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2007 was turbulent for the ruling coalitionYear in politics - review
An explosion in Nováky killed eight people. SITA
17 Dec 2007 Beata Balogová Business Focus
PRESIDENT Ivan Gašparovič played it safe during his 2007 New Year speech, preferring platitudes about the family to addressing the issues facing the country under the new Robert Fico government. During the 10-minute address on January 1, he made almost no mention of Slovakia’s politics, social situation or overall direction.
On January 10, the Special Court sentenced Vladimír Fruni, František Matik and Marián Šebeščák, the managers of the bankrupt pyramid schemes BMG Invest and Horizont, for cheating tens of thousands of clients out of their deposits. Fruni and Matik each received 11.5-year sentences, although the latter is currently hiding from justice abroad. Šebeščák, who cooperated with the court, received a lighter sentence of only seven years. BMG and Horizont promised up to 40 percent annual returns on depositors’ investments, and earlier deposits were paid off with new deposits attracted by massive advertising campaigns. The pyramid schemes collapsed in 2002, causing losses of around Sk14.4 billion (€433.9 million) to 123,204 clients. However, Šebeščák was released from prison later in December after having served more than two-thirds of his sentence.
Fico drew massive criticism for attending a reception organised by the Cuban Embassy commemorating the 48th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s revolution. The critics of Fico’s foreign policy line, such as former foreign minister Eduard Kukan, said the presence of the Slovak PM at such a reception was “unacceptable” and “damaging for Slovakia’s interests”. The critics also said that Fico’s planned foreign trips in early 2007, including to Libya, Venezuela and communist China, suggested a change in at least the tone if not the content of Slovakia’s foreign policy. The Foreign Affairs Ministry rejected the speculations.
The Special Court for organised and political crime sentenced Pavol Bielik, the former mayor of Bratislava’s Rača district, to five years in prison on corruption charges on January 30. Bielik, a former senior official with the opposition Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), was also banned from holding public office for seven years, and was fined Sk500,000.
Ivan Petranský, a Slovak National Party (SNS) nominee, was elected the new chairman of the Nation’s Memory Institute (ÚPN) on January 31. The institute documents and publishes state crimes committed under Slovakia’s 20th century fascist and communist regimes. Petranský, 31, had been employed by the nationalist Matica Slovenská cultural institute, which some critics said makes him unfit to lead the ÚPN.
Justice Minister Štefan Harabin chose justice Michal Truban to replace Igor Králik, the chief justice of the Special Court for political and organised crime cases. Králik was forced to leave his post on April 1, despite winning two successive job tenders. Discretionary powers allow the minister to select any of the top three job tender candidates.
Parliament approved a law on February 9 that officially stopped cabinet sessions from being public as of March 2007. Unlike parliamentary sessions, which the public can attend, government sessions became closed to the public under the new law. Critics feared that the government would use the rule to refuse to provide sound recordings of cabinet sessions, which until now have been available through the Freedom of Information Law.
In early February, Fico paid a visit to China. Criticism of the visit peaked shortly before his departure, as human rights groups called on the PM to raise the issue of human rights in communist China at least once. But despite statements that human rights was part of Fico’s agenda for the trip, no member of the Slovak delegation is known to have raised the issue in China. The Slovak entourage, which included entrepreneurs, focused on business issues.
Fico had to do a lot of explaining after statements he made during his trip to Libya. While trying to say that the world should focus on the AIDS-infected Libyan children, rather than on the Bulgarian nurses sentenced to death by the Libyan courts for causing the infections, Fico referred to the nurses as “perpetrators”, causing horrified reactions from Bulgaria. “We should be talking about the victims with the same intensity as we talk about the perpetrators,” Fico said at a joint press conference on February 22 with his Libyan counterpart, Bagdad Mahmudi. Fico later said he had been misunderstood because of a bad translation.
Three explosions in the ammunition defusing hall of the Military Maintenance Company in Nováky killed eight people, and injured more than 20. The March 2 blast levelled an area the size of two football fields and left a 20-metre wide crater at its epicentre. The explosions were followed by a shockwave that broke windows up to 11 kilometres away in the town of Prievidza. Police investigators said the explosion was caused by an excess of ammunition being held in the disposal hall. Investigators later charged five employees in July: four top managers and a security technician. They were accused of the offence of general threat, for which they could be sentenced to four to 10 years in prison.
Some 150 supporters of Slovakia’s Second World War Nazi puppet state gathered to celebrate the 68th anniversary of its founding at the grave of its president, the priest Jozef Tiso, in Bratislava on March 14. In a traditional display of far-right sympathies, the mostly young and shaven-headed men sang nationalist songs and listened to nationalist speeches, while a few threw Nazi salutes, all under the gaze of plainclothes policemen.
Economy Minister Ľubomír Jahnátek shook Slovakia’s political establishment in March by proposing that state arms firms compete with private dealers by using “dirty money” to secure contracts abroad. “How does a private company, which also has to obey the laws of this country... generate flows of dirty money to be used in non-traditional forms of doing business?” the minister asked reporter Gabriel Beer in the March 21 issue of Trend magazine. “These can be created only in legal ways. So why can’t state firms do it as well?” The opposition demanded the recall of the minister for his statements.
The Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) elected a new leader at its congress on March 31, when Pál Csáky defeated Béla Bugár, who had been chairman of the party since it was founded in 1998. Csáky got 14 more votes (169) than Bugár (155) in the election. Even before he was elected, Csáky earned criticism for his attacks on Bugár, alluding to ties between the long-time party chair and Oszkár Világi, a prominent businessman of Hungarian ethnicity. Observers said that Csáky’s victory might mean a stronger voice for Miklós Duray, who represents a more radical line.
Duray went on to reopen the debate on one of the most sensitive issues in Slovak-Hungarian relations: the Beneš Decrees. He said Slovak public officials should apologise to the Hungarian minority for the treatment they received in the post-war period of 1945 to 1948, and give financial compensation to any Hungarian citizens who were unjustly punished. “Hungarians were stripped of all civil rights and were considered criminals, just because they were Hungarians,” Duray told the Hospodárske Noviny daily on April 10. “Those who were wronged should have their properties restored. If they can’t get the same properties, then they should be financially compensated.” Duray’s statement provoked a strong, mostly negative response from both ruling and opposition politicians.
Party congresses of two district organisations of the HZDS decided that their candidate for the party’s top post would be deputy chairman Viliam Veteška. Analysts said it would be the first time that Vladimír Mečiar, the party’s founder and head since 1991, had a challenger in the leadership race. Veteška, one of the party’s most popular members with voters, announced he would run on April 17, just as Mečiar returned to political life after an absence of several months. The HZDS leader underwent a heart operation in late January. Mečiar eventually won the June 9 vote.
The Special Court sentenced Jozef Majský, one of Slovakia’s richest citizens, to 12 years in a high-security prison for planning and founding a criminal gang and embezzling millions of crowns from the Horizont Slovakia and BMG Invest pyramid schemes. He and his accomplices Dávid Brtva and Patrik Pachinger were found guilty by the Special Court, which was set up to deal with corruption cases, but all three appealed the verdict. This was the first time in Slovak history that a prominent businessman was found guilty and sentenced for a white-collar crime.
On a visit to Moscow on May 5, Fico backed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rejection of the US missile defense system. “The US and the EU made a strategic failure when they did not communicate with the Russian Federation on this issue,” Fico said at the time. However, Slovak Foreign Minister Ján Kubiš supported the construction of the radar and anti-missile installations, he said in May. Analysts said Fico’s position was an act of disloyalty to Slovakia’s allies.
Slovak diplomat Miroslav Lajčák was appointed High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Peace Implementation Council Steering Board in Sarajevo on May 11. Lajčák was set to serve simultaneously as the EU Special Envoy to Bosnia and Herzegovina, replacing High Representative Christian Schwarz-Schilling, whose mandate in the area expired at the end of June.
A MAN indentified as an internationally-wanted terrorist with former links to al-Qaeda was detained in Slovakia. Mustapha Labsi, an Algerian national who underwent terrorist training in Afghanistan, was being held at Bratislava’s Justice Palace, the Nový Čas daily reported. The 37-year-old is listed by Interpol as a member of the Algerian terrorist organisation Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat GSPC. Algeria has issued an international warrant on Labsi, who was awaiting extradition in mid-December.
Democracy in countries from the former communist bloc is stagnating or even decreasing, Freedom House, an international democracy watchdog, wrote in a report published on June 14. The report inspired a debate among non-governmental organisations and think-tanks, but left most government officials unconcerned. The situation in Slovakia aggravated from 1.96 points in 2005 to 2.14 points in 2006 on a scale of one to seven, with one being the best score and seven being the worst, said the authors of the Nations in Transit report.
The government recalled its representative for Roma communities, Klára Orgovánová, and appointed Anna Botošová to the post. Dušan Čaplovič, the deputy prime minister for human rights and minorities, said Orgovánová was spending too much time and effort on housing projects and not enough on improving education opportunities. He dismissed her on June 20, in spite of the fact that in August 2006 he said that he would cooperate with her even though she was appointed by the Dzurinda government.
Parliament passed a revision to the country’s Labour Code on June 28. Fico promised trade unions a revamped code shortly before the 2006 parliamentary elections, in return for a massive unionist endorsement. The new code gave more powers to the unions, limited overtime work, toughened conditions of fixed-term employment contracts and limited the use of trial periods before signing a permanent-status contract with an employee.
On July 4, parliament passed a revision to the University Act that allowed universities to charge part-time students for their courses. The revision, which would permit schools to charge some part-time students starting on September 1, 2008, came after Mečiar reached an agreement with Education Minister Ján Mikolaj of the co-ruling SNS.
A new report from Transparency International Slovakia (TIS) found that after one year in office, the Fico government had not adopted sufficient measures to fight corruption in Slovakia. The non-governmental corruption watchdog published the report on July 4 to mark the first anniversary of the Fico government taking power. According to TIS, Fico’s government had not come up with any systemic solutions to corruption.
The Interior Ministry apologised to Khalid Ahmed, a physician who studied medicine in Slovakia from 1995 to 2001, for identifying him as one of the suspects arrested in an attempted suicide bombing at Glasgow Airport in Scotland on July 4. The ministry admitted that it made a mistake, the Sme daily reported on July 7.
Some of the country’s top governmental officials earned millions of crowns on top of their ministerial pay in 2006, according to the property returns of public officials published by the Parliamentary Conflict of Interest Committee. Finance Minister Ján Počiatek, nominated by the Smer party, earned Sk15,014,633 (€451,743) in 2006, in addition to his ministerial salary of Sk611,000. Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák earned Sk10,938,000, plus Sk908,373 for his work as an MP and later as a government minister.
Between May and early August, nine journalists left the public broadcaster Slovak Television (STV), saying they were under political pressure. Tensions peaked about six months after Radim Hreha was elected general manager of STV, and Ján Šmihula was appointed editor-in-chief of the news desk. Journalists Jaroslav Barborák, Martina Ruttkayová, Mária Ölvédyová and Nora Gubková and editor Michal Petruška were among those who left. The first journalists who reported that the STV leadership was under political pressure – Eugen Korda, the editor of the Reportéri investigative programme, and Štefan Hríb, the anchor of the Pod Lampou discussion programme – were fired at the beginning of the year.
The scandal around the non-governmental organisation Privilégium reached a climax when the NGO had to return subsidies totalling Sk2 million (€59,200) to the state after officials discovered the group used misleading information to acquire the money. Labour Minister Viera Tomanová, whose ministry approved the subsidy to the social services centre, had worked for the organisation before becoming minister. The organisation owed more than Sk17.3 million to the social security provider Sociálna Poisťovňa on payroll taxes and nearly Sk2.8 million in unpaid taxes.
Fico called a special meeting of cabinet to deal with what he called unethical behaviour on the part of the media. The ministers unanimously approved the draft resolution created by Fico. It read: “The Government of the Slovak Republic discussed and approved the stance of the Slovak Government on suspected unethical and illegal practices of some print and electronic media.” In parliament, Fico explained that the government was concerned that some journalists take bribes from public relations agencies.
Tomanová survived a non-confidence motion in parliament early on the morning of September 5. The final vote came after a 17-hour blame game between the ruling coalition and the opposition. The opposition wanted to have the labour minister sacked for what the SDKÚ, the SMK and the KDH called a “moral and professional failure”. The opposition blamed Tomanová for the way she wanted to have the country’s pension system modified.
Justice Minister Štefan Harabin officially appointed a prosecutor from the Prosecutor General’s Office, Ladislav Hamran, to be Slovakia’s national representative in Eurojust on September 9. This EU organisation oversees cooperation between the law enforcement authorities of member states.
The cabinet passed a bill on travel documents on September 19 that will enable Slovaks to travel with biometric passports as of January 2008. The new passports, which are required by the European Union, will carry a microchip with biometric data on the personal information page. The biometric features – a digital map of a person’s face and fingerprint scan – will radically reduce the risk of passport forgery, the Interior Ministry said.
A bill that would have officially recognised Andrej Hlinka, the priest who led the party that after his death went on to lead the fascist Slovak State, as the “Father of the Nation” sparked a heated debate. The bill, submitted by the SNS, was passed for its second reading in parliament in September. It would also have declared Hlinka’s mausoleum in Ružomberok to be a site of honour. MPs later softened the bill and left out the “Father of the Nation” title.
In mid-September, the Slovak parliament passed a declaration on the inalterability of the Beneš Decrees. The declaration riled up the easily-irritable Slovak-Hungarian relations.
The Party of European Socialists decided to uphold its suspension of Fico’s Smer party for reasons that included the country’s tense relationship with Hungary. The chair of the Party of European Socialists (PES), Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, announced on October 4 that Smer’s membership suspension would continue. Smer’s PES membership was suspended in 2006 after it formed a ruling coalition with the nationalist SNS.
Tensions between top Slovak and Hungarian politicians came to a head. The ruling coalition blamed the SMK and Hungary’s top officials for causing the eroding relations. The SMK countered that the Slovak ruling coalition was guilty. Hungarian President László Sólyom and Speaker of Hungarian Parliament Katalin Szilli each paid a private visit to Slovakia. Both Sólyom and Szilli met SMK representatives during their unofficial visits but held talks with no Slovak top officials. Slovak politicians criticised Sólyom for the statements he made, while Foreign Affairs Minister Ján Kubiš said the Hungarian president was walking on thin ice with his trip to the south of Slovakia.
Jozef Majský, the business tycoon who was taken into custody for his alleged involvement in the notorious pyramid scheme bankruptcies, was freed from custody. The Supreme Court released Majský after almost 11 months in custody on October 25, on the instructions of the Constitutional Court. It returned the case to the Special Court for a re-trial.
About 20 Slovaks took part in a neo-Nazi demonstration in Novi Sad. They came to support Serbian neo-Nazis from the National Guard group. The demonstration was held to honour the anniversary of the birth of Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi official who was in charge of the concentration camps during the Second World War. The Slovak neo-Nazis were detained and interrogated by Serbian police, but they were not charged. They were released from jail and sent out of the country.
US President George W. Bush said Slovakia is among the countries at risk of a future missile attack from Iran, in a lecture in Washington on October 23. Bush said the Central European region, including Slovakia, could benefit from the planned American missile defense system if an Iranian attack took place, the Sme daily wrote.
Parliament modified the country’s pension system when it approved an amendment to the social-insurance law that opened up the capitalisation pillar of the pension system for six months. More than 1.5 million people who had been saving for their pensions in private accounts administered by pension fund management companies would be able to reconsider their decision and quit the so-called second pillar between January 2008 and June 2008.
Slovakia got the go-ahead to join Europe’s Schengen Zone on November 9. The country was scheduled to march into the Schengen area along with eight other EU countries at midnight on December 20. Slovakia’s entry to Schengen would tear down the last barriers that separated Slovakia from the rest of the European Union since 1989, Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák said, after the interior ministers of the 27 EU member countries concluded that Slovakia was ready for Schengen.
Slovakia took over the temporary leadership of the oldest pan-European organisation for the next six months, becoming the 30th chairing country of the Council of Europe. Foreign Affairs Minister Ján Kubiš assumed the six-month presidency in Strasbourg on November 12 from his Serbian counterpart, Vuk Jeremic, in the Committee of Ministers, the council’s executive body.
Fico asked Agriculture Minister Miroslav Jureňa, a HZDS nominee, to sack the deputy director of the Slovak Land Fund, Branislav Bríza, after Fico said Bríza was responsible for suspicious land transfers. Land plots covering more than one million square metres and worth about Sk1.5 billion (€45.4 million), situated in the lucrative High Tatras area, were sold for Sk13 million to GVM, a company allegedly close to Mečiar, the Sme daily reported. Bríza, an HZDS nominee, cultivated the deal and signed the contract that transferred the land back to the former owners under the restitution law, and the owner promptly sold the land to the company. GVM co-owner Milan Bališ has been seen in public with Mečiar, according to Sme.
The land transfer scandal led to a crisis in the ruling coalition. Fico had Jureňa fired for what Fico called an indisputable political responsibility for the land transfer scandal. First Fico asked Jureňa to resign, and when he refused, the PM asked President Ivan Gašparovič to recall him. That made Jureňa the first minister to be sacked since Fico formed his ruling coalition in 2006. The outgoing agriculture minister summoned a press conference in a cowshed in the Bratislava district of Vajnory and accused Fico using a double standard for ministers from his Smer party when it comes to holding them responsible for scandals.
In late November, tensions between Fico and Mečiar erupted into an open conflict, as both leaders spoke publicly about breaking up the ruling coalition. Smer, the HZDS and the SNS met on November 28 to iron out the issues that led to Jureňa’s sacking and the related tensions. But after 10 minutes, Mečiar stormed out of the meeting and told the media that Fico was trying to kill the coalition. One day later, on November 29, Mečiar told the media that the tough talk was actually just a miscommunication.
Zdenka Kramplová, a former ambassador and foreign affairs minister with a colourful political past, was appointed as the country’s new agriculture minister. Kramplová was an MP for the HZDS and the party’s chief secretary.
Roma children in Slovakia continue to be largely segregated into inferior education, including a disproportionate number sent to schools and classes for children with special needs, Amnesty International said in a new report released in late November. Recent government initiatives failed to address these issues, the human rights watchdog said. Government officials called the report biased and lacking objectivity.
A Kazakh journalist, Balli Marzec, was arrested and allegedly beaten by police for protesting during her president’s visit to Bratislava. She staged her protest in front of the Presidential Palace on November 21, where Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev was meeting with Gašparovič. When she announced through a megaphone that human rights are not respected in Kazakhstan, several officers dragged her to a police car, reports said. Police denied the accusations that they had beaten the journalist, but they admitted to making a mistake by arresting her.
Speaker of Parliament Pavol Paška survived an attempt to have him fired. The opposition tried to have Paška recalled because he gave the order to put the Act on Social Insurance on the parliamentary website in a different wording than the one approved by MPs.
The Bratislava Regional Court ruled that suspected terrorist Mustapha Labsi must be extradited to Algeria. He appealed the November 30 verdict of the Bratislava court. Labsi said he would face torture or even death in Algeria. At the trial, he denied any involvement in terrorism.
Six years after it was asked to rule on the issue, the Constitutional Court decided on December 4 that it was not unconstitutional to perform abortions at a woman’s request in the first trimester of pregnancy. The court said that the fetus is protected by the procedure a woman must go through if she wants an abortion, under the law: filing a request, receiving a medical examination, going through an interview with a doctor, receiving a second approval of the decision, and paying for the surgery. The abortion decision has been one of the most-followed cases handled by the Constitutional Court in recent times. The motion to examine the abortion law was submitted in 2001 by 31 MPs, mainly from the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH).
At its session on December 6, the Council of Ministers of the European Union for Interior and Justice unanimously approved the entry of Slovakia and another eight countries into the Schengen area. “We are in,” Slovak Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák told a press conference in Brussels shortly after the council decision. “The dream of Slovaks of European freedom, about 50 years old, has finally come true. The last remnants of the Iron Curtain fell today.”
Border checks between old and new member states of the Schengen Zone were to disappear after midnight on December 21.
The new US Ambassador to Slovakia, Vincent Obsitnik, was welcomed by foreign ministry and American embassy officials at the Jarovce-Kittsee border crossing, after flying into Vienna airport on December 6. Obsitnik replaced Rodolphe Vallee, who became ambassador in August 2005.
During one of the fastest non-confidence votes ever held in parliament, Robert Fico easily managed to keep his job. Less than 24 hours after parliament passed a confidence vote in the Fico government, the opposition filed a motion in parliament to sack Fico, citing the PM’s inaction in the land transfer scandal at the Slovak Land Fund. The session started on the night of December 6. The opposition objected to the late start of the session and left the floor without attending the vote. Fico easily won the support of the rest of parliament.
The STV Council on December 11 dismissed STV general director Radim Hreha. Ten of the council’s 15 members voted in favour, while two abstained. The other three members were absent. The council said that Hreha failed to deliver strategic documents, exceeded the television budget and deepened its deficit to Sk100 million (€3 million). Media analysts said that Hreha’s sacking was also linked to the exodus in the news department.
With files from the SITA newswire, the Sme daily and
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“I have never experienced something like this.” Ondrej Matej, a candidate for the SDKÚ chairman post, after finding all the locks had been changed at the party’s headquarters, where he wanted to hold a press conference.