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EDITORIAL

One eye laughing, one crying

ONE eye laughing and one eye crying could be a fitting way to describe reaction to the cast of ministers picked by Robert Fico, Slovakia’s incoming prime minister, who recently told the Sme daily that he wants to govern the country in a way that “one day he will not have to crawl along walls when walking the streets”.

ONE eye laughing and one eye crying could be a fitting way to describe reaction to the cast of ministers picked by Robert Fico, Slovakia’s incoming prime minister, who recently told the Sme daily that he wants to govern the country in a way that “one day he will not have to crawl along walls when walking the streets”.

The nomination of Tomáš Borec, a non-partisan candidate who chairs the Slovak Bar Association, to become the country’s justice minister is a move which has silenced even the harshest critics of Fico’s past personnel policies.

Borec is one of the post-election pledges that Fico gave while trying to put himself in the role of a metamorphosed, transparent, fair and responsible politician working for the benefit of the people, many of whom had lost faith that such politicians exist in Slovakia. Amid speculation that Martin Glváč, the head of Smer’s Bratislava regional unit, might be appointed justice minister, Fico hinted that his choice would be a ‘pleasant surprise’ – and he was right. Borec seems to be acceptable across the political spectrum as well as in professional circles, a rare concordance in a Slovak political system plagued by blatantly partisan nominations.

But those who hoped this would end Glváč’s ministerial aspirations soon faced an unpleasant surprise: he will become the new defence minister. Glváč occupying the justice minister’s chair struck a raw nerve even with some Smer members who, according to the SITA newswire, were worried about his connections with business and financial groups, while Sme reminded its readers about Glváč’s past contacts with Jozef Svoboda, a murdered underworld boss.

There are not many reasons to consider Glváč better suited to head the Defence Ministry, where his predecessor was sacked over wiretapping of journalists’ phones by the military’s counter-intelligence agency. Before his demise the past defence minister had filed several criminal complaints over what he called crooked deals, certainly suggesting that this ministry could use a good clean-up.

A name that will not appeal to critics, if it appeals to anyone outside the Smer family, is Ján Počiatek, Fico’s previous finance minister. Počiatek will get the post at the “super-ministry”, the former Transport Ministry that was beefed up to suit Ján Figeľ of the Christian Democratic Movement, who obviously did not think the re-configured Ministry of Transport, Construction, and Regional Development – that controls a large hunk of EU funding – would return to Smer so soon. Počiatek’s political career was seriously rocked in 2008 after he appeared on a yacht in Monaco owned by a Slovak financial group just before the Slovak crown’s parity rate to the euro was re-valued that May. But after being scolded by Fico, who called his conduct unethical, Počiatek managed somehow to return to favour with the party leader.

Fico has never before been engaged in such intense discourse over government transparency, saying that Smer will do its best to eliminate any questionable practices in public procurement and stating “let’s not allow firms which we know nothing about to enter tenders”. His party is now promising to enact new rules for lobbyists and might even be willing to revamp the criminal code to make police work more effective in dealing with white-collar crimes.

The designated interior minister, Robert Kaliňák, is already talking about possibly changing the rules on anti-competitive activities and making asset-ownership reports filed by politicians more revealing.

This talk needs to become the reality of Slovakia’s political and business environment: a recent survey of 212 foreign investors found that they view the fight against corruption as the new government’s top priority.

While the survey found tax issues important, the investors were more worried that their corporate taxes are being frittered away by various kinds of corruption in public procurement. They surely are tired of hearing the old story that it takes time until Slovaks who do business in underhanded ways are forced to the sidelines and the game will be played only by those who respect clearly-stated rules that reflect the norms of any standard democracy.

So we will wait to see whether Fico will remain an advocate of transparency and the rule of law in six months, when the ‘standard’ Slovak procurement game begins and players who feel they are entitled to big pieces of state largesse try to take control of the pitch.

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