Freedom in the World
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In 2001, the Slovak Republic remained vigilant in its bid to join the European Union (EU), and EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen announced that the country had caught up with its neighbors Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in the process. Slovakia hopes to join the EU in 2004 and expects to receive an invitation to join NATO in 2002. The passage of a comprehensive constitutional amendment, the adoption of important reform laws, and concerns about corruption also marked the year.
Communism in Czechoslovakia collapsed in 1989. The country held its first free elections in 1990 and began negotiations on separation into two independent states in 1991. In 1993, an independent Slovak constitution took effect and the Czechoslovak union was peacefully dissolved.
Vladimir Meciar and the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) dominated Slovak politics until 1998. Meciar, who served three times as prime minister, battled with President Michal Kovac over executive and government powers, opposed direct presidential elections, resisted economic liberalization, and disregarded the rule of law and a free press. He is suspected of involvement in the 1995 kidnapping of Kovac's son. Under Meciar, Slovakia failed to meet the criteria for opening EU accession talks and to receive an invitation to join NATO.
In 1998, Meciar's HZDS received 27 percent of the vote and 43 seats in parliamentary elections. However, the opposition Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK), which received only 26.33 percent and 42 seats, managed to form a new government with the Democratic Left Party (SD), the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), and the Party of Civil Understanding (SOP). SDK leader Mikulas Dzurinda became prime minister.
Parliament failed five times in 1998 to elect a new president with a three-fifths majority. Finally, in January 1999, parliament amended the constitution and instituted popular presidential elections. Ten candidates participated in the May 1999 voting. Rudolph Schuster of the SOP defeated Meciar in the second round with 57 percent of the vote. Under Dzurinda and Schuster, Slovakia has improved judicial independence, intensified efforts to combat corruption, jump-started economic reforms, and become a candidate for membership in the EU and NATO.
The Czech and Slovak Republics celebrated the end of their "velvet divorce" in 2000. Slovakia also began EU accession talks and joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Prime Minister Dzurinda's government survived two constitutional challenges to its power by the HZDS. President Schuster survived life-threatening complications from surgery.
In July 2000, parliament approved, in its first reading, a constitutional amendment that was designed, in part, to strengthen judicial independence, reform public administration, and provide for an ombudsman for human rights. Final adoption, which occurred early in 2001, paved the way for the passage of legislation that is considered a prerequisite of EU membership. To that end, parliament adopted the Public Administration Reform Act, which establishes a system of regional self-administration; the Competency Act, which devolves powers to the regions; and the Civil Service Law, which regulates the recruitment and payment of civil servants. Parliament also approved a new Labor Code.
Despite these positive steps, Slovakia was embarrassed when allegations surfaced in 2001 about the misuse of EU funds. Although an investigation revealed no evidence of mismanagement it did point to a lack of transparency and evidence of conflicts of interest. Also in 2001, Defense Minister Pavol Kanis was forced to resign when he failed to explain the source of funds for an expensive home.
These events underscored the complexity of implementing a comprehensive anticorruption program such as Slovakia's National Program to Fight Corruption, which the government put in place in 2000. Since then, parliament has approved laws on money laundering, freedom of access to information, and political party financing. The new Civil Service Law also contains provisions on conflicts of interest, and an amendment to the criminal code calls for harsher sentences for bribery and abuse of power. Effective enforcement of these and other measures remains an important goal.
Slovak citizens aged 18 and older can change their government democratically under a system of universal, equal, and direct suffrage. Voters elect the president and members of the unicameral parliament. In 2001, the government approved a bill that grants voting privileges to foreigners. Under the new law, permanent residents may vote in elections for municipal and regional governments.
Ten candidates competed in the 1999 presidential race. Public television channels gave equal airtime to candidates, and polling and vote counting were transparent and well organized. Rudolph Schuster, representing the SOP, defeated Vladimir Meciar in a second round of voting.
Parliamentary elections in 1998 were also free and fair. Sixteen parties participated, and six met the five percent threshold for securing seats. The HZDS lost its majority to a coalition of the SDK, the SD, the SMK, and the SOP. The next parliamentary elections will take place in 2002. The HDZS enjoyed a 15-point lead in early opinion polls.
Slovakia's constitution guarantees freedom of speech and bans censorship. The majority of media outlets are privately owned. In June 2000, President Schuster signed a freedom-of-information law designed to increase government transparency. The law took effect in 2001. Prior to regional elections in 2001, Slovak Public Television (STV) aired a parliamentary question-and-answer session during which the prime minister answered queries about public administration reform. Questions were quickly raised about the legality of the telecast, which took place during a pre-election broadcast moratorium. Two employees of STV offered to resign; the Broadcasting and Retransmission Council is investigating the case. In another case, the media-monitoring group MEMO 98 reported in 2001 that TV Markiza's news program devotes a disproportionate amount of airtime to the Citizen's New Alliance party. If the Broadcasting and Retransmission Council concurs, TV Markiza could face a warning and, if the practice continued, suspension of the program.
Parliament also made two decisions in 2001 that affect freedom of expression. First, it amended the penal code to make Holocaust denials punishable offenses. At the same time, it rejected additional changes to the penal code that would have removed provisions on the defamation of the head of state and other senior governmental officials.
The Slovak government respects religious freedom. Churches and religious organizations that register with the state are eligible for tax exemptions and government subsidies. In 2000, the government passed a law on freedom of religion and completed a general treaty with the Vatican. Critics of the treaty vowed to oppose future subtreaties that might affirm pro-Catholic views on divorce, abortion, homosexuality, and Catholic education in public schools. In 2001, the ministry of culture announced that the government was preparing a similar treaty with Protestant, Orthodox, and other religious groups.
The government respects the rights of persons to assemble peacefully, strike, petition state bodies, and associate in clubs, political parties, and trade unions. Judges, prosecutors, firefighters, and members of the armed forces may not strike.
Minorities and ethnic groups have a constitutional right to help resolve issues that concern them. In 1999, parliament passed the Law on the Use of Minority Languages in Official Communications, and in 2001 the government adopted the European Charter of Regional Minority Languages. Despite well-intentioned measures like these, minority groups, especially Roma (Gypsies), continue to experience discrimination. In 2001, human rights groups decried the death of Karol Sendrei, a Roma who died while in police custody. According to reports, police arrested and beat Sendrei after he and his two sons complained of discriminatory treatment by a police officer.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary and a constitutional court. The adoption in 2001 of a constitutional amendment paved the way for legislative action on measures aimed at improving judicial independence. In its annual progress report on Slovakia's progress toward EU accession, though, the EC noted that "significant improvements ... are also needed to guarantee the judiciary's professional impartiality and political neutrality." In addition, the Council of Europe criticized the Slovak police's treatment of detained persons and the condition of the country's prisons. Late in 2001, parliament approved the creation of an ombudsman's office.
Slovak citizens enjoy a range of personal rights and liberties. The government respects the inviolability of the home, the right to privacy, and the right to move and travel freely. The constitution provides protections for marriage, parenthood, and the family.
Slovakia has a market economy in which the private sector accounts for approximately 80 percent of gross domestic product and 75 percent of employment. Official unemployment remains high at approximately 20 percent, but the government contends that persons who simultaneously work on the black market and collect unemployment benefits may account for as much as 5 percent of the rate.