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EDITORIAL

Power's latest stomping ground

THE FATE of the KIA investment is now largely in the hands of two old rivals - Economy Minister Pavol Rusko and entrepreneur Marián Kočner.
Regardless of how their most recent clash will be resolved, the fact that the outcome of a significant investment deal depends on them is hardly good news for Slovakia.
While media mogul Rusko has been in the public eye for years, Kočner is less of a well-known face, despite his colourful past.

THE FATE of the KIA investment is now largely in the hands of two old rivals - Economy Minister Pavol Rusko and entrepreneur Marián Kočner.

Regardless of how their most recent clash will be resolved, the fact that the outcome of a significant investment deal depends on them is hardly good news for Slovakia.

While media mogul Rusko has been in the public eye for years, Kočner is less of a well-known face, despite his colourful past.

He first gained the public's attention in the mid-1990s as one of prominent figures in the so-called Technopol scandal. Kočner and his associates were suspected of fraud after the state-owned firm Technopol paid them over $2 million for a supply of Dutch textiles that it never received.

Among those implicated in the case was Michal Kováč Jr, son of Slovakia's first president, Michal Kováč, which led to its extensive media coverage.

Kováč senior was a firm opponent of the authoritarian PM Vladimír Mečiar, which resulted in speculations about the possible political background of the criminal prosecution.

Police in Germany also investigated the case, and issued an international arrest warrant for the president's son.

Kováč Jr did not have to answer to German authorities as long as he remained in Slovakia.

But at the end of August 1995, Kováč Jr was kidnapped, taken to Austria, and left in the trunk of a car parked in front of a local police station.

Members of the Slovak Information Service (SIS), headed by Mečiar's cohort Ivan Lexa, are generally believed to have been responsible for Kováč's abduction as part of efforts to put pressure on his father, the president at the time.

According to his own statements for the Nový Čas daily, Kočner mediated a meeting between the president and Oskar Fegyveres, a former SIS member who confessed to taking part in the abduction of Kováč Jr and who has been hiding abroad for a number of years.

In July 1996, President Kováč granted amnesty to Kočner and Martin Syč-Milý, another suspect in the Technopol case. He later did the same for his son, and the investigation in Germany was also brought to an end.

In October 1996, Kočner won a civil dispute with Slovak Television (STV), which aired secretly filmed footage in which Kočner tries to talk a relative of the crown witness in the Technopol case into dropping the allegations against Kováč Jr in exchange for receiving amnesty from the president, all in accordance with the president.

The material was included in an anonymous documentary. Mečiar's political opposition claimed that the SIS, under Lexa's influence, fabricated the film. Kočner himself claimed the footage was fake.

Kočner was awarded monetary compensation amounting to Sk10 million (€243,902) and STV was obliged to broadcast a public apology.

Kočner's next appearance also had to do with a television station - this time Rusko's TV Markíza, formerly a clear leader on the Slovak TV market.

Before receiving the required broadcasting license, Rusko agreed that a firm called ESPE would operate the channel once that permission for operation was granted.

However, Rusko failed to follow up on that obligation and ESPE became entitled to financial compensation for the breach of duty. Rusko did not pay and ESPE passed its claim on to Gamatex, co-owned by Kočner.

Kočner's associate in Gamatex was Štefan Ágh, a former SIS member, who had been fired from the service by Lexa, according to various media reports.

Since Rusko continued to ignore his debt, Gamatex turned to the courts. As a result, in August 1998 Gamatex claimed to have gained ownership of the TV station. However, Rusko continued to claim that the court's decision was unlawful and the legal situation became increasingly confusing.

In September, Gamatex's private security service stormed the Markíza compound near Bratislava and Rusko was fired from his position as the station's director.

Some reports have indicated that the security service was connected to the Bratislava underworld.

The dramatic events at Markíza took place just a few weeks before parliamentary elections, which were to decide whether Slovakia's international isolation and authoritarian style of governance would continue or whether the country would return to the path towards Euro-Atlantic integration and deeper democratisation.

The events at Markíza were seen as part of Mečiar's efforts to gain control over the opinion-forming TV station ahead of the crucial elections, which were to decide his political fate.

Speculation circulated that Kočner's activities were supported by Lexa's SIS, allegations both men have denied.

During the fight over Markíza, Rusko fled the country, fearing for his own safety. After his return, he was often seen in the company of Russian-speaking bodyguards.

Although public attention and emotions surrounding the dispute over Markíza cooled-down after the elections, the matter was concluded only in July 2000, when Kočner and Ágh sold Gamatex to a group close to Rusko.

Now again, Kočner and Rusko meet on opposite sides of the fence - Rusko as economy minister and Kočner as head of a company innovatively called Gamatex Plus.

One claims to be defending the interests of the state, the unemployed, and Slovakia's economy. The other those of the landowners and those displeased with the administration's approach to the KIA investment deal.

However, history shows the matter may be more complicated than that.

By Lukáš Fila

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