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THE ECONOMY MINISTRY'S DRAFT LAW AIMS TO STRENGTHEN DEVELOPMENT AGENCY AND PUSH IT INTO ACTION

SARIO is in the spotlight

THE ECONOMY ministry will insist on more transparency in the operation of the national trade and investment development agency SARIO, which has been given a key role in attracting foreign investments and boosting the construction of industrial parks in Slovakia.
Economy Minister Pavol Rusko wants SARIO to operate more independently from his ministry and take the initiative in getting in touch with potential investors.

THE ECONOMY ministry will insist on more transparency in the operation of the national trade and investment development agency SARIO, which has been given a key role in attracting foreign investments and boosting the construction of industrial parks in Slovakia.

Economy Minister Pavol Rusko wants SARIO to operate more independently from his ministry and take the initiative in getting in touch with potential investors.

"I expect an agency like SARIO to be active and not only elaborate strategic documents and analyses. We can order an analysis, as there are so many companies doing analyses. SARIO is supposed to go out, look for contacts, and persuade people," Rusko told The Slovak Spectator.

A new draft law on SARIO written by Rusko's team is designed to equip the institution with the powers it needs to nourish investments and Slovak exports, along with the country's image abroad.

The legislation will abolish the Fund for Foreign Trade Support and transfer its authorities to SARIO, which will also coordinate the activities of business and commercial attaches serving the ministry's trade departments abroad.

The ministry plans to send new trade delegations abroad and also strives to make the operation of existing delegates more effective, financial daily Hospodárske noviny reported.

Minister Rusko has already sacked commercial mission heads in Australia, Brazil, and Argentina for what he called deficient operation. He plans to strengthen delegations in Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, Macedonia, and also China.

SARIO, which was launched in 2000 as a one-stop shop for investors, bringing together the resources of six ministries and the National Property Fund (FNM), is currently working on 109 investment projects worth almost €3.3 billion.

To make the prepared law on SARIO more effective, the ministry will revise the law on industrial parks too, news wire SITA reported.

The most dramatic change to the construction of industrial parks will be the lowering of park co-financing by municipalities from 30 to 5 percent.

However, SARIO has been in the spotlight for several weeks due to the infamous media performance of its boss, Ján Bajánek, whom Rusko had appointed to the post a month ago and who was charged with fraud in early November.

The Slovak daily SME reported that, while serving as head of the board of trustees of the non-profit fund Dialog, from 1999 to 2000, Bajánek fraudulently transferred Sk580,000 (€14,000) to the account of his own firm, Business Communication Bratislava.

Bajánek denied the charges and said that they were only part of a media war that SME was waging to ravage his credit and harm Rusko, who trusted Bajánek's managerial qualities.

The ruling coalition has been disappointed by the media noise around Bajánek and plans to discuss the complications around him.

Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda told daily SME that the ruling coalition leaders consider Bajánek's nomination problematic and promised to seek solutions.

The Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) hoped that Rusko himself would sack his man so there would be no need to open the issue up at the next ruling coalition meeting.

Rusko is rather hesitant to defend his nominee and says that first he wants to study the charges. However, according to SME, he admitted that Bajánek's reactions to journalists were rather "impolite".

Rusko was referring to Bajánek's most recent press conference, where he called SME journalists who reported on the charges brought against him "media terrorists" and said that, through the series of articles, the daily was "throwing its undigested excrements onto [my] good credit". He has sued the daily.

Stanislav Ryban of the Slovak Police confirmed for the SITA news wire that charges of embezzlement have been brought against Bajánek. If he is found guilty, Bajánek could be jailed for up to five years.

According to SME, between 1987 and 1989, Bajánek collaborated with the communist secret police ŠtB. However, the SARIO boss considers the information irrelevant, saying that, at that time, "anyone who spoke four foreign languages and worked at the US embassy was registered by the secret police."

When asked about his background, Bajánek told The Slovak Spectator that he also served as head of the US embassy's library in Prague and adviser to the former Czechoslovak deputy PM for foreign and economic diplomatic relations in the early 1990s.

However, experts agree that SARIO has the potential to play a crucial role in attracting foreign investment to the country, and state officials ought to make sure that no shadow is cast over the institution's credit.

Rusko sacked Bajánek's predecessor, Ladislav Balko, on October 16 for what he called "the deficient operation" of SARIO. The minister said that the manager's failure to efficiently communicate with automotive producer Hyundai over its planned investment project in central Europe was the last straw that led him to dismiss Balko.

"I am asking how it is possible that an agency such as SARIO did not even manage to secure a Hyundai business visit to Slovakia," Rusko told The Slovak Spectator.

"Only after we [the Economy Ministry] managed to arrange a meeting with the president and with the people that actually decide about placing investments, Hyundai changed its mind and came to Slovakia to evaluate it as a potential place for their investment," Rusko said.

Between October 2001 and September 2002, SARIO managed to attract more than 30 investment projects worth €335 million that created 6,500 new jobs. In 2002, revenues from the core activity of the agency totalled Sk102.8 million (€2.52 million).

The agency was instrumental in attracting PSA Peugeot Citroen's €700 million investment, announced in January 2003.

By 2006, SARIO plans to open at least nine branch offices to support foreign direct investments in the Czech Republic, Germany, Great Britain, Belgium, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Japan, and the United States.

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