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EDITORIAL

When ministers are like ripe apples at the end of September

THE HEADS atop Slovakia’s ministries have been falling like ripe apples at the end of September. Vladimír Mečiar, chairman of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), requested on August 14 that Prime Minister Robert Fico sack Agriculture Minister Zdenka Kramplová, who has been on the job only eight months.

THE HEADS atop Slovakia’s ministries have been falling like ripe apples at the end of September. Vladimír Mečiar, chairman of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), requested on August 14 that Prime Minister Robert Fico sack Agriculture Minister Zdenka Kramplová, who has been on the job only eight months.

A couple of weeks ago, former Environment Minister Jaroslav Izák was sacked on allegations of cronyism. He gained membership in the club of fallen ministers right after former Health Minister Ivan Valentovič, former Defence Minister František Kašický and dismissed Agriculture Minister Miroslav Jureňa.

Now, a skilled spin-doctor would certainly call all these truncated careers proof that the government is able to keep itself clean, vigilantly finding and expelling any shady or cronyism-infected cells from its body.

But what if all this really proves is that the Slovak government is like a political merry-go-round, where different people, all with rather questionable pasts, can buy a ticket for a ride?
Something must be terribly wrong with the judgment of the ruling coalition – which, by the way, is running the country – if it keeps picking people for important state jobs whom they are forced to sack in a year or less.

Zdenka Kramplová, whose career was cut short by complications around the annual report on party financing and alleged non-transparent public tenders at her ministry, should never have been given a ministerial post in the first place.

She is the same Zdenka Kramplová who served as foreign minister in Mečiar’s government from January 1997 to October 1998, when there was a symbolic abyss growing between Slovakia and the democratic institutions of Europe.

Once, when commenting on her nomination, Mečiar said that he chose her by adhering to the principle that “when a devil cannot reach somewhere, a woman has to be sent”. Not a very professional reason to back the choice of a foreign minister.

The other heads have rolled for different reasons: subsidies approved to SNS buddies, scandalous transfers of lucrative plots of land to a HZDS-friendly firm at a ridiculously low price, and an astronomically high winning bid for cleaning services.

But one minister has survived unscathed, despite ethics watchdogs saying she should have been sent packing long ago: Labour Minister Viera Tomanová.

The Labour Ministry approved subsidies worth Sk400 million (€13 million) to four non-profit organisations backed by Juraj Thomka, a friend of Smer’s Jana Laššáková, the Plus Jeden Deň tabloid reported in early August.

There is a strange dynamic between Tomanová and Fico, who has never hesitated to spring to her defence. They are a political couple that makes sense: Tomanová is in a way a mascot of Fico’s social policies, since she has been tasked with producing the laws that Fico has heralded as a new era of social policy.

Yet it is the same Viera Tomanová whose ministry approved Sk2 million (€66,390) in subsidies to a social services centre called Privilégium, where Tomanová worked before taking public office.

The organisation owed the state nearly Sk2.8 million (€93,000) in back taxes, which it concealed in its application.

It is also the same Viera Tomanová who shortly after taking office requested a government car and driver come pick her up in Lisbon, where she was on official business, because the Slovak embassy there did not have a car for her.

Many wonder how long Tomanová will enjoy immunity from the prime minister’s proclamations of political cleanliness and justice.

Fico has even lashed out at his Finance Minister, Ján Počiatek, for his notorious yachting joyride a few months ago. Počiatek enjoyed the hospitality 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 to the euro on May 28.

That was another time Fico chose to spare a Smer nominee who was making his ruling coalition partners nervous.

But they can’t really do much except pay the price of loyalty for the chance of sharing power, since it is doubtful that any other party would have agreed to form a government with the likes of the SNS.

Tomanová fiercely rejects any parallels between her case and the recent subsidy scandal at the environment ministry, suggesting that it is like comparing “the weather in Africa with that in Antarctica”.

But in the eyes of the media and ethics watchdog the Fair Play Alliance, there is something that links the cases.

“People close to power are gaining unjustified advantages, mainly information, through their contacts that is then used to obtain further advantages,” Zuzana Wienk of the Fair Play Alliance told The Slovak Spectator.

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