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Politicians put cronyism on public display through hires

Slovak members of parliament say their jobs have gotten a lot easier since the beginning of 2001. Four months since approving a law giving every MP the right to hire a personal assistant, all but 13 of the country's 150 MPs have chosen helpers. However, a brief look at the names of the assistants suggests that personal relationships could be the decisive criterion behind many MPs' selections.
Following the criticism their Czech colleagues faced for employing their wives and other family relatives as assistants early last year, Slovak MPs, when discussing the law on assistants in December 2000, included a clause saying that assistants could not be related by blood to any MP.
However, while close family cannot be employed in the positions, it appears that close colleagues and friends can, with many politicians taking on former party employees or 'friendly journalists'. The jobs come with attractive salaries, by Slovak standards: 27,000 Slovak crowns ($585) a month, almost two and a half times the national average wage, paid from taxpayer money.


Political analysts say that the influence of HZDS leader Vladimír Mečiar may have helped in getting his daughter, Magdaléna (pictured above), started in business.
photo: Plus 7 dní

Slovak members of parliament say their jobs have gotten a lot easier since the beginning of 2001. Four months since approving a law giving every MP the right to hire a personal assistant, all but 13 of the country's 150 MPs have chosen helpers. However, a brief look at the names of the assistants suggests that personal relationships could be the decisive criterion behind many MPs' selections.

Following the criticism their Czech colleagues faced for employing their wives and other family relatives as assistants early last year, Slovak MPs, when discussing the law on assistants in December 2000, included a clause saying that assistants could not be related by blood to any MP.

However, while close family cannot be employed in the positions, it appears that close colleagues and friends can, with many politicians taking on former party employees or 'friendly journalists'. The jobs come with attractive salaries, by Slovak standards: 27,000 Slovak crowns ($585) a month, almost two and a half times the national average wage, paid from taxpayer money.

MPs for the strongest parliamentary opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), have employed many former journalists who worked for the now defunct pro-HZDS daily Slovenská Republika. HZDS MP Ján Zlocha's assistant is the former Slovenská Republika staff writer Jaroslava Dobrovičová. Her former colleague at the daily, Maroš Smolec, now works for Ján Cuper, also a HZDS MP.

Former Slovak Television (STV) journalists Lenka Eremiášová and Pavol Kapusta, known as supporters of the party when the HZDS was in power between 1994 and 1998 (their comedy show Fašírka, on state-run Slovak TV, often ridiculed the then opposition - today's government) assist HZDS old-guard MPs Dušan Slobodník and Roman Hofbauer.

Opposition Slovak Nationalist Party (SNS) MPs have chosen people who were earlier associated with their own party. MP Melánia Kolláriková of the SNS has Katarína Pinterová as an assistant. Pinterová was a former SNS regional party secretary in Bratislava who lost her job with the SNS last year after a scandal over faked SNS party elections.

Robert Fico, an MP who leads the non-parliamentary party Smer, chose his former Smer spokesperson as an assistant.

Among government parties, the Democratic Party's former leader František Šebej has taken on Ľuboš Kubín, a political scientist with the Slovak Academy of Sciences who helped the party design its 1998 election campaign; the Democratic Party's Peter Zajac has given the job to Vladimír Pirošík, a law student and a freelance journalist with the Domino fórum weekly paper and the daily Sme. Ousted Defence Minister Pavol Kanis, now an MP with the socialist SDĽ party, has taken on Jaroslav Lajda, a former journalist with the left-leaning Práca daily.

Effect of hires

Sociologists and anti-corruption watchdog NGO Transparency International Slovakia (TIS) have said that through these examples, domestic politicians have put cronyism on public display.

"While in western democracies there is a standard set of steps in making a career, in Slovakia political links and family relations still play a large role," said Ján Bunčák, sociologist with the Slovak Academy of Sciences.

"Even without identifying that this is cronyism or nepotism in practice, common Slovaks see that the leaders of society employ people strongly associated with a given party, or start companies with their family relatives. It sends the message that if this can be done by the leaders, such behaviour must be acceptable for all of us," Bunčák added.

Sociologists have noted the tolerance shown by Slovak citizens for nepotism and cronyism (see story page BF I). However, even ordinary citizens are beginning to notice that there is something wrong in the way MPs are hiring their assistants.

"This is a nice way of securing a very attractive income for friends," said 29 year-old Ján Benedik from Košice. "Knowing such practices are bad, why do they do it up there in front of the whole nation?" he said. "Look at people like [former Prime Minister, and HZDS leader Vladimír] Mečiar. I wonder how his children have become such successful business people?"

The business activities of the Mečiar family came under intense scrutiny last year after it emerged that in December 1995 the audiovisual and printing house Štúdio Koliba had been sold by the FNM state privatisation agency, which at that time was almost exclusively in the hands of HZDS-nominated bosses (six out of nine FNM members were HZDS nominees).

Two of Mečiar's children, Vladimír and Magdaléna, took stakes in the firm following the transaction, and in 1997 and 1998 the Mečiars owned an 80% stake at Koliba.

The lack of transparency in the Koliba sale, and the mystery as to how the Mečiar children got hold of the business at a time when their father held such an influential political post, said political analysts, had done yet further damage to Slovakia's emerging social 'rules of play'. It's a damage, they add, that has not been helped by the recent MP hirings of personal assistants.

"Political connections and family connections still play a big role in all forms of Slovak life," said Grigorij Mesežnikov, head of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) Bratislava based think tank. "Nepotism and political favouritism are forms of clientelism. With these [MP's] assistants, we're seeing a different form of the same disease. Politicians are trying to give a living to journalists who support their political parties. As long as the public accepts such practices, there's no reason for politicians to change the way they do things."

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