In the end, say people who know him, it was his ego that was the downfall of Michal Hrbáček.
It was ego that encouraged him to build a massive wall on his land in Bratislava’s Vinohrady district without a building permit, earning him a Sk3 million fine. It was ego that led him to take control of companies by force, and damn the consequences. And it was ego that prevented him from retiring on his millions, kept him active among the country’s shadowy police gangs – and in early September earned him a bunk in a jail cell (see related article Phone call lands former SIS officer in hot water).
Karate expert and secret agent
According to a former schoolmate, Michal Hrbáček attended high school in Petržalka in the same class as Miroslav Sýkora, who later would become Bratislava’s first mob boss. Even in his teens in the early 1980s, Hrbáček won notice for his karate skills. And karate was certainly in political favor in 1989, with practitioners of the sport František Šebej, Ernest Valko and Milan Kňažko decorating the front ranks of the VPN, the first democratic political party to emerge after the fall of Communism. Hrbáček provided security for Ján Budaj, one of the leading figures in post-November politics.
He was also reportedly a member of the “čierné šerifovia”, the ‘Black Sheriffs’, a private army of black-clothed security men who were on contract with the city of Bratislava and preceded the city’s municipal police.
By 1992, Hrbáček already had a business license in the Bratislava suburb of Dúbravka, teaching karate and – providing security. A few years later, barely into his 30s, his career took off like a rocket, landing him atop the Special Operations Division (OŠO) within Ivan Lexa’s SIS. As the boss of the OŠO, Hrbáček had virtual carte blanche – he and his men were assigned the service’s dirtiest, darkest roles, with no one looking too closely at how they carried them out.
One of these tasks was allegedly the kidnapping of Michal Kováč Jr., the son of the sitting president, which Hrbáček organized, according to a report read out in parliament in 1999 by Lexa’s successor, Vladimír Mitro. The kidnapping was allegedly done to embarrass the president, with whom then-Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar was in conflict.
But it didn’t end there – Mitro’s report also called Hrbáček the “main actor” in the illegal channeling of weapons from the SIS, accused him of participating in operations against the political opposition of Mečiar’s HZDS party, and noted his “contacts with people from the organized crime environment”.
Following Mitro’s report, Hrbáček spent several months in custody for his alleged role in the Kováč Jr. kidnapping, but was released under an amnesty issued by Mečiar.
Then occurred one of the ironies of Hrbáček’s career, and one of the less probable developments in Slovakia’s modern history. Although former dissident and Justice Minister Ján Čarnogurský had been the first to reveal Hrbáček’s identity to the public in early 1998, and his KDH party headed the campaign to punish the Kováč kidnappers, by 2001 Hrbáček and Ján Čarnogurský Jr., former workout buddies, were working together on business projects such as the takeover of the Chirana medical supplies firm.
“I’m not his spokesman, I have no reason to make any comment,” said Čarnogurský Jr. when SPEX asked him about his relationship with Hrbáček. “I still say it was the right thing to do,” said Čarnogurský Sr. of his original decision to reveal Hrbáček’s identity.
Years later, Hrbáček was photographed accompanying Čarnogurský Sr. to court to battle with the controversial businessman Tobiaš Loyka over a disputed claim against Loyka’s lucrative Rašelina Quido firm. Čarnogurský Sr. said that he and Hrbáček played separate roles for Prominent Holding, the plaintiff, and said he saw no irony in the association.
Previously, however, he had said of Hrbáček that “I’m a lawyer, not a moralist”, and said that in the Rašelina case, “in connection with technical matters I receive visits from Mr. Hrbáček and occasionally Mr. [Martin] Lieskovský,” another of the alleged Kováč Jr. kidnappers.
“I of course have no reason to comment on the relationship between my son and Mr. Hrbáček,” he said.
Law unto himself
Apart from his relationship with the Čarnogurský family, Hrbáček also maintained business ties with other alleged Kováč kidnappers following his release from custody, such as Ľuboš Kosík and Miroslav Šegita, but especially with Lieskovský, with whom he figured in over a dozen companies. These ties were largely broken at the end of last year, and currently Lieskovský and Hrbáček share only one business interest, a Bratislava restaurant registered at the address of the former Mamut pub.
For years, Hrbáček worked as a ‘hired gun’ for corporate raider Istrokapitál, especially for co-founder Branislav Prieložny, allegedly helping to convince business “partners” to forfeit their stakes. Nor was he shy about mixing with underworld figures, as Mitro noted: he served in eight firms with Tomáš Bajtoš, the managing director and co-owner of the BOB Security firm from 2000 to 2003. The police regard BOB as one of the pillars of the Takáč organized crime group in Bratislava.
In the end, however, Hrbáček was neither a secret agent nor a common crook but a law unto himself. Those who knew him say his ties with the last remaining Kováč alumnus, Lieskovský, were broken because of Hrbáček’s increasing recklessness. “He has only himself to blame, he should have quit long ago and enjoyed his money,” said a former secret service associate. “But he thought he could do anything, that everything belonged to him.”
20. Oct 2008 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson