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OPPOSITION PARTY CLAIMS IT IS VICTIM OF A GOVERNMENT WITCHHUNT

Charges mount against HZDS

While the next round of national elections may be over two years away, Slovak politics remain at boiling point with the list of opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) party members under police investigation growing by the week.
The list of criminal charges either filed or set to be laid against officials of the HZDS, the country's most popular political party, includes top members of Slovakia's 1994-1998 government, as well as businessmen close to the party who participated in shady privatisations under the last Vladimír Mečiar-led cabinet.
In the most recent addition, parliament on May 19 stripped former Interior Minister Gustáv Krajči of his immunity from prosecution (which every Slovak MP enjoys), clearing the way for police investigators to charge him with accepting two million Slovak crowns ($42,000) of a promised 4.5 million crown bribe from the Bratislava-based finance company Goldfin Invest, in exchange for advantages on the market.


Former PM Vladimír Mečiar is one of many former top officials to be facing charges; even his daughter Magda, above, has come under scrutiny.
photo: Alan Hyža-Plus 7 Dní

While the next round of national elections may be over two years away, Slovak politics remain at boiling point with the list of opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) party members under police investigation growing by the week.

The list of criminal charges either filed or set to be laid against officials of the HZDS, the country's most popular political party, includes top members of Slovakia's 1994-1998 government, as well as businessmen close to the party who participated in shady privatisations under the last Vladimír Mečiar-led cabinet.

In the most recent addition, parliament on May 19 stripped former Interior Minister Gustáv Krajči of his immunity from prosecution (which every Slovak MP enjoys), clearing the way for police investigators to charge him with accepting two million Slovak crowns ($42,000) of a promised 4.5 million crown bribe from the Bratislava-based finance company Goldfin Invest, in exchange for advantages on the market.

Krajči may soon join other high-profile HZDS officials facing charges, including former Prime Minister Mečiar (abuse of power for granting illegal bonuses to ministers during his last government), and former Slovak secret service head Ivan Lexa (political sabotage, organising the 1995 kidnapping of then-President Michal Kováč's son, and for allegedly stashing weapons for personal use on the black market).

Close business allies of the HZDS also face potential charges: Trnava-area businessman Vladimír Poór for stripping assets worth 300 million crowns ($9.1 million) from the state-owned gas storage firm Nafta Gbely; former Devín Banka boss Karol Martinka for stripping tens of millions of crowns from the Piešťany spa. Former Transport Minister Alexander Rezeš, who is currently living abroad in Spain and refusing to return to Slovakia, is wanted to testify in a 250 million crown fraud case involving three of his close friends.

Other officials in the 1994-98 Mečiar government are also under fire, including Štefan Gavorník, head of the FNM national privatisation agency, and Peter Bisák, the former Privatisation Minister, both of whom have been charged by police for taking bribes while in office.


Former Interior Minister Krajči had his immunity from prosecution stripped also in 1999 (above), as former SIS boss Ivan Lexa lends a comforting hand.
photo: Roman Benický-PRAVDA

According to the police, substantial evidence exists incriminating all accused officials for the alleged criminal activities. Government party members and political analysts lent support to the police actions, saying that the investigations were not politically-motivated

"These people are being charged for mainly economic criminal acts which have nothing to do with politics,"said František Šebej, a Democratic Party member of parliament and the head of the Parliamentary European Integration Committee. "The police are not fighting the HZDS, but rather citizens Mečiar, Krajči and Lexa."

Slovak police agreed, saying that it was their legal obligation to pursure the criminal prosecution of any citizen discovered breaking the law. "Prosecutors are forced by law to go after all criminal acts they have knowledge of," said Slovak Attorney General Milan Hanzel on May 23. "It doesn't necessarily mean that the suspects are guilty, it's the role of courts to find the truth. But suspected law-breakers must be investigated regardless of their political affiliation."

HZDS members and supporters, meanwhile, reacted angrily to the on-going investigations, and accused the government of spearheading a political witchhunt aimed at the HZDS.

"While you can never exclude the possibility of a person making a mistake, especially if that person holds a high position, I'm sure that no HZDS official ever made such a mistake on purpose," Krajči told The Slovak Spectator on May 23. "All these cases are nothing more than political games played out by this government. They aren't able to handle the current economic problems facing the country, so by politically influencing the police and courts, they distract the nation's attention from the economic issues towards cases like me or Mečiar."

Krajči added that the HZDS believed more charges would be laid in the near future.

"Besides investigating the top three members of the HZDS - me, Mečiar, and Lexa - we already know that the police will also go after six other HZDS MPs: Ivan Hudec [former Culture Minister], Peter Baco [former Agriculture Minister], Sergej Kozlík [former Deputy Prime Minister for Economy], and Peter Kačic, František Rehák and Ján Gabriel [current HZDS MPs]."

With further investigations pending, HZDS supporters also voiced their disgust with the unfolding cases. "I'm tired of the whole situation," said train-commuter Milan Hrajnoha, 24. "During the HZDS government my train ticket was cheaper, as was fuel, cigarettes, apartment rent and many other things. Politicians are just playing their games. But I still believe Mečiar is the best politician in Slovakia."

As Krajči's immunity was lifted in parliament, Mečiar also came under increased media fire, this time for allegedly having reaped illegal economic benefits from his tenure in office. According to the weekly news magazine Plus 7 Dni, Mečiar's large 'Elektra' villa in Trenčianske Teplice is worth at least 25 million crowns ($530,000), a price he could not have afforded on his government salary. Mečiar responded that he had obtained a loan for the villa from a foreign institution, and that the loan contract forbade the disclosure of the identity of the lender - on pain of immediate repayment of the loan.

Following this attack, Mečiar's daughter Magda was reported to be the owner of Koliba film studios - a charge first confirmed by HZDS vice-chairman for media Jozef Božík, but then denied the next day by both Božík and Mečiar. The former PM's sons, Vladimír and Michal, also own shares in the MMM company, which in turn owns two hotels in Slovakia. "Don't criminalise my children," replied Mečiar following the barrage of accusations. "My children do business independently of me."

Consequences

Some political professionals have said that while the recent and pending charges may not be politically motivated, they will certainly have a political effect, particularly on the HZDS's staunch supporters. Indeed, if the legal case against Mečiar is proven to be well-founded and results in prosecution, the 'Father of Slovakia' may be forced to vacate his party chairmanship.

"According to HZDS rules, members prosecuted for serious criminal acts may be expelled from the party," said Krajči. "If that were the case [if Mečiar were to be sentenced], from the moral point of view, I think he should have to resign."

"I could imagine a scenerio where Mečiar would be forced to quit politics," agreed Grigorij Mesežnikov, the president of the Bratislava think-tank Institute for Public Affairs. "If he were to quit, Slovak political parties would no longer be forced to create so-called 'obstacle' coalitions of differing political parties, like the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK), whose only reason for unification was to fight Mečiar in the elections."

"Mečiar's exit from the political stage would make Slovak politics more transparent and efficient, while public support for the HZDS without Mečiar would dramatically decrease," he continued, adding that the HZDS could perhaps become a viable party without Mečiar's dominant presence.

All information on charges laid and pending against the afore-mentioned people were verified on May 25 with police spokeswoman Magda Krasulová

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