THOUGH Igor Štefanov’s name is now deeply engraved in the history of shady public tenders in Slovakia he has since been quietly sitting in parliament under the banner of the Slovak National Party (SNS). It had almost seemed that time had washed away the residual grime from the infamous bulletin-board tender when news about criminal prosecution of five people, including Štefanov and his predecessor Marián Janušek, hit the headlines.
Optimists say this might be a breeze of real change – the mantra that Slovak politicians always escape punishment will now be broken. But pessimists say no top politician in Slovakia has ever ended up behind bars for harm caused to the state or its citizens by outrageous public conduct.
The first hurdle that justice must jump is lifting Štefanov’s immunity as an MP. Past parliamentary debates about surrendering one of their members for prosecution have mostly turned into theatres of the absurd during which MPs, rather than promptly passing the case over to the courts, metamorphose into self-declared judicial sages.
Several times before, people like Gustáv Krajči, a former interior minister suspected of thwarting a referendum on Slovakia’s NATO entry, and Ivan Lexa, a former boss of Slovakia's intelligence agency accused of serious crimes, plus scores of lesser politicians suspected of corruption or abuse of power, have had their fates decided in parliament.
Such debate always gives room for lengthy deliberation on how parliamentary immunity really only protects elected officials from political persecution from political opponents with blood in their eyes. Some MPs of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) spoke in such a way in the past that an unwitting observer would have thought that spy boss Lexa faced physical torture or worse if he was given over to the justice system.
Certainly in politics there are issues that turn on questions of interpretation or the prism through which one considers them, especially when it comes to modifying laws or deciding how best to achieve reforms. For these reasons politicians regularly have differing opinions. But the bulletin-board tender involved so many audacious anomalies that it would be shocking if the MPs who are now in opposition chose to vote en masse against allowing Štefanov’s prosecution.
The Sme daily wrote that its information indicates that the SNS-controlled ministry already knew the winner of the tender before the envelopes were opened. The newspaper reported that an investigator found a draft contract between the ministry and the winning consortium saved on the computer of the ministry employee who oversaw the tender a day before the selection committee opened the envelopes. The author of the documents found on that ministry computer was Avocat, the company reported to be close to SNS boss Ján Slota, Sme continued, adding that police also have evidence that Avocat employees had offices in the ministry even before the tender was announced.
There are many “folk stories” coming from various “insightful sources” who say “this is simply how it is in Slovakia” when deals are made. Yet what is known thus far about this multi-million-euro tender is not something that a former neighbour heard from a distant cousin – it is from an official investigation and it doesn’t require someone to be a crime scene investigator to understand that this is not the ideal model of government procurement.
The SNS’s response was rather predictable: it stated that Interior Minister Daniel Lipšic is taking revenge for its criticism of the ministry. “We are repeating it for minister Lipšic in the simplest possible way so that he understands: the SNS and its representatives will not allow anyone and anything to threaten them,” wrote the party’s spokeswoman.
The SNS, of course, also says it will sue Lipšic for his statements. What does the party think about Štefanov’s actual conduct? “Nobody but God has the right to judge” said the party’s deputy chairman.
And it is not really that blood-thirsty political opponents or the media now want to see a politician, any politician, behind bars. It is only that the Slovak public needs to regain some faith that justice here is not tuned in a way that the higher the stakes, the greater is the likelihood that someone can get away with it.
14. Mar 2011 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová