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MEDIA MARKET & PR - PROFILE OF MEDIA BARON IVAN KMOTRÍK

"The media business doesn't interest me"

THE MAN behind the recent ownership changes at the TA3 and JOJ private TV stations, Ivan Kmotrík, is notoriously media shy, for all that he is a flamboyant character in private. The interview he gave the Spex magazine in January 2006 remains the only occasion on which he has ever gone on the record with more than a few terse sentences.

A rare photo of the reclusive media baron Ivan Kmotrík.
photo: Zdeněk Fekár

THE MAN behind the recent ownership changes at the TA3 and JOJ private TV stations, Ivan Kmotrík, is notoriously media shy, for all that he is a flamboyant character in private. The interview he gave the Spex magazine in January 2006 remains the only occasion on which he has ever gone on the record with more than a few terse sentences.

On that wintry night a year ago, Kmotrík was still exulting at the success of his football club, Artmedia Bratislava, in coming within one goal of entering the final round of 16 in the Champion's League - a heady and improbable feat for a team whose annual budget of about €1.5 million was less than the salaries of some individual players they faced.

But it is his Slovak media interests, including TV stations, the Mediaprint Kappa press distributor and his portfolio of printers, that have made him one of the country's most influential men. His contacts - seemingly with everyone who is anyone in politics and, above all, business - have given him a reputation as a puppet master. His bodyguards, who are rarely far from his side, reinforce the impression that his name - kmotor in English means "godfather" - is more than an amusing coincidence.

Tallish, with thinning sandy hair and a perpetual air of being just about to shrug, Ivan Kmotrík is personable, the kind of man who grips your shoulder as he shakes your hand. On the night Spex interviewed him, he was in the middle of a 40th birthday celebration for the vice-president of his largest company, Grafobal Group.


Media beginnings


Kmotrík said he came from a family of teachers in Skalica in western Slovakia. No member of his family ever belonged to the Communist Party; on the contrary, his grandfather was sentenced in 1950 to life in jail on a charge of "armed resistance to the liberating forces [Soviet Union troops]".

"He was the leader of a regiment of American Slovaks in the Second World War, and as a notary and a senior officer he was later conscripted to fight for the Soviets. As a political prisoner he was confined to the Jáchymov uranium mines in the Czech lands. In 1964 he was released under an amnesty covering all political prisoners."

When the November 1989 revolution came, Kmotrík said, "like the rest, I went to the square and jingled my keys, because we all believed America was coming and everything would be all right.

"I guess I have 1989 to thank for being able to do business and for having more money than I otherwise would, but I can't say that I'm any happier."

A few months after the revolution, in February 1990, Kmotrík and some business partners got a license from the Culture Ministry to set up a publishing house. Publishing quickly became his core business activity.

"I made some pretty good money for the times," he recalled. "Today I publish 400 or 500 books a year, with print runs of 5,000 or 6,000, and it's a loss maker, but back then the print runs were up to 80,000, and it made money, especially on English, German and French [translations]. I also put out a lot of calendars, as it was a new line of business."

Kmotrík's publishing successes led him to get involved in printing with a friend in Skalica, and to start buying up shares in the Grafobal printing firm in the town.

"Over six or seven years I gained a majority stake in Grafobal, and from there I got involved in other printing activities, such as Slovenská Grafia and Západoslovenské Tlačiarne. Then we privatized a printer in Prešov from the VÚB bank, which we renamed Polygraf Print."

He also expanded beyond Slovakia's borders, building factories in Lithuania, Prague and Russia, and buying a factory in Bulgaria.


Connections


Ivan Kmotrík did very well under the 1994-1998 Vladimír Mečiar government, and was involved in businesses indirectly connected with the family of secret service director Ivan Lexa, as well as with Vlastimil Vicen, an MP from Mečiar's HZDS party, and Vladimír Poór, the boss of the Trnava branch of the HZDS.

However, he denies that these connections helped him in his business dealings.

"I never had any relationship with the government of the time," he said. "[Ivan] Lexa was my neighbour for many years [at a cottage on Lake Senec], and I knew him well. I was a businessman, and I had the kind of relationship where I was allowed to call him 'you fat donkey' or whatever. I also knew his friends.

"But if I wanted to buy anything I did it on my own, and if it didn't work out I had only myself to blame. It's as true of Slovakia as anywhere in the world that two's company and three's a crowd. For that reason since 1990 I have been the sole owner of all of my publishing houses, and I have tried to be alone in all of my printing enterprises."

Nevertheless, the years 1996-1997 were a watershed in Kmotrík's career, as he entered half a dozen printing and marketing companies including Artmedia, Grafobal, Slovenská Grafia, Západoslovenské Tlačiarne, Mladé Letá, Versus, and Slovcoupon.

Although he said he wasn't part of it, he described the third Mečiar government as a wild era in Slovakia's recent history,

"Privatization in Eastern Europe was like the Klondike in the United States, or like in Europe during the Marshall Plan. Everyone who could get their hands on something was involved in privatization, everyone who could do business did so, and some were successful in running their assets into the ground," he said.

"These people didn't realize what they were doing. They came to parliament and had a chance to make some money. And they thought of it as a non-public resource that would be there forever. They never thought that in four years time, a different group could come along.

"In my opinion, once everything is privatized, there will be peace on earth. There's only a little bit left, so they should just hand it out, and then we'll know who the good guys are and who isn't so good. Decisions will no longer be taken on the basis of kickbacks or other kinds of nonsense, but on the basis of normal human characteristics."


Media


After Tatra Banka reclaimed the Danubiaprint firm from its bankrupt privatizer, Stanislav Srník, in 1998, Kmotrík bought it from the bank, which launched him into printing newspapers.

While Kmotrík was never seen as part of the HZDS inner circle, his presence on its fringes was enough to raise media market hackles when in 1999 he bought three-quarters of the country's newsstands from the PNS print media distributor and looked like having a chokehold on both print media printing and distribution.

The foreboding increased in 2000 when Kmotrík's company Versus presented the Pravda daily with a contract for three years with no possibility of breaking it, while sanctions included a Sk30 million fine. In response, Pravda set up its own printer.

But Kmotrík, who still has that printing and distribution chokehold through his Mediaprint Kappa firm, argued that events had proven him to be fair-minded.

"Not once did we ever not print a newspaper or cause problems," he said. "Whenever anyone's machines broke down, we were always willing to step in. When they were afraid that we would take over the distribution market, I said: "OK, take it." And they ran off to the prime minister, saying "let it be anyone, just not Kmotrík." I don't know why.

"Then they came back after five months, after running it themselves and running up a further debt of Sk200 million, and went to court and said: "Kmotrík, give it to him." I didn't even want it. The Association of Publishers, which included Pravda, Sme and Nový Čas, came to court and said they agreed with Mediaprint Kappa's taking over the 670 PNS stands. And why? Because Mediaprint Kappa paid.

"It just needed time. They discovered they didn't know how to do it themselves, and started looking around for someone who knew how to do it. They said: 'Mediaprint knows, let's give it to Mediaprint. All right, and that prick Kmotrík. Let that prick Kmotrík do it.'

"I don't understand it, that 'prick Kmotrík' stuff, but I don't hold it against them. They were afraid of giving it all to one person, because you never know what might happen. And then they realized that it had been nine years and there had never been any problems."


New leaf


Like under the 1994-1998 government, Kmotrík continues to have good relations with a wide variety of people close to the Fico administration, from Lexa of the HZDS to Smer's Poór and Vladimír Bajan, the president of the Artmedia football club.

Kmotrík's name was at one time connected to Smer due to his close friendship with former Smer deputy chairperson Monika Beňová. However, Beňová was later excommunicated from the party leadership after a falling-out between her husband, Fedor Flašík, and Fico.

Kmotrík bristled at the suggestion he was closely linked to Smer when asked last January.

"I have no connection to Smer. What connection do I have to Smer?" he responded. "Am I a member of parliament for Smer? Am I the chairman of Smer's regional branch or something? Tell me in what way I am connected. What way exactly."

Reminded of his friendships with people close to the party, such as Poór, Flašík, and Martin Glváč, Kmotrík said "I'm their friend, but why should I finance them? I'm on a first-name basis with all of them, we're friends, but I never asked them for anything. I never had anything I wanted to ask from them."

Following the fall from grace of Markíza TV owner and Economy Minister Pavol Rusko in 2005 over a conflict of interest scandal, Kmotrík has been without a doubt the most powerful media figure in the country. However, he was eager to draw distinctions between Rusko, Slovakia's first 'media baron', and himself.

"I see a huge difference between Rusko and me," he said. "For Rusko, the television station and politics was his core business, and everything was related. My core business is printing.

"I'll tell you something interesting. I've had a TV station [JOJ] for three years, and I've been financing it. But I've never seen my editor-in-chief. I don't even know what he looks like. I only visited the TV station once, three years ago. Pavol Rusko was there every day and directed that station [Markíza]. Whether for worse or for better, I don't care. I'd be happy if he was there for another three years. That would be fine. It's not my job to decide whether Pavol was or wasn't telling the truth.

"But the media business in itself doesn't interest me much. You create too many enemies."

Strange words, perhaps, coming from a man who, according to a friend that The Slovak Spectator spoke with, was a close associate of Jozef Svoboda, a Bratislava mob boss killed in 2004. According to the friend, Svoboda was a frequent guest of Kmotrík's at the Artmedia stadium, and had free run of Kmotrík's private offices.

"He went for the football. He was then the co-owner of Slovan, or so he claimed. He was the chairman of their board of trustees," Kmotrík responded.

Like many in Slovakia who dabbled in privatization, politics and power - and escaped with a whole skin and money in the bank - Kmotrík is anxious to put controversy behind him.

"I've got a family and kids, and I try not to create needless enemies for my kids," he said. "As I said at the beginning, money is fine, but sometimes there are other values that are more interesting. Everyone you say 'no' to is a potential enemy."

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