THE APPOINTMENT to the Transpetrol firm of Július Rezeš and the rest of the gang from the heydays of asset stripping at the VSŽ steel mill has been rightly criticized as unlikely to improve supervision of the firm's state assets. Any man whose chief claim to business fame is having overseen a Sk5 billion loss and a cross default on $35 million in debt after his company made a Sk600 million profit the year before is not going to be your first choice to manage an oil pipeline of strategic importance to the economy.
But the selection of Rezeš is significant for another reason as well. It shows the enduring strength of the eastern Slovak industrial lobby centred in Košice, as well as its continuing Russian and organized crime connections.
The Slovak Spectator was the first to point out the business connections of some of the men who were appointed to Transpetrol's boards at an EGM on November 20.
Sergej Zápotocký, who was appointed to the board of directors, was part of the senior management at VSŽ until 1999, and has served in seven companies with his brother Alexander, another VSŽ manager from the Rezeš era (1995 to 1997).
Alexander Zápotocký, a former state prosecutor under the communist regime, is co-owner of a Czech company called Turan with another former VSŽ supervisory board member, Alfonz Lukačin (1994 to 1997) and an Austrian Israeli named Barak Alon.
Alon has been charged in the Czech Republic with stealing eight billion Czech crowns from the Komerční Banka institution in a fraudulent wheat deal with Russia between 1997 and 1999 with the help of KB managers. He was jailed for eight months, but has been missing since being released in 2003.
Alon's father, Shlomo, has helped the Czech Republic recover its communist-era debt from Russia, and in 1999 arranged a meeting in Russia between the Czechs and the Russians that was attended by Shlomo Alon's personal friend, Russian Foreign Minister Jevgenij Primakov.
Alexander Zápotocký also appears in the Czech firm ASIP Trade with Igor Šafranko, the former right hand and business partner of murdered Czech underworld figure Frantisek Mrázek. Mrázek and Barak Alon, on the other hand, served together on the boards of the Eggenburg brewery in Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic.
Of course, Sergej Zápotocký may not be his brother's keeper, and little could be inferred from these connections if it was only a question of these two men.
But Alexander Zápotocký also served on the supervisory board of the Košice firm Fakon from 1995 to 2002, at the same time that Speaker of Parliament Pavol Paška was on the board of directors. Dušan Mach, another new Transpetrol appointee, is now chairman of the supervisory board at Fakon.
Zápotocký also founded the Manager company, which privatized VSŽ, with Vladimír Balaník, now the vice-chairman of the board of directors at Transpetrol.
Balaník also served in the RST Rusko Slovenský Trading firm with Juraj Široký and Vladimír Lexa Sr., the father of Mečiar-era secret service boss Ivan Lexa, as well as Michail Krapivin, a Gazprom representative based in the Czech Republic.
Mikuláš Rakovský, who represents the Ukrainian state-owned pipelines firm Ukrtransnafta in Slovakia, is also a new member of the Transpetrol supervisory board.
Given that the Slovak Economy Ministry is currently negotiating with Moscow on the return of a 49 percent stake in Transpetrol that was privatized to the bankrupt Yukos in 2002, and given the importance of reducing Slovakia's energy dependence on Russia, it is ominous that men with so many Russian and organized crime contacts - however tenuous - have been elected by the Fico government to run Transpetrol.
This is not, as the political opposition has said, an insult to public opinion. It is a test of how much the public will allow the government to get away with. And it is a test whose results will be studied very closely indeed.
By Tom Nicholson