"I was raised to do good"

ONE OF the most colourful characters to be running anywhere in Slovakia for mayor, let alone in Bratislava, is Marián Kočner.
Yes, the same Kočner who engaged an underworld security firm in his infamous takeover of the Markíza private TV station in 1998 - and who later forced the owner of the station, Pavol Rusko, to buy him out in an implicit admission of the justness of his claim.

Marián Kočner says he has the formula for a better transit system.
photo: SITA

ONE OF the most colourful characters to be running anywhere in Slovakia for mayor, let alone in Bratislava, is Marián Kočner.

Yes, the same Kočner who engaged an underworld security firm in his infamous takeover of the Markíza private TV station in 1998 - and who later forced the owner of the station, Pavol Rusko, to buy him out in an implicit admission of the justness of his claim.

Yes, the same Kočner who promised to use a tank to defend land owned by people who refused to sell it to the KIA automaker at a government-set price.

Yes, the same Kočner who is on a first-name basis with everyone from Ivan Mikloš to Ivan Kmotrík, and yet who is regarded as a tad too controversial for polite society.

Bratislava mayoral candidate Marián Kočner gave an interview to The Slovak Spectator on November 7.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What are the city's biggest problems?

Marián Kočner (MK): Transport. The city's transport problems have long been neglected. For many years there has been talk of building a Bratislava subway system, and several hundred million crowns have been spent on project documentation, but we have nothing to show for it.

Then there is the fact that the city's master plan was not approved [by City Council in September]. We also lack green areas and sports facilities.

TSS: Why have these problems not been addressed before?

MK:I don't know. But take the city transit company - every year it gets a subsidy of Sk1.2 billion from the city budget. I don't believe the company is managed well, however, because as long as the mayor of this city is a political nominee, he will appoint political candidates to the leadership of city-owned firms. I think there is also a problem with clientelism and giving contracts to friends and acquaintances. Just look at road maintenance in Bratislava - most recently, the upgrade of Miletičová Street took two months longer than forecast, but if you visited the site you found 20 guys leaning on their shovels. If they don't work as they should, you can imagine the project might cost more than it should. Given that we have large developer companies in Bratislava that are able to operate 24-7, why aren't repairs to important roads done through the night as well? That's normal in other capitals all over the world.

Over the past 16 years, the mayor of Bratislava has always been a political nominee. These were people who never had any experience of business. The mayor certainly doesn't have to be an expert in each of the city's operations, but I think the heads of city transit and waste management companies should be. If they are political nominees they owe something to someone, which leads to bribery and corruption and so on.

I've been in business for 22 years. I'm sure that with my experience I would do a better job of saying what is good and quality work [by contractors] than someone with no business background. Business people, if they want to survive, have to be very pro-active, and usually do their work with greater verve than political nominees. We see this today in the finance minister [Ján Počiatek], who also has a business background. He's not some bureaucrat, he's someone who knows what he's talking about.

TSS: One of your ideas for the city is to provide transit for free. How is this an example of business thinking.?

MK: The city transit company makes revenues from ticket sales, but about 40 percent of these go to cover the costs of printing tickets, distributing them, paying ticket inspectors and so on. We could also save a lot more money on repairs if we renewed our fleet quickly and from a single supplier. Then there is the synergy effect, which is difficult to measure in money terms. I believe that if city transit is a quality service provided for free, fewer people will travel by car. That means savings on road repairs and maintenance. Then you have the environment and people's sense of satisfaction, which is again difficult to measure but is very important.

But this isn't my idea - it was thought up by Richard Sulík, the former advisor to Finance Minister Ivan Mikloš. He says it will work, and if he believes it, so do I.

TSS: What kind of family do you come from?

MK: I come from Ružomberok. My mother was a primary school teacher, my father a construction technician. Every year since I was 15 I spent a month working in construction, so I know what a brick is. I studied journalism in university in Bratislava, then I worked for STV for several years as a journalist covering politics. Then I set up on my own.

TSS: During your business dealings you came into contact with various people with ties to organized crime, such as Štefan Vylupok in the KS Oil firm, who did business with the Miroslav Sýkora group.

MK: That's very easy to explain. KS Oil was set up to privatize the Otex Textil firm of Bratislava, which was the largest consumer of textile products imported by the Protrend firm, which I owned. Mr Vylupok at the time worked for Otex, and helped to decide which of the samples we brought Otex would buy.

TSS: Your name was also connected with the mafia.

MK: Tell me how?

TSS: For example.

MK: That was just an accusation made by former Economy Minister Pavol Rusko. And you tell a lie three times on TV, it becomes the truth, right?

TSS: That may be, but that doesn't change the fact that you employed Peter Čongrády's security firm in 1998 to try and secure control of TV Markíza.

MK: We didn't employ him, we used his protection services, that is true. But at that time in Bratislava, there were maybe five or six private security firms. After a while, it started to be said that this company was connected with that [organized crime] group, and so on. No matter which security company we chose, after a few years it would have been claimed that it belonged to the Takáč group or the Dinič group. The point is that no other security firms existed at the time. We approached the police and asked for their help, based on the court injunction we had. You think they did anything? They said "solve it yourselves". It works that way to this day.

Besides, if I was a mafia guy, why didn't they arrest me when Rusko joined the government? The reason is because it was nonsense. Rusko didn't even lay charges that someone had stolen something from him. And I have a clean criminal record.

Or take the case of KIA [where Kočner defended the owners of land where the Korean carmaker wanted to build its factory near Žilina - ed. note]. The government ended up paying those people more, it ended up in the role of the uncivilized partner.

TSS: Another facet of your past that keeps showing up is the secret service, which you crossed paths with on several occasions, such as in the Technopol case, where you were charged with fraud along with the former president's son, Michal Kováč Jr, who was later kidnapped by the secret service to embarrass his father.

MK: We were charged together, but a German prosecutor later dropped the charges. Do you want to talk about the elections, or about history? I regard this history as a closed chapter.

TSS: OK, so why are you running for mayor?

MK: I'm tired of business. I work over 12 hours a day, weekends included. My mother raised me to always tell the truth and to do good. I have an internal feeling, and I tested it out with KIA, that I want to help people. No amount of money could buy the fantastic feeling I had at the end when they had a celebration, and 600 people told me with tears in their eyes that I had saved their property.

TSS: But to win the support of people whose property you didn't save, you will have to overcome this perception that you are a controversial figure. In an interview last year, another controversial figure, media baron Ivan Kmotrík, reacted with horror when I told him that some of your companies were registered at his business address, and said that if his name were linked to yours it could cause problems for him. Why do you think people have these ideas about you?

MK: I ask you - I've known Ivan Mikloš for about 15 years, and our children went to the same nursery school during communism. We've met several times at Donovaly [ski resort]. We're on a first-name basis. Does that mean I'm doing things with Mr Mikloš? That's ridiculous.

But it's strange he reacted that way, because I've known Ivan Kmotrík for 20 years, from the time we were both nobodies. Ivan is my good friend, and of course is someone who, I suspect, operates behind the scenes in high politics.

TSS: But again, it's not about Kmotrík, it's about the general feeling that you are connected.

MK: Give me one single piece of proof. Show me one firm that contains a single person connected with organized crime.

TSS: But people think it, and for a politician, perception is everything.

MK: Well, you're a journalist, so you tell me how I get rid of a label that Pavol Rusko stuck on me eight years ago. I think the only way to get rid of it is to prove through your work, your public performance and your acts that it is not true.

TSS: The Donotel firm and the Dunajská Lipa firm both began building - the former luxury flats near Donovaly, the latter flats on Koliba hill in Bratislava - without securing the necessary permits. Your ex-wife is in Donotel, and your business partner in two other companies is in Dunajská Lipa. You have said their projects are nothing to do with you, but given the problem Bratislava has with illegal construction, how can people be sure that you would be strict with Bratislava developers when you seem so lax regarding your business associates?

MK: Dušan Pasternak, who built the flats in Bratislava, has been a very good friend of mine for a long time. I haven't examined whether he built without a building permit or not, but I guess he did. That was proven. But do you also know that he paid a large fine for it?

TSS: Yes, developers are in the habit of including such fines in their business plans.?

MK: You know how much he paid? I think it was about Sk5 million. You find me another firm that was fined as much. You find it. For another thing, how long do you think it takes to arrange a building permit, assuming you have all the necessary paperwork, in democratic countries around us? Does it take one, two or three years like it does in Slovakia? If bureaucrats abided by legally-defined deadlines for issuing paperwork - which they do not - I don't think entrepreneurs would be forced [to break the rules]. The system forces them to.

Just imagine - they have their own money invested in the building lot, they have a line of credit arranged from a bank, they have project documentation, and they are in the fifth month of waiting for a building permit. Meanwhile, they have a business plan that says the project must be finished by a certain time. The business plan assumes that bureaucrats will observe the deadlines they are obliged to by the law. But what happens if they don't? It may occur to the entrepreneur that it is better to build without a permit, pay the fine and stick to the business plan.

TSS: But that doesn't change the fact they are breaking the law in building without a permit.

MK: I would solve this by ensuring that bureaucrats stick to their deadlines. If entrepreneurs then go ahead and build without a permit regardless, I will be the first one in this country to raze these illegal buildings. I guarantee you, if you knock down one or two, your problems will be over.

TSS: You seem to be the only candidate for mayor whose pictures aren't all over the city. Why?

MK: Because I'm not a politician, I'm just someone who obeys the law. You might want to ask all of those other candidates who have been in politics for so long why they don't follow the law, the election moratorium that says the campaign starts on November 15. And ask the election commission why it hasn't done anything about it. Anywhere else, those posters would be torn down, and the candidates might even be scratched from the lists. What kind of people are applying for public posts who break the rules even before the elections? My campaign will begin on November 15 - like the law says.

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