THE HEADLINE and the lead paragraph of the story about the boss of Slovakia’s Tax Directorate, Miroslav Mikulčík, and the controversial €6.6-million office leasing deal that he approved for a firm co-owned by a regional official of the ruling Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), changed dramatically in the run-up to Easter.
Finally, on April 20, journalists settled for a theme which might be summarised “Mikulčík’s head rolls; Radičová remains”, with a note that Mikulčík’s resignation came after mounting tension within the SDKÚ and the prospect that Prime Minister Iveta Radičová might actually have resigned if he had remained in his job. Radičová considered Mikulčík’s departure the only way to erase the suspicions of non-transparency hanging over her government.
On April 19, the local media was full of stories suggesting – some indirectly and some quite straightforwardly – that Radičová was not strong enough to push through her call for Mikulčík’s resignation. On that day, Radičová, Finance Minister Ivan Mikloš and SDKÚ boss Mikuláš Dzurinda offered a compromise which suited Mikloš and Mikulčík but placed Radičová in a weakened position, apparently unable even to pull strings in her own SDKÚ party.
The trio announced that both Radičová and Mikloš would respect the results of an audit of the deal to be conducted by the country’s public finance watchdog, the Supreme Audit Office (NKÚ). In the context of Slovak politics, this approach would have allowed Mikulčík to linger for several more months in his post, waiting for media pressure to calm and, perhaps, the public to forget.
Radičová crossed a political line when she originally backed the Tax Directorate deal, despite it obviously favouring one of her SDKÚ colleagues, while party leader Mikuláš Dzurinda defended it by asking: “Should a member of SDKÚ be handicapped or discriminated against?” Although Radičová argued that she had been given the wrong information, she is the prime minister and the words of a prime minister can be decisive not just for ministers or the whole government, but for public trust in the country’s leadership.
The public’s ears have grown used to fables about officials who unconditionally act in the public interest – even if this interest happens to benefit friends and family, or means a political party gets a euro or three richer – but are ‘unfairly’ targeted by the media.
But when the government of Radičová paved its way to power with pledges to champion transparency, the stakes in terms of public trust were raised much higher. This is why disappointment at any hesitation by the prime minister when it comes to issues of cronyism or transparency will always be sharper than it would be with a Robert-Fico-type government.
Predictably, Fico has been hyperactive since he managed to drag the case centre stage. He is now trying to talk up a parliamentary vote to oust Radičová.
None of this makes Fico’s own period in power any less troubled. His reign has been forever inscribed in the pages of Slovakia’s political history as a time of dubious tenders, short-lived ministers, happy cronies and even happier donors. But being different from the Fico government is no longer enough; nor is it enough to use more refined rhetoric or simply not to have Ján Slota and his sidekicks as political allies.
Radičová should probably weigh her words and their timing more carefully, because for a prime minister – especially if she is believed to have political integrity – it is more difficult to undo their effect than it is for the typical, chameleon-like politicians who change their shape and colour as the situation requires.
The ruling coalition knows that Radičová is still their key to staying in power, and though her transparency talk might be inconvenient for those who need to find ways of channelling money into friendly pockets they know Fico is breathing down their necks and will use any chance he gets to take back the wheel. Perhaps Radičová should have used this knowledge from the very beginning of the tax boss story. Not only would it have spared the media the trouble of changing their leads and headlines with each twist and turn, but it would have better protected what she needs in order to defy Fico: her integrity.
25. Apr 2011 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová