Slovak politics braced for shocks from Swiss HSBC

By bne IntelliNews February 16, 2015

Benjamin Cunningham in Bratislava -

 

A trove of leaked documents from HSBC's Swiss subsidiary include revelations about 147 accounts with ties to Slovakia. A spike in new accounts as the country went through a privatisation drive in the early 2000s suggests potential political fallout if investigations are able to turn up details.

Some 40 Slovak-linked accounts were created at the unit in 2002, around the time Slovenske Elektrarne (SE) and gas utility Slovensky plynarensky priemysel (SPP) were in the middle of being privatised. This is drawing particular attention, and Slovakia's National Crime Agency (NAKA) says it has requested additional information from law enforcement agencies in Switzerland, the UK and the Czech Republic. NAKA said on February 11 it will investigate based on its mandate to prevent money laundering and the financing of terrorism. 

HSBC computer analyst Herve Falciani turned over details of an estimated 30,000 accounts holding nearly $120bn in assets to French tax authorities. As the number of Slovak-linked accounts emerged, the Financial Administration said the country's special "Tax Cobra" unit, will investigate, and that Bratislava has requested all relevant documents from Paris. Falciani claims there is more to come.

The case puts Slovak politics on alert. With just a year until the 2016 general election, the revelations have the potential to influence the landscape significantly, says Grigorij Meseznikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava, largely through collateral damage. "Of course much will depend on the names on that list," he admits. 

An estimated 60 clients with ties to Slovakia are said to hold $48.7mn in those 147 accounts. Six Slovak passport holders are directly linked to accounts, many of the other accounts are anonymous or affiliated with shell firms. Sme reports that the largest single account holds $10.5mn. 

Gorilla tactics

A number of the accounts date back to 1998, when authoritarian prime minister Vladimir Meciar was still in charge. Then a wave of new accounts was created in 2002, during Mikulas Dzurinda's second term as prime minister. In addition to SE and SPP, several regional energy companies and water utilities were privatised around the same time. 

Another spike in new accounts took place in 2005, just ahead of general elections in spring 2006. That vote saw Dzurinda's centre right SDKU beaten by the current centre-left Prime Minister Robert Fico and his Smer party.  

The suspicion that the Swiss accounts are connected to the privatisation efforts will not help those on right as they head to the 2016 vote. In 2002, the SDKU governed alongside the Christian Democrats (KDH), the Party of the Hungarian Community (SMK-MKP) and the largely defunct Alliance of the New Citizens. 

"Potential rivals can use it as an argument against these parties, even if it is some older person whose name appears on the list," Meseznikov suggests. 

The SDKU is disintegrted, having been gutted just ahead of the 2010 election by the Gorilla scandal, which also centered on allegations of corrupt privatisation. Previously Slovakia's largest party on the right, it now polls at around 2% support, and is unlikely to be a major factor in the upcoming election. KDH however drew 10.9% in a Focus agency poll released February 12, good enough to finish third. 

The chance that a sudden revelation closer to election time could influence the outcome has some recalling the Gorilla case, which delivered a landslide victory for Fico and Smer just months later. The left-leaning party remains frontrunner to lead the next government, polling at 35.5%, but the same Focus poll indicates it would likely need a coalition partner. 

The leading party on the right, Siet', polls at 11%, with KDH closely behind. At the same time it would prove difficult to directly implicate many current political actors with wrongdoing going back to 2002. Siet', for example, was only founded in 2014. "It does not seem to me that it would have a similar dynamic" to the Gorilla case in the 2012 election, Meseznikov sums up.

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