What does it say about a country when a government minister dares to explain a suspicious gap between his income and the cost of his luxury home with the claim that he has earned the difference through 'lucky dip' gambling proceeds?
The very fact that Defence Minister Pavol Kanis would try this one on says first and foremost that he thinks the rest of us are fools capable of believing such nonsense. Kanis now makes about 500,000 crowns ($10,000) dollars a year as minister, but is building a four-storey monster on the Koliba hill above Bratislava worth anywhere between 10 and 15 million crowns ($200,000 and $300,000). Even if he had never paid taxes or spent a penny of his legal income, he would have had to have been defence minister since Warsaw Pact tanks last growled through Bratislava to pay for his new residence.
The second thing it says is that this country still has a long way to go before it makes the NATO cut. London and Washington may be smiling up their sleeves at Kanis' misadventures, but the hand of welcome may have been withdrawn just a tad at the Defence Minister's revelation that he had borrowed two million crowns from a mysterious friend "in industrial circles" to help fund the construction. It's a little discomfiting, after all, to discover that the point man on Slovakia's NATO accession programme has compromised himself so thoroughly, and owes a handsome favour to an unknown industrialist. NATO will undoubtedly remember the last Slovak politician who used this 'I got it from my buddy' excuse - former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, explaining how he financed his Electra pension purchase, before the doors were blown off this April by SWAT teams.
The third thing it says is how green and greedy Slovak politicians still are. Remember the Robert De Niro film Goodfellas, when the gang which has just pulled a major heist goes out and blows the cash on fur coats and pink Cadillacs? De Niro, ever the savvy gangster, berates his dull-witted partners for not having waited until the dust settled before making such eye-grabbing purchases.
So too with members of the ruling coalition - Parliamentary Speaker Jozef Migaš is building, as is Culture Minister Milan Kňažko. There may be others, but so far particularly the SDKÚ party of Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda has been sticky about saying who now owns what. If De Niro were PM, he'd tweak a few ears and tell the gang to wait until after they leave politics. But Dzurinda's the boss, so people follow their baser desires wherever they lead.
The final, and perhaps most important thing the Kanis scandal reinforces is the love-hate relationship Slovaks have with their own country. Romantic Slovak poet Andrej Sládkovič (1820-1872) once described the Slovak nation as špatnokrásny - 'ugly-beautiful' - and one can make a strong case that this view in many ways defines the feeling people have about the country today. There is beauty and heroism in life here, but it's marred by examples of human venality. And while the deep-seamed beauty will cause Slovaks to bridle at outside criticism as fast as any proud nation, the dross in the next moment may cut the defence short.
Some complain that Slovak media are over-politicised, and that people would be happier if they weren't fed a steady diet of political misdeeds. As if readers and writers were snared in some unwholesome fetish.
But as long as the ugly and the beautiful remain essential ingredients in the national psyche, politics - for decades the engine of all that is špatná in Slovakia - will continue to arouse the same grim fascination as hideous communist buildings on a mountain slope. The beauty is no longer separable from the ugliness, and indeed derives poignance from the union.
Which is why Kanis dares to claim he is a lucky gambler, knowing the rest of us, while not believing him and wishing he weren't such a scoundrel, will still accept him as part of the essential Slovak landscape.
18. Dec 2000 at 0:00