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HAMŽÍK REMOVAL SURPRISES ANALYSTS

Deputy PM forced to vacate seat

Deputy Prime Minister for Integration Pavol Hamžík was fired from his job last week as a scandal over the possible misuse of European Union funds for Slovakia reached its peak. While surprised that so senior a government official had been dismissed, one political analyst said that political stability in Slovakia did not appear in danger.
"It hadn't appeared [until Hamžík's May 4 dismissal] that the government was ready to make such a change [18 months before the next parliamentary elections]" said Grigorij Mesežnikov, the president of the Bratislava think tank Institute for Public Affairs.
"Apparently, the consequences of leaving Hamžík in his post would have been graver for the government than the effect dismissing him will have on relations within the [five-party ruling] coalition. But it doesn't appear as if the coalition is willing to undertake a wider cabinet shake-up."


Roland Tóth, former head of the Government Office's EU funding section, faces reporters May 4, the day Deputy PM Hamžík was fired.
photo: TASR

Deputy Prime Minister for Integration Pavol Hamžík was fired from his job last week as a scandal over the possible misuse of European Union funds for Slovakia reached its peak. While surprised that so senior a government official had been dismissed, one political analyst said that political stability in Slovakia did not appear in danger.

"It hadn't appeared [until Hamžík's May 4 dismissal] that the government was ready to make such a change [18 months before the next parliamentary elections]" said Grigorij Mesežnikov, the president of the Bratislava think tank Institute for Public Affairs.

"Apparently, the consequences of leaving Hamžík in his post would have been graver for the government than the effect dismissing him will have on relations within the [five-party ruling] coalition. But it doesn't appear as if the coalition is willing to undertake a wider cabinet shake-up."

The 'consequences' Mesežnikov referred to were implicit in a decision on April 6 by the European Commission, a ruling body of the European Union (EU), to halt funding and tenders for new EU-financed projects in Slovakia. The Commission had taken the decision because of concern that a Government Office employee in charge of development project funding from the EU had misused some of the 330 million euro in EU money sent to Slovakia since 1998.

The employee, Roland Tóth, had been fired by Hamžík March 14 after details of possible fraud had been submitted to Hamžik and the police by Tóth's ex-wife Zuzana Tóthová. The European Commission said that pending the results of a full investigation, it might request the return of any money proven to have been misspent.

In explaining his decision to fire Hamžík, Prime Minister Dzurinda said May 3 that "I have come to the conclusion that Pavol Hamžík cannot remain in his job. Since our entry into NATO and the EU is important to me, as well as the success of our battle against corruption, I had no other choice in the matter."

Besides worries about how the scandal might affect Slovakia's relations with the EU, which it hopes to join in 2004, Dzurinda also faulted Hamžík with failing to inform the government of the Commission's decision, and of having taken an extended Easter holiday when the crisis was reaching its peak.

Spinning out of control

The Prime Minister's decision was initially supported by four out of five ruling coalition parties, with the exception of Hamžík's Party of Civic Understanding, of which he is chairman.

But it was challenged by Hamžík himself, who said on a TV talk show May 7 that "I reject any connection of my name with corruption," and added that "if the Prime Minister is going to continue to mislead the public with vague insinuations of corruption, after evaluating the facts I'll weigh whether or not to lay charges against him."

Hamžík added in an interview May 9 with The Slovak Spectator that he suspected the whole affair had been "invented" by Dzurinda's Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) party in order to deflect public attention from a police investigation of one of its own, Transport Minister Jozef Macejko.

The latter, who told a TV Markíza news programme in early April that he had been offered a bribe of three million Slovak crowns - which he had refused - for manipulating a tender for state land, was later challenged as to why he had not first gone to the police with the information.

"People from the SDKÚ wanted to take the heat off their own minister, but the whole thing got out of control and has led to calls for a cabinet shake-up," said Hamžík.

"Dzurinda was happy to use the alleged misuse of EU money to get rid of me."

Indeed, the dismissal of Hamžík, according to some government politicians, may not be the end of the "Euro-scandal'. At the same May 3 cabinet meeting at which Dzurinda announced his decision to remove the Deputy Prime Minister, cabinet agreed that the heads of each coalition party would review the conduct of its ministers in the government, and within two weeks suggest cabinet changes they thought appropriate.

"The departure of Hamžík has started a cabinet shuffle," said Ján Rusnák, caucus head of the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK), Dzurinda's former party.

While analyst Mesežnikov doubted the cabinet review would lead to any personnel changes, he feared that the dismissal of Hamžík in the absence of any proof of wrongdoing would set a dangerous precedent, since it might be used "against cabinet members who in reality haven't done anything wrong."

The European Commission has stayed out of the political fray, with spokesman Jean-Christophe Filori saying May 4 that "the Commission does not nominate the members of governments of independent countries, so it has nothing to say when a minister of a candidate country [for EU entry] is recalled."

Hamžík, meanwhile, flourished a May 2 statement from Eneko Landaburu, head of the Commission's enlargement section, to the effect that "the Slovak government and its representatives for EU integration have taken sufficient and prompt measures" as evidence that his dismissal had been unnecessary.

But with his Civic Reconciliation party languishing in the polls at less than 2% support, and dissent within the party preventing Hamžík from threatening a coalition walk-out by Reconciliation's 13 members of parliament, analysts say the Deputy PM has little choice but to give up his battle and return to the legislature as an ordinary MP, which he did May 9.

The tide of events has also moved on, with the European Commission sending a special EU fraud unit to Slovakia to investigate. Slovakia's own government watchdog, the Supreme Control Office, also began investigating the allegations May 9, and expected to present its findings within four months.

But for Roland Tóth, the almost-forgotten man at the centre of the scandal, a vengeful ex-wife, rather than political retribution or fraud, is to blame for the whole affair.

In an interview with The Slovak Spectator May 9, Tóth explained that following his divorce from Zuzana Tóthová "three quarters of a year ago", he had been given custody of the couple's children, a fact that had embittered his ex-wife.

"Out of sheer revenge and hatred she has destroyed my career," he said.

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