THE MINISTERIAL career of Igor Štefanov was troubled from the very start. His appointment to the top post at the Construction Ministry was accompanied by criticism from opposition parties and political ethics watchdogs. The opposition on several occasions launched fruitless attempts to have the Slovak National Party (SNS) nominee sacked. But just when it seemed that Štefanov, who replaced SNS-nominated predecessor Marian Janušek less than a year ago, would survive in office to the end of the present parliamentary term, he was sacked on March 11 – forced out, like Janušek, for his role in the mega-scandal surrounding the so-called bulletin-board tender.
Prime Minister Robert Fico called on Štefanov to resign on March 9 in response to the findings of a Supreme Audit Office (NKÚ) audit of the bulletin-board tender, which resulted in a Sk3.6-billion (€120-million) government contract being awarded to a sole bidder by the SNS-controlled Construction Ministry.
The NKÚ audit results, released on March 3, cast serious doubt on the use of over €3 million within the subsequent contract which was awarded to a consortium including two firms, Avocat and Zamedia, which are reported to be close to SNS leader Ján Slota.
The NKÚ directly said that the ministry failed to use €32,444 in line with the originally defined purpose and that the ministry had not been able to provide acceptable documentation for the use of €3.14 million for which the recorded expenditure was based only on declarations by the provider that the services in question had been delivered.
It said it was impossible to determine whether the invoiced legal services had in reality been provided.
Though, Štefanov had initially said that he would quit if Fico asked him to do so, on March 10 the SNS said that its minister would not be quitting.
The very same day Prime Minister Fico sent a request to President Ivan Gašparovič, who nominally appoints and dismisses ministers, to terminate Štefanov’s ministerial career.
Despite a shower of emotive statements by SNS boss Ján Slota and his deputy Anna Belousovová, the party has also declared that it will not quit the ruling coalition. Slota personally asked Gašparovič to not sack Štefanov, a request which, had the president acceded to it, would have required him to exceed his constitutional authority.
Ignoring Slota’s appeal, Gašparovič dismissed Štefanov on March 11 and charged another SNS nominee, Education Minister Ján Mikolaj, with supervision of the Construction Ministry. However, shortly after getting the keys to his second ministry Mikolaj said that he was appointing Štefanov as his advisor, adding that it would be impossible for him to manage two such important ministries. In fact, the Construction Ministry is due to be merged with the Economy Ministry in July.
Štefanov described the developments as a circus.
“If you think that this circus is breaking me and that I have an interest in quitting, then I am not used to running away from a fight,” Štefanov said in an interview with the Sme daily.
Opposition parties and critics of the Fico government have been saying all along that Štefanov, who was in fact Janušek’s right-hand man at the ministry before his elevation in April 2009, should not have been appointed minister at all. Three parliamentary opposition parties tried to have Štefanov sacked on May 15, 2009, but failed.
The chairman of the opposition Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) parliamentary caucus, Stanislav Janiš, said that Fico was trying to shift responsibility to a coalition partner.
“He is washing his hands like Pontius Pilate,” Janiš told the TASR newswire. “This theatre is just a pre-election ploy to jettison responsibility.”
Mega-scandal around a mega-tender
Observers suggest that responsibility over the flawed tender should not be limited to the political kind. The winning consortium, comprising Zamedia, Consulting&Management, European Consultants Organisation and Avocat, was the sole bidder, collecting a contract worth €119.5 million for technical services connected with the use of EU funds. The original tender notice was posted on a bulletin board in an area of the ministry normally inaccessible to the public.
“I think the NKÚ should file a complaint with the General Prosecutor since there is a suspicion that a crime – fraud, abuse of power or eventually some other criminal definition – has been committed in this case, since there is no evidence that the invoiced services have really been delivered,” Ivan Kuhn, an analyst with the Conservative Institute think tank, told The Slovak Spectator.
“The first information, which the political ethics watchdog Fair-Play Alliance has found out, is based on the amounts invoiced within the bulletin-board tender [from which] it is clear that the advisory services in question were to a large degree fictitious,” Kuhn said. “Thus it is not surprising that the ministry was unable to provide evidence that such services were provided.”
According to Kuhn, Janušek and the-then director of the Agency for Regional Development Igor Štefanov, who signed the invoices for these sums, should bear not only political but also criminal responsibility.
“It is one of the basic problems of the control of the use of EU funds and perhaps also the use of EU funds in general, that only the formal side is being monitored,” said Kuhn explaining that such checks focus on the existence of a contract, invoices and other documents pertaining to the use of EU funds.
“However, it is not being checked whether the service or goods in question could have been procured for a lower price or whether these services were unavoidable for the given project,” Kuhn said.
Kuhn added that the second check was essential so that the exact volume of damages was monitored, however it should have come much earlier: “immediately after the first information on the way the bulletin-board tender was carried out was published, and what shameless sums were invoiced for different services.”
A bad week for the SNS
At around the same time Štefanov was being recalled, the MVK polling agency released the results of an opinion poll which showed Slota’s party recording only 4.9-percent support, which would not be enough to qualify for parliament in the national elections, given the 5-percent threshold to qualify for seats.
“Are we some camel drivers here or what?” Slota asked, as quoted by Sme. “Why should anyone be forcing us out? We have worked some years in the government and Mr Prime Minister is no god.”
SNS representatives have said that the time has now come for the party to start “kicking for itself”.
Party deputy chairwoman Anna Belousovová has said that the SNS is now ready to talk openly about the mistakes of its partners in government.
“We have kept our mouth shut for a very long time, but we no longer will,” Belousovová said, as quoted by Sme. “Ministers who have made mistakes within Smer are now leaving with their heads up because they were taken care of. But SNS ministers are being treated like dogs forced out from the courtyard.”