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Rule of law still only on paper

Government open to the initiative but says additional checks and balances are needed.

Businesses want the government to act boldly.(Source: TASR)

Prime Minister Robert Fico’s previous government pledged to implement the so-called Rule of Law Initiative promoted by various chambers of commerce and its principles also made it into the programme statement of the current four-party government. But the objectives have remained only on paper and political analysts warn that weak rule of law continues to harm Slovak society. 

“Poor application of the rule of law can have far-reaching consequences,” political analyst Grigorij Mesežnikov told The Slovak Spectator. “These are an increased level of corruption and a drop in people’s trust in public institutions. Lack of transparency can affect the political preferences of people and in the end this can help extremists because they would be able to point out corruption.” 

The principle of government by the rule of law should be one of the first steps in the fight against corruption and towards a more transparent business environment, Mesežnikov stressed, as it can also impact the country’s economic and social situation. He reproached the previous Smer government for poor application of the principles of equality. 

“The principle of equality for all citizens did not work, which is one of the main conditions of the rule of law,” stated Mesežnikov. 

Mesežnikov and other experts also point to shortcomings in the enforcement of justice and the business environment. 

“Slovakia is moving on propelled only by inertia, which won’t be enough during the next crisis period,” Peter Kremský, the executive director of the Business Alliance of Slovakia (PAS), told The Slovak Spectator. 

The rule of law was on the pre-election agenda of most of the political parties and some of its objectives have made it into the programme of the new government for its four-year term. But political analysts as well as business people warn that to bear fruit it needs to be more than only words on paper. 

Protecting Slovakia’s brand 

The Rule of Law Initiative was created in 2014 and signed by fourteen business and industrial organisations (including the American Chamber of Commerce, the National Union of Employers and PAS), who wanted to professionally respond to the worsening state of the judiciary and wide tolerance of corruption.

The Rule of Law Initiative put forward straight rules with the intention to improve the business environment. 

The main objectives are transparency and predictability of the law and doing away with harmful factors. 

“The government should face up to the affairs such as the ferry across Danube or suspicious purchases of hospital equipment and punish the culprits, be they ordinary clerks or ministers,” Kremský said.

According to the signatories, Slovakia lacks a systematic consultation process and frequent amendments to legislation negatively affect predictability and stability. 

The American Chamber of Commerce in Slovakia (AmCham) considers the rule of law a precursor to economic growth and improved living standards. It requested the winning parties after the election use their mandate to strengthen the rule of law and improve the business environment. 

In February 2015, the signatories of the initiative introduced to the government a series of recommendations that could improve the rule of law. The government already included the initiative in the action plan in July 2015 but the signatories pointed out that it requires direct and specific steps in order to make the proposal active not only on paper.

“The previous government had gaps in fulfilling the Action Plan on the Rule of Law,” said Mesežnikov.

The National Union of Employers (RÚZ) welcomed the steps of the government but also had objections to some points that are not in full agreement with the original proposal. 

“Now it is difficult to assess the fulfilment of the plan because the government has changed,” said Martin Hošták, the secretary of RÚZ. Nevertheless, the Initiative is ready to carry on in the dialogue with the government, he added. 

The government must take measurable steps, Kremský said. 

“Zero tolerance to fraud, state finances, corruption and nepotism; and full transparency in decision-making and procurement,” he added.

In April, the new coalition government included the Rule of Law Initiative into its programme statement, working closely with the ministries and state institutions. 

Mesežnikov ascribes pushing through objectives of the initiative into the programme statement as a result of two coalition parties, Sieť and Most-Híd, which had it in their pre-election programmes. He pointed out that Smer did not have the Rule of Law Initiative in its pre-election programme.

“The part (of the Initiative) which is in the competence of the Justice Ministry is well processed,” said Mesežnikov, giving credit to new Justice Minister Lucia Žitňanská from Most-Híd.

The Justice Ministry considers the inclusion of the Rule of Law Initiative in the government statement a step forward, spokesman Peter Bubla told The Slovak Spectator. 

The main objectives of the Justice Ministry are to pass an effective anti-shell law, applicable to all public resources, a new amendment that would prevent non-ethical gift giving corruption and creating conditions for material responsibility of persons working with public resources. The ministry also wants to improve and expand the compulsory register of contracts and apply principles of open government. 

Three pillars of transparency

Mesežnikov sees three pillars of the transparent rule of law: equal treatment of all citizens before the justice system, equality in public procurement proceedings, and a more user-friendly approach to the allocation of finances. 

Poor application of the rule of law leads to a society controlled by people who replace the lack of skills and knowledge with contacts, corruption and immoral behaviour. 

“Skilled and capable people are demotivated, they often leave Slovakia, do not follow their ideas,” said Kremský. 

The country is losing its creative power that could increase the economic output via innovation, products, and investment. 

“It is a pity for Slovakia, because the country has huge potential and creative and capable people,” opined Kremský. However, the potential is not fulfilled or people move to another country. 

Kremský warned that the effects of the initiative will be stymied unless they are accompanied by check and balances. 

“The government office should enter the process and coordinate the measures in the particular resorts,” Kremský said. 

Apart from that, it requires active tools for uncovering corruption and showing interest in doing so even at the highest level of politics and state administration. 

“The government did not succeed in convincing the public that corruption is really a deterrent, therefore people lose motivation to report corrupt behaviour,” said Kremský, adding that the culprits often remain at large and the people who report wrongdoing fear retribution.

The Initiative stipulates the introduction of effective tools for revealing and punishing dodgers, white horses and conmen in the entrepreneurial environment and exclude them from taping EU funds. It also calls for a unified interpretation of laws that is binding for all clerks who apply the law. 

“We expect that the government will fulfil the Initiative included in the action plan,” said Hošták. “If not, we will proceed accordingly.” 

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