AT A SMALL Christmas gathering two years ago, I offered to teach English to Ernest Valko. As much as I detest teaching, the balance of favours performed between us had tipped so far in his direction that I was embarrassed. “Yes,” he drawled in his execrable accent. “I will be your student.”
Over the next two years we met once a week, ostensibly to work on his language skills. But although he would make industrious note of new words, and curse over the intricacies of English grammar, he never made any headway. Because he was less interested in learning English than in chewing the fat on his favourite topic: “tycoons”.
For Ernest, the word “tycoons” stood for the wealthy privatisers and capital groups who call the shots in Slovakia. The word he had mined from a dictionary; the reality was one he confronted every day in court. A lawyer with over 30 years of experience, he had watched regime-obedient judges and show-trial prosecutors reinvent themselves as defenders of the rule of law. He had watched them sell verdicts to people who were looting the state. He saw what the rest of us only suspect from puzzling rulings and sudden acquittals: the sordid mechanics of corruption. “Tycoons,” in his parlance, were at the root of everything that was corroding Slovakia’s young democracy.
While the Dzurinda government was in power, from 1998 to 2006, Ernest at least had the security of a few heavyweights to watch his back: “Miki”, whose SDK party Ernest had defended from a last-minute attempt to have it banned from contesting the 1998 elections; and Ivan Mikloš, his long-time friend, whom he defended against Robert Fico’s slanders.
When Fico took over in 2006, however, Ernest’s goose was cooked. He was arrested and spent four days in pre-trial custody on a ludicrous extortion charge (Ernest was pugnacious, but intimidating he was not). His reputation took a hit, and his clients began to wonder if the government’s hatred for him wasn’t hurting his effectiveness in court.
What was worse, his erstwhile buddies in the SDKÚ didn’t stand up for him. Fighting the “tycoons” was always going to be exhausting and stressful, but it was a hundred times worse without friends in high places. Even Ernest’s co-accused in the disgraceful “extortion case”, Ladislav Rehák, blamed him for antagonising the General Prosecutor’s Office by writing critical legal opinions.
When Dzurinda’s crowd returned to power this summer, Ernest was relieved that at least his name would be cleared. He was wrong. For whatever reason, Interior Minister Daniel Lipšic omitted to publish even a brief press release to state that the “case” against Ernest had never had any merit, and that his name had been groundlessly impugned. As in the new culture of morbid sensitivity to corruption, it was impossible to extend to old friends even the mundane courtesy of an apology.
In the wake of his death, some have speculated about Ernest’s underworld acquaintances.
There’s no doubt he was on nodding terms with more than a few, both living and long-dead. As a karate instructor he was responsible for equipping them with the physical skills they later parlayed into money and mayhem.
But he was never one of them, and in fact to the end was endearingly sensitive to any undesirable links to his name. He occasionally reminded me that my casual observation eight years ago – that he shared a building downtown with some truly shady lawyers – had prompted him to erect an entirely new building for himself in the Horský Park district.
This was spoken in the grumpy tone of a man asked to shoulder an expense that was not his own.
I spoke to him a few hours before he was shot. We were arranging a time for our lesson the following morning. I couldn’t make it first thing, because I was somewhat “pod paľbou.” “What’s that in English?” he wanted to know. “Under fire.”
“Mmm,” he grunted in that approving way he had. “I am under the fire every day.”
After all those hundreds of hours we spent in conversation over the years, I know many things about Ernest Valko, none more true than this: He was a straight arrow, and a thorn in the side of his hated tycoons. Slovakia has lost more than it knows.
15. Nov 2010 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson