Slovak media baron Pavol Rusko has decided to go into politics. The majority owner of the most popular television station in the country, the private TV Markíza, looks ready to accept an offer of a top post with one of the parties of the ruling coalition - the Party of Civic Understanding (SOP).
Rusko was offered the vice-chairmanship of the SOP by Deputy Prime Minister for Integration and SOP boss Pavol Hamžík. While he has not made a final decision, and will take until Christmas to make up his mind, the offer alone was enough to fuel speculation that the ambitious Rusko would not long be satisfied with playing second fiddle to Hamžík.
The man himself did not go to great lengths to defuse speculation. "Today, I haven't the least reason to set my eyes on the chairmanship," he said in an interview with the Sme daily paper. "I really don't think it would be appropriate to enter the party as chairman. Number two is sufficient."
The SOP at the moment is fighting to halt its slide in the polls. While similar battles are being waged by the other three ruling coalition parties, the SOP has been hit the hardest, dropping from over 8% in 1998 national elections to around 2% now - far below the 5% needed to secure parliamentary representation.
Having lost its best-known face when former chairman and Košice mayor Rudolf Schuster was elected to the presidency in May 1999, the SOP began to change political tactics. It opened negotiations on mergers with small, disaffected government parties such as the tiny Social Democrats (SDSS), the Greens (SZS) and a breakaway faction of the Democratic Union, and also began looking for new faces to carry its left-of-centre message. The result of the search, according to SOP members, was Rusko, who helped launch the party in 1998 and whose wife Viera was an MP for the SOP until this summer when she resigned to go back to Markíza.
"If I know Rusko, he has a real feeling for lower income groups, even though he himself doesn't need any financial help, because he's not poor. He could help the party, mainly with new ideas," said SOP parliamentarian Marián Mesiarik.
According to other party members, however, it's not Rusko's 'new ideas' or social conscience the party was after in recruiting him, but rather one of his more proven talents - using his powerful TV station to increase public support for the SOP.
Rusko's Markíza, according to media watchdog MEMO '98, gave the start-up SOP above-standard air time during the 1998 election campaign, and did the same for Schuster in his successful bid for the presidency.
"It's certainly good to have someone in the party who is the owner of such a powerful media outlet," said Mesiarik. "It would be a real plus for the SOP."
Ferdinand Petrák, leader of the SOP caucus, saw it the same way. "Rusko really helped us at the beginning, whether it was parliamentary or presidential elections. So it's not such a surprise that he was offered a place in the party."
But not everyone is happy, with at least one SOP member worried about how the public would react to Rusko's again using Markíza as a political propaganda machine. "I confess, I'm not really happy about it [the offer to Rusko]," said MP Štefan Šlachta. "I still remember very well how Mr. Rusko tried to propagate Rudolf Schuster through Markíza, and I have to say that it sometimes had a counter-productive effect on society."