FALLING from your ministerial chair is not a particularly happy development in any politician’s career: failed ministers either make it into the textbook of spectacular political failures that the media like to cite at every possible opportunity, or simply sink into political oblivion. Being fired on suspicion of corruption or cronyism makes one’s situation even worse and, in any decent political environment, it is a blemish that no subsequent performance, however successful, can fully erase.
However, there is an even darker prospect for a politician: when a weak minister, continuously showered by the criticism of professionals in his own area of responsibility, is finally kicked out on suspicion of cronyism and corruption in the exercise of his role.
Yet this is what has happened to Jaroslav Izák, Slovakia’s environment minister, who got his post with the blessing of the country’s junior coalition member, the Slovak National Party (SNS).
Izák has joined a club of political drop-outs consisting of: former agriculture minister Miroslav Jureňa, a nominee of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, who paid with his job for the scandalous transfer of lucrative plots of land; then former defence minister František Kašický, who resigned after a ridiculously overpriced tender for cleaning work at the ministry for which it had proposed to pay Sk4 billion. Former health minister Ivan Valentovič is also a club member, the official version of his story being that he resigned for personal reasons.
Yet, no one has described Izák’s departure as a loss for Slovakia’s environment; on the contrary. Even his own party, which promptly agreed to Prime Minister Robert Fico’s request that he be sacked, let Izák go without shedding a tear.
Fico used the sacking of the minister to grease his promotional machine. He said that the decision to fire Izák only proves that he differentiates and will always set apart attacks on members of his government which, he says, are fabricated and fed by the media from “real cases of ethical failures by members of his cabinet”.
But ethics watchdogs and observers say that it is exactly this “differentiation” that is the problem, and that Fico is, to put it mildly, using double-standards when it comes to striking down ministers for their ethical missteps.
The prime minister has never really practised his self-declared and supposedly sharp sense of political ethics in the case of the labour minister, Viera Tomanová, for example.
Tomanová’s ministry approved subsidies totalling Sk2 million to a social services centre, Privilégium, where Tomanová worked before becoming minister.
The organisation owed the state nearly Sk2.8 million in unpaid taxes, but was granted the subsidy after its authorised representative, Miroslav Mečíř, signed a statement that his organisation had settled all its debts with the state.
After media pressure, in August 2007, Privilégium was forced to return the subsidies.
In late June 2008, the police charged the authorised representative of Privilégium, Štěpánka M., with fraud, the Bratislava prosecution office confirmed to the financial daily Hospodárske Noviny.
Fico has firmly backed Tomanová from the very day the scandal broke: through a parliamentary no-confidence motion initiated by the opposition, and on to June, when he and his minister together announced a tougher drive on social policies.
Finance Minister Ján Počiatek too survived his yachting mega-scandal earlier this year and Fico spared him even though, under media pressure, the minister offered his resignation. Počiatek, together with then-general director of Bratislava Airport, Karol Biermann, partied on the yacht of Ivan Jakabovič, a partner in the J&T financial group, in Monte Carlo a few days before the European Central Bank re-set the Slovak crown's central parity on May 28.
The outraged Fico sacked not only Biermann (the airport is state-owned) but the entire senior management of Bratislava Airport.
Yet, Fico did the right thing when he sacked Izák, no doubt about it. Environmental organisations said unambiguously that Izák was the worst environment minister in the short modern history of Slovakia.
But to have political integrity he should have done the right thing in the other two cases as well, in order for the public to regard his decision over Izák as authentic.
When asked by the media whether he would continue scrutinising other complaints and cronyism suspicions raining down on the environment ministry, Fico merely brushed the question aside.
Transparency International Slovakia confirmed that the environment ministry has tended to approve more subsidies to municipalities managed by SNS-connected people, when compared to other towns and villages led by opposition nominees.
The fact that Fico has recalled Izák and that the SNS will now send another “right man” at the “right time” to the ministry will not change the situation at all.
The environment ministry, despite being seen by many as belonging among
the less interesting state institutions, manages a pretty fat purse when it comes to EU funds and also enjoys the power to distribute quotas for carbon dioxide emissions. It is certainly too important to be just a playground of the SNS.