Milan Sladeček (left, at rear) resigned his membership in the SOP party to face fraud charges.
Sladeček announced on February 22 that he had asked Parliamentary Speaker Jozef Migaš to release him from his mandate as a member of parliament, and said at the same time he was quitting the ruling coalition SOP. His move came shortly before police investigators were to submit a request to parliament to strip Sladeček of the immunity from prosecution he enjoys as MP.
SOP Chairman Pavol Hamžík immediately distanced himself from Sladeček, saying he had been trying "for some time now" to convince him to quit the party. Sladeček faces charges of fraud in connection with a 22.5 million Slovak crown ($536,000) loan he took in 1998 from the National Labour Office to create 111 jobs at his Centrogel firm. According to Interior Ministry Chief Investigator Jaroslav Ivor, Sladeček eliminated the 111 positions one month after they had been created, but did not return the money he had borrowed to create them.
"People who misuse taxpayer money have no business either in parliament or in the SOP," said Hamžík.
But Sladeček himself said he felt victimised by Hamžík, and argued that political rather than legal reasons stood behind his persecution. "The whole case has a political basis," said Sladeček. "The leadership of the SOP wants to eliminate me politically." He refused to comment more specifically on the Centrogel case, saying he had signed a gag order with police.
Money at the root
Political professionals said that the Sladeček affair had much to do with how the SOP was formed as a party. According to political scientist Ľuboš Kubín, who works at the Slovak Academy of Sciences, the SOP was launched in February 1998 by then-Mayor of Košice Rudolf Schuster with one purpose - to catapult Schuster into national politics, and thence to the presidency. In service of this objective, Kubín said, many candidates who stood for the SOP in the September 1998 elections had been selected on the basis of how much money they could bring to the party, rather than their political experience or beliefs.
"Sladeček is not unique - many of the people on the SOP candidates list were there because of the financial services they rendered the party," said Kubín. Sladeček, who was in the 96th position out of 150 SOP candidates, nevertheless became one of the 14 SOP members who were selected to enter parliament on the basis of the party's election results.
After Schuster was elected president in May 1999 and Hamžík became party chairman, relations between the two men cooled rapidly, Kubín explained. Now, with voter support for the SOP below the 5% threshold needed to enter parliament, Hamžík was trying to reinvent the party in his own style - which meant banishing Schuster supporters like Sladeček. "The gap between these two camps within the party will continue to grow," Kubín added, "because there is so far no one to bridge them."
Hamžík may soon face another, and even graver, threat to his leadership of the SOP. The party has long been indebted to the private Markíza TV station for its heavy coverage of the SOP between its February 1998 founding and Schuster's election as president. With Viera Rusková, the wife of Markíza boss Pavol Rusko, already an MP for the SOP, and Rusko himself announcing his intention to get into politics, most observers expect Rusko to choose the SOP as a vehicle for his ambitions.
"I would be far from surprised if Pavol Rusko began to be politically active through the SOP," said Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the Bratislava-based NGO Institute for Public Affairs. "He has supported the party for years as Markíza director, and the added media coverage would now greatly help the SOP in its search for direction."
It is doubtful, however, whether the increased involvement of the ambitious Rusko would help Hamžík personally. "Rusko is like an elephant in a china shop," said Kubín, explaining that the Markíza director lacked the political subtlety and skill to become a high-level party functionary. "No party in Slovakia wants to touch him."
Hamžík, for his part, says he has no interest in seeing Rusko expand his influence on the SOP. "The truth is, I have always tried to limit Pavol Rusko's media influence on the SOP," he said. "That's why he [Rusko] has put an embargo on my appearance on the Markíza screen."