FUTURE Economy Minister Pavol Rusko will soon be responsible for the privatisation of the state's stakes in large companies and the control over arms trading. Although lacking formal qualifications and facing criminal investigation, Rusko believes he has what it takes to handle the job.
The New Citizen's Alliance (ANO) decided on September 3 that party boss Rusko will step in to replace the outgoing Robert Nemcsics, also an ANO member, who had lost the confidence of his own ranks after publicly criticizing the party leader. Nemcsics resigned on September 9.
In an interview with the weekly Domino Fórum, Nemcsics indicated that Rusko has repeatedly tried to interfere with the way the Economy Ministry and the state-owned Slovenské Elektrárne (SE) electricity works are run.
When asked about why he thinks Rusko is trying to influence his decision making regarding SE, Nemcsics replied:
"SE is a lucrative company and today the Economy Ministry no longer has a wide spectrum of such companies, as it did four years ago. This is why SE is of interest to different groups."
Suspicions that Rusko may be trying to influence developments at SE were reinforced after he was accused by police investigators of blackmailing SE boss Miroslav Rapšík into making personnel changes in the firm's top management. However, both men have denied the charges.
SE is likely to remain in the spotlight, as a 49-percent stake controlled by the Economy Ministry is to be sold-off to private investors, in what is expected to be the last major round of the privatisation of state property. The total value of the sell-off is estimated to reach Sk80 billion (€1.9 billion).
As the new economy minister, Rusko will also have control over arms trading in Slovakia. The ministry grants licenses to traders of military material and the exporters and importers of munitions and other regulated technologies.
Slovakia has had problems with arms trading for years. In its report on arms activities for the year 2001, the Slovak Intelligence Service (SIS) stated that "due to flawed legislation, Slovakia has become a transit corridor for illegal arms transport, and a country where forbidden deals are being legalised."
Although the legislation has since changed, the Economy Ministry has retained great decision-making powers while the field continues to lack transparency.
Rusko, who is currently facing criminal investigation for allegations of blackmailing failed tycoon František Mojžiš, has been chosen by his own party to head the ministry after a period of turbulence within the ruling coalition. As cabinet minister, Rusko would lose his parliamentary immunity against any criminal prosecution.
Despite the investigation and the fact that he does not have an education in business, none of the coalition parties has put the nomination into question.
"I know that everyone will be watching me even more closely than before, if it's even possible. I nevertheless want to try it, because I think it's a good solution for ANO and not a bad one for the government as a whole," Rusko said, adding that he sees his extensive managerial experience as an advantage.
Former media mogul Rusko has a university degree in journalism. He started working in Slovak Television (STV) in 1985, where he was head of the Socialist Youth Union (SZM). "I wanted to work in SZM because I was always fascinated by people in the forefront. I always wanted to stand on top," Rusko has said about his communist past.
However, Rusko is not listed in the Cibulka files, an online archive of collaborators with the communist secret service, ŠtB.
Rusko continued to work at STV until 1994 and launched TV Markíza in 1995. Under Rusko, Markíza had become Slovakia's most successful TV station, attracting record-breaking numbers of viewers.
Observers believe that the achievement would have been impossible without political backing.
"Markíza is the child of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia [HZDS]," said Emília Boldišová, a former head of the license council, which grants licenses for broadcasting. She added that without the aid of then-parliamentary speaker Ivan Gašparovič, vice-chairman of the HZDS, Rusko would not have received the license.
According to media reports before the license was granted, Rusko had signed an agreement with a company called ESPE, in which he agreed that this company would operate the channel after the license was granted.
That move led to one of the most widely publicised business struggles in Rusko's managerial career.
Rusko did not meet his obligation towards ESPE, and the agreement entitled ESPE to receive financial compensation as a sanction for the breach of that duty. However, Rusko failed to meet that obligation as well, and ESPE passed the claim on to a firm named Gamatex.
Since Rusko failed to pay, Gamatex took the matter to court and in August 1998 was declared to be the official owner of the TV station. Later, in September, Gamtex had its security service take control over the Markíza compound in Záhorská Bystrica, near Bratislava, and Rusko was fired from his position as the station's director.
The coup at Markíza, which occurred just about a month before parliamentary elections, was presented by opposition politicians and media as an SIS effort to take control of Markíza, using it to influence the outcome of those elections. By that time, Markíza had become extremely critical of the ruling HZDS, known for its undemocratic methods.
In the end, the new coalition that had formed after the elections in the autumn of 1998 ousted the authoritarian HZDS boss Mečiar from power, thus ensuring the country's heading into NATO and the EU.
Rusko himself has said that the affair, surrounded by confusing legal argumentation, was an attempt by the SIS, in collaboration with the Slovak mafia, to overtake his TV station.
When Rusko, who at one point fled the country in fear of his life, returned to regain control of the station in October 1998, he came with an army of Russian-speaking bodyguards.
"Why do I have to have eight bodyguards? Because those people that once stormed Markíza want the money they were promised. They did not get it. I asked seven different security services. But when they found out whom they would protect me from, they declined the offer," Rusko said in November 1998 for the daily Pravda.
However, in the end, Rusko managed to find someone to stand by his side.
"We had to find someone who would help us avoid a violent resolution of the conflict. Someone who would convince the [Slovak] underworld that if anything happens, there will be someone to take revenge. That was the only thing they were able to understand," said Rusko in April 2001 for the daily SME.
In the same interview, Rusko said that Gamatex was paid Sk80 million (€1.9 million) . He did not specify how much his bodyguards received, but said it was "much less" and added that "they were no crooks," but rather guards that also protected Ukrainian governmental officials and even entrepreneurs in EU countries.
Rusko's reputation did suffer, as throughout the year 1999, media had brought reports of his possible links to an international organised criminal group based in Ukraine, called the Syndicate.
"It is not certain that all Rusko's bodyguards are mafia members. It needs to be investigated," then-interior minister and current SIS boss, Ladislav Pittner, told SME in May 1999.
Pittner also said that Rusko would have to explain to investigators why original documents related to the dispute between Rusko and Gamatex were found in the house of a suspected Ukrainian mobster during a police search.
Rusko, who has denied any possible ties with organised crime, provided such an explanation in early June 1999 when he testified before police investigators. However, the content of those hearings was not revealed.
He also attacked Pittner for his public statements, and in a letter published in June 1999 in daily Národná Obroda, accused Pittner of turning a blind eye to the activities of Slovak mafia groups.
Rusko's business activities met a definite end when he gave up shares in his media empire after being elected into parliament in the September 2002 elections.
15. Sep 2003 at 0:00 | Lukáš Fila