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AGRICULTURE MINISTER SURVIVES SCARE IN PARLIAMENT

Baco in wheat export scandal

Agriculture Minister Peter Baco became the latest in a string of Cabinet members to be paraded before Parliament after an explosive affair and subjected to a no-confidence vote by the chamber only to survive, when deputies nodded on October 1 that he should remain in his post.
Baco was brought before Parliament after the National Control Office, the country's highest supervisory body, discovered that 569,200 tons of wheat have been exported abroad so far this year, substantially more than allowed by the Ministry of Agriculture. In 1995, only 59,650 tons of grain were shipped outside Slovakia. As minister, Baco was held responsible for his failure to realize the affair was occurring or under the heavier charge of allegedly being involved in the scandal.

Agriculture Minister Peter Baco became the latest in a string of Cabinet members to be paraded before Parliament after an explosive affair and subjected to a no-confidence vote by the chamber only to survive, when deputies nodded on October 1 that he should remain in his post.

Baco was brought before Parliament after the National Control Office, the country's highest supervisory body, discovered that 569,200 tons of wheat have been exported abroad so far this year, substantially more than allowed by the Ministry of Agriculture. In 1995, only 59,650 tons of grain were shipped outside Slovakia. As minister, Baco was held responsible for his failure to realize the affair was occurring or under the heavier charge of allegedly being involved in the scandal.

"If the National Control Office's report provides clear arguments [that illegal things were happening], it's a matter of the minister's pride to resign," said Rudolf Filkus, an MP from the opposition Democratic Union. "There is a thing called political responsibility. Because of his position, the minister is responsible for all that is happening at his ministry.''

Mikuláš Dzurinda, an opposition deputy from the Christian Democratic Movement who led an MP investigation into the affair at the ministries of agriculture and economy, pointed out that the root of the sham lies in the granting of trade licenses for manufacturers, which he labelled "an untransparent mess.'' As an example, Dzurinda said he found out that 10,000 tons of wheat were illegally sold to a private firm in Pezinok from the state's reserves for 2,800 Sk per ton. Later, the company was able to peddle the wheat abroad for 3,350 Sk, thus clearing 5.5 million Sk. "The basis of the problem is that something that was not supposed to be exported was exported," Dzurinda concluded.

Baco, defending himself before the chamber, did not deny that illegal transactions had taken place under his watch and vowed to investigate further. "Neither the ministry nor I are washing our hands of this," Baco said. "We are filing criminal charges. If someone has committed a crime, he should be held responsible.''

The embattled minister received support from several the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) colleagues that the government will get to the bottom of the scandal. "The government has been taking correct moves," said Augustín Márian Húska, Parliamentary vice-chairman. "It took the Control Office report seriously, and has initiated criminal charges.''

Black list

Whatever the outcome of the investigation, Baco was branded as the third minister to be placed on the hot seat when an incident smacking of illegality or unsavoriness suddenly erupted, and galvanized opposition deputies in Parliament to clamor for the dismissal votes.

Former Interior Minister Ľudovít Hudek faced a no-confidence vote on May 23 for the now infamous alleged taped phone conversation in which he and Slovak Intelligence Service chief Ivan Lexa may have implicated the government in the kidnapping of Michal Kováč Jr. Hudek later resigned. Last month Culture Minister Ivan Hudec went up for a no-confidence measure after Slovak National Theater actors demanded he resign after he fired the director of the Theater's drama ensemble.

In all three cases, deputies from the three parties making up the majority coalition - HZDS, the Slovak National Party and the Association of Slovak Workers - overrode the measures. Education Minister Eva Slavkovská will be the fourth Cabinet representative in five months to face a no-confidence tally when Parliament convenes this month, in reaction to a highly unpopular and controversial university law that her ministry drafted.

Special reporting by Jana Dorotková

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