Gas storage firm Nafta Gbely is making headlines again, this time showing what fools Nafta owner Vladimír Poór managed to make out of the government and the national media.
Nafta is a funny company, and its suffocating media coverage over the last few months has been hard to explain. It is not essential to the functioning of the national economy, as are state banks VÚB and SLSP, nor is it an attention-getter like steelmaker VSŽ, whose pirouettes on the edge of financial ruin have held the nation's gaze for months.
Nafta Gbely is instead a catalyst - something that causes a change without itself being altered.
Now that the facts are becoming clear, it seems that Vladimír Poór never actually sold Nafta after all - by announcing the sale on June 22, he (and the potential buyers of the property) were just testing the waters to see what would happen if he did dispose of the firm. The contract of sale, the theory goes, would not take effect unless the government accepted the loss of Nafta calmly.
While nothing changed in Nafta's ownership relations after Poór announced it had been sold to the mysterious Czech firm IPB-All, all hell broke loose at the Government Office. Economy Minister Ľudovít Černák accused FNM state privatisation agency boss Ľudovít Kaník of virtual treason, saying he had been working secretly with Poór to deny the state a key gas utility property. Černák was backed up by Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, who attempted to have Kaník recalled by parliament using the most primitive tactics to hand (phone tapping, innuendo, backroom arm-twisting). Kaník himself pled innocence, and claimed to have been vindicated when the FNM reached an out-of-court settlement to get Nafta back on August 23.
In the media, IPB-All was quickly linked to the American energy giant Cinergy from Cincinnati Ohio, which quixotically did not deny that it had been considering purchasing Nafta. Before Černák and Co. could collect their wits, they were embroiled in a scandal in which two political and economic lobby groups were supposed to be locked in mortal combat - Černák's Democratic Union (DU) and Kaník's Democratic Party (DS - also the colours worn by Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Mikloš). Kaník, it was cynically suggested, had received a pay-off from IPB-All and Cinergy, angering Černák, who had been expecting a pay-off from another interested party. Černák, in response to the criticism, offered to resign if Kaník would, then retracted his offer when Kaník took him up on it.
In the midst of all the hubbub, only one voice seemed to be asking the right question - FNM lawyer Ernest Valko, discredited with Kaník by Dzurinda, and who complained to The Slovak Spectator on July 7 that "I have to this day never seen proof that Cinergy owns the shares. I ask myself why."
You were right to ask, Mr. Valko. When Vladimír Poór announced last week he had cancelled his deal with IPB-All and had reached a settlement with the FNM, he did not have to take any shares back from the Czech speculator because they had never been transferred in the first place - they were sitting with Poór while both sides watched the government turn itself inside out and the media run in circles chasing its own rumours.
Similarly, while Kaník tried to put a spin on the FNM's recovery of Nafta by saying it proved he had been a faithful servant to the state all along, he was talking out of his hat. So was Černák, when he refused to pay anything more than one crown to the 'arch-criminal' Poór for his Nafta Trade property. All of it - the bickering, the dark rumours, the 'scandal,' the government hysteria - was for naught. Nafta was never sold.
Poór played the FNM, the government and the media for fools, and while he may soon have other fish to fry - the state is launching a criminal investigation into his orginial 1996 purchase of Nafta - for now he has the last laugh.
30. Aug 1999 at 0:00