Ladislav Pittner: "Financial police do great work"

While overshadowed by Slovakia's recent foreign policy triumphs, the Dzurinda government's fight to reduce crime has begun to produce tangible results. Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner, the oldest member of cabinet, sat down with The Slovak Spectator on February 8 to talk about the mafia, foreigners, politics and his own colourful past.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What was your family like?
Ladislav Pittner (LP): I come from a civil service family. My father was an army officer almost his whole life, apart from the years he spent in jail. There were six of us children. As a high-school student in the 1950's I was jailed with my father and others. We were convicted of treason and espionage. As a juvenile I received only a three-year sentence.

photo: TASR

While overshadowed by Slovakia's recent foreign policy triumphs, the Dzurinda government's fight to reduce crime has begun to produce tangible results. Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner, the oldest member of cabinet, sat down with The Slovak Spectator on February 8 to talk about the mafia, foreigners, politics and his own colourful past.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What was your family like?

Ladislav Pittner (LP): I come from a civil service family. My father was an army officer almost his whole life, apart from the years he spent in jail. There were six of us children. As a high-school student in the 1950's I was jailed with my father and others. We were convicted of treason and espionage. As a juvenile I received only a three-year sentence. When I got out of jail, I started work as a labourer in the Tatra Regena factory. During the Dubček era in 1966 I was finally allowed to attend university where I studied economy and mathematics and then did a doctorate in information management.

TSS: How did you come to be accused of treason?

LP: It was an affair in which the Czechoslovak Rehabilitation Commission [set up to identify communist collaborators] in 1991 judged we had been illegally convicted, so we were rehabilitated.

Pittner is in open confrontation with KDH boss Ján Čarnogurský.
photo: TASR

TSS: You were probably then never a member of the Communist Party.

LP: (laughs) No, since I was 'politically unreliable' I could not have been a member, and I must say it never occured to me to try and join this party which had destroyed my family.

TSS: What did you do after leaving university?

LP: In 1967 I left the factory and was accepted into a research department as an independent programmer. Later I managed the research department, where we performed tasks assigned to us by the state in automating the management of cement factories.

TSS: How did you respond to the revolution in 1989?

LP: After 1968, when I co-founded the Renewal Council [a civil group which promoted religious ideas - ed. note], my job was to make and keep contacts with atheists and with the Czechoslovak Youth League as well with foreigners abroad. After the arrival of the Warsaw Pact troops and the occupation of Czechoslovakia [in 1968], I was abroad for a short time. While I was there I agreed with certain people on a way to keep them informed of events in my country. We agreed on how the information would be passed, whether by microfilm or other means. Until 1989 I sent such information abroad. In November I received a warning from my foreign friends that we shouldn't count on the revolution occuring without problems, and that we should be careful.

TSS: So you were basically a spy?

LP: My enemies call it espionage, but in reality it was not in the service of any state. It was simply a question of a group of people in former Czechoslovakia who were concerned that the world be informed of what was going on.

TSS: When did you get into politics?

LP: At the beginning of 1990 I entered the Public Against Violence (VPN) party, and then quickly after moved to the Christian Democrats (KDH) party. Then I was accepted to the National Security Council, where I worked as deputy director of the [Czechoslovak] intelligence service. At the end of 1990 I was made Interior Minister, a post which I occupied until 1992. I was again Interior Minister in the 1994 Moravčík government, and now under Dzurinda once again.

TSS: Ján Cuper, an MP for the opposition HZDS party, has long said you were the brains behind the 'PIS' - the 'Pittner Intelligence Service,' as opposed to the regular Slovak Intelligence Service. Was there really a parallel secret service under your leadership during the Mečiar years? How much did you know about what was going on in the SIS under former director Ivan Lexa?

LP: After the kidnapping of Michal Kováč Jr., my colleagues in the political opposition asked me to become the chairman of a civil commission, which was supposed to investigate the circumstances of the abduction. I began to get information from various police sources and from those SIS officers who didn't agree with how the service was being abused under Lexa's leadership. I turned over the results of this commission's work to President Michal Kováč, Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, the attorney general and the Interior Minister, so none of them could say they knew nothing of the matter. Even though the commission had no right to investigate, we received information which clearly showed that state organs stood behind the crime.

TSS: Do you remain convinced the SIS was behind the kidnapping?

LP: It's not a question of whether I am personally convinced. After this government took power the whole matter became the subject of an investigation. During this investigation we assembled conclusive evidence that caused charges to be laid for this crime against former SIS Director Ivan Lexa and other senior SIS officers.

TSS: The Constitutional Court ruled on December 20 that the rights of senior SIS officer Jaroslav Svěchota had been violated by the Dzurinda government, which had investigated his role in the kidnapping even though Mečiar had extended an amnesty to all involved in the crime in March 1998. Did this ruling take a bit of the wind out of your sails?

LP: As far as the Svěchota investigation goes, we had to halt his criminal prosecution, and he is now appearing in the case as a witness. But the investigations of other SIS officers involved in the kidnapping are continuing in line with the Attorney General's request.

TSS: That amnesty issued by Mečiar has been called legal but unjust. Prime Minister Dzurinda's decision on December 8, 1998 to cancel the Mečiar amnesty has been called just but illegal. Do you feel there is a gap between justice and the letter of the law in Slovakia?

LP: Slovakia is on the path to becoming a legal state, but many barriers remain in our way, many uncertainties. Most of these come from our past, not only under the Mečiar government but also under the communists. The criminal prosecution process is also affected by these barriers. Luckily, as far as the police are concerned, this process has become much faster, but I think it's worst in the judicial sphere.

TSS: What was the worst abuse of power that occured in the Interior Ministry under the leadership of former Interior Minister Gustav Krajči?

LP: Principally the way in which the ministry eliminated investigators and criminal experts which had met with some success in investigating the Kováč Jr. kidnapping. These people were either taken off the case and given another job, or were fired from the police corps altogether, while the people who replaced them "successfully closed" the kidnapping investigation.

TSS: Ex-minister Krajči recently sent you an open letter criticising you for the number of major crimes that remain unsolved under your watch - the murders of [police informer] Róbert Remiaš, [former Economy Minister] Ján Ducký, [underworld bosses] Peter Steinhubel and Michal Sýkora...

LP: I find it unbelievable that Krajči ignores the fact that the prosecutor in the Ducký case has the investigation under control and is preparing to lay charges against the main suspect in the near future. The only problem with the case is that the suspect refuses to tell us who ordered the assassination. As far as the other cases go, such as Steinhubel and Sýkora, these are mafia killings that occured during Krajči's tenure as Interior Minister.

These days our financial police are doing great work. They are going back as far as 1990, but concentrating mainly on the years 1995-96, and finding cases of fraud and economic crime that are helping us to put underworld bosses in jail.

TSS: [The privately-owned television station] TV Luna last week broadcast the names of five MP's - one with the ruling coalition SOP party, the other four with the opposition HZDS - and said the Interior Ministry was preparing a request that parliament lift the immunity of these MP's from prosecution. Can you confirm this information?

LP: We have not opened a file on any of those people [mentioned by TV Luna]. Police are collecting information in the course of their various investigations, and among the names which have come up are those of certain current MP's. Even now, parliament is supposed to be deciding if it will remove ex-Interior Minister Krajči's immunity from prosecution. Krajči is suspected of having taken a two million crown bribe while in office. Police are slowly uncovering individual crimes, and it's possible this circle will widen to include other names.

TSS: So far, such investigations have focused on people close to ex-Prime Minister Mečiar, but not on Mečiar himself. Do you think Mečiar's possible role in any of these crimes committed by his subordinates will ever be investigated, or would the political price of such an investigation be too high?

LP: As Interior Minister I don't weigh the political side of such things, and neither do my [ministry] colleagues. Our actions are determined by the law. If we discovered any evidence which justified an investigation even of the ex-Prime Minister, such an investigation would be launched.

TSS: From the work of the Interior Ministry over the past year, it seems that you have focused almost exclusively on high-level political or mafia cases. What have you done to improve the security situation of ordinary citizens?

LP: Thanks to one or two journalists who are only interested in sensationalism, it seems as if the ministry is pursuing only big political cases. No one writes about what I consider to be our greatest successes - last year, for the first time since 1989, our police force managed to solve more than 50% of crimes committed. Secondly, our financial police are investigating crimes worth over 85 billion crowns, and the number of people convicted of economic crimes rose by 153% in 1999 compared to 1998. We have a whole raft of big cases - Mr. M. [Karol Martinka], who used to own the Piešťany spa, as well as various commercial banks, many of whose directors are in jail. Citizens are told little of these matters.

TSS: These things may represent successes to white Slovaks, but for Romanies and for many dark-skinned foreign inhabitants of Slovakia, racially-motivated crimes are a growing problem that scarcely seems to be acknowledged by the police. What resources have you committed to fighting such crime?

LP: You're right, the police haven't taken this problem seriously enough. My first step when I took over this job was to order that the press not be given any information on the ethnic or national origins of criminals or of victims. I think that recently the public has been able to see a change in the way police handle racially motivated crimes. At the moment we are investigating many members of the skinhead movement. We want to rid Slovak society of race and religious hatred and all forms of intolerance.

TSS: Can the attitude of the police towards ethnic or national minorities really be changed so quickly? Police chiefs themselves complain that police salaries are so low that police departments basically have to accept all applicants.

LP: That's true in the sense that the police force has a deficit of between 8 to 12 billion crowns. Of course, this is something than can be solved only gradually. But this year we received 900 million crowns more than last year, and we have 525 more police and more investigators. So I believe the situation is improving.

TSS: Last year you declared war on organised crime in Slovakia. In January, Banská Bystrica mobster Mikuláš Černák, the reputed head of the Slovak underworld, was sentenced to 15 years in jail for murder and other crimes. Do you take the Černák conviction as evidence that your war is finally bringing results?

LP: Since 1995 we have identified about 52 orgainsed crime groups in Slovakia. In 1999, police managed to liquidate 13 of these groups, while another 26 are under the control of our special agents who were trained by the Americans. This I regard as a great victory. I don't take Černák's 15 year sentence as a success, but rather the fact that his crimes were investigated and turned over to the courts under our leadership.

TSS: How many of these mafia groups are from the Ukraine or the former Soviet Union?

LP: We know of five such groups, and unfortunately we have indications now that two organised crime groups from China and one from Vietnam are operating on Slovak soil.

TSS: The Slovak press frequently suggests that there were connections between the former Mečiar government and the mafia. Do you have any evidence that such connections existed?

LP: The investigation of the kidnapping and other criminal acts is increasingly showing connections between the mafia and individual departments of the secret service and the police. These are very serious findings, and the various investigations underway will involve the laying of charges against at least some of these state officials.

TSS: The Czech Republic has recently announced they will slap a visa restriction on the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Do you think it is neccesary for Slovakia to follow suit?

LP: We have about 10,000 people from Ukraine who work illegally in Slovakia, and who move around without our police being able to control them. They have been using a'voucher' system which allows them to purchase an entry stamp for one or two dollars at a border crossing. Some of our businessmen, on the basis of very dishonest conditions and for sub-minimum wage, have been hiring such Ukraine nationals. This created a certain amount of competition for our workers, who weren't able to find work, and also represented lost taxes. A visa requirement, as well as the proposed change from issuing rubber stamps to stickers in passports, would bring that whole system to an end.

We don't imagine that slapping a visa requirement on Ukraine nationals and people from the former Soviet Union will impede the movement of mafia bosses. It's really more a question of the mafia 'soldiers' who until now have been able to come and go with little hindrance.

TSS: You mentioned a change that the Border and Aliens Police have introduced from the beginning of February - the stricter verification of documents and the issuing of a sticker rather than a stamp in the passports of foreign nationals with either long-term or permanent residence status in Slovakia. While this may help you in your fight against illegal workers, it also represents a further bureaucratic hurdle for foreigners who are working here legally and paying taxes. Did you take the interests of 'respectable' foreign nationals into account in making these changes?

LP: I think these respectable people will be civilised and disciplined enough to understand that the law is necessary.

TSS: But it may mean that any foreigner not living in a location officially registered with the police may be forced to move or face punitive action...

LP: In Bratislava, there are many flats occupied by foreigners who pay enormous sums of money to those who are officially living at those addresses. The amount these flat-owners or lessors are asking from foreigners is disgusting, it's hyenism. The fact is that foreigners are required to declare where they live. But if it is discovered that they are living in a sublet place where the lessor is not paying taxes, the lessor and not the foreigner will be charged. I think that given the amount these people [lessors] are earning, they will be able to issue an official residence confirmation to foreigners, pay the required taxes on the rent, and still make a good profit.

TSS: You were one of the signatories to a January declaration announcing the formation of a new party - the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union [SDKÚ], under Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda. The announcement of this new party effectively spells the end for your mother party, the Christian Democrats, unless they find a coalition partner to work with in the next elections in 2002. Aren't you a little sad to see the Christian Democrats end like this?

LP: In 1998, we went into elections as the SDK under the slogan "we can do it together". The SDK as a party attracted voters who wouldn't have supported any of its five member platforms. It was a synergy effect. It's a tragedy that the Christian Democrats under their current leader [Justice Minister Ján Čarnogurský] say the party will contest elections alone in 2002, even though they have less than the 5% support needed to secure representation in parliament. They are destroying what we managed to put together with the help of the SDK, which is exactly why I signed the [SDKÚ] declaration. Those Christian Democrat functionaries who said that anyone who wants to join the Christian Democrats must first leave the SDK turned the SDK into an empty shell with no political influence, even though the party was supported by 26.1% of voters in the last elections.

As a high school student, he was jailed for three years for treason, along with his father. From 1968 to 1989 he passed information on microfilm about internal affairs in Czechoslovakia to foreign "friends." He has said that cabinet ministers are the hardest working people in the country. He's three-time Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner.

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