Pavol Rusko - Slovakia's most powerful media figure - had both a promise and a request for his compatriots on the eve of his plunge into Slovak politics: I won't use my popular TV station to boost my new party's fortunes, he said, while my critics should not attack me unless I break my word.
For many political professionals, however, that was asking a lot. The former executive director and current majority owner of TV Markíza, Rusko announced at the end of January that within two months he would launch his own political party, which he said could be named Nova. The announcement left observers asking how serious the amateur politician was about keeping his own political interests separate from his Markíza endeavours, when in the past he has openly used the station to promote his political friends.
Rusko himself swore he would play fair. "I can announce on my honour that no manipulation through Markíza in favour of my party will ever take place," he pledged to The Slovak Spectator on February 5.
But while the party has yet to be formed and therefore has not officially enrolled a single member, Slovak media has speculated that three of the party's first new faces may be high-profile Markíza employees: political reporter Daniel Krajcer, show host Eva Černá, and news department editor-in-chief Ľubomír Lintner.
"He'll be very careful [in how he uses Markíza]," said political analyst Miroslav Kúsy of Comenius University. "But he definitely counts on using his media for the benefit of his party."
When asked what he thought was behind Rusko's decision to enter politics, Kúsy theorised: "Megalomania and exhibitionism is behind it. With the influence that comes from being Markíza boss, he [Rusko] has experienced a certain amount of power over the last two years, and now wants to have a more direct influence on politics."
Rusko says he is not surprised at his detractors - "Whatever I say today, nobody will believe me anyway" - and insists that his only motive for entering politics is to "better Slovak democracy", not to gain power or privilege.
"I really don't have to enter politics," he said. "I don't need to become richer or more famous. I don't need a [ministerial] chair, government BMW or a new [civil servant's] flat."
"The key aspect of my entering politics is that I'm a team player, and that the country needs new faces in politics," he added. "We want to show that with a good team of hardworking and skilled people, things can be changed for the better."
The Markíza factor
That Rusko can effect change is doubted by few; whether he can improve the climate, however, is questioned by many, especially given his past use of his station to peddle politics.
Observers will keep a close eye on the TV station/political party head, analysts say, because Markíza is far and away the most influential media outlet in the country. According to a poll conducted by the Market & Media & Lifestyle agency last August, when asked what stations they had watched the day before, 74% of respondents said Markíza, followed by 30% for the public channel STV1 and 17% for the private Czech station Nová.
Rusko's media influence also extends to the daily paper Národná Obroda, where a close associate, Ján Kováčik, is a member of the board of directors and Markíza news head Lintner is on the supervisory board. Obroda is heavily promoted on Markíza, while the TV station's anchor people are often featured as columnists in the paper. The consortium is joined by the Markíza weekly magazine, the Dorotka monthly and the Koliba radio station.
But what worries political observers more than Markíza's media influence is its history of supporting political parties. In 1998, Markíza helped the current ruling coalition parties to power by casting them in a mainly positive light, and promoting in particular the Party of Civic Understanding (SOP), headed by current Slovak President Rudolf Schuster. Rusko's wife Viera Rusková became an SOP member of parliament after the elections (she left the post last year to return to her previous job at Markíza).
Grigorij Mesežnikov, head of the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs think tank in Bratislava, said that Rusko's influence during the elections had had dramatic effect on their outcome. In particular, Markíza's heavy coverage of the SOP following its launch in February 1998 pushed the party's voter support to 8% the following September, thereby allowing them to secure representation in parliament. Markíza later supported Schuster in his 1999 victory over Vladimír Mečiar for the presidency.
"That the SOP was rocketed into top politics by Markíza is clear," Mesežnikov said. "And now that the SOP is no longer friends with Rusko [media has reported that Rusko was interested in joining the party, but was then refused a spot - ed. note], its popular support has dramatically declined [to below 2% today - ed. note]."
A media analysis of the 1998 national elections conducted by the independent media watchdog Memo 98 also found Markíza guilty of political bias. "Markíza reported incomparably more about the [then] opposition parties, particularly the Slovak Democratic Coalition, Party of the Democratic Left, and the SOP, than did Slovak Television," it reported. "A positive picture of these parties became the norm on Markíza."
Rusko candidly admits that his station backed the current coalition: "We wanted to support the social and political change at hand," he said. "Our media attitude reflected our beliefs."
But he swears that it won't happen again. "I advise you to wait and see how it all works out [the relationship between Rusko's Markíza and his new party]," he said. "Be observant and criticise me if mistakes occur - but not before."
It seems that he will have to work hard to convince his detractors, especially given his insistence that the Slovak political scene once again needs a change from its current actors "who move from party to party and hold on to their positions by hook or crook".
"Rusko will definitely be tempted into using his media power," said Mesežnikov.
Come the next scheduled elections in 2002, Rusko hopes that his party will land up to 10% of the total vote, a figure he said would "make us happy".
But that goal has been viewed as unrealistic by analysts who say that voter support for the current parties is stable, and that any undecided voters would be likely to join the rank and file of Róbert Fico's non-parliamentary Smer party supporters.
According to Mesežnikov, Rusko should expect no higher than 5% of the vote. "And he would have to work very hard with his media to even get that much of the vote."