SLOVAK Prime Minister Robert Fico recently said he saw nothing wrong with government tenders being awarded preferentially to people who support the governing coalition. But that didn’t stop him from cancelling a contract which had been awarded to a company which his uncle co-owns. The opposition and political observers say the cancellation was merely intended to divert attention from the prime minister.
At a press conference on August 22, Fico said that when he learned that a competitive tender to reconstruct the Municipal Office in Topoľčany had been won by a company of which his uncle is an official representative he ordered that the tender be cancelled. “I would not even dream about managing some ridiculous competition worth a few crowns somewhere in Topoľčany,” said Fico.
He immediately added that if two equal bids are received for a project, the minister overseeing the tender can still prefer their party supporter.
“We consider it unacceptable that two thirds of the Slovak population should be discriminated against in competitions, just because they are supporters or members of coalition parties,” Fico said.
On August 28 the Sme daily reported that the Topoľčany tender had been won by Style-mont, a company for which Fico's uncle Ladislav Rybanský is an official representative. Sme reported that the tender was worth almost Sk30 million.
Interior Ministry spokes-man Erik Tomáš confirmed the details and told The Slovak Spectator that once Fico found out that his relative was an official representative of Style-mont, which had made the cheapest offer, “in compliance with the public principles on organising public orders, he asked the interior minister to cancel the competition and its results” .
“It was an order to add thermal insulation to the building of the Municipal Office in Topoľčany, with a estimated value of Sk27,549,287 without VAT,” Tomáš added.
Ivan Mikloš, a former finance minister and currently an MP for the opposition Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), told the news TV channel TA3 on August 31 that there have never been so many scandals connected with procurement, or crooked tenders in Slovakia. “Hundreds of millions, billions of crowns of taxpayers’ money are being spent in an ineffective way,” Mikloš said.
Mikloš told The Slovak Spectator that the tender involving Fico’s uncle was cancelled just to cover for Fico and make it look as though he is transparent. “But there are dozens or hundreds of tenders which are too expensive and where the state is being robbed of billions of crowns,” Mikloš stressed.
There are plenty of examples of over-priced tenders, Mikloš said. “The most striking and most expensive is the tender for the electronic road toll system, where four international consortia were excluded, leaving only one company – which is controlled by Smer sponsors”.
This company bid at a price six-and-a-half billion crowns higher than the other firms, which were excluded from the tender on technical grounds, Mikloš said.
The tender which Mikloš referred to was won by the SanToll-Ibertax consortium, led by the French firm Sanef, which bid Sk25.7 billion. Among its competitors, Slovakpass, led by the Italian company Autostrade, submitted a bid of Sk19 billion.
Other bids came from the Slovak-Swiss consortium ToSy (Sk19.62 billion), and Kapsch, headed by the Austrian firm Kapsch TrafficCom AG, Vienna (Sk22.57 billion), the SITA newswire reported in July this year.
At a press conference on September 2, Fico responded to Mikloš’ criticism by saying he should be silent and “enjoy his freedom.” Fico added: “One must look at who says what … a person [i.e. Mikloš], who managed privatisation for eight years, who is responsible for the biggest mis-steps in privatisation.”
Experts from non-governmental organisations and opposition representatives said Fico’s statement about preferential awarding of tenders is unacceptable in a democratic society.
Lawyer Pavel Nechala, from the NGO Transparency International Slovakia, said that attempts, like Fico’s, to point out negative practice – e.g. an unfair disadvantage for supporters of a particular party - in public procurement, in project approvals or in the allocation of subsidies could be assessed positively. “But only if they accept that political preference is legitimate grounds for refusing a tender, and propose a solution to the problem,” Nechala wrote for the daily Sme on August 28. However, Nechala said that Fico was not proposing to refuse tenders awarded on the basis of political preference, something which he described as “unacceptable”.
According to Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the non-governmental think-tank the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO), Fico has by far exceeded all other proponents of cronyism throughout Europe.
“The Smer chairman evidently has never heard about that innate feature of democratic rule called impartiality of governance,” Mesežnikov told The Slovak Spectator.
Zuzana Wienk of the NGO Fair Play Alliance told The Slovak Spectator that Fico was not consistent in his own statements.
On the one hand, she said, he claimed that Smer supporters could not be discriminated against. “He stands behind this with all his might. And soon afterwards, he cancels a tender won by his uncle,” she noted.
“The prime minister thus sends out very confusing signals and I think this cannot contribute to his credibility,” Wienk added.