The two elderly women collecting signatures at a booth on Bratislava's SNP Square were eager to explain why they were touting a petition to ban the privatization of state energy companies. "If we keep these companies in state hands, the prices of gas will not triple like in the Czech Republic, when they sold off their gas company to foreigners," explained one of the women, wiping the perspiration from her brow.
The petition, aimed at preventing the privatization of six state-owned gas and electricity suppliers, was launched by the Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar's ruling HZDS party on July 24 and continued through August 10.
Party officials said they hoped to tap popular sentiment. "The aim of the petition is to collect 350,000 signatures," said Sergej Kozlík, Slovak vice-premier and official spokesman for the petition. "I think it is a positive move which should attract citizens, and we are confident that there will be enough signatures by August 10."
"To protect strategic companies was a long-term obligation of the HZDS," Kozlík added.
But the government's stated motives for launching the petition have been questioned by the opposition, because during the 1994 parliamentary elections the HZDS supported the privatization of strategic companies, and even included this goal in its political program.
The pro-government daily Slovenská Republika reported on August 4 that the HZDS, by its own count, had managed to collect 405,995 signatures as of July 31. After the petition drive wraps up, a date for a national referendum will be set.
Involved companies agree
The strategic companies on the list include electricity suppliers - Západoslovenské Energetic-ké Závody, Stredoslovenské Energeticke Zavody, Východoslo-venské Energeticke Zavody and Slovenské Elektrárne - and gas suppliers Slovenský Plynárenský Priemysel (SPP) and Transpetrol.
Tibor Mikuš, director of the board of Slovenské Elektrárne and a HZDS member of parliament, issued an official statement in favor of the petition. He said the results of the petition should ensure his company's vitality. "Lasting majority ownership by the state is a guarantee of the preservation of job opportunities, stabilization and adequate development of the sector," said Mikuš.
SPP Director Jan Ducky, also a HZDS deputy and a former economy minister, said that "the privatization of a company is supposed to transform and improve something, and since the SPP is prospering, there is no reason to privatize this state owned company. I do not see the need for it now - maybe in the future, but that will be a political decision."
Ducky added that the price for SPP "would be so great that even Japan would be shaken."
Opposition politicians questioned the HZDS' intentions, pointing out the fact that the ruling coalition already sold the valuable Nafta Gbely gas and crude oil storage facilities to Druhá Obchodná, a company whose ownership is secret. "Neither the government nor the premier did a single thing to prevent the privatization of Nafta Gbely," said Jaroslav Volf, chairman of Social Democratic Party.
Volf said that the opposition was against the privatization of the transit facilities of gas and electricity suppliers. "But privatization of production facilities could take place," he added. "We can not move anywhere with no foreign investment. I am not talking of selling the country out to the west, just of helping the economy."
Anna Malíkova, vice chairwoman of the ruling coalition member Slovak National Party (SNS), said that her party is not against the petition in principle, but argued that other strategic companies should have been included in the proscribed list. "We think that the telecommunications company Slovak Telecom and the insurance company Slovenská Poisťovňa are very important and strongly support the country's economy, and that they should be included on the list," Malíkova said.
The SNS and the opposition agree that the petition should be extended to include other strategic companies. "[Protecting additional state companies] is an appropriate question to ask. What about telecommunications? What about Slovak financial institutions? Why are they not included on the list?" asked Ľudovít Černák, vice-chairman of opposition Democratic Union.