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EDITORIAL

Law-making and EU entry: Vested interests leaving little room for public debate

As Slovakia nears the date it has set for accession to the European Union (2004), it's becoming clear that all the hard work in 'harmonizing' the country's laws with those of the EU is being put off until the end. Unfortunately, this is due less to the wishes of citizens that the government move slowly, than to the strength of vested political and economic interests, for whom change threatens their cozy symbiosis.
Delays are to be expected in the passage of tough laws required by the Union which may in the short term increase unemployment or raise prices, especially as citizens are unconvinced that their illness - not being in the EU - is sufficiently grave to warrant such bitter medicine.
On the other hand, some laws are being rejected simply because they threaten the business or political interests of members of parliament. Such was the case with an air pollution law amendment returned to the government last week by President Schuster.

As Slovakia nears the date it has set for accession to the European Union (2004), it's becoming clear that all the hard work in 'harmonizing' the country's laws with those of the EU is being put off until the end. Unfortunately, this is due less to the wishes of citizens that the government move slowly, than to the strength of vested political and economic interests, for whom change threatens their cozy symbiosis.

Delays are to be expected in the passage of tough laws required by the Union which may in the short term increase unemployment or raise prices, especially as citizens are unconvinced that their illness - not being in the EU - is sufficiently grave to warrant such bitter medicine.

On the other hand, some laws are being rejected simply because they threaten the business or political interests of members of parliament. Such was the case with an air pollution law amendment returned to the government last week by President Schuster.

Environment the toughest

The environment 'chapter' of the acquis communautaire, a kind of legislative road map for EU candidates, was always going to be one of the toughest for Slovakia to fulfil. The former Czechoslovakia invested even less money than usual for a communist country in making its industry environmentally sustainable, and this deficit remained during the 1990s under the governments of Vladimír Mečiar, beholden as they were to a powerful energy sector lobby which refused to pay pollution fines even when they were levied by a timid Environment Ministry.

One of the roots of this refusal to pay fines is that Slovakia imports about 90% of its energy raw materials (e.g. coal, natural gas, oil), and has only one significant deposit to boast of - brown coal. Otherwise known sub-bituminous coal or lignite, brown coal is one of the first products of the process of coalification, and is formed from peat under moderate pressure. It contains only 60-75% carbon, compared to over 90% for bituminous or 'black' coal, and is thus more polluting, since its other elements - sulphur, calcium, iron, aluminium, silicon, titanium, sodium, potassium, arsenic, mercury, thorium and uranium - must be burned off or disposed of as ash.

With the world's demand for electricity, and especially that produced from coal, expected to rise sharply, many countries are looking for ways to burn coal without destroying their environments through acid rains and other pollutants. But scrubbers, condensers and other anti-pollution tools are expensive, which is why Slovakia's major electricity generator, Slovenské elektrárne (SE), is resisting laws that would force it to modernise.

Plot thickens

But it's not just SE which has a reason to reject fines on emissions - the owners of Slovakia's three brown coal mines (Baňa Dolina, Baňa Záhorie, and Hornonitrianske Bane - HBP) also argue that they will be squeezed out by less-polluting Czech coal if parliament forces SE to pay fines on coal combustion.

Between them, the mines and their customers were able to exert enough pressure on MPs to have stiff pollution fines watered down this past month. The reason they have been able to do this is that practically every party in parliament has some iron in the coal mining fire - not because voters decided the cost of conforming to EU standards was too high.

First, there's Mečiar's HZDS opposition party, which when in government from 1994 to 1998 sold off all three brown coal mines (63% in HBP in 1997, 63% Baňa Dolina in 1998, and 51% in Baňa Záhorie in 1998). Information on who actually owns the mines is still sketchy, but close personal ties exist between the managements. Milan Špak, a representative of the HZDS party in the Holíč district, has been a member of the Baňa Dolina Supervisory Board since October 6, 1999, and chairman of the Board of Directors of Baňa Záhorie I (the firm that bought Baňa Záhorie for one crown) since March 3, 1997. Baňa Záhorie I later sold part of its 63% stake to a firm called Hosta, where Špak is chairman of the board as well. According to the Bratislava Stock Market, in October 1998, Špak a 17.92% share in Baňa Záhorie, while Juraj Jandl had a 14.96% stake. Jandl, in turn, was general director of Baňa Záhorie, a member of the board at Baňa Záhorie I and chairman of the Supervisory Board at Hosta.

The sale of HBP didn't cause such a stir, but nevertheless involved people connected to politics; HZDS 'shadow' economy minister Tibor Mikuš, who also served as the director of energy utility Slovenské elektrárne (SE), was a member of HBP's Supervisory Board from March 3, 1997 to June 22, 2000.

Of course, it's not just HZDS people who love mining - there's also the Party of the Democratic Left (SDĽ), whose Dalibor Surkoš has been a member of Baňa Dolina's Supervisory Board, along with Špak, since October 6, 1999. Juraj Jandl has been a member of the Board of Directors in the same firm since the same day.

Surkoš, who is also the mayor of the town of Veľký Krtíš, where Baňa Dolina is located, was number 33 on the SDĽ's candidates' list for the 1998 elections. He is also chairman of the Slovak Association for Manufacturers of Heat Energy, and Chairman of the Energy Section at ZMOS (the Association of Towns and Villages). He is, in Slovak terms, an energy mogul.

One of Surkoš' party colleagues, Mária Angelovičová (11th on the SDĽ's candidates list) has been one of the main agitators for the repeal of the pollution fines in the environmental law; Ivan Šimonovič (128th on the SDĽ's candidate list) was a member of the board at Hosta, along with Špak, from January 7, 1998 to July 22, 1999.

Another of the big supporters of reducing pollution fines is Marián Mesiarik, currently an MP with the SOP government party, but before 1998 the chairman of the Union of Mines, Geology and Gas Industry Workers. In May 1998, Mesiarik and Jandl went to discuss the state of Baňa Dolina's privatisation with Štefan Gavorník, head of the FNM privatization agency. Mesiarik, according to the business register, doesn't figure in the management of any firms in Slovakia, but is doubtless still interested in the fate of the thousands of miners (his voters) who may lose their jobs if the air pollution fines go ahead. As is Viliam Rehák, the local boss of Mesiarik's former union, who sits on the boards of Baňa Dolina and Záhorie.

Then we have various elements of the ruling SDK party. The head of the Veľký Krtíš district Democratic Party (DS) fraction, Bohuslav Beňo, is also head of the Veľký Krtíš state administration body, and sits on the Supervisory Board of Baňa Dolina. He clearly has no wish to see his district's biggest employer go bust. Nor, clearly, does Ladislav Ambróš, a member of the Greens platform in the SDK, who is also a main supporter of no pollution penalties (explanation: he's from Veľký Krtíš).

Even the Hungarian Party (SMK) has reason to protect Veľký Krtíš miners from the Environment Ministry: the district is located in the Hungarian-dominated south of the country, and has over 30% unemployment. SMK boss Béla Bugár visited Krtíš in January 1999, the first month the jobless rate hit over 30% there, and returned fuming about how the area had been "left behind".

Unholy alliance

When such a constellation of political and business interests aligns behind a law, one gets the current situation - MPs pushing for no fines until 2006, the government holding up its hands in horror at what this will do to Slovakia's environment and EU ambitions, and President Schuster doing his reconciliation thing.

As long as energy-sector profiteers steer Slovakia's environmental policy, politicians and the public will not get a chance to hash out the real question - whether EU entry is important enough for Slovakia to undergo even more unemployment and economic hardship on its journey towards the West. Indeed, while the profiteers pre-empt such a discussion, the EU will likely block Slovakia's entry, and economic misery will continue as before.

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