When the state can’t keep a secret

A selective leak has tarnished President Kiska’s reputation. But he must continue to speak out about corruption.

President Andrej KiskaPresident Andrej Kiska (Source: Sme)

For more than two years, Andrej Kiska has been a strong voice speaking up for transparency, decency, respect. Those words have routinely been part of his every speech, and for the first time in many years the Slovak public has begun to feel like the president is doing the thing right.

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Kiska’s voice was relevant and appealed to many because there was also very little in his past to make it sound insincere. Take his presidential campaign in 2014: the worst thing that his competitor in the run-off, Robert Fico, could conjure up to throw at him was a groundless allegation that the president-to-be was a Scientologist.

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Read also: President Kiska talks about transparency, hides documents Read more 

But recently leaked documents now cast a shadow over Kiska too. Details of a tax audit that major Slovak newsrooms received in mid-September show that Kiska’s company mishandled its taxes related to his presidential campaign. Even though it later put things right by paying €27,000 that it owed the state, plus a penalty, the shadow of doubt that this was intentional rather than due to an accounting error, lingers. There are many people in this country who will make sure that this matter continues to haunt Kiska every time he opens his mouth in future to speak up against corruption and misuse of public money.

The president chose to be very brief in his reaction to the leaks. He did not lower his eyes and admit he had made a mistake. Instead, his explanation was along the lines: “we did nothing wrong, everything was paid eventually, everybody does it this way”.

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Unfortunately for the country and its “entrepreneurial” ethics, the case will serve as an excuse for those who routinely practise the art of “creative accounting” – trying to include as many things as possible among their business costs to decrease their tax liability, and then if tax inspectors find they did something wrong, just paying the extra tax plus a fine. It’s called “effective regret” and, incidentally, is the same device that the notorious Mr Bašternák is seeking to use to get rid of his problems.

The mention of Bašternák here is not incidental. In a covering letter sent to journalists, the anonymous author of the leak stresses that there are similarities between the controversial tycoon and Kiska. In fact, there are many differences: the fact that the sums of money involved are incomparable is only one.

Which brings us to the question that is perhaps key to this whole affair. Who was the anonymous sender and how did they get hold of documents that supposedly fall under tax secrecy laws and should not be accessible to the public?

The Kiska leak comes at the same time as Speaker of Parliament Andrej Danko is also facing allegations of involvement in corrupt practices, based on a classified document that opposition MPs got hold of. And Kiska’s case is not unlike that of Igor Matovič, whose tax affairs have been the subject of more than one press conference by Prime Minister Robert Fico. In fact, Kiska himself pointed to the case of Matovič when he spoke to Finance Minister Peter Kažimír to insist that the Financial Administration makes sure tax secrecy is preserved. Just as in the case of Matovič, some details of Kiska’s case (the unusually detailed tax audit protocol) suggest that the audit at his company was not random.

Kiska was quick to sound the alarm about the violation of secrecy: “If a head of state can be attacked in such a way, no single person in Slovakia can be sure that such gangland-style blackmailing practices will not be used against him or her.”

This alarm might seem insincere to those who interpret it as just an attempt by the president to defend himself. But he is right on this one. Citizens cannot feel safe in a state that so easily betrays its secrets – secrecy that, in the case of tax, is designed precisely to protect them. It is yet another instance in which the country needs a strong voice to address the problem. But because of his company’s actions, President Kiska is for now unable to speak out convincingly.

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