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EDITORIAL

It’s complicated

“IT’S a very complicated issue,” Health Minister Viliam Čislák responded to a journalist’s question about whether it is possible to be competent while still violating the law. The journalists were grilling Čislák over Smer nominees signing overpriced catering contracts on behalf of state-owned hospitals with a pair of suspiciously intertwined companies.

“IT’S a very complicated issue,” Health Minister Viliam Čislák responded to a journalist’s question about whether it is possible to be competent while still violating the law. The journalists were grilling Čislák over Smer nominees signing overpriced catering contracts on behalf of state-owned hospitals with a pair of suspiciously intertwined companies.

The hospital heads were sacked after the Sme daily and Transparency International Slovensko (TIS) found out that four large state hospitals in Trenčín, Banská Bystrica, Trnava and Poprad are set to pay external caterers nearly €81 million over the course of 10 years, all based on unlawfully signed contracts.

On the same day, another hospital director in Košice was shown the door for a cleaning service deal which brought – again – an external firm which was picked without a public tender of some €28,000 per month.

It is getting more complicated for the Smer party to offer feasible justifications to the public about why allies seem to be assisting dubious companies in making a mint from a sector which the government continuously tells people is underfunded.

One might wonder what has set into motion the developments in which dubious health care contracts involving Smer nominees keep emerging, followed by surprisingly prompt action. The public is quite edgy about the waste of public funds in the healthcare sector, with regular street protests that draw up to 2,000 people being one unmistakable indicator.

The free trains for students and pensioners or cheaper electricity, which Prime Minister Robert Fico proudly heralded in late November, does not seem to be enough of a giveaway for the street to stay calm or the voter to become disinterested in who is earning what (never mind how much) through the cobweb of shell companies that are pretending to provide legitimate services.

What might appear to be Smer’s unfortunate choices in picking officials who handle state cash isn’t a mere accident; it is an indication of a system built on giving senior state jobs to party loyalists, meaning that by definition they prefer businesses linked to other Smer friends.

As for Fico, he hasn’t always been particularly sensitive to signs of cronyism. Exhibit A is perhaps a statement made at a press conference back in 2008 during his first government: “We will not consider it unacceptable if, in the case of two equal projects of the same quality and the same final effect, a minister gives preference to a [village or town] mayor who supports the ruling coalition.”

Undoubtedly, overpriced catering services will not be the last scandal to emerge from the bottomless void that is the healthcare sector. It is only thanks to public outcry that Fico sacrificed Smer strongman Pavol Paška, who had seemed safe under the protective wings of the party until the scandal surrounding the purchase of an overpriced computerised tomography device broke out.

Even in the wake of that incident, Smer leaders showed that Paška has hardly been cast out to the pastures of political retirement by giving him the microphone during the recent party congress marking the 15th anniversary of the party’s creation. Fico has even charged Paška with watching over “the order” of the party at regional level, with an emphasis on his home territory of eastern Slovakia. The message Fico was trying to send out might well be that Paška did no wrong, or at least nothing that contradicts the party modus operandi.

At present, one wonders what is driving Fico’s prompt removal of senior officials suspected of cronyism or corruption and how long such things might last. How many shell companies mediate or provide services for state hospitals with money that might have been spent more wisely?

There is a large number of people who honed their entrepreneurial skills exploring ways to tap state funds and circumvent the rules. One wonders what kind of progress society could have made if they had instead used their talent and energy for more legitimate goals for the benefit of the public instead of just a single party – or as they call it in other lines of work “the family”.

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