How corrupt is Slovak politics? Plenty, judging by the amazing performances of the country's top officials last week.
It's becoming almost commonplace these days for Slovak officials to be caught stuffing their pockets with taxpayer crowns. Nor is one surprised when the guilty parties claim they are in fact innocent victims of political persecution, and that other people are bilking the state of even greater amounts. It does seem a bit rich, though, when a ruling coalition party such as the former communist SDĽ sparks a government crisis over the recall of one of its blacker sheep - Štefan Košovan, former director of the Slovenské Elektrárne energy utility.
To understand what happened last week, a little background is necessary. Under a 'gentleman's agreement' forged between the four ruling coalition parties after elections in September 1998, each party was allowed to nominate a political candidate to the helm of various state firms. The SDĽ 'got' Elektrárne and the ŽSR state railways; the SDK, the biggest government party, took the SPP gas utility, the VÚB and SLSP state banks, while the smaller Hungarian Coalition Party took gas transit firm Transpetrol and the Party of Civic Understanding (SOP) came away with the leadership of state telecom monopoly Slovenské Telekomunikácie.
The official point of the agreement was to provide a series of 'cross controls', under which each party would inspect the performance of political nominees from other parties, presumably out of jealousy. The real purpose, however, was to allow each party a measure of control over privatisation plans for state property, and to give them each a cash cow to milk for the benefit of the party and its individual members.
Many of the scandals that have rocked the government so far have their roots in this division of power. The hard things said about broker Slávia Capital last summer had much to do with allegations (mainly by SDĽ-influenced media) that it was getting prime state contracts for fat fees through its good relations with Pavol Kinčeš, the SDK-appointed boss of the SPP gas utility. On the other side of the coin, the furore over settlement of the Russian debt, and the privileged role given to SDĽ sponsor Devín Banka by Košovan at Elektrárne, arose from objections over how blatantly the SDĽ was milking the utility for funds.
As plans to privatise these state companies gathered pace late last year, objections to the sales (particularly of Elektrárne) began to be heard from the SDĽ. One may never know whether these objections flowed from the party's socialist platform, according to which the state should keep a major role in the economy, or from fear that the SDĽ would lose a valuable source of funds if Elektrárne were sold to a foreign investor. But either way, the result was objectionable to the other three coalition parties; Košovan resisted the Economy Ministry's plans to break up Elektrárne and sell it off, and began insisting that the utility complete a nonsensical investment in the Mochovce nuclear plant - precisely the opposite of what the ministry intended. He also, according to Economy Minister Ľubomír Harach, concluded a series of 'disadvantageous' contracts for Elektrárne.
Just who the contracts were advantageous for became a bit clearer last week, after Košovan was finally given the boot by Harach from the top job at Elektrárne. Viliam Sopko, an MP for the SDĽ, admitted to the press that he owned a stake in a Prešov firm which had imported black coal from Russia in 1999 for Elektrárne. The amount, he said, was so small as to be almost insignificant - a claim thrown into doubt when the daily paper Sme reported on March 23 that Sopko's firm had sold 10,000 tonnes of coal to the utility last year.
But far from quietly accepting Košovan's dismissal and appointing another party servant to Elektrárne, the SDĽ declared that the richly-deserved firing had caused a crisis in the coalition, and that Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Mikloš's call for state company bosses to be appointed through expert tenders rather than according to political stripe represented a flagrant violation of the coalition agreement.
And when the other government parties refused to accept that there was a crisis anywhere else than within the SDĽ, Parliamentary Speaker and SDĽ Chairman Jozef Migaš resorted to blackmail, refusing to discuss any other material with his coalition partners until the party's concerns were mooted. That means that vital measures such as civil service reform cannot be discussed and approved by cabinet until the SDĽ comes out of its tantrum.
It would all be rather comical if it weren't so depressing. While many elements of life have improved since the departure of the Mečiar government, corruption isn't one of them. Two ministers were forced to resign last year, and the year 2000 is shaping up to improve on that tally, with a breaking scandal over asset stripping in state wheat reserves calling into question the role of the prime minister and other top state officials (see report next week). The 'Košovan affair' was indeed a government crisis, but one whose exact nature the coalition still seems not to grasp, consumed as it is with battles over money-spinning sinecures.
27. Mar 2000 at 0:00