Fico vows an end to monkey business in Slovakia

By bne IntelliNews March 23, 2012

Tom Nicholson in Bratislava -

It's January 2006, and a prominent Slovak corporate raider is meeting privately with a top state official in Bratislava. The two are discussing upcoming government privatization sales, which have been rigged in return for millions of euros in kickbacks. The tycoon explains how to fix such tenders: by finding out ahead of time what the competition is offering.

The idea, he says, is to inflate the sealed envelopes containing the bids, and insert a micro-camera. "Then you just read the contents, line by line." The risk of discovery is small, he adds, "but if by some chance they find out, the results are fatal." He's talking from experience: such skullduggery was once indeed exposed, at the privatization agency where the state official works.

For three months now, the Slovak public has been treated to such lurid tales of corruption as part of a secret service surveillance file, codenamed "Gorilla" and leaked onto the Internet before Christmas last year. Compiled at the end of the second Mikulas Dzurinda government (2002-2006), Gorilla comprises transcripts of a dozen incriminating chats from a bugged flat in the Slovak capital, where politicians and civil servants met with a local financial heavyweight to wheel and deal. Many of the people named remain fixtures of the Slovak political scene today, just as the cynicism on display echoes a very contemporary disregard for the rules of the game. "The voter is shit," says the tycoon at one point. "The voter knows nothing, he sees only the surface."

Knowledge is power

Thanks to Gorilla, however, the average Slovak voter now has a pretty good idea of what lies beneath the surface. Which raises a vital question: can this knowledge be harnessed to clean up Bratislava politics?

"Gorilla has been a very empowering experience for Slovaks," says Martin Simecka, a Communist-era dissident and former editor of the leading Slovak broadsheet SME. "For years, people knew politics was corrupt but there was no proof, and they felt frustrated. Now, it's as if they have been able to peer through the keyhole into that Bratislava flat, and to see exactly what goes on. Now it's the politicians who are scared. The shoe is on the other foot."

In the uproar that ensued after the "Gorilla" file was published, thousands of people turned out at demonstrations across the country to protest high-level corruption. Despite a deep February chill, the rallies were some of the largest the country has seen since the 1989 revolution. Demonstrators dragged a mock gallows to the Government Office, and pelted parliament with eggs, bananas and paving stones. Several police were injured, and security forces deployed water cannon and tear gas.

Public outrage was directed mainly at the centre-right parties of the outgoing Iveta Radicova government, three of which had been in power at the time the transcripts were made. The largest party of the coalition, the SDKU of former PM Mikulas Dzurinda, got only 6% at the polls on March 10 (compared with over 15% in 2010), barely enough to qualify for seats in parliament. Dzurinda has since promised to step aside as SDKU's leader.

Social democratic leader Robert Fico, meanwhile, swept to power with a parliamentary majority, the first time in Slovakia's modern history that a single party will form a government without a coalition partner. Voters across the political spectrum are now waiting to see how he handles the "Gorilla" investigation. "I have no interest in proceeding against the file or against the team that is investigating it," Fico told bne at a meeting a week before elections.

If the PM-elect is as good as his word, the ongoing "Gorilla" investigation could shake the foundations of crony politics in Slovakia. On March 15, police charged former economy minister Pavol Rusko with fraud, stemming from the 2004 sale of the PPC energy firm to Penta, a local capital group that features extensively in the "Gorilla" file. Damages are estimated at €42m; Rusko has called the case "absurd", while Penta had refuted the "Gorilla" allegations and filed charges.

And police are just getting started, according to outgoing Interior Minister Daniel Lipsic. "Rusko was the first to be charged, but he won't be the last," Lipsic says, adding that the "Gorilla" operation had been "legitimate" and "justified, and that the file is "authentic".

Reading the runes

But if history is any guide, Fico may be disinclined to see the investigation through. During his first government, from 2006 to 2010, the "Gorilla" surveillance operation was shelved prematurely by Fico's secret service director, Jozef Magala. Under Fico's interior minister, Robert Kalinak, police took a desultory look at the file in 2009, only to bury it in a regional anti-corruption unit archives the following year. And the General Prosecutor backed by Fico's Smer party, Dobroslav Trnka, steered a renewed police investigation of "Gorilla" off a cliff in April 2011 by ordering a subordinate to "immediately re-evaluate the entire case... not that I'm trying to tell you how to decide, but after studying the file, I am amazed at how the basics of criminal proceedings were ignored."

Part of the problem may be that Fico's Smer party is no stranger to "Gorilla"-style corruption itself, and that Fico was the only political leader to have allegedly visited the flat to meet the tycoon. According to the file, Fico drank a Coke while discussing domestic politics and Smer's plans for the healthcare sector, where the tycoon had millions of euros invested.

Six years later, on election night in March 2012, as a triumphant Fico was being carried on the shoulders of celebrating Smer members, he flashed a grin and a bottle of Coca Cola at the cameras. As if to say: I'm in power now, and you've got nothing on me. "I wasn't trying to make any statement, and it wasn't a show of strength," said the PM-elect the following day. "It was just that I needed caffeine, and coffee doesn't agree with my stomach."

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