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IF YOU want to understand how, even 20 years after its collapse, communism is still poisoning public life in Slovakia, just look at the latest land scandal.

IF YOU want to understand how, even 20 years after its collapse, communism is still poisoning public life in Slovakia, just look at the latest land scandal.

After the fall of the previous regime and the return to private ownership, the state was faced with a tough question – how to return to the original owners or their heirs the lands, or pozemky, it had nationalised decades earlier. The simple solution is to give back the original real estate. But that is often tricky, because factories and roads have since been built on many of the parcels. So the state tries to find lands of equal quality somewhere else.

Tens of thousands of owners are still waiting to be compensated, which opens the door to a simple scheme. A well-connected businessman looks up people waiting for restitution and offers to speed up the process if they agree to sell the property right after they acquire ownership. Through pals at the state-run Slovak Land Fund (SPF) he makes sure that these people get awarded land situated in an attractive region, say the Tatras. The location creates a great disproportion between their high market price and their official “value”, determined by area, soil quality, and property type. The restituents acquire ownership, sell the parcels for a fraction of the market price, and instead of waiting and having nothing, get something close to what their original lands were worth; the schemers behind the deal buy cheaply. It’s a win-win situation.

The only loser in this is the public. But then again, citizens are losing treasure they had little right to in the first place – land which used to be someone’s private property – so it doesn’t have that much moral credit either.

The entire affair is a small-scale replay of the wild privatisation of the 1990s, when then-prime minister Vladimír Mečiar handed crucial companies to his cronies, who most often sucked up anything of value and then sold the remains to more serious investors, or simply let the firms fail. It is very symbolic that people close to Mečiar are currently running the land schemes. And that a crucial player in the game, Milan Bališ, whose GVM company was involved in this round of land transfers, as well as the previous one two years ago, is a former agent of the communist secret service. After all, who should profit from the immoral legacy of the totalitarian regime, if not the people, who served it?

The present prime minister, Robert Fico, is directly responsible for the latest shady transfers, because members of his Smer party control the SPF. But what is perhaps even more dangerous than this latest incident is Fico’s love for strong government and for state ownership of virtually anything. Because it is thanks to this ideology that Slovakia is likely to remain a country where incompetence, corruption, and cronyism blossom.

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