Freedom in the World
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In January 2008, Prime Minister Robert Fico survived a no-confidence motion brought by the opposition, which accused him of involvement in a corruption scandal. A potentially restrictive new press law was passed in April, drawing objections from press freedom advocates and major newspapers. Tensions between Hungary and Slovakia continued as the two governments argued over which language should be used in textbooks for Hungarian minorities in Slovakia, and officials from each country accused the other of politicizing a violent incident at a soccer game in Slovakia.
Anti-Communist opposition forces brought about the collapse of the Czechoslovak government in 1989, and the country held its first free elections the following year. After elections in June 1992, negotiations began on increased Slovak autonomy within the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic. These discussions led to a peaceful dissolution of the federation and the establishment of an independent Slovak Republic in January 1993.
From 1993 to 1998, Vladimir Meciar—who served twice as prime minister during this period—and his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) dominated politics, opposed direct presidential elections, flouted the rule of law, and intimidated independent media. Meciar’s policies resulted in Slovakia’s failure to meet the criteria necessary to open European Union (EU) accession talks and join NATO.
In the 1998 parliamentary elections, voters rejected Meciar’s rule and empowered a broad right-left coalition. The new parliament selected Mikulas Dzurinda as prime minister and worked to enhance judicial independence, combat corruption, undertake economic reforms, and actively seek membership in the EU and NATO.
Of the 25 parties that competed in the 2002 parliamentary elections, only 7 exceeded the 5 percent representation threshold. Meciar’s HZDS led with 19.5 percent of the vote, but Dzurinda’s Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU) formed a center-right government with the Party of the Hungarian Coalition (SMK), the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), and the Alliance of the New Citizen (ANO).
In April 2003, the legislature ratified Slovakia’s accession to NATO. In a binding national referendum that was held the following month, Slovaks voted overwhelmingly in favor of joining the EU, with 92 percent supporting membership. Slovakia duly joined NATO and the EU in April and May 2004, respectively.
Meciar led the first round of the April 2004 presidential election, but he lost a runoff against a former ally, Ivan Gasparovic. The government’s economic reforms caused it to lose popular support during 2005, and in February 2006, the KDH left the coalition, prompting the government to schedule early elections for June. The leftist, populist Smer (Direction–Social Democracy) party took the largest share of the votes, winning 50 of 150 seats. Dzurinda’s party came second, but several of his potential coalition partners failed to reach the 5 percent threshold. Smer’s leader, Robert Fico, formed a coalition with the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) and Meciar’s party, now called the People’s Party–Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (LS-HZDS). The unusual new coalition raised concerns abroad, and the Party of European Socialists (PES), the EU-level grouping of center-left parties, suspended Smer in October for its alliance with the SNS.
When a corruption scandal involving the Slovak Land Fund emerged in November 2007, Fico ordered the dismissal of the deputy director of the fund, Branislav Briza, and the LS-HZDS-appointed agriculture minister, Miroslav Jurena. The ensuing conflict between Fico and Meciar almost broke up the coalition later that month. However, the government ultimately remained intact. Meanwhile, the tense relationship between Hungary and Slovakia was strained further after the Slovak parliament approved a resolution in September 2007 that reaffirmed Czechoslovakia’s World War II–era Benes Decrees, which effectively stripped ethnic Germans and Hungarians of their citizenship and led to their deportation to Germany, Austria, and Hungary after the war.
In January 2008, three opposition parties brought an unsuccessful no-confidence motion against Fico, accusing him of complicity in the Slovak Land Fund corruption case. Although the parliament passed an education bill in December regulating the use of Hungarian place names, it was vetoed by Gasparovic later that month. After violence broke out at a football game in November, Slovakian police escorted approximately 1,000 ethnic Hungarian fans from the stadium. Hungarian officials accused Slovakian police of using excessive force; despite cross-border talks, no resolution was reached by year’s end.
Slovakia has a market economy in which the private sector accounts for approximately 80 percent of gross domestic product. Official unemployment remains high—approximately 10.3 percent in mid-2008. The government contends that many of those who collect unemployment benefits may simultaneously be working on the black market.
Slovakia is an electoral democracy. Voters elect the president for five-year terms and members of the 150-seat, unicameral National Council (parliament) for four-year terms. A 2001 law granted voting privileges to noncitizens, allowing permanent residents to vote in elections for municipal and regional governments. The prime minister is appointed by the president but must have majority support in the parliament in order to govern. Parliamentary elections in 2006 were considered free and fair.
Slovakia’s political party system is fragmented. The current governing parties are Direction–Social Democracy (known as Smer), the LS-HZDS, and the SNS. The SDKU, the SMK, and the KDH form the opposition. All other parties failed to reach the 5 percent electoral threshold required for representation in parliament.
Corruption remains a problem in Slovakia, especially in health care, education, law enforcement, and the judiciary, according to the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm. A special court to deal with high-profile cases was established in 2004. Prime Minister Robert Fico was accused in 2007 of links to the Slovak Land Fund corruption scandal, in which state-owned lands were bought by the LS-HZDS at low prices. The defense minister, Frantisek Kasicky, resigned in January 2008 due to allegations of corruption following media stories about overly generous tenders for barrack maintenance; though he admitted that some of his employees were involved in the affair, he denied any personal involvement. Slovakia was ranked 52 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedoms of speech and expression are guaranteed by the constitution; any restriction must be designed “to protect the rights and liberties of others, state security, public order, or public health and morality.” Slovakia’s media are largely free but remain vulnerable to political interference. Media watchdogs have cautioned the government over increasing verbal attacks on journalists by politicians. In April 2008, the parliament passed a new press law granting increased censorship powers to the executive branch, prompting six leading newspapers to print blank front pages in protest. The new law allows the Culture Ministry to determine the appropriateness of reporting, including a ban on printing material that “promotes, belittles, excuses or approves” war or other actions that promote hate against minorities, and authorizes the executive branch to levy fines and decide whether an article or broadcast has broken a law. It also states that replies to newspaper articles must be published within three days in the same place and in the same size as the “offending” article. There were no known cases in which the new law was enforced in 2008, but journalists and media experts expressed concerns that it would lead to self-censorship. The government does not limit access to the internet.
The government respects religious freedom. Registered churches and religious organizations are eligible for tax exemptions and government subsidies. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest denomination in the country and consequently receives the largest share of subsidies. The U.S. State Department has noted the persistence of anti-Semitism among some parts of the population. In April 2007, the 200-member Baha’i community registered as an official religious community shortly before the laws changed to make registration more difficult, while the Slovak Muslim community decided against registering. Academic freedom is respected in Slovakia.
The authorities uphold the rights to assemble peacefully, petition state bodies, and associate in clubs, political parties, and trade unions. However, civil society is not as active as in other countries in Central Europe. Judges, prosecutors, firefighters, and members of the armed forces may not strike.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary and a Constitutional Court. An independent Judicial Council oversees the assignment and transfer of judges. The European Commission has noted the perception of a high level of corruption in the Slovak courts and expressed concern over the judiciary’s perceived lack of impartiality. Corruption and a significant backlog of cases have raised questions about the judicial system’s capacity to function at EU levels.
There are more than 10 recognized ethnic minorities in Slovakia. While minorities have a constitutional right to contribute to the resolution of issues that concern them, Roma continue to experience widespread discrimination and inequality in education, housing, employment, public services, and the criminal justice system. In 2003, there were reports of coerced or forced sterilization of Romany women the year before, on the orders of local health officials. Roma also face the persistent threat of racially motivated violence. Even though the law criminalizes such acts, reports indicate that law enforcement officials do not always investigate crimes against Roma. In response to these problems, the government began a program to improve education and housing for Roma in 2002.
In December 2003, Slovakia reached an agreement with Hungary on the application of Hungary’s Status Law, which grants special health and educational benefits to ethnic Hungarians residing outside of Hungary. A foundation in Slovakia administers the support for Hungarians living there. Hungarians are represented by the SMK in the Slovak parliament, currently in opposition.
Although women enjoy the same legal rights as men, they continue to be underrepresented in senior-level business positions and in the government. Domestic violence is punishable by imprisonment but remains widespread. Human trafficking from and through Slovakia, mainly for the purpose of sexual exploitation, remains a problem.