September 26 marked exactly three years since Mikuláš Dzurinda and his pro-democratic political allies captured 60% of the votes in national elections. As if to mark the occasion, Justice Minister Ján Čarnogurský on the same day vetoed one of Slovakia's most important foreign policy commitments of the last three years - its promise to shut the ageing Jaslovské Bohunice nuclear reactor by 2006-2008. Čarnogurský's cabinet colleague, Labour Minister Magvaši, got in on the act by proposing to overturn one of the most important economic steps of the government's term - the privatisation of gas utility SPP.
No one, of course, really knows what is going on behind the scenes except the men themselves. But a little research combined with cynical guesswork provides a few likely answers.
Čarnogurský, who was later in the day persuaded to withdraw his objection to the establishment of a fund to shut down Bohunice, claimed that he had been afraid the money contributed to the fund by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) would be misused. He also feared that if Bohunice were closed, and the newer Mochovce nuclear plant not completed, Slovakia would eventually have to import 30% of its energy needs.
To balance these arguments, the business register shows that Čarnogurský's brother Ivan was the chairman of the board at the Hydrostav construction firm from 1992 to 1996. Hydrostav, by the way, built Mochovce, and last year had to fire hundreds of employees after the Dzurinda government decided not to build another two reactor blocks at the plant. Hydrostav also participated in upgrades of Bohunice.
We're on less solid ground explaining Magvaši's case, but it may be significant that calls from Magvaši's SDĽ ruling coalition party to overturn the government's planned sale of a 49% stake in SPP came shortly after the crash of the Devín banka financial house. No direct proof but a sea of circumstantial evidence suggests that Devín has financed the SDĽ since the departure of Mečiar henchman Karol Martinka from its ranks. While the SDĽ cannot by itself prevent the SPP sale from happening - the winning bid has to be approved by a simple majority in the 20-member cabinet, where the SDĽ has only six seats - it can seriously affect the eventual sale price by blocking the gas price rises needed to make SPP profitable on the domestic market. It thus has a strong card to play in its own bid for a piece of the SPP sale 'action'.
Magvaši's party is also battling unpopularity with voters, and after securing almost 15% support in 1998, may not take even the 5% needed in 2002 to get back into parliament. Hence the empty populism of its friend-to-labour stance.
It would be unfair to say the recent behaviour of these two men is representative of the Dzurinda government's term. Much has been achieved, and the very fact that neither minister's folly had any impact on the government's policy is encouraging evidence that the course Dzurinda has charted is not reversible. SPP will be sold, Bohunice closed, and Slovakia moved into a tighter EU orbit no matter what disgruntled lobbyists say.
The danger remains, however, that in employing such gross tactics, current cabinet members are narrowing the difference in the public's mind between the methods of the 1994 to 1998 authoritarian Mečiar government and those of Dzurinda's supposed rule-of-law administration. If voters are not given a clearer reason to return this government - along with 18% unemployment and permanently falling real wages - it will be no surprise if they opt for Mečiar.
1. Oct 2001 at 0:00