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RUSKO STEPS ASIDE, CHMEL STEPS IN, AND INTENDED SALE OF SND BUILDING TO US INVESTOR REMAINS UNCERTAIN

Theatre plans change hands

ECONOMY Minister Pavol Rusko will no longer monopolize the future of the unfinished Slovak National Theatre (SND) building. According to a decision made by the ruling coalition on January 11, Slovakia's Culture Minister Rudolf Chmel will share responsibility for the task.
The decision came at the request of a group of 37 MPs, mainly from opposition parties, who initiated a special parliamentary session on the issue. The session is scheduled for January 18.

ECONOMY Minister Pavol Rusko will no longer monopolize the future of the unfinished Slovak National Theatre (SND) building. According to a decision made by the ruling coalition on January 11, Slovakia's Culture Minister Rudolf Chmel will share responsibility for the task.

The decision came at the request of a group of 37 MPs, mainly from opposition parties, who initiated a special parliamentary session on the issue. The session is scheduled for January 18.

Minister Rusko planned to sell the SND building to US firm Truthheim Invest, which intended to turn the complex into a conference and business centre while allowing the country's artistic organizations to rent a portion of the premises for performances. Rusko chose Truthheim Invest directly without announcing any public tender.

Even with a more democratic leadership, it is likely that a private firm will complete and manage the SND building. However, Chairman of the ruling Christian Democratic Movement, Pavol Hrušovský, believes that the investor will be chosen in a proper tender, allowing several firms to compete.

The Coalition Board, a senior ruling parties' body, suggested that Culture Minister Chmel proceed with the SND project in one of three ways: 1) Continue where Rusko left off and go ahead with Truthheim Invest as the SND's new investor; 2) Announce an official tender enabling several firms to compete for the completion and operation of the new SND building; or 3) Stop the SND construction altogether and use the money to fix Slovakia's current theatre stages.

The new SND building is situated in Bratislava's Old Town, close to the Danube's riverbank. Government representatives, including Economy and Finance Ministers Pavol Rusko and Ivan Mikloš respectively, have argued that selling the site to a private investment firm is the most economical way to finish the building's construction. They insist that the state cannot afford to pour additional billions of crowns into construction that has lasted two decades and cost Sk3.5 billion (€90 million) so far.

More money is required not only to finish the SND but also to run the building after completion. Finance Minister Mikloš estimates that management costs will be around Sk500 million (€12.4 million) per year.

Those who object to the sale of the SND outright argue that the state should not give up a symbol of national culture. They want the state to find the necessary funds to complete construction and manage the building itself.

Slovak President Ivan Gašparovič said in early January that the SND building should serve its original purpose [as an arts venue] and should be a "shop window into Slovak culture and arts".

The president appealed to the government to do everything in its power to complete the new SND building.

Zuzana Martináková, chairwoman of opposition party Free Forum, joined those in favour of state ownership of the SND, saying on January 4 that "some values can't be sold and culture is one of them".

The opposition accused Economy Minister Pavol Rusko of non-transparency, criticizing him for choosing Truthheim Invest as the SND's private investor without announcing a public tender.

Rusko defended himself against allegations of improper conduct.

"We are not barbarians or dealers of cultural values," Rusko said at a press conference January 11. He accused those politicians who are now protesting the sale of the SND of using the issue to suit their immediate political agendas.

"We just want to find a solution that saves us from wasting 300 to 400 million crowns every year just for the operation of the building," he said.

According to the TASR news agency, Minister Chmel already met with the SND director Dušan Jamrich to discuss plans for the new SND building.

Their ideas differed.

"The theatre's management plans on a scenario that would involve the Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav Theatre, the historical SND building, as well as three stages at the new SND building for opera, drama, and experimental theatre. I think this is unreasonable," said Chmel.

In December, Chmel admitted to thinking about leaving the Culture Ministry for "personal reasons". Some suspected that Chmel's conflicts with Economy Minister Rusko, who is also chairman of New Citizen's Party, of which Chmel is a member, were behind the minister's desire to leave.

Although Chmel has not announced a decision as to how he will proceed with the SND, the new turn of events has resulted in him keeping his ministerial seat, at least for a while yet.

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