"EVENTS that a person sometimes can't foresee require that I leave this hall in a few minutes," said Prime Minister Robert Fico on November 24 to excuse his hurried departure from a conference celebrating Alexander Dubček, where he had been scheduled to make a 20-minute speech.
The mystery surrounding these unforeseen "events" deepened when Fico's colleague from the ruling Smer party, MP Boris Zala, explained that "the prime minister has some pressing problems in domestic politics that he has to solve".
In recent weeks, Fico has seemed anything but the dominant leader with 40-percent approval ratings that he has been since forming a government in July. While for months the new prime minister had seemed a one-man show in government, virtually ignoring his coalition colleagues - Ján Slota of the far-right SNS party and Vladimír Mečiar of the amorphous HZDS - the spell was suddenly broken at a November 22 summit between the three men.
At the meeting, Fico was forced to back down on several tax rule changes and budget funding decisions, and - most galling of all - to accept the nomination of Július Rezeš, an infamous Mečiar-era corporate manager, to the board of the Transpetrol oil pipeline administrator.
Political analysts saw the confrontation as proof that Mečiar was constitutionally incapable of playing second fiddle or cooperating in any coalition, and a sign of further strife to come.
Political scientist Grigorij Mesežnikov added that Mečiar's nominations showed he was trying to rehabilitate people associated with his 1994-1998 government, which was ostracized by the international community for its authoritarian behaviour.
"It is also confirmation that Mečiar hasn't changed, and it is a warning signal for politicians who are considering working with him," said Mesežnikov, referring to the parties in the political opposition that have been making overtures towards the former leader.
The November 22 meeting of the coalition council, a senior government body consisting of the leaders of the three ruling parties, was the first real public test of strength between Mečiar and Fico, but it was not the first time the HZDS has made controversial nominations to state posts.
First it was František Blanárik, the HZDS general secretary and a former executive with an arms trading firm, whom Mečiar elevated in early September to the leadership of the National Security Bureau, which is in charge of vetting people who apply for access to classified information (including arms traders).
Then it was Peter Hrkotáč, a former associate of murdered Bratislava mob boss Roman Deák, whom the HZDS nominated to lead the Bratislava office of the Land Bureau. Hrkotáč was quietly withdrawn after only three weeks in his post.
The HZDS has also insisted on nominating Igor Urban to the post of deputy director of the SIS secret service, although this idea has so far been rejected by SIS Director Jozef Magala.
Urban was the head of the parliamentary Special Oversight Committee for the SIS at a time when Ivan Lexa was SIS director (1995 to 1998). Under Urban, the committee never even discussed the 1995 kidnapping of the former president's son to Austria, despite the fact that a Vienna court said the crime had been carried out by the SIS.
In October 2004, Urban told Radio Free Europe that "no one asked the committee, no one demanded that it do this or gave it information, including the SIS director, so the committee had no information that would allow it to act".
The HZDS is no longer insisting that Urban be named to the SIS, and has instead apparently fixed on Juraj Zábojník, a member of the ŠtB secret police section for protecting government representatives under communism.
Tit for tat
Following his departure from the Dubček conference, Fico denied he had been called away by a coalition crisis. "Nothing's going on. I didn't have to solve any crisis in the coalition or in domestic politics today," he said, before meeting twice over the weekend with Mečiar and Slota at private lunches in Trenčín and Košice.
Mečiar denied having created any tensions with his nomination of Rezeš to Transpetrol, saying that Smer's nominees to the same company were just as controversial. "I don't understand the problem with Rezeš," he said on a TA3 television talk show on November 26. "There is a problem with other nominees, and it's unfair to throw everything on Rezeš and use it to cover up the nominations of people from the ŠtB or close to the ŠtB."
According to the aktualne.sk news server, one of the men nominated to Transpetrol's boards by Fico's Smer party, Vladimír Balaník, allegedly served as a spy for the ŠtB in Tokyo during communism. Another nominee to Transpetrol for Smer, Mikuláš Rakovský, is listed in the ŠtB files as an agent.
Interestingly, Vladimír Mečiar himself has long been suspected of collaboration with the ŠtB. In the fall of 1991 and spring 1992, the Defence and Security Committee of the Slovak parliament took up the theft of some files from the ŠtB archives in Trenčín. In its report, the committee stated: "Leonard Čimo, then a senior police inspector, acting on orders from Vladimír Mečiar, then Slovak interior minister, entered the Tiso Villa [ŠtB archives] at five minutes after midnight on January 27, 1990. He removed 18 folders containing documents on the ŠtB's secret collaborators. He delivered these files at 07:00 the next morning to Vladimír Mečiar in the Interior Ministry residence on Partizánska Street in Bratislava." The files have never been found, and Mečiar has always denied participating in the crime.
The committee's report said the stolen files had also contained material on Mečiar: "On two sides of a page that was torn out, under file number 31048, was information relating to JUDr. Vladimír Mečiar, who until June 26, 1990 was interior minister and from June 27, 1990 to April 21, 1991 was prime minister."
But Mečiar's isn't the only ŠtB file to go missing under mysterious circumstances. Following the death of the head of the National Memory Institute, Ján Langoš, in a car crash this summer, it was discovered that the ŠtB file of entrepreneur Juraj Široký, reputedly a sponsor of the Smer party, was also missing, even though it had never officially been signed out.
Široký served in Czechoslovakia's Washington embassy during communism and is listed in the ŠtB files on the cibulka.com server as an agent. Široký, who denies ever having been an agent, has also figured in six firms with Vladimír Lexa, the father of spy-boss Ivan.
Balaník, Smer's Transpetrol nominee, also served in the RST - Rusko Slovenský Trading firm with Lexa and Široký.
Nor is the HZDS the only party to have nominated people apparently close to its sponsors to state jobs. Associates of Mečiar-era privatizer Vladimír Poór, for example, have been nominated to the management of another state-owned company, the ZSSK Cargo railway firm.
Among the Cargo appointees is Miloslav Lužák, who served on the supervisory board of the ŽOS Trnava company owned by Poór. The latter privatized several state companies in the 1990s under the Mečiar government, and is now believed to be a sponsor of the ruling Smer party.
Another Cargo nominee close to Poór is Ivana Piňosová, who served in AG Banka together with Poór.
Not all nominations by government parties so far have been as cloak-and-dagger. The Fico government, which has begun wide-ranging changes to posts in the public sector, has also nominated friends and relatives to state jobs, even when they lack the appropriate qualifications.
Ján Šulaj, the brother of Tax Bureau Director Igor Šulaj of Smer, has been made head of the F.D. Roosevelt Hospital in Banská Bystrica.
Kristína Ďuračková, the 23-year-old daughter of SNS MP Jozef Ďuračka, was nominated to the board of directors of the Trnavská Teplárenská heating company, even though she is still in school. Another heating plant appointee, Ivana Juráková, who has been trained as a cook and a waitress, will henceforth be looking after the firm's economic agenda.
Marcela Fabiánová, 28, an elementary school teacher, has been made head of office at the Defence Ministry, according to the Nový Čas newspaper because of her friendship with Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák. She has also been elected to the management of the LOT Trenčín military outfitters plant, while her friend, Ivan Solej, 24, is the head of her secretariat.
Peter Oremus, 29, the former boyfriend of government spokeswoman Silvia Glendová, was elected to the executive board of the National Property Fund privatization agency, while Viliam Križan, the boyfriend of the daughter of Economy Minister Ľubomír Jahnátek, has been elected to the supervisory board of Transpetrol, which is administered by the Economy Ministry.
Katarína Šašková, daughter of SNS MP Ivan Šaško, is now head of the foreign aid section of the Environment Ministry.
Meanwhile, the father of 23-year-old Smer caucus secretary Andrej Kolesík, Jozef Kolesík, was nominated in November to the supervisory board of the Nuclear Decommissioning Company. "My father is no Miss Fabiánová," Kolesík Jr said, referring to Interior Minister Kaliňák's friend.
Such appointments differ little in substance from nominations made by the previous Mikuláš Dzurinda government.
Dzurinda's brother, Miroslav, was appointed to lead the Cargo firm, while bakery owner Alfonz Tkáč, the husband of an MP from Dzurinda's party, was made head of the Košice airport.
However, in style they are more reminiscent of the brazen nepotism practiced under the 1994-1998 Mečiar government, when the mother-in-law of labour party leader Ján Lupták was nominated to the supervisory board of the VÚB state bank.
For some political analysts, they reflect the Fico's government's lack of preparation for taking power, as well as its lack of confidence in people from outside its close network.
"Sometimes it's not a case of someone getting a nice salary, but more that the government feels they can totally rely on the person, because they are from the family of an important politician or functionary," said Zuzana Kusá from the Slovak Academy of Sciences.
But most analysts were harshly critical of the return to less refined "jobs for the boys" tactics.
"It's a combination of stupidity and arrogance, because they must have known that everything would come out," said political analyst Ján Baránek.
"In more advanced democracies, governments would probably not dare to put people in these posts who are far, far from having any professional qualifications," agreed Zuzana Wienk, director of the Fair-Play Alliance NGO, in an interview with the STV public channel on November 26.