It's getting dark in here

FORMER Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar has never properly explained the financing of his luxurious villa Elektra in Trenčianské Teplice, nor has former Defence Minister Pavol Kanis told where he got the money for his stately home.

FORMER Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar has never properly explained the financing of his luxurious villa Elektra in Trenčianské Teplice, nor has former Defence Minister Pavol Kanis told where he got the money for his stately home.

Both made feeble justifications for their sudden wealth, excuses that entertained the public for months.

After much prodding, Mečiar revealed the source of his windfall: a Swiss businessman named Peter Ziegel. Ziegel confirmed that he had, in fact, lent Mečiar somewhere between Sk40 million and Sk100 million (€1 million and €2.5 million) in 1999. A loan with a 10-year maturity, payments were to begin in 2005 at the latest. However, the public remains doubtful that Mečiar's estate has anything to do with Ziegel's loan.

Kanis' story about his Sk15-million (€500,000) house likewise stands on dubious ground. The former defence minister said that earnings from gambling make up a noteworthy portion of his annual income.

The public has grown tired of sordid stories of mysterious businessmen and betting successes. Do they realize, however, how dim the window into party financing remains?

Former opposition party members that once demanded more transparency from state officials are reluctant to drink their own medicine. Many of those same deputies, now sitting in parliament on the ruling side of the table, had no problem delaying the effective application of legislation that would increase the transparency of party financing.

In early February when the parliament adopted the new law regarding party financing, the state fathers proudly reported that they had finally introduced a law that would crack down on party finance abuses and provide a window into the political process.

They failed to mention that the public should not expect to peek into this window until 2007 at the earliest, thanks to a transition period that the deputies managed to push through on their own behalf.

The non-governmental watchdog agency Fair Play Alliance pointed out that both the opposition and ruling coalition agreed to essentially delay the application of the law, with 118 deputies voting to preserve the present financing rules for two years.

The alliance considers the situation unacceptable. The current control system is virtually non-functional and has failed to reveal any serious suspicions regarding party funding and fund management.

Independent bodies would like to see control over party finances and politicians' assets shifted from the parliament to an independent body or even the Supreme Court to remove any conflict of interest.

It is not surprising that parliament approved a considerable hike in the amount of state contribution to political parties. However, it seems natural that control over these funds should be tightened, the management transparent and all measures effectively enforced.

However, deputies are reluctant to change those mechanisms that they criticized in the past, particularly since it might force their mother parties to explain the origin of their assets.

For example, leaders of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) have become allergic to questions about so-called fake donors.

The Fair Play alliance alleges that several people listed as donors to the SDKÚ never gave money to the party. Although an ensuing investigation into alleged accounting fraud showed that the SDKÚ did not "cook the books", the case left egg on the SDKÚ's face.

If there had been stricter rules governing party finances, the SDKÚ would have had to watch its financial affairs more carefully.

The public seems unaware that it has the right to know how its political parties support themselves, and how they use money given by the state. It is, after all, taxpayer money.

Some politicians suggest that good will and political politeness alone should compel state representatives to reveal their personal finances to the public. They argue that politicians are human beings with a right to privacy.

These people either forget or refuse to understand that the way politicians handle public funds is never a private matter, even if the transaction is conducted within the relative privacy of their own homes.

No one denies the right of politicians to privacy. Rather, the public wants to know about party sponsors and political spending. This is hardly comparable to the voraciousness of tabloid papers for peeping into politicians' bedroom windows.

Perhaps clear rules governing party financing will annoy those who use party headquarters as laundromats and are happy to wash their money in return for influence and advantage.

But clear rules will also encourage those who want to support political parties but fear their donations will be used to support hidden agendas.

As Fair Play's Wienk suggested, maybe the reason behind the falling numbers of political sponsors is diminishing trust in politicians, which, after all, is a bug that is spreading through all of Europe.

By Beata Balogová

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