both of which he survived thanks to the majority of 83 votes that Smer controls in parliament. The head of the state-run health insurer, however, stepped down after allegations of major nepotism.

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In the second half of the year, the refugee crisis unfolding in southern Europe for months, also impacted Slovak politics and quickly started dominating the country’s political life and media coverage. While in the previous year, the most influential foreign affairs issue was the situation in Ukraine it was replaced in 2015 by controversy over refugees and migrants.

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Refugees arrive

The government remained committed to its position that the migration crisis must be solved in the war-torn source countries and continued to reject the European Union’s resettlement quotas even amid a shift in the migration debate among the public following the discovery of a truck carrying 71 dead migrants on the Austrian highway near the Slovak border.

This event brought the migration crisis home to many Slovaks. At the turn of August and September, numerous individuals and groups, organised through online social networks, collected material aid for refugees, mainly those stranded at railway stations in Budapest and those placed in a camp in Traiskirchen, Austria. A group of citizens put together a Plea for Humanity, a document that was signed by thousands of Slovaks, including President Andrej Kiska. The authors of the plea called on the government to use its capacities to provide help to refugees in neighbouring countries.

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Slovakia’s quota within the mechanism adopted by the EU is to accept 802 refugees within a year and possibly another 656 next year. Slovakia has appointed liaison officers for Italy and Greece and assigned two experts to the European Asylum Support Office, while also responding to the call of Frontex to strengthen guarding of borders. The government, however, has still not announced the number of placements for the relocation of asylum seekers from Greece and Italy.

Earlier in the year, the Slovak government made an agreement with Austria about temporarily housing 500 refugees who are seeking asylum in Austria. The refugees are housed at the former refugee camp in Gabčíkovo, despite a referendum held in the municipality in August in which local residents overwhelmingly, by 97 percent of votes, disagreed with the planned placing of 500 asylum seekers from Austria.

Another group of refugees arrived to Slovakia towards the end of the year, when 25 Christian families from northern Iraq landed in Košice. The group of Iraqis, who fled from their homes due to the activities of the Islamic State, has been accommodated in the Interior Ministry’s asylum facility in Humenné in eastern Slovakia. Originally, the Assyrian Christian families from Iraq were to be accommodated in various facilities in municipalities in the Nitra region. However, when locals learned that the Iraqi refugees would come to their neighbourhoods, conflicts ensued that led to a stop of the whole project.

Slovakia sues EU

The Justice and Home Affairs Council, which gathers interior ministers of the EU, passed the refugee quotas scheme by a qualified majority vote on September 22. Only Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Romania voted against it.

Slovak PM Robert Fico, however, was the only one of the four to state that his government would sue the Council for passing the scheme against the will of some of its members.

“I would rather go into infringement procedures than accept this dictate,” Fico said.

In early December, despite strong opposition towards the plan, the government filed the lawsuit with the European Court of Justice (ECJ). As he introduced the lawsuit on December 2, Fico again labelled the quotas “nonsensical” and argued that no redistribution based on the quotas was taking place in the EU.

Many analysts as well as the opposition have repeatedly called the lawsuit against quotas merely a campaign tool of Smer ahead of the parliamentary elections. The lawsuit includes six legal pleas and alleges that by adopting the scheme through a majority vote, the Council violated the principles of institutional balance, legal certainty, representative democracy, and proportionality.

There has been a reaction from among the European socialists (PES), suggesting that the persistent resistance to quotas and strong words addressed towards refugees might cost Smer its membership in the group. Smer’s membership in PES was suspended once before between 2006 and 2009.

Anti-terrorist laws passed

In reaction to the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, with an eye on the rising anti-migrant sentiments among the population, the Slovak government has beefed up legislation, granting more powers to police and intelligence services, among other things.

“Migration is linked with terrorism,” Prime Minister Robert Fico said as he introduced the set of anti-terrorism measures. Parliament passed the package of measures, including an amendment to the Constitution, in a fast-tracked procedure in early December.

The measures include, among others, more powers to police and secret services, longer detention time for terrorist suspects, and better protection of witnesses. The main concern voiced by the opposition and analysts is that the increased security measures should also be accompanied by a strengthened oversight mechanism to prevent potential abuse.

Opposition politicians and experts agree that the proposed anti-terrorist legislation is a campaign issue for the ruling party that has made “We protect Slovakia” its key campaign slogan.

Family referendum invalid

The human rights agenda in the first half of 2015 was dominated by two topics: the February referendum on family and the adoption of a human rights agenda for Slovakia.

Almost 1 million people cast their ballots in the February 7 referendum which, as its initiators said, sought to protect the family. The turnout, however, failed to surpass the required 50-percent quorum as only 21.41 percent of eligible voters went to the polling stations. It was the third lowest of the eight referendums thus far held in Slovakia.

As for the actual ballot questions, the biggest support went to the first question concerning limiting the use of the word “marriage” to only the union of a man and a woman. Among those voting, 94.50 percent said “Yes” to the question. The second question seeking to ban adoption by same-sex couples was approved by 92.43 percent of those voting, while the third question to allow parents to opt their children out of school classes dealing with sex education or euthanasia was supported by 90.32 percent.

Later in February, the government adopted its nationwide Human Rights Promotion and Protection Strategy after two years of disputes between non-governmental organisations focusing on human rights and those promoting conservative values.

The strategy was prepared by the Foreign Affairs Ministry, which at that time oversaw the human rights agenda. It established tasks such as carrying out a comprehensive analysis of the state of affairs in protection of human rights. It also proposes creating a nationwide committee for education concerning human rights, improving the prevention and elimination of all forms of violence and intolerance and introducing equal rights and protection for those living in partnerships outside marriage.

The NGOs promoting the protection of the family have asked the government to reject the strategy and launched a petition against it. Moreover, the Christian Democratic Movement asked Justice Minister Tomáš Borec in October to stop the Action Plan for LGBTI people for 2016-19 that was opened for discussion by various ministries.

Pro-life activists, including the organisers of the February referendum, organised the second National March for Life in September, with a declared purpose to push for amending legislation covering the protection of life and to help pregnant women in a crisis situation, drawing some 70,000-85,000 people, organisers said. Security analyst Radovan Bránik who oversaw the whole event estimated the participation rather lower, only at some 45,000-50,000. The organisations defending the rights of LGBTI community held their pride parade in Košice rather than Bratislava as in past years, focusing instead on launching a new platform called Life Partnership.​

Law on shell firms

Following the late 2014 scandal over an overpriced computed tomography scanner, parliament adopted changes to the public procurement laws banning firms with unclear ownership or those owned by public officials from taking part in public procurements.

The amendment was adopted in late January after MPs overruled President Andrej Kiska’s veto, even though opposition parties as well as law experts had criticised the new rules and called it a marketing solution that will not force firms to reveal the ultimate recipient of profits going through shell firms.

“It is better to have such a law than to have nothing,” PM Robert Fico said at the time, as quoted by the TASR newswire.

Parliament later approved the new anti-shell law in early September (after overruling the president’s veto again), which introduced a public registry in which companies in Slovakia that want to apply for state commissions in public tenders must publish their final beneficiaries.

The registry established for this purpose is to contain data for actual private individuals, not only the formal owners of entities taking part in public tenders. Public institutions organising tenders will not be able to sign contracts with bidders who do not have their final beneficiaries listed in the registry. This also concerns sub-suppliers and people who ensure the bidder’s economic and expert competence in the tender. This step is supposed to prevent the operation of shell companies in Slovakia with dubious or unknown owners.

Identification of final beneficiaries will increase transparency, prevent conflicts of interest from emerging and will also fight against corruption, the Public Procurement Office (ÚVO) opined, as reported by TASR.

The bill also deals with options for removal of beneficiaries from the registry. Apart from traditional reasons, such as providing false data, this can also take place when the beneficiary has residence or headquarters in a country that does not cooperate in identifying final beneficiaries. ÚVO should be provided with an exemption from tax and banking secrecy provisions to be able to check the veracity of data in the registry.

The opposition, however, views the bill as insufficient, criticising the fact it concerns only public procurement. It demanded that the mandatory registry also cover the drawing of EU funds, acquisition of state property and collection of health insurance. The governing Smer party did not support these proposals, however, and it also thumbed down a proposal by MP Miroslav Kadúc (at the time member of the Ordinary People and Independent Personalities party) introducing personal accountability of public officials in public tenders.

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