Scandal du jour

THE LATEST ruling coalition crisis, touched off by the failure of Economy Minister Pavol Rusko to explain his recently exposed lavish debts, is reminiscent of a made-for-TV movie drama.

The professional actors go through scene after scene, frowning and reading their tortured lines, only to find themselves smiling in the end, happily ever after.

The happy ending, however, is not yet guaranteed in this particular political farce, which has been entertaining the public during the blunt summer days when media turns the mundane into front-page material.

What differentiates this drama from previous "coalition crisis" performances, however, is that both the ruling coalition parties and their opposition colleagues appear to be unwilling actors.

Opposition leader Robert Fico of Smer, who has never missed a chance to lash out against his opponents for much less, is positively standoffish on the matter.

The Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) leader, Vladimír Mečiar, has also kept quiet. Even more mysterious, the daily Pravda reported that on August 16, the day the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) called for Rusko's recall, Mečiar met with Rusko at the Economy Ministry. Sources say that Rusko and Mečiar were discussing legislative measures, not the coalition crisis.

Analysts claim that sacrificing Rusko to the altar of public perception could improve the image of Mikuláš Dzurinda, under pressure to collect good grades before the 2006 elections. The move would confirm his commitment to fight against corruption.

But the balance of the ruling coalition is at stake, and the PM knows this. The fall of Rusko could lead to early elections unless Rusko's party, the New Citizens Alliance (ANO), turns against Rusko itself.

Dzurinda himself believes the Rusko affair is an internal ANO affair. He must have been shaken out of his passivity when the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) suggested that, if Rusko failed to provide the cabinet with an acceptable explanation for the bills of exchange, the SMK would help the KDH bully Rusko out of office.

Rusko has tarnished his credibility by changing his story regarding the bills of exchange. First he said he borrowed Sk100 million (€2.5 million) businessman Ľubomír Blaško (who is now dead) to pay off former TV Markíza co-owner Silvia Volzová for company shares.

Rusko said he paid the bills of exchange with dividends from Markíza.

A few days later Rusko said that the money was not exactly to buy out Volzová but to pay back firms from which he borrowed money to pay Volzová. He reportedly paid the bills of exchange from the profits of his associated businesses.

In another, quite different story, Rusko said he used the money from the bills of exchange to finance the Národná Obroda daily, which disappeared from the market earlier this year.

The final version is that Rusko wanted to start a project with Blaško, but after the plans failed, he returned part of the money from what he gained through Národná Obroda.

Dzurinda's position is not enviable. Generally a peacemaker between parties, he is now being pushed into a corner by the KDH, which insists on Rusko's head. If Dzurinda succumbs to the KDH, he will need strong grounds to remove Rusko or risk setting a precedent.

The politicians meeting on August 23 will certainly ask themselves whether punishing Rusko for his failure to explain the origin of the Sk100 million is worth further damaging the stability of the coalition, which is shaky to begin with.

Will the ruling coalition be able to function without the ANO? Can it afford to lose additional deputies in parliament? In terms of eventual post-election cooperation, everything is still open. Recent polls show the ANO's popularity somewhere between 7 and 5 percent, the threshold for earning a parliamentary seat.

Rusko undoubtedly thinks he is the target of a massive campaign against him, and that his debts were leaked to the media by the police, an agency that falls under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry, a department in the grip of the anti-Rusko Christian Democrats.

Tensions between Rusko's ANO and fellow ruling party the KDH are obvious and in no way new. Conflict between the two seems a natural combustion between ideological antagonism on the liberal side and archconservative agendas on the other.

The last outburst of criticism against the KDH on part of Rusko came after the KDH blocked Rusko's plans to unbundle Slovakia's natural gas grid operator, Slovenský plynárenský priemysel (SPP). Rusko's plan would have paid out €650 million to SPP's state stakeholders.

The ANO accused the KDH of destabilizing several pending foreign direct investments, and it has been aggressive in its attacks against Education Minister Martin Fronc, a KDH nominee. KDH officials for their part continue to criticize Rusko for the influence he maintains in the television station, Markíza.

But at the end of the day, one can see that each coalition party has had its scandal du jour. Just to refresh the reader's memory: the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) has been struggling to explain the circumstances of the sale of its building at Medená street. KDH member and Raca mayor, Pavol Bielik, faces bribery charges in a scandal involving Sk5 million (€125 million). The SMK suffered a blow when two of its members, involved in land administration, were accused of corruption. They both left the party.

By Beata Balogová

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