WHETHER it is the recent coalition hassles or the exchange of intelligence service heads a few months ago, one man seems to be involved in a large chunk of the year's, and the decade's, hottest political scandals: former journalist and counterintelligence boss Peter Tóth.
Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda had in recent weeks at first unsuccessfully tried to persuade his government to recall the head of the National Security Office (NBÚ), Ján Mojžiš. However, some ruling coalition partners had suggested that the PM's arguments in support of Mojžiš's withdrawal were insufficient, which has stirred much media criticism and resulted in the recall of Defence Minister Ivan Šimko.
One of the few reasons the PM did name was Mojžiš's claim that Tóth, who has received much negative publicity over the last year, acts as Dzurinda's adviser, something the PM vehemently denies.
"From other high-ranking state officials, I discovered that [Mojžiš] goes around Bratislava and spreads rumours that Peter Tóth even stands behind the curtains of my office when I have guests," said Dzurinda on September 24, in an interview with the TA3 news channel, and added that Parliamentary Speaker Pavel Hrušovský confirmed this information.
The parliamentary speaker was outraged when he learned that the PM made a public reference to their private conversation, but confirmed that its content was accurate.
"I gained the information that Peter Tóth was part of the advisory team from numerous sources," Hrušovský stressed at a press conference.
Tóth himself says that his relationship with Dzurinda is being misinterpreted.
"This nonsense is born in minds affected by the excessive consumption of wine," Tóth told The Slovak Spectator in an exclusive interview.
"I've met with Dzurinda very many times. We discussed many issues, but I have never been in an advisory position. Our debates were mostly based on the relationship of a journalist and a politician," he continued, and said he does not know how many times they've met over the last year.
Tóth first entered the public's consciousness in early 1990, when he addressed some 1200 delegates of the founding congress of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) on behalf of the forming Christian Democratic Youth of Slovakia.
Interestingly, Mojžiš later served as the deputy chair of the same organisation, before becoming head of the analytical department of the Slovak Intelligence Service (SIS) in 1998 and head of the NBÚ in 2001.
When the authoritarian Vladimír Mečiar's government collapsed in March 1994 and Jozef Moravčík's interim cabinet took over, Tóth became the spokesperson for deputy PM for legislation Ivan Šimko, then a KDH vice-chairman.
In the early elections in the autumn of 1994, Tóth, whose mother headed the secretariat of KDH chairman Ján Čarnogurský for 11 years, unsuccessfully ran for parliament on the KDH ballot.
Later Tóth became a commentator with the daily SME and became well known for his coverage of the abduction of Michal Kováč, Jr., the son of Slovakia's then president.
Tóth was among the first to publish allegations that the SIS, at that time headed by Ivan Lexa, had abducted Kováč Jr and taken him to Austria in August 1995 to intimidate the president. Among his sources was Róbert Remiáš, a friend of former SIS member Oskar Fegyveres, who testified before investigators that the SIS had been involved in the abduction.
After testifying, Fegyveres fled the country and used Remiáš as his mediator. In May 1996 Remiáš died after an explosion tore his BMW into pieces. Tóth was one of the last people to talk to Remiáš, just hours before the man died.
During that time, Tóth had been physically attacked several times. In October 1995, an anonymous person lured the SME reporter out to a meeting under the pretence of wanting to provide information about the Kováč case. No one showed up, but as he was returning home, Tóth was hit and knocked to the ground.
In 1997 his own car exploded while he was abroad, with only his small child and pregnant wife at home to witness the flames.
After replacing Lexa in the SIS top post, Vladimír Mitro, in a report on SIS activities in February 1999, confirmed that these were the doings of the SIS.
Today Tóth says he does not like to talk about the persecution he experienced, interpreting it as "psychological masochism". He has become increasingly cautious in his statements about Lexa and ex-PM Mečiar.
"Today all sorts of people comment on the decisions of bodies involved in the criminal proceedings, and I would not like to do so. Certain procedural requirements have to be met in order for someone to be charged, indicted, and sentenced. If Lexa has not been sentenced, then that most likely reflects the situation of the investigation, unfortunately." Tóth said.
"As far as Mečiar is concerned, today's politicians have given him room to exculpate himself in the eyes of the public, because all current political problems, which are often inappropriate or almost obscene, obscure the history of Mečiarism," he added.
While Mečiar was in power, then-opposition MP and current SIS head Ladislav Pittner initiated the establishment of an independent investigation committee that led its own inquiry into the abduction of Kováč, Jr.
In an SIS report from May 1996, Lexa named the members of that committee, which included Pittner, Tóth, current Interior Minister Vladimír Palko, current boss of the National Memory Institute dealing with files of the communist-era secret police Ján Langoš, and Vladimír Mitro, who headed the SIS from 1998 until February of this year.
According to that document, journalist Ľubomír Lintner, now an MP for ANO, and, former KDH official Juraj Kohútiar were also members of the committee. Lintner also recently stated that Kohútiar is now the deputy director of the SIS. Tóth admits he helped Pittner.
"Pittner served as an umbrella for persons who were engaged in acquiring information, but could not publicly present them for various reasons. He integrated that information and later summarised it. There were also facts that I gained as part of my journalistic work," he said.
His intelligence service connections contributed to Tóth's journalistic success, according to insiders.
"All his investigative journalism was based on getting information from people who worked at the SIS or from Pittner and Mitro, so he just summarized it. There was not so much of his own investigation. He was more a part of a team and served as its voice," SME editor in chief Martin Šimečka told The Slovak Spectator.
However, Šimečka did recognise Tóth's merits.
"He had to have courage, no one can deny that. Back then, one really couldn't know how far the SIS would go, whether they would kill or only monitor people. That was not clear back then," he said.
The SIS underwent significant changes after the 1998 parliamentary elections, when Mečiar was ousted from office, and Mitro stepped in as SIS boss.
Tóth was forced to leave SME in August 2002, after Šimečka gained the impression he was using the paper to promote interests that contradicted the paper's philosophy.
"I suspected that Peter Tóth was not independent in his commentaries. I could only guess that either groups of entrepreneurs or the SIS were behind it," said Šimečka.
Tóth claims he had an agreement with Šimečka not to go public with why he had to leave.
"At the time Šimečka explained to me why I should leave, and we agreed that we will not comment on it publicly. I will stick to our initial agreement not to comment," he said.
After leaving SME, Tóth went to work for the daily Národná Obroda, which was a part of the media empire of Pavol Rusko, who currently heads the coalition New Citizen's Alliance (ANO) and was appointed as the new Economy Minister on September 24.
The relationship between Rusko and Tóth had in the past been far from harmonic. Rusko, who was the boss and co-owner of TV Markíza, was forced out of his station shortly before the parliamentary elections in 1998, in what he called an effort of the Slovak underworld and the Lexa-headed SIS to manipulate public opinion before the vote.
After spending some time in hiding, Rusko returned, accompanied by Russian-speaking guards. In his commentaries, Tóth suggested that Rusko might be tied with the Ukrainian mafia. Rusko in turn accused Tóth of supporting the Slovak underworld.
"The only ones who represent a real threat [to Slovakia] are those ... with whom [Tóth] is friends, whose interests he defends, based on whose requests he regularly starts campaigns against Markíza, and from whom he wants one thing only: to keep his head on his shoulders," Rusko wrote in a letter published in Národná Obroda in June 1999.
"After the dispute around Markíza was settled, emotions cooled down. When Rusko founded ANO, I often came into touch with him as a journalist, the tensions eased, and we were able to talk without bad feelings," Tóth says now.
Early this year Tóth found himself in the middle of yet another controversy. In January Rusko revealed that he had received an illegal recording of his conversation with a SME reporter.
At the time, it was not clear whether it was the SIS or the Interior Ministry that made the recording, although a recording of that conversation was found in the database of the Interior Ministry
An anonymous sender faxed a report to investigators that included allegations that Interior Minister Palko was involved in the matter and manipulated the ministry's database. Palko reacted by filing a complaint for assault of a public official, because he claimed it included false accusations.
Tóth was later investigated and charged with faxing the document. However, he could not stand trial, because the provisions of the penal code on the assault of a public official have since been removed from the law, and further prosecution would lack legal basis.
"I have become the victim of a strange set-up. The fact is I was twice lured to the hotel [where he was seen and from where the fax was sent]. The fact also is, as I later found out, that the police were running a shadow operation there," Tóth said.
A few weeks later, media found that Mitro had appointed Tóth as head of counter-intelligence at the SIS. There is a current investigation attempting to reveal the source of this confidential information that was sent to the press and high-ranking politicians.
Tóth sees struggles over posts in the SIS as the most probable motivation for the "conspiracy" against him.
"It doesn't happen overnight that someone takes over such a department at the SIS, as was my case. Although it is being discussed behind closed doors, information can leak out and when some interest groups want to see someone else in that position, there is nothing easier than discrediting the candidate," Tóth said.
SME boss Śimečka was outraged when he found out Tóth had worked as a high-ranking SIS official.
"He significantly harmed SME by raising suspicions that he worked for the SIS even while he still published in the daily," Šimečka said.
Šimečka was not alone in his anger. When Palko and his colleagues at the KDH found out about Tóth's appointment, they immediately demanded action.
SIS boss Mitro had to leave office, and Pittner stepped in and removed Tóth from his position.
When asked about his future, Tóth says nothing is certain yet. "I'm currently trying to get oriented in the situation," he said.