Fico strips SNS of ministry

A DUBIOUS €85-million tender for fly ash removal has ended the reign of junior ruling coalition member the Slovak National Party (SNS) at Slovakia’s Environment Ministry. As a result of this and a string of other scandals Prime Minister Robert Fico not only sacked Environment Minister Viliam Turský but – in an unprecedented move which goes against the coalition agreement – denied the SNS the right to nominate his successor.

A DUBIOUS €85-million tender for fly ash removal has ended the reign of junior ruling coalition member the Slovak National Party (SNS) at Slovakia’s Environment Ministry. As a result of this and a string of other scandals Prime Minister Robert Fico not only sacked Environment Minister Viliam Turský but – in an unprecedented move which goes against the coalition agreement – denied the SNS the right to nominate his successor.

After an initial silence, Ján Slota’s party demanded the post of deputy prime minister for human rights and national minorities, currently held by Smer nominee Dušan Čaplovič. The SNS said it would be appropriate compensation for its loss of the Environment Ministry and said Čaplovič is not handling the agenda well enough, anyway.

The prime minister’s response to this proposal was blunt: there would be no compensation; and Čaplovič will keep his post, which in any case is not subject to any bargain. Turský is the third environment minister to be fired in just over a year because of suspicions or unethical conduct. The SNS had controlled the ministry since 2006, according to the terms of the ruling coalition agreement. The party still controls the ministries of education and construction.

The contract for the removal of fly ash from state-run heating plans that the Environment Ministry signed with a company called Esco was the latest in a series of suspicious deals, which also included the controversial sale of Slovakia’s excess CO2 emissions quotas to an obscure US-based firm, Interblue Group. Shortly after Fico announced his plans to sack him, Turský was admitted to hospital with a head injury. On August 25, President Ivan Gašparovič, who must formally complete the dismissal said that he would prefer to recall Turský after he is released from hospital, which had not happened as The Slovak Spectator went to print.

Fico said he was convinced that the decision to sack Turský and lock the SNS out of the ministry is to the advantage of the ruling coalition as well as its individual members.

“The reason is the repeated, proven inability to handle decision-making processes within his ministry,” Fico said, adding that he is making this decision while aware of all the risks that it brings, including the potential departure of the SNS from the ruling coalition.

However, Fico added that he is not seeking the departure of the SNS from the ruling coalition.

“If we hadn’t taken this serious personal and political decision today, the probability of any future cooperation with the SNS, including cooperation in the next election term, would come close to zero,” Fico said, as quoted by the SITA newswire.

Interblue Group, whose registered company address in the US is a lock-up garage, bought Slovak excess CO2 emissions quotas in November 2008 at a price of €5.05 per tonne. According to opposition parties, this is far below the price that Slovakia’s neighbours have obtained for their quotas. Slovakia may have lost as much as €66 million on the sale, the opposition has said. After initially defending the deal, in late July Fico admitted that Slovakia might withdraw from it.

The contract for removal and disposal of ash and slag from state-run heating plants in Martin, Zvolen and Žilina went to Esco, which submitted a bid at least €27 million higher than its competitors. However, all the other bidders were later excluded for what the awarding commission called a failure to meet tender conditions, the Sme daily reported.

Elections near

Slota said that if it were only up to him the SNS would quit the coalition because he considers Fico’s move a serious and deliberate violation of the coalition agreement. However, the SNS will stay in government “to maintain the stability of the state”, he added.

“Corruption at the ministry was one of the most significant factors, otherwise the prime minister would have not changed the rules of the game and taken away a department from a coalition partner,” said political scientist Grigorij Mesežnikov.

According to Mesežnikov, during the pre-election period the impact of the corruption scandals on the election support for the parties might indeed be significant.

“The image of Robert Fico as a fighter against corruption has already been tarnished and they do not want to risk more damage,” Mesežnikov told The Slovak Spectator. “Also the weakening of the SNS by such a move might be quite welcome within Smer.”

Miroslav Kusý, another political scientist, said he detects a trend in the way that when the opposition criticises suspicious conduct by his partners, Fico denounces the criticism as unacceptable and forcefully defends coalition relations and its attitudes.

“Then after a certain time he comes out with his own criticism, as though this were independent from the criticism by the opposition,” Kusý told The Slovak Spectator.

If there had not been corruption scandals such as the emissions quotas sale, Fico would have not taken the whole department from the SNS. Perhaps he would have only requested replacement of the minister, said Mesežnikov.

“The feeling that the participation of the SNS in the government is mainly motivated by their interest in accessing wealth is already so strong that for Fico it was no longer tolerable to give Slota free reign in the government,” Mesežnikov said.

Neither Mesežnikov nor Kusý think that Smer has taken any great risk by the recall since the SNS still has a strong motivation to remain in power.

“The probability that the SNS would want to quit the ruling coalition was very weak,” Mesežnikov said.

According to Kusý, the SNS will keep quiet and try to preserve what it still has left. Mesežnikov agreed.

“However, for the SNS the main interest is not any stability of the ruling coalition, but rather its access to power,” said Mesežnikov. “The equation is pretty simple: if they leave the government, they would lose everything.”

Also, blackmailing Fico might not pay for the SNS because the party might lose all the other departments along with its nominees to lucrative positions, for example at Slovak Post, the political analyst said.

A sharp conflict with Fico and the revelation of further corruption scandals could seriously endanger the party’s potential to make it into parliament at the elections which must be held by next year, said Mesežnikov.

Last summer, Ján Chrbet replaced Jaroslav Izák, who resigned as environment minister on August 18, 2008, after the media reported that subsidies had been granted from Slovakia’s Environmental Fund to relatives of ministry officials. Both were SNS nominees.

Then, after the media began reporting Slovakia’s suspiciously low-priced sale of excess emissions quotas to the then-unknown Interblue Group earlier this year, Fico dismissed Chrbet on May 5 for failing to observe an ultimatum to disclose details of the sales contract.

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