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News item: Prime Minister Robert Fico sends letter to European Agriculture Commissioner asking her to rule whether Deputy Agriculture Minister Marian Záhumenský erred in changing subsidy rules to give his own tobacco firm Sk4.4 million more in state money.

Smer's question for Brussels
By Marián Leško

Robert Fico has asked Euro-Commissioner Fischer-Boel to decide (!) whether the Agrocontract firm, in which Deputy Agriculture Minister Marian Záhumenský owns shares, is legally entitled to the subsidies it is claiming under a change to the law prepared by Záhumenský himself. "If the European Commission confirms that he did not have a right to the subsidies, Prime Minister Fico will immediately demand his resignation," said a government spokesperson.

Fico's request is curious, because he is asking the Agriculture Commissioner to decide on something that his own Smer party should and must decide itself. Fico's letter to Brussels is just an attempt to avoid this fact.

The case of Deputy Minister Záhumenský does not require any expert or decision-making aid from abroad, because all the relevant facts are known, and Commissioner Fischer-Boel couldn't add anything new even if she wanted to. Nor is the question Smer sent to Brussels so difficult that the party could not answer it itself.

Marian Záhumenský, as the general director of the Agrocontract firm, last year bought some quotas for growing tobacco from the Agrodružstvo Rišňovce firm. He did so in the belief that the quotas would give him access to euro-subsidies. However, the Brussels directive setting quotas for growing tobacco ceased to apply in January 2006.

In March 2006, the Agriculture Ministry passed new subsidy rules that took into account the fact that the EC directive was no longer valid. According to current Agriculture Minister Miroslav Jureňa, this step created "an illegal state of affairs" which he allegedly corrected when, on the advice of Deputy Minister Záhumenský he added two paragraphs to the subsidy rules extending the right to receive subsidies to applicants who before the end of last year had acquired production quotas from other firms. Under the latest rules, Záhumenský's company was entitled to Sk4.4 million more in subsidies.

While both Jureňa and Záhumenský insist that the March change was illegal, they have not said what law or regulation it violated. Futhermore, if entrepreneur Záhumenský believed this violation occurred in March, it is not clear why he waited until becoming the deputy minister to try to change it. He could have challenged this illegal change in court a lot sooner, but waited until he was a member of the executive, saying that if he hadn't altered the rules, "all companies could have demanded their rights in court". If all companies - or at least all four that the issue concerns - had sued the ministry in court, no one could be in any doubt that the change was indeed illegal. But as it is, this is only an unproven allegation which serves to obscure the fact that Deputy Minister Záhumenský by changing the rules compensated entrepreneur Záhumenský for his investment in the quotas.

The questions that Fico sent to Brussels belong to Smer alone, as does the matter of whether a minister who so obligingly agreed to the demands of his deputy should remain in office. Jureňa's statement that Záhumenský was only doing his job in correcting an illegal situation do less to exonerate the latter than implicate the former.

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