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Extortion remains daily fact of life for small businesses

WHEN the regular working day is over, a more violent and sinister element of the Slovak economy preys on ordinary entrepreneurs, say Slovakia's businessmen and women.
Small to medium-sized businesses say they are being held to ransom by the Mafia, and that a culture of fear and silence has grown up around their vicious and criminal activities. Few want to speak to reporters, and no one wants their identity revealed. The names in this article have been changed to protect the identity of those who did speak to The Slovak Spectator over a month-long investigation into life in the pocket of the Slovak Mafia.
"I know for sure that they have access to all bars in Bratislava's city centre. They always come by when a new place opens up, and the owners never refuse to pay to get 'protection' from other organised groups in the area. They can often be seen in expensive black cars. That's them", says Ján, a small shop keeper.


A murder in the Bratislava Irish pub in 1999 brought underworld violence home to many expats.
photo:TASR

WHEN the regular working day is over, a more violent and sinister element of the Slovak economy preys on ordinary entrepreneurs, say Slovakia's businessmen and women.

Small to medium-sized businesses say they are being held to ransom by the Mafia, and that a culture of fear and silence has grown up around their vicious and criminal activities. Few want to speak to reporters, and no one wants their identity revealed. The names in this article have been changed to protect the identity of those who did speak to The Slovak Spectator over a month-long investigation into life in the pocket of the Slovak Mafia.

"I know for sure that they have access to all bars in Bratislava's city centre. They always come by when a new place opens up, and the owners never refuse to pay to get 'protection' from other organised groups in the area. They can often be seen in expensive black cars. That's them", says Ján, a small shop keeper.

"They act as if the place belongs to them. I once saw a guy standing at a bar even though the place was closed. 'Give me a drink,' he said to the waitress, and when she refused he smashed all the glasses and bottles. Then he pointed a gun at her knees. It was terrible. If they had called police all that would have happened was that he would be arrested and then released. And then she would be dead."

Last year, after four years of extortion during which the amount of money asked for "protection" rose from Sk25,000 to Sk50,000 ($500 to $1,000) a month, Ivan Hojda, the owner of a chain of restaurants in Bratislava, decided to report everything to the police.

In March 2001 he was attacked by an unknown assailant and suffered serious brain damage. Hojda remains one of the only business owners who has ever been willing to talk openly.

Four years ago Andrej Ďurkovský, the major of Bratislava Old Town district said: "If you pay Sk25 for a coffee in the Old Town, you're putting Sk10 of that into the pockets of the Mafia." He added that annual protection rates can be as much as Sk600,000 ($12,000).

Fear that state bodies are unable to handle the problem of organised crime prevents many from reporting the rackets they are subjected to. Many business owners agree that despite years of political speeches and promises nothing has changed.

Bar keepers still recall the bloodshed from a double murder in the crowded downtown Irish pub over two years ago, and the chilling release of Mikuláš P., sentenced to 14 years for murder, manslaughter and illegal possession of arms, after just one year.

"Nothing has really changed, and there is no help from the state. We can only watch helplessly as it continues," said one bartender.

Domestic Mafia groups, which go by family names such as Suchán, Papay and Borža, control Bratislava and smaller cities around Slovakia with a network of local crime bosses.

In addition to local Mafia groups, organised crime gangs from Ukraine, Albania, Russia and Yugoslavia infiltrated the Slovak business community in the 1990s; their methods have become more merciless as time goes by.

Police at the beginning of February arrested 15 suspected gang members, saying that the group had killed at least five businessmen, dissolved their corpses in acid and scattered the remains.

The issue is frequently discussed publicly, but is seen as a difficult and sometimes hopeless situation.

In one 1997 survey, 75 per cent of interviewees expressed concern about racketeering and admitted that it was one of the most serious problems Slovakia faced. In another survey done the same year by the Institute for Public Affairs think tank, organised crime came second on a list of people's top concerns.

Many Slovaks say they feel the current government has not fulfilled its election promise to rid the country of organised crime. Although annual police reports show that in the last three years approximately 94 per cent of reported extortion cases have been solved (in 2001 there were 964 cases reported in the country), small and medium-sized business owners still feel unprotected. The real number of extortion cases, they say, remains unknown.

"You can't expect any help from the state. You can of course report them and they will be caught. But later they will be released. And then nobody will help you," says Ján.

"I know that they're afraid, but I can't help them to not feel so, and neither I nor any other policeman can force them to talk," says Jaroslav Spišiak, the vice-president of Police Presidium, the top police body. "My personal advice is to co-operate with the police. Otherwise there really is no help."

In the last two years the government has amended the Penal Code and the Criminal Code of Procedure to assist its campaign against organised crime, including racketeering and fraud.

Some however question whether the changes have helped: "The whole criminal justice procedure has to be changed to make preliminary proceedings the responsibility of the courts, not investigators," says Peter Toth, a journalist with the Sme daily paper who has been covering organised crime for a decade.

The Slovak courts have had limited success with Mafia cases. In one of the most public indictments of the work of the courts, František Mojžiš, owner of the Drukos Company from Banská Bystrica, chose to transferred his property in 1997 to the Catholic Church rather than take action against extortionists in the courts.

The judicial system has improved its record since then, starting with the high-profile 1999 jailing of mob kingpin Mikuláš Černák. On November 22, 2001, police arrested extortionists in front of the Soravia Shopping Centre in Bratislava. The next day a policeman was caught in front of a Bratislava McDonalds along with several accomplices trying to extort Sk300,000 from a 29-year-old bankruptcy court official. "We're still investigating the case," says Spišiak.

That arrest, however, has drawn attention to claims that attempts to crack down organised crime fail because of police corruption. Low salaries and the small chance of being caught are often said to increase temptation for police officers.

"A policeman is a product of the society he lives in. Like everybody else he is also inclined to solve problems in the easiest way," says Spišiak.

But for a country that is in the next wave of candidates for the European Union, organised crime could be a serious obstacle, threatening the government's efforts to present the country as a secure environment for investments and small businesses.

"I've heard of one case where someone left the country because of extortion. If people ask me for advice, I tell them that it's a part of doing business here," says Jack Slegers, the executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce. For him, bribery and extortion is an everyday feature of Slovak life.

"It's in the government, in the judicial system, in the police corps. There are some efforts being made, but the government has to do a whole lot more."

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