YACHTS, fast cars, and lavish parties: it all sounds very “cool.” Except that if you happen to be your country’s finance minister and if that yacht just happens to be owned by a tycoon who just a few days later just happens to make a small fortune trading the currency in whose future you are intimately involved… well, it all starts to look a little tawdry.
The finance minister in question is Ján Počiatek who, together with the general director of Bratislava Airport, Karol Biermann, enjoyed the hospitality of Ivan Jakabovič, a partner in the J&T financial group, aboard Jakabovič’s yacht in Monte Carlo a few days before the European Central Bank revalued the Slovak crown's central parity on May 28, the Plus Jeden Deň daily has revealed.
The response of Prime Minister Robert Fico has been to sack not only Biermann (the airport is state-owned) but the entire senior management of Bratislava Airport. This seems a little harsh since, unlike their boss, they don’t appear even to have got a junket to Monaco out of all this. But presumably – no reason was given for their dismissal – they have been found guilty by association. Curiously, Minister Počiatek has avoided their fate with just a very strict telling-off.
Of course, in a healthy and transparent political environment Počiatek would be long gone. Not because the prime minister would have had to sack him, but because he would have resigned.
Yet, to be fair to Počiatek, there are other people who are significantly less compatible with political decency than he is. In a standard and healthy political environment, this government would not exist in the form it does today, allowing a route back to power for people like Movement for a Democratic Slovakia boss Vladimír Mečiar and Slovak National Party leader Ján Slota.
For a while it seemed as if the finance ministry was one of the least troublesome departments of the Fico administration. Počiatek’s main virtue is that some of his colleagues would, in all likelihood, have done considerably greater violence to state coffers. It is disturbing that in the context of the present government this amounts to a compliment.
Počiatek’s Mediterranean antics come only a couple of weeks after the resignation of Health Minister Ivan Valentovič, who followed Agriculture Minister Miroslav Jureňa and Defence Minister František Kašický. Jureňa left after a land transfer scandal, while Kašický departed after the Defence Ministry was forced to suspend a Sk4 billion tender for cleaning work. Three ministers departed and one condemned is the balance of Fico’s political account at this parliament’s half-time.
One problem with Fico sparing Počiatek is that the prime minister does not apply the same criteria to all his ministers.
Počiatek swore that his loyalty〜 to the government remained unshaken and that he only underestimated the situation, which he attributed to being a political greenhorn.
What is puzzling though is that for Počiatek there should have been no confusion about the prime minister’s map of friends and enemies.
Besides, one does not really need a PhD in political economy or sciences to figure out that a cosy relationship between financial groups and the finance minister is unlikely to impress anyone, not just Fico.
Počiatek’s trouble is not really〜 the prime minister’s professed affection for financial groups “as a goat likes a knife,” to use Fico’s own less-than-poetic metaphor.
Počiatek is responsible for legislation that affects the entire business environment. He is the minister who oversees the anatomy of the money markets and whose words can move the currency and confuse traders or inspire businessmen to make deals.
So Počiatek’s presence aboard a private yacht owned by a financial group which subsequently made a fortune trading his currency will inevitably alert not just the usual political commentators or the government’s opponents, but the European Union and any decent political partner, who will be left pondering the Slovak government’s reliability.
Immature justifications (”I was just there for the girls”) will do nothing to divert attention or negate the graveness of Počiatek’s conduct.
Being in power come at a cost, at least in transparent economies, and anyone who takes a ministerial or public position needs to know what it is and be prepared to pay it.
What might have looked “cool” and “innocent” for a businessman – who wouldn’t want to go yachting in Monaco? - can spell doom for a politician who fails to understand that sometimes the borders between private and public life dissolve and everything he does will have wider implications.
The least Robert Fico could do now is to make sure that suspicions of insider trading are properly examined.
Not only for his own sake, but also for the sake of Slovakia, which is now entering the eurozone with a finance minister on probation.
23. Jun 2008 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová