THE RELENTLESS efforts demonstrated by the opposition to dismiss ministers of the Mikuláš Dzurinda government have become a theatre of absurd, so much so that people no longer attribute any seriousness to such moves. Against a backdrop such as this, the surprise resignation of Labour Minister Ľudovít Kaník is indeed a rare thing in Slovak politics.
For a politician to publicly admit that he or she has crossed the line of acceptable behaviour is almost unheard of.
Certainly, resigning will not clean up Kaník's record, which not only includes the latest impropriety of asking for Sk22 million (€570,000) in EU structural funds while serving as labour minister but also his failure to pay social insurance fees for employees when he managed a hotel, not to mention the abuse of ministerial power when he asked the social insurer to forgive him the fines levied against him for that oversight.
Then again, Kaník will also be remembered as a minister who openly admitted to abusing his position, albeit using milder rhetoric.
Kaník, in fact, admitted to making a "mistake" by applying for EU structural funds. What the minister was involved in is cronyism, which is a form of corruption.
In his defence Kaník added that he would resign over something that did not even take place, since he withdrew his request for the funds. Perhaps this is a bit far-fetched since Kaník withdrew his request only after the media splashed its acid criticism on the minister. Refusing to withdraw the request would have been an act of ultimate arrogance rather than a confirmation of the minister's functioning sense of morality.
The bare truth is that he did apply for EU structural funds as a minister and that he cannot prove that his family firm would have received the funds even if he did not sit in the ministerial post.
The immediate reaction of the media was that Kaník should be given credit for resigning and not trying to paint his actions in a nicer light.
Compared to how former Economy Minister Pavol Rusko behaved, Kaník's departure was politically civilized. Rusko offered no less than four different stories to explain how it came about that he took a personal loan as a minister from a businessman with interests in the energy sector.
Many think that Kaník should have resigned much sooner, for example, at the time when the media first discovered that he failed to pay payroll taxes for his employees and the state social insurer forgave him the fine exceeding Sk250,000 (€6.480).
Since the European Union itself noticed the minister's move, Dzurinda hardly could have afforded to turn a blind eye. The spokeswoman of the EU Commissioner for Regional Development Danuty Hubner confirmed for the daily SME that Brussels was monitoring the situation around Kaník.
Kaník's resignation must have taken the opposition party Smer by surprise, since Smer missed its chance to attack Kaník over his EU structural fund misconduct. Moreover, the opposition lost out on another of its promised rounds of trying to sack one of Dzurinda's ministers.
The stormy period of the Dzurinda government is not over yet. Among other things, the government is trying hard to impress the socially weak, the self-employed and pensioners by fine-tuning some of its reforms. The prime minister must have known that any failure to punish Kaník certainly would have been remembered during the elections.
Kaník, the head of the Democratic Party (DS), made it to the ministerial post as a result of a deal. He got the post in return for calling on his constituents to support the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union in parliamentary elections in 2002.
He made it to the opposition parties' black list right from the beginning of his ministerial career, and his opponents often described him as a paradox of the Dzurinda government, a millionaire leading the labour and social affairs department.
Kaník certainly must feel a certain déja vu. He was forced to quit a high ministerial post previously when, as the president of the national privatization agency, the National Property Fund, Dzurinda held him responsible for the failure of the Nafta Gbely case, one of most blatant privatization-gone-wrong deals of the Vladimír Mečiar era. Later, however, Kaník was vindicated in the case and was shown not to have violated any laws.
The resigning minister says his achievements outweigh his mistakes. He initiated a massive pension reform based on the knowledge that the former pension system was not sustainable. Experts agree that Kaník's reforms will need much fine-tuning but the fact is that today's private pension saving plan functions in Slovakia and serves over a million clients.
Kaník also claims that unemployment has been continuously dropping thanks to the reforms he made to the labour code. The fact is that foreign investors have been praising changes in the labour code that have made the Slovak labour market more flexible.
Now the media can speculate on Kaník's real motive for resigning, whether he did so to boost the election chances of Dzurinda or to preserve his chance to fight corruption. Many speculate that nothing is for free in politics and principles are never the driving force behind a politician's actions. But if nothing else, Kaník can put on his CV that he is one of the very few politicians to resign for making a mistake.
By Beata Balogová
10. Oct 2005 at 0:00