As almost three tonnes of anti-tank missiles sit in a military warehouse in western Slovakia's Malacky, the public waits to hear who was behind the deal to ship them from Iran to Angola using the Bratislava airport as a way-stop.
To date, suspicion has fallen on the Hermes firm of Dubnica nad Váhom, which had received a license for smoke bombs and fireworks to be shipped to the war-torn African country. Hermes has had a virtual monopoly on Slovakia's arms trade with the Angolan government since 1999.
But as always with international arms deals, appearance rarely matches the sordid and often surprising reality that lies below.
A source close to the deal claims that the shipment was actually being sent from one middle eastern country to Angola. A flight originating in Ukraine and which happened to be stopping in Bratislava before continuing to the African nation had seemed the best way to avoid the intense international focus that has been on the middle east since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. The middle eastern firm, the source said, had struck a deal with the Ukraine airline, and all would have gone according to plan without the knowledge of Hermes, the Ukraine flight's official contractor, if someone at Bratislava airport hadn't blown the whistle.
If a police investigation eventually confirms the source's information and exonerates Hermes, it doesn't change the fact that arms exports from the central European region are one of the most troubling legacies of Communism.
While a UN resolution pledges member nations not to trade with Angola's Unita rebels, there is nothing legally wrong with sending weapons to the nation's government. According to the source, Slovakia has sent cargo ships full of heavy weapons such as the outmoded T-55 tank to Angola, all legally.
There are several very good reasons the government doesn't want to see this trade stopped. First, the source claims, Hermes pays Sk80-90 million ($1.7-1.9 million) every year in taxes into the state budget. And were these tanks not being sent to Angola, and fetching a price of around Sk700,000 ($15,000) each, they would have to be destroyed in Slovakia at a cost to the Defence Ministry of Sk100,000 apiece.
Official figures from the Economy Ministry put Slovakia's trade with Angola in 1999 at Sk931 billion in exports, falling to Sk369 million in 2000 and Sk2.5 million in the first half of this year. That's about Sk1.2 billion, versus a paltry Sk25,000 in imports from Angola over the same period. Small wonder that Angola is one of only two African nations (the other is South Africa) to have an embassy in Slovakia.
That, of course, is the official story, supported by the Foreign Ministry which has a license committee that decides, according to Slovakia's international commitments, whether or not to approve each shipment of weapons leaving the country.
Unofficially, people close to arms trade control in Slovakia have for years spoken of the ineffectiveness of oversight. As one official told this paper three years ago, "it's as if Bratislava castle is on fire and they're trying to put it out with a single bucket."
There is not much to be proud of in any of this, officials admit. On the other hand, Slovakia is far from alone in profiting from military buildups and conflicts elsewhere in the world. If the United Nations could agree stricter rules on international arms sales, Slovakia might at least have a chance to catch the baddies. After all, if the message from above is 'sell, sell, sell', finding the odd tonne of unauthorised anti tank weapons in the flood of approved shipments is going to remain a matter of chance, or of the whims of disgruntled customs officials who haven't been paid off.
8. Oct 2001 at 0:00