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EDITORIAL

Following in Slota's footsteps

IF IT wasn’t such an outright attempt to tap taxpayers’ money, one could easily treat the case of Horné Plachtince as the inspiration for a perfect melodrama script for the silver screen: a small village where a passing car is enough to create a buzz makes it really big. After partnering with a private firm founded by a person with a serious conflict of interest, a former spy and a woman who has already been involved in one of Slovakia’s shadiest public tenders, it can procure services for ministries, the national academy of sciences or even the state-run newswire.

IF IT wasn’t such an outright attempt to tap taxpayers’ money, one could easily treat the case of Horné Plachtince as the inspiration for a perfect melodrama script for the silver screen: a small village where a passing car is enough to create a buzz makes it really big. After partnering with a private firm founded by a person with a serious conflict of interest, a former spy and a woman who has already been involved in one of Slovakia’s shadiest public tenders, it can procure services for ministries, the national academy of sciences or even the state-run newswire.

Those not familiar with Slovakia’s transparency-related problems and the creativity of some people for detecting cracks in the system through which they can drain state funds, might say this is something from the realm of fiction. But regular readers of the local press will instantly categorise the Horné Plachtince story as non-fiction, and wearily anticipate the return of its main characters in the storyline of some future scandal.

Zdenka Kudláčová, who was charged in association with Slovakia’s ill-famed bulletin-board tender, co-founded TenderOnline, the private company which partnered with the municipality of Horné Plachtince in order to be able to tender for the state, as reported by etrend.sk. The bulletin-board tender, of course, matches the Plachtince scheme in its absurdity: the tender, worth €120 million, was announced solely via a notice posted on a bulletin board at the Construction Ministry – which at the time was controlled by the Slovak National Party (SNS) – in an area not normally accessible to the public. The deal was awarded to the sole bidder, a consortium linked to SNS leader Ján Slota. The government, then as now, was led by Robert Fico.

It now seems that the media has rained on TenderOnline’s parade and that the 20+ state institutions will probably not conclude actual contracts with the winners selected by Regional Procurement Agency (ROA), the name of its village joint venture. In an almost perfect twist, it emerged that ROA generously promised to provide its services to the state for free. How? By extracting commissions from the very bidders to whom it later awarded contracts.

But if anyone expects a massive shake-up at the Interior Ministry, which is supposed to guarantee state procurement standards, or at the Public Procurement Office (ÚVO), they are going to be disappointed.

Though Hospodárske Noviny reported Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák on April 25 as saying that he will take a closer look at the work of his adviser for public procurement, Tatiana Behrová – the one-time deputy chair of the ÚVO, who actually proposed the cooperation with ROA – and then decide what will come next, it is unlikely that aside from finding a scapegoat the ministry will take any practical steps or fix the system to prevent any such cases in the future.

Just around the time that the media erupted with the Horné Plachtince case, news emerged that the deputy minister at the Ministry of Transport, Andrej Holák, who also serves as district chairman for Smer in one of Bratislava’s suburbs, will become the deputy chairman of the ÚVO, Slovakia’s tender watchdog. Prime Minister Robert Fico says he sees no problem with installing a Smer nominee in the job, arguing that the chairman’s post at the ÚVO “belongs” to the opposition – so the deputy post should be occupied by the ruling party. Political nominations to institutions which oversee the state’s activities only deepen the public’s apathy about how effective such oversight really is.

Given the Plachtince scheme, one might reasonably ask whether state officials check the backgrounds of firms they do business with – and if so, why did the TenderOnline not prompt doubts? And if those who said yes to ROA knew most of what the media has now dug out, but still agreed to use its services, then how deep is the rabbit hole down which taxpayers’ money can disappear?

One of the ironies is that SNS was simultaneously expelling Slota, its long-time boss, who pulled the strings at the Construction Ministry at the time the bulletin-board tender occurred. The party ditched Slota, who represents a whole tapestry of negative political stereotypes, only after it realised that its coffers were empty. Will the state have to find its coffers completely empty too before it finally gets rid of all its Slotas?

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