Did she fall or was she pushed?

FOR SOMEONE who made no bones about her ambition to become Slovakia's next foreign minister, Monika Beňová's sudden withdrawal from the Smer party's list of candidates for June elections was one of the bigger surprises of the pre-campaign period so far.

FOR SOMEONE who made no bones about her ambition to become Slovakia's next foreign minister, Monika Beňová's sudden withdrawal from the Smer party's list of candidates for June elections was one of the bigger surprises of the pre-campaign period so far.

Beňová, a former radio station operator who now holds a seat in the European Parliament, said she had decided to step down to open the door to regional party candidates, and because she was no longer having fun.

"After seven years, I've stopped enjoying politics to some extent," she said in an interview with the Plus 7 dní weekly magazine. "I'm just not cut out for it."

As for the about-face on her ministerial aspirations, Beňová said: "I see the problem with that and I deeply regret it... people should stick to their statements." On the other hand, the MEP said, "in Slovakia it seems to be better not to present such ambitions, it's better to sit and wait quietly for someone to say, 'you there in the corner, do you want to join the government?'"

But the Slovak media presented Beňová's resignation as the outcome of a rift between Smer leader Robert Fico and an influential party backroom figure, political strategist Fedor Flašík. Beňová and Flašík are engaged to be married in May.

Flašík, a former boss of the Donar ad agency, enjoyed exclusive advertising contracts with many state firms under the 1994 to 1998 government of Vladimír Mečiar. He later ran Fico's disastrous 2002 campaign, in which the party appeared to be headed to victory but stumbled to third place and an opposition role after choosing a strategy many felt was too aggressive for Slovak tastes.

The weekly Týždeň magazine cited an unnamed Smer caucus member as saying the rift between Fico and Flašík went beyond influence over nominations to the party's candidates list, and included accusations about the diversion of money from political sponsors.

"At the meeting of the party's executive board, he [Fico] mentioned three current cases in which Flašík had allegedly siphoned off money that sponsors wanted to donate to the party," said the caucus source.

Executive board member Richard Demovič said he couldn't "remember details" of the meeting, but that "the trust between Fico and Flašík has been damaged".

Flašík refused to comment. "I don't know anything, I haven't heard anything, and it's all the same to me. These are party matters, and they don't interest me at all," he told Týždeň.

The connection with Flašík has increasingly proven a liability for Smer as the elections draw closer, with government politicians flinging the name at Fico at every opportunity.

But Smer members also have links to other Mečiar-era business figures, such as Vladimír Poór, the former head of the Trnava branch of Mečiar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and the man behind the notorious 1996 privatization of the Nafta Gbely gas storage company. Poór was on several company boards with Smer shadow justice minister Martin Glvač, who has said they still play tennis and go to football matches together.

Glvač was also acquainted with murdered businessman Jozef Svoboda, whom police regarded as a Bratislava mob boss. "We knew each other, I'm not ashamed of it," Glvač said.

Ivan Kiňo, former head of the SLSP bank under Mečiar, was on several company boards with Smer shadow finance minister Igor Šulaj. "In some things we professionally complemented each other," Šulaj told the daily SME.

Smer shadow economy minister Maroš Kondrót, on the other hand, was a schoolmate of Ivan Lexa, the head of the SIS secret service under Mečiar, and advisor from 1995 to 1998 to Deputy Economy Minister Jozef Brhel of the HZDS. "He's innocent," Kondrót says of Lexa's dozen court cases since 1998 for sabotage and abuse of power. "He's an exceptionally intelligent and clever fellow."

Justice Minister Daniel Lipšic, in a televised debate with Fico on March 19, attacked Smer for what he called its "suspect" roots.

"On your candidates list you have people with suspect backgrounds. You say you are a social-democratic party, but given that a large part of your candidates list is made up of millionaires, how do you want to convince us that you will follow a social democratic programme? And your MP, Ivan Varga, was in companies not only with Poór but also Ján Gabriel, who was the head of VÚB [state bank] during the government of Vladimír Mečiar. These are disquieting facts for me."

The charges drew an angry retort from Fico. "You're so holy in the Christian Democrats," he told Lipšic, referring to the minister's party.

Asked what she knew about Poór and other alleged Smer sponsors, Beňová said: "I picked something up, that Daniel Lipšic pulled out some names with Robert Fico in their debate, but I've got nothing to say about that."

As the campaign heats up, Smer's links to Mečiar-era businessmen will likely be a regular target of political attacks, but according to sociologist Ivan Haulík of the MVK polling agency, it is questionable whether the issue will have an impact on voters.

"As long as Vladimír Mečiar is accepted by other politicians and voters in this country, people who were associated with privatization will not concern the public," he said.

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