A panel of senior cabinet ministers has recommended the government dispose of the state's majority interest in the Slovenské Lodenice shipyards by direct sale rather than a public tender.
Together with other recent proposals to use direct sales rather than the more above-board tender process, the December 9 decision has invited speculation that the Dzurinda government is backsliding on its promise to make sales of state property absolutely transparent.
"The government has managed to stick to its promise so far and sell state property through public tenders, but if the public and the third sector hadn't put so much pressure on them they wouldn't have done so," said Oľga Reptová, an analyst with the Mesa 10 think tank in Bratislava.
The cabinet panel, comprising ministers with economy-related portfolios, suggested the Lodenice shipyard stake be sold to a bank consortium uniting Creditanstalt and HypoVereinsbank. The proposal was to go before the government for approval on December 13.
Deputy Prime Minister for Economy Ivan Mikloš, who had said last month the sale would be through public tender, said the ministers had recommended the direct sale under threat of having to give a state guarantee for a loan to save the shipyard.
A representative of one of the companies interested in Lodenice, Penta Group, said the firm felt a tender should be called given the wide interest in the firm. The state has already once failed to sell the shipyard through direct sale.
"Here again a tender should have been called to give space to more companies," Reptová agreed.
This past summer, the FNM state privatisation agency announced plans to sell a valuable stake in the largest investment fund in Slovakia, the Reštitučný investičný fond (RIF), to one of the fund's shareholders without calling a tender.
The resulting public and media attention forced the agency to change its mind and call a public tender for the fund.
Government representatives explained that it was sometimes impossible to sell small state properties through tenders because interest was not wide enough to attract more than one bidder. However, they said they accepted that times and public attitudes had changed since the murky direct privatisation sales under the 1994 to 1998 Vladimír Mečiar government.
"The current government changed its decision on the RIF privatisation under public pressure, and in fact I can't think of any large company which has been sold by direct sale so far," said Vladimír Tvarožka, an advisor to Mikloš.
Reptová said that the government and the FNM could become even more open about sales procedures: "The FNM still doesn't inform the public properly about how buyers are chosen in public tenders. We've seen an attempt to bring transparency to a higher level, but it hasn't been sufficient."
She said that the fund was still reluctant to provide information on members of tender committees, or on their rights and duties and the basic criteria set for bidders.
"We have proposed this in order to increase the transparency of the tender process but they have refused to accept it," Reptová said.
The charge was refuted by Vladimír Chlebo, a member of the FNM's supervisory board. "The FNM is now widely controlled. There are representatives of all political parties present in its structures. There is media pressure and government control. It's an open institution," he said.