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Arms scandal brings controls into question

The Foreign Ministry was forced to issue an official statement denying knowledge of any involvement in illegal arms sales January 12 after a French newspaper named Slovak firm OSOS in an international scandal surrounding supplies of arms to Angola.
The daily La Liberation claimed weapons supplied by the son of former French President Francois Mitterand, Jean-Christophe, had come originally from OSOS through the firm Brenco owned by Pierre Falcon, an arms dealer.

The Foreign Ministry was forced to issue an official statement denying knowledge of any involvement in illegal arms sales January 12 after a French newspaper named Slovak firm OSOS in an international scandal surrounding supplies of arms to Angola.

The daily La Liberation claimed weapons supplied by the son of former French President Francois Mitterand, Jean-Christophe, had come originally from OSOS through the firm Brenco owned by Pierre Falcon, an arms dealer.

Mr Mitterand was arrested at the end of last year in connection with the trades dating back to the early 1990s, and speculation immediately began as to a possible Slovak connection to the trades. However, this is the first time that a Slovak company has actually been named in western media, prompting the Foreign Ministry's response.

"Slovakia's arms trade with Angola is fully legalised, and it notifies the UN about every contract. Our practice [in arms sale] has never been criticised. Slovakia has distanced itself from any illegal practices in arms trading, including this recent case," Boris Gandel, Foreign Ministry spokesman, told The Slovak Spectator January 15.

The possible links to OSOS, which has categorically denied any connection with arms trading and pointed to the possible misuse of its company name by unscrupulous illegal weapons traders, has drawn attention to the measures employed by previous governments of Vladimír Mečiar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS).

Many observers say that while measures are in place to strictly monitor arms trading, and hence lessen the chances for any illegal sales, there is less certainty over past arms deals, especially around the time when Mitterand's deals are said to have taken place.

"The system of arms trade controls put into effect by the previous governments of Mr. Mečiar were influenced by political lobbying and groups in the Slovak arms industry and a lot of firms could have been involved in arms sales, but probably more on the brokering side than actual trading," said Matúš Korba of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association.

"While the controls that we have now were actually introduced by the last [Mečiar] government the real policy behind these measures, the actual enforcing of them is much better now," he said, adding that government's drive to join the EU had opened up a new general level of transparency in policy which had been missing before.

"The influence of lobbying groups has dwindled and everybody is looking to meet EU standards of transparency, especially in this area of arms trading."

As part of measures to check on weapons sales the Economy, Interior, Foreign and Defence Ministries formed a special licence committee in 1998 issuing individual licences for every transaction (import or export) of all military material. In addition every company has to have a general licence (živnosť) to trade arms before it can apply for individual licences for specific contracts.

If a company refuses to disclose information on its dealings to the commitee it can be fined up to 10 million crowns.

Also, if there is any suspicion over documents the Foreign Ministry, in cooperation with official representatives of the country receiving the arms, can launch an investigation into both companies involved in the transaction.

The department is responsible for issuing general licences and keeps records of all individually issued licences.

"Since 1998, OSOS has not renewed its licence. Before 1998 it had a business licence but it did not include anything related to arms. We think that someone could have misused company information for illegal arms trade," said Peter Dudák, head of department of special production and licences at the Economy Ministry.

"To carry guns across the border a company would have to rely on the ignorance of customs officers, or fake a licence," he added. "We can't exclude that such a thing is possible."

The possibility of OSOS's involvement has again highlighted international concerns over the movement of weapons throughout former eastern-bloc countries. While the Visegrad Four countries (Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary) have made progress in dealing with controlling rogue arms shipments experts say problems remain for states like Slovakia.

"There are lots of second-hand weapons floating around eastern Europe, there are still factories producing arms because no-one has told them to stop and the situation has always been controlled by the state - leaving a lot of room for corruption and bribery," said Paul Beaver of the defence journal Jane's Defence Weekly.

He added that the low wages paid to many state officials controlling and checking arms sales was so low that bribery in many countries posed a major threat to secure controls of arms shipments.

"These people checking the shipments get paid so little money. If your average wage was $250 per year and an average shipment of weapons was $500,000 the cost of paying that person four years wages in one go to turn his back is nothing to these arms smugglers."

However, Beaver did add that the transfer of arms in Slovakia was likely to be well monitored.

"I have heard allegations against OSOS but they've never been substantiated and quite frankly I would think that with Slovakia's determination to become part of the EU and NATO they would come down pretty hard on anyone who had been stupid enough to try anything like this."

The Economy Ministry's Dudák admmitted that the allegations of Slovak firms' involvement in illegal weapons shipping were not new to Slovakia, but said that no company had ever been convicted of any arms smuggling crimes.

Additional reporting by Martina Pisárová.

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