ČERNÁK says he will not be looking back after five years in jail.
Coming as it did one month before the 10-year anniversary of Slovakia's independence, the case illustrates much of what has gone wrong in the state's battle against organised crime in the past decade. Police work that was at times shoddy and irresolute, suspect court decisions, spectacular violence against witnesses and an apathetic public combined to allow Černák, originally sentenced to 15 years for murder, to walk free while still a relatively young man.
With Černák now in hiding and promising to lead an honest life, Justice Minister Daniel Lipšic was left with no better option following the November 29 verdict than to shut the stable door by laying a complaint with the Supreme Court.
Other politicians shared his disgust, with ethnic Hungarian party leader Béla Bugár saying "I never had any great opinion of the work of the courts". Some inhabitants of Černák's hometown of Brezno, on the other hand, were quoted by the Slovak press as welcoming the release of "our Miki" - as if, said police corps vice-president Jaroslav Spišiak, Slovaks still regarded underworld bosses as "Godfathers" who looked after local citizens.
"Even now, these underworld bosses tend to be local patriots in the areas they control, and to guarantee that there is order," said Spišiak. "Even though the locals have to pay extortion money, they at least get guaranteed peace. No other criminals move in and create havoc, people aren't killed or maimed for nothing, and once people get used to it, they begin to believe they are better off having these thugs to keep things under control, and not some group of Chechens or Ukrainians.
"These criminals actively feed these images, and we have instances of them buying everyone a round in a bar, or buying coal for some old lady who can't heat her house for the winter."
KOŠICE underworld chief Robert Holub was one of the first early Slovak mob bosses to die.
"Look at our history - our national hero is Jánošík, an ordinary highway robber," said Spišiak. "No one seems to realise he stole from the rich rather than the poor because the poor had nothing to offer."
The first businessmen
The belief persists that cowboy capitalism in the 'Wild East' - countries transforming after 1989 from communism to capitalism - was what gave birth to the now dangerous Mafia groups in these nations. The truth, Spišiak said, is that organised crime existed during communism as well.
"[Organised crime] existed before 1989. The state leadership itself was an organised crime group, and used the same methods and were beyond punishment," he said. "Of course, it was in the state's interest that this was not spoken of at all."
SPIŠIAK: The fight goes on.
photo: Ján Svrček
"When these criminal groups were created, including Černák's, it was always hand in hand with entrepreneurship," the policeman said. "They used the early system of privatisation, and the possibility to do business on the basis of invoices which were not paid in cash but after delivery of the goods."
Under communism, many consumer goods that were produced could not be sold on the market, but were stockpiled in warehouses to protect employment at the factories that made them. After the fall of communism, these stockpiles were among the first raided by 'businessmen' seeking to sell them off cheap and make a quick profit on the black market.
Spišiak, who rose to his current job through the ranks of local police in south Slovakia's Dunajská Streda, remembered how many later criminals got their start in his town.
"The early businessmen bought trainloads of sugar or working overalls or televisions from a state company on the basis of an invoice. The fact that state companies were involved meant there was no personal responsibility for the bosses. They were just happy that someone was buying the goods and promising to pay within 14 days. The goods were then sold at half price, however, and the invoices were never honoured. These buyers came into huge riches from one day to the next, giving rise to the underworld."
After dozens of state factory directors had been burned by the buying on credit ploy, the state in 1991 began requiring that buyers prove they were businessmen and that they had enough money on account to cover the invoice. "So the criminals would start a company, put Sk25 million in an account, and after jumping through the hoops and doing the deal, would close the firm and the account and would vanish," remembered Spišiak.
KOŠICE's Karol Konárik was killed in a machine gun attack in 1999; Borženský (inset) was blamed.
Eventually, of course, this rich source of ill-gotten riches was shut off, forcing the early criminals to either go straight or abandon all pretense of legitimate business.
"Some tried to legally invest their assets and act as normal entrepreneurs, while others emerged as decided criminals," said Spišiak. "The criminals, of course, never forgot the businessmen, and after they assembled their first millions they paid them a visit and extorted them. The businessmen of course handed the money over, because they were afraid of what the criminals could reveal.
"Nowadays the boundary between the two groups has become very marked, with the early criminal leaders largely having been murdered. We're now seeing the second and third generation of organised crime, with very few personal links to the business world, whose representatives have also changed generations. Those who have finally established themselves as serious business people really want the state to fight organised crime. But we're at least four years behind our neighbours in the region."
MAFIA hitman Alojz 'The Cleaner' Kromka was closely guarded at his 2001 trial appearance.
While all countries moving from command to market economies experienced crime and corruption on a massive scale, Spišiak said Slovakia's case was special in that political and state leaders at the time both tolerated and even encouraged organised crime.
"From 1993 to 1998, official political and business groups tried to use the situation to gain property in any way possible, largely illegally. They used anarchy, legislative loopholes, while the state did not create any effective or unitary legal system to fight them efficiently. Quite the contrary - the police corps itself was split up in such a way as to leave it the least effective in fighting organised crime."
Nor did the state mark fighting organised crime as a priority, leaving the police themselves to choose between investigating petty thefts and gangland killings.
"The priority was crime in general, with no difference being drawn between the theft of a bicycle and a Mafia murder. The police officer who solved two minor crimes was rated higher than the officer who broke one major case. That's why police focused on the less serious crimes, and as long as they weren't engaged in fighting organised crime, these criminals were able to do what they wanted. It was a mistake, and in my opinion it was a deliberate one, in order that police not pay serious attention to organised crime."
Spišiak added that he suspected local police forces had even begun to cooperate with the Mafia, citing as circumstantial evidence the fact that "no one was ever fired for allowing an organised crime group to operate within local state apparatus."
The role of former ŠtB secret police agents, many of whom according to Spišiak cooperated with organised gangs in the 1990s, has also since been blamed for the success enjoyed by the Slovak Mafia.
STEINHÜBEL was slain in 1999.
"Nothing remained to them but to use their abilities and contacts in post-communist states where organised crime groups flourished, in such areas as smuggling nuclear material, the weapons trade. They are very valuable to these criminal groups, because they know how to hide criminal activities and they know police methods."
Many former ŠtB officers were also hired by the fledgling SIS Slovak secret service from 1993-1998, partly from the conviction that a competent security corps could not be built entirely from scratch.
"You can't train a good agent overnight," said Ladislav Pittner, who served three times at the helm of the Slovak Interior Ministry, the SIS's ruling body.
"There were two possibilities - either you fire them, or you allow those who were willing to work with the new regime to serve for a certain period under certain conditions. We also differentiated between those ŠtB employees - often little more than provocateurs without any special training or education - who had served in a division called 'the fight against the internal enemy', and those professional agents who worked in the economic division or counterespionage or the foreign service. The law allowed many of these latter types to enter the SIS and the police forces; the unfortunate thing was that under the 1994-1998 Mečiar government, people who had served in the 'internal enemy' division also entered these police and SIS ranks."
During the Mečiar government's reign, the SIS itself was accused of close contacts with organised crime, as well as direct participation in crimes such as the 1995 kidnapping of the president's son and the placing of a bomb at an opposition party political rally.
Such covert political and state support for organised crime, Spišiak said, was now over, largely because many former criminals were finding life better in more peaceful surroundings.
"We've now passed the period when people voraciously accumulated assets in any way possible, largely through privatisation, and those with all the assets are now trying to act as if they are serious business people on the side of the law," said Spišiak.
"We're even starting to see some political will to fight organised criminals, because they are disturbing the business activities of the people with property."
The public element
As bombings, seen as an index of organised crime, peaked in 1997 at 141 compared to 8 in 1993, public distaste for an increasingly open Mafia war on Slovak territory reached a crescendo as well. In that year, respondents in a survey by the Focus agency listed crime in second place among their gravest concerns, behind only unemployment.
That year also saw the beginning of a wave of high-level underworld killings, which eventually took the lives of a generation of Mafia bosses: Róbert Holub, Štefan Fabian, Karol Konárik and Michal Stojka of Košice; Miroslav Sýkora, Robert and Eduard Dinič and Peter Steinhubel of Bratislava; Milan Holáň of Žilina, Jozef Kucmerka of Dubnica nad Váhom, and Tomáš Vida and Tibor Papay of Dunajská Streda.
Many of the killings were horrific, with Holub being machine-gunned to death by a rooftop killer while in a hospital bed, Stojka dying in a machete attack on the terrace of a Košice restaurant, and Eduard Dinič being blown to bits at the Zlaté Piesky resort in Bratislava by a massive bomb buried beneath a tennis court.
"The traumatic effects of a late-night car bomb are felt far beyond the neighbourhood in which it is detonated," wrote the authors of a paper on crime in the 1998 version of A Global Report on the State of Society, published by the IVO Bratislava think tank.
The year 1998, however, marked a turning point in police efforts against organised crime. Following the decision of Mikuláš Černák and several accomplices to turn themselves in to police for the kidnapping and killing of Polish businessman Grzegorz Szymanek in 1996, the corps began to register its first successes.
Spišiak remembered with evident satisfaction the decision to remand Černák in custody, and the surprise betrayed by the accused.
"He turned himself in because he believed he wouldn't be there for long, that he would be questioned and then released. He had certain expectations that he could afford to turn himself in, but the person he was in league with didn't have a chance to work it out. He was kept incarcerated due to the swift reaction of the police and to intense police work."
The police vice-president also took credit for breaking up the underworld in Dunajská Streda, where he served for several years as local chief before joining police headquarters last fall.
"Dunajská Streda is a typical example of how the Mafia can be fought," he said of a town that was stunned by the 1999 massacre of 10 members of the Tibor Papay gang in a restaurant shootout. "One group destroyed another, and then that group was itself eliminated in three years through the work of the local police."
Jozef Majchrák, a security analyst with the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) in Bratislava, said the creation of a special serious crimes branch in every police division in 1998 had focused efforts against organised crime, and ended the hitherto element of choice in case prioritisation.
Since then, Slovak police have taken into custody major organised crime heads such as Košice's Dušan Borženský (wanted for the slaying of Karol Kollárik), Prešov's Dalibor Listig and Nitra's Ľuboš Ferus, as well as Mafia hitman Alojz Kromky, known as 'The Cleaner'. They also claimed to have reduced the number of organised crime gangs operating on Slovak territory from 52 in 1998 to 27 in 2001.
In their biggest success this year, police broke up a major organised crime group operating in Bratislava and western Slovakia that was murdering its 'white horses'. The remains of the victims were dissolved in acid at remote sites.
"The philosophy and methods of this group were the same as Černák's. They did business on the basis of invoices, in this case to get back VAT tax money that was billed to fake firms and people. These people were then killed," said Spišiak.
Police have also broken up major crime rings in Nitra, Banská Bystrica and Prešov, and an organised group in northern Slovakia involved in auto theft and smuggling.
Majchrák gave Spišiak much of the credit for the busts, saying he had taken a new approach to organised crime cases by concentrating on getting victims to testify, as well as focusing on cases where solid evidence existed.
However, the successes have not brought public trust back to the force, with a November 2002 survey revealing that only 22.3 per cent of respondents trusted the police, second worst after 16.6 percent for the courts and state prosecutors. On the other hand, 75.9 per cent said they distrusted the police, and almost 80 per cent the courts.
"Of course the public has a reason [for not trusting the police]," said Spišiak. "It pleases me very much that we at least placed ahead of the courts and the prosecutors."
Factors that have shaken public faith in the corps include a recent decision to publish the names of police caught drunk driving, the number of police found to have been cooperating with underworld criminals (a recent car theft ring bust in Košice has so far found four traffic police involved) and a general reluctance to abandon communist-era police methods for the Western style "protect and serve" approach.
Spišiak also pointed to the work of the courts as hampering police efforts to round up crime bosses, noting that this year alone, Černák, Ferus, Listig and seven men charged with the murder of Stojka had been released from jail under controversial circumstances.
"The actions of the courts do complicate our work, but at the same time there has to exist a society-wide demand to put pressure on the courts to get rid of these unwelcome elements," he said.
As the new Dzurinda administration takes Slovakia into its second decade, Spišiak said he saw welcome signs that "the will now clearly exists to fight organised crime," adding that the past several years had also not been without progress, such as the 2000 Černák conviction.
"It was a worldwide rarity, getting a conviction on such a highly placed member of the underworld. Certainly nothing has happened like it in Hungary or Poland. Slovakia can be proud, despite how it worked out, despite the number of people now asking how it could have happened that he was released."
Nevertheless, Spišiak admitted, the force still suffered such court decisions in a rather bitter silence. Asked if officers were frustrated at Černák's release after years of investigation producing a murder conviction, the policeman was silent for a moment.
"You could put it that way," he said at last.
The First Decade
A10-part series on Slovakia's independence