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Up in smoke

IF IT DID not cost Slovak taxpayers €66 million, the story of the amorphous Interblue Group, which purchased the country’s excess carbon dioxide emissions quotas at a discount price, would be an entertaining political thriller.

IF IT DID not cost Slovak taxpayers €66 million, the story of the amorphous Interblue Group, which purchased the country’s excess carbon dioxide emissions quotas at a discount price, would be an entertaining political thriller.

The Interblue story comes with its own strange cast, including the first flesh-and-bones person emerging from the fog surrounding the company originally registered at an unattended lock-up garage in the United States, Jana Lütken, who shortly after claimed to have suffered a serious concussion in an encounter with a Slovak television crew before resigning her post. Then came the hotelier and gasman of Czech origin but with ties to Slovakia, who allegedly bought the company. Since the Slovak emissions deal, Interblue has morphed into a Swiss firm with the new owners unable to prove that the new Interblue Group Europe is the legal successor to the original US-based firm.

The drama’s cast also includes Norbert Havalec, who worked as project manager in Interblue while simultaneously advising the SNS-led Environment Ministry, as reported by the Sme daily. Then comes another Interblue manager, Rastislav Bilas, who confirmed that former environment ministers Jaroslav Izák and Ján Chrbet, both nominees of the Slovak National Party (SNS), negotiated the quota deal with him and Havalec.

Yet, none of this cast of characters, it seems, will ever end up in court over what is believed to be an exemplary mismanagement of public funds. Police investigators say “the act [related to Interblue] is not a crime” and thus there is no reason to continue investigating.

The shifty contract masterminded by the Environment Ministry in 2008 when it was run by a nominee of the SNS, then in a coalition with Prime Minister Robert Fico’s Smer party, was one of the most controversial cases of Fico’s first government. His initial reaction to revelations over the sale of the emissions quotas in May 2009? “I have no time to deal with this meaninglessness”, as quoted by Sme.

The specifics of the deal involved Slovakia selling quotas to emit 15 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to Interblue at €5.05 per tonne, just as Slovakia’s neighbours were cashing in their quotas for around twice that price. Interblue quickly turned around and resold the quotas for a healthy profit. The deal resulted in the dismissal of at least two ministers, as well as the SNS eventually losing political control of the ministry. Slovakia withdrew from the contract.

Even today it is not completely clear who was pulling the strings from the garage when the deal, clearly disadvantageous for the Slovak state, was manufactured. In the past Fico has hinted that the deal “smells of amateurism on the part of the SNS”, according to Sme, but it seems that no one else but the public is paying for this “amateurism”.

This is happening around the time when the police stopped the investigation into alleged blackmail connected with the privatisation of the Bratislava airport, as well as a criminal prosecution in connection with buying the votes of MPs during the vote on a package of health-care reform laws under the second administration of former prime minister Mikuláš Dzurinda.

These suspicions emerged on the heals of the anonymously leaked Gorilla file, a lengthy document that purports to describe an operation conducted by the Slovak Information Service (SIS), the country’s main intelligence agency, in which it collected information about the influence of the Penta financial group on senior Slovak politicians between 2005 and 2006.

In Slovakia, no major scandal involving massive waste of public funds has led to the responsible parties ending up in prison. Such things, rather unsettlingly, are hardly even looked at with surprise anymore. On one hand the state is now on a crusade against VAT evasion with a nationwide lottery, claiming that some fishy companies will certainly end up in their net, but at the same time overlooking cases where millions went up in smoke – literally.

The €66 million, if not squandered, could have, for example, covered wage demands of the nurses who spent three days in tents to bring attention to their profession. But it actually seems that the Slovak taxpayers are frequently unaware that all the murky deals and lavish dinners with mistresses that politicians cover from the state coffers, in fact come from their pocket. Instead, they mistakenly think that their money is largely spent on programmes for the Roma community or the unemployed. The truth is that they sponsor the “amateurish” rule of those who should have never been allowed to handle public funds in the first place.

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