Tom Nicholson in Bratislava -
Six years ago, diplomats at the US Embassy in Bratislava noticed that "a shadowy financial group" called Penta - "known for its predatory business practices" - was apparently buying votes in parliament to secure the passage of healthcare legislation. ChargÃ© d'affaires Scott Thayer informed his superiors at the State Department that, "a reliable contact with ties to Penta" had told the embassy that the company paid independent MPs 2m Slovak crowns (€66m) in 2005 to approve a bill allowing franchising of pharmacies.
Despite the gravity of these claims, Penta's name was seldom mentioned again in the hundreds of cables that streamed from Bratislava to Washington until mid-2010.
By contrast, Supreme Court Chief Justice Stefan Harabin was pilloried in dozens of cables during the same period - on one occasion for his "deeply troubling" politicisation of the judicial sector; on another for his "offensive language and bold public lies"; and on still another as a "nefarious" influence with "proven past association with a suspected drug trafficker."
"The damage that Harabin and his supporters are doing will be felt in Slovakia for years
to come," wrote chargÃ© d'affaires Keith Eddins in January 2009.
At first read, the Wikileaks cables from Bratislava are titillating mainly for their frank accounts of behind-the-scenes venality. But on closer inspection the US embassy's coverage of Slovakia raises intriguing questions. Why, for example, was there so much hand-wringing over Harabin's supposed kidnapping of the judicial branch, and so little over Penta's alleged hijacking of the legislative branch? What made the 2002-2006 Mikulas Dzurinda administration so much more acceptable than the 2006-2010 Robert Fico government, given that the embassy knew both were guilty of high-level corruption?
Oscar Wilde wrote that portraits do not depict the sitter so much as the artist, who "reveals himself on the canvas." In the same way, the cache of diplomatic cables from Bratislava offers fascinating insight not just into Slovak politics per se, but also into how the US relates to Slovakia.
Thayer himself offered a reason why Penta's vote-buying might not have concerned the US: the alleged corruption was seen as serving the greater good - economic reform. "The Slovak healthcare sector is truly being transformed from an inefficient, indebted and corrupt system into one that is closer to sustainability," he noted. "Despite accusations of vote buying for one of the reforms, it is important to remember that all six reforms passed."
Other Dzurinda government corruption was treated with the same indulgence, with euphemisms often employed instead of more expressive language. Economy Minister Pavol Rusko, for example, was rumoured to have received kickbacks from the 2003-4 Hyundai/Kia investment near Zilina in northern Slovakia, while his ministry officials routinely charged a 10% cut to approve EU grant projects. "Rusko's own business interests are his biggest motivation to remain in government," a cable noted blandly. "There is a common perception Rusko's hands may not be entirely clean," said another.
Labor Minister Ludovit Kanik resigned in October 2005 after requesting €700,000 in structural funds to reconstruct a hotel he owned in central Slovakia. "Kanik has always been known as an 'entrepreneurial politician'," Ambassador Rodolphe Vallee deadpanned.
The current Finance Minister Ivan Miklos was another who could apparently do no wrong. Several cables refer to evidence that the embassy allegedly had of corruption involving the internationally respected architect of Slovakia's economic reforms. According to well-informed sources consulted by the author of this article, Ambassador Ron Weiser had passed this information on to then-opposition leader Robert Fico, with whom he had a close personal relationship, in the run-up to 2002 parliamentary elections. The motive was apparently revenge: Miklos had allowed a block of shares in the VSZ steelmaker to be sold to domestic financial groups rather than to the US Steel Kosice as promised. "Opposition leader Robert Fico publicly claimed the Embassy had told him of Miklos' corrupt activities," wrote Thayer in June 2005. "Fico persisted in his public statements despite being told the Embassy could not and would not support him."
While this information was presented in a profile of Miklos under the heading "the darker side," most of that cable celebrated Miklos' reform credentials - as if they trumped the "accusations of corruption (that) have dogged Miklos for years."
"Much of the credit for Slovakia's rapid progression since 1998 from political outcast to EU member and economic success story belongs to the policies of Ivan Miklos," Thayer wrote. "Regardless (of the corruption allegations), Miklos is well-regarded internationally and his future appears bright."
By contrast, members of the 2006-2010 Fico administration - especially former authoritarian PM Vladimir Meciar and nationalist leader Jan Slota - did not fare so well. One cable from March 2006 termed Meciar "a criminal who has lost his mind." Another from June 2006 portrayed Meciar as "crazy" and Jan Slota as "a drunk nationalist." After the formation of the "worst possible scenario" HZDS-SNS-Smer coalition, the criticism continued unabated; Slota was described as a "nationalist bigot" with "buffoonish antics," while PM Fico was "completely in the hands of shady businessmen." Slovakia under such a government was in danger of "sliding towards socialism (Fico), nationalism (Slota), authoritarianism (Meciar) and corruption (all of the above)."
Individual corruption cases under the Fico government were also singled out for devastating criticism. Machinations with restitution saw lucrative land under the High Tatras mountain resort sold in 2007 for a pittance to the GVM company, which had "financial ties" to Meciar. "The magnitude of corruption in this case is so obvious and so reminiscent of practices during the 1990s (when Meciar was PM) that it places Meciar and his party in an especially bad position," Vallee wrote.
The embassy also seemed to regard another domestic financial group, J&T, as a greater threat to Slovak democracy under Fico, than Penta had been under Dzurinda. J&T "presents a disturbing picture of official corruption at the highest levels," said one cable; in particular, the group was singled out as "a major financier of the Prime Minister's political party, Smer."
"The much-rumored connections between J&T and the PM's office are real, the demands and channels of influence are bold, and nearly everyone appears willing to go along," lamented Ambassador Vincent Obsitnik.
A few months later, the embassy was outdoing itself even on these dire warnings. Fico's "tolerance of high-level governmental corruption and malfeasance is undermining the public's - and our - confidence in the rule of law in Slovakia," Keith Eddins warned.
"A system of patronage, opacity, and outright corruption that has come to characterize the Fico government," the embassy wrote in the aftermath of the Interblue carbon credit scandal. The problem was not just perennial scofflaws like Meciar and Slota, but also "Smer officials" who had "many dodgy financial backers." Even President Ivan Gasparovic was tarred with the same brush as "widely reported to have been involved in suspect privatizations."
It could be argued that the embassy's increasingly dire portrait of corruption under Fico was a faithful portrait of reality. But the cable traffic suggests that other factors were at work as well - principal among them that the US diplomats feared that the rule of law in the country was under threat on other fronts as well.
The embassy's sudden concern with the judicial sector, for example, leaps off the page. As early as March 2004 the Slovak judicial system had been described as "almost dysfunctional," but that was nothing compared to the portraits offered after Harabin was made justice minister and then head of the Supreme Court in 2009. "The state of the judiciary is becoming one of Slovakia's biggest internal problems," wrote Eddins at one point. "Two months ago we characterized the situation in the Slovak judiciary as 'critical'. Since then, the prognosis has gotten even worse."
For starters, there was General Prosecutor Dobroslav Trnka, who warned embassy staff that "organized crime, not corruption, is the most serious problem in Slovakia, because while petty corruption may be rampant, organized crime leads to instances of 'state corruption', which can be measured in 'millions, not thousands'."
The US embassy clearly felt Trnka should first attend to his own connections to organised crime. "His association with a shadowy businessman, Marian Kocner, raise questions about his independence and judgment," wrote Eddins. In another cable, Trnka was described as "close to Marian Kocner... a Slovak businessman with known mafia connections."
Trnka was not the only one profiting from the debasement of the justice system. "Mafioso in Slovakia are rejoicing at these developments. They should be: more and more, what passes for justice here appears to be on their side," the embassy wrote.
And apparently, the mafia had connections in high places - such as Fico's Smer party. "Smer appears to be pulling out the stops. This may include allowing the rough elements in Slovak society a freer hand in intimidating enemies who happen also to be inconvenient for Smer interests." And who were these "rough elements"? Apparently the Jaksik organised crime group, led by brothers Libor and Ivan Jaksik, former SWAT team trainers. "The Jaksiks themselves are the targets of criminal investigations here and in the US. In addition to their suspected ties to the mafia, they are known to have good relations with many members of the Prime Minister's party Smer."
But the embassy's bete noire from day one of the Fico administration was Stefan Harabin, not just for his "proven ties to a suspected heroin dealer, numerous public lies, and vulgar verbal attacks on judges and politicians," but also for his "sense of impunity and his utter disregard for such fundamental democratic values as a free press." The danger lay not merely in Harabin's own actions, but also in the fact that the "privatization" and "politicization" of justice in Slovakia was being tolerated and even encouraged by the rest of the Fico administration. "The fact that the Minister of Justice feels he can essentially extort the press serves as a sobering indicator of the disdain with which a free and open media is viewed by too many Slovak public officials," wrote Eddins in June 2009. "We and other like-minded diplomatic missions have been repeatedly shocked by the blatant misconduct of the highest officials in the judiciary and the acquiescence, if not active support, of the current political elite in this abuse of their power."
The state of the judiciary was so parlous that it was even seen as threatening Slovakia's international reputation. Harabin was taken to task on one occasion for apparently lying to the chairman of the OECD when asked why Slovakia had not adopted legislation on corporate criminal liability. Harabin answered that a recent Constitutional Court decision would not allow him to do so. "This is a patent fabrication; there neither was nor is a connection between the two issues," growled Eddins. "Harabin's willingness to push the envelope of the law (not to mention the truth) isn't just a domestic problem."
The US chief of mission also cited the partner of "a leading US corporate law firm here" as saying he is seeing "the complete abandonment of the search for truth in Slovak courtrooms, leaving only a war of financial interests, vying with one another to bid up the price--the monetary price--of a favorable judgment." Eddins said the firm's principal legal strategy was now "to ensure that its clients avoid having anything adjudicated in Slovakia."
Judging from the cables, the American diplomats increasingly worried about the international consequences of runaway corruption and judicial malfeasance in Slovakia. "High-level government corruption, such as we have witnessed here in recent years, combined with the evisceration of the judiciary, is undermining Slovakia's reputation as a reliable partner," Eddins wrote in a September 2009 cable that contained a sub-header, "Time to Act."
But what to do? "Only significant outside pressure, eg. from the European Commission, seems to have any real impact in moderating the excesses of this government," the diplomat reasoned. "Fico's partners, including US interlocutors need to let him know that we see what is transpiring and how dangerous it is."
The increasingly shrill tone of the US embassy cable traffic thus reflects the diplomats' belief that Slovakia's democracy was under threat on several fronts. Corruption was no longer merely a local issue as it had been under Dzurinda, involving relatively benign acts such as vote-buying in support of reformist laws, or dynamic young politicians like Ivan Miklos who, while possibly corrupt, were also "young, active (tennis and swimming), handsome, well-dressed, and a good public speaker."
Now, under Fico, high-level corruption was seen as combining with other gross threats to the rule of law Slovakia, including official indifference to the international implications of the problem. At the same time, now that Slovakia had already been admitted to the OECD, Nato and the EU, the US "no longer has the carrots and sticks that we possessed as Slovakia worked toward accession to key Euro-Atlantic institutions." The key then was to convince the State Department, through dramatically-worded cables from Bratislava, to warn Fico and his colleagues of the consequences.
Of course, altruistic concern for the health of Slovak democracy was not the only factor driving American criticism. One of the embassy's main preoccupations was how Slovak politicians spoke about the US in public, and whether they could be counted on to honour their commitments to the US and Nato in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
On this score it is abundantly clear that US diplomats felt entirely more comfortable with Dzurinda administration officials, whom they regarded as natural and sincere partners, than with Fico's crew, whom they regarded with barely-concealed contempt as unreconstructed Russophiles. One wonders whether Harabin, for instance, wouldn't have enjoyed a little more indulgence had he not been seen as an agent of Moscow. "To appreciate Harabin's judicial orientation," Eddins wrote in mid-2009, "it's worth noting that during a recent visit by his counterpart from Moscow, Harabin said that the Russian model had been the 'inspiration' and basis for draft Slovak legislation."
But it was always Robert Fico who was the focus of the embassy's suspicions. "PM Fico's
talking points often seem as if they might have been drafted in Moscow, not Bratislava," Eddins wrote in a remarkable cable from February 2009 entitled, "Fico's Role Model: Vladimir Putin?"
"Name this leader," Eddins began. "He consolidated power and popularity during a period of unprecedented economic growth. As a hedge against any current or future challengers, he attacks the opposition and media relentlessly. He accuses NGOs of seeking to undermine the government and has supported legislation aimed at eviscerating them. He's highly suspicious about the intentions of Western energy interests; he conveys the message that their exclusive focus on profits undermines the security and well-being of the country. He subscribes, at
least rhetorically, to the idea of 'Slavic solidarity', and thus is unyieldingly opposed to Kosovo's independence. He blames Ukraine for the recent gas crisis. And he rarely has a
positive public word to say about the United States. Who is it? No, not Vladimir Putin. It's Slovak Premier Robert Fico."
The embassy had been watching Fico's career over the years, Eddins wrote, and had always been impressed by his "ambition and intelligence", as well as his "ideological consistency" and his genuinely-held social democratic views. But there were more ominous traits the US diplomats had seen in the PM's make-up: his "disdain for concerns about democracy and good governance," the disturbing "facility with which Fico tells his interlocutors one thing and then does something completely different" - and especially his "generally negative outlook regarding the US."
"As Fico has moved up in the world, his interest in close relations and dialogue with the US appears to have lessened," the embassy concluded.
Now that Moscow- and communism-friendly Fico was prime minister, Eddins confessed, the embassy was genuinely stumped as to how to handle him. "The question we continue to grapple with is this: how do we effectively relate to a state which, despite its Nato and EU
labels, is led by a man who gives every impression of wanting to be Central Europe's own Vladimir Putin?"
Prime Minister Dzurinda, by contrast, was presented as almost cartoonishly pro-American, with his demonstrations of affection for Washington and President George W. Bush un-ironically chronicled. At a private dinner given by the ambassador and his wife, for example, Dzurinda and his host "agreed that relations between Slovakia and the United States had never been better."
The reasons were many, from Dzurinda's support of key US initiatives (the invasion of Iraq, Nato overflights of Slovak territory to bomb Serbia in 1999) to his obvious weakness for the Washington limelight. "The Prime Minister believes he and President Bush have an especially warm and personal relationship," reported Ambassador Vallee, in chronicling an example of the PM's social vanity. "Dzurinda was pleased that the President twice singled him out at multilateral meetings, once at a table where he talked with Dzurinda to the exclusion of jealous colleagues, and once in the White House where he kept Dzurinda after others had left to give him a pair of cufflinks and to chat."
On another occasion as well, Dzurinda was described as "visibly moved when the Ambassador presented him photos of his (Dzurinda's) visit to the Oval Office earlier this year."
Part of Dzurinda's warmth for Washington and Bush was clearly self-serving: "Dzurinda
considers his legacy to be the integration of Slovakia into Nato and the EU, so he obviously cares very much what foreign governments think of him." But on the whole, the embassy believed the Dzurinda government was sincere in its friendship with the US. One can almost hear the violins playing in this account of Parliamentary Speaker Pavol Hrusovsky's meeting with the ambassador, at which Hrusovsky "delivered a dramatic 15 minute reaffirmation of the close affinity he and his party feel for the United States and our promotion of freedom."
Whether by coincidence or not, the Washington-friendly Dzurinda was painted in glowing colours in the diplomatic traffic. While occasionally described as prickly and hating to be told what to do, and gently mocked for how often he boasted of his athletic and political endurance ("remember, I'm a marathoner"), Dzurinda was more often hailed as "a skilful negotiator who had mastered Slovakia's political minefields" and a "world champion in settling disputes among political players." He was praised for his "political genius" and his "famous political nose," such as in his response to an ultimatum from the Christian Democrats in February 2006 that the government approve a treaty with the Vatican. "Dzurinda handled the situation with aplomb, appearing in control and statesmanlike in his press conferences and taking the high road to present constructive next steps."
Robert Fico? Not so much. "Fico is an intense and driven politician, but his positions on issues are guided almost exclusively by polling and public opinion more than any well defined policy analysis," read one of the kindest assessments. Elsewhere he was described as "cynical," "increasingly paranoid," alternately timid ("blanching" at the prospect of becoming prime minister) and boastful ("obviously trying to look like Prime Minister material").
Some of the obvious antipathy in the relationship between Fico and US diplomats can be traced back to Fico's sense of personal betrayal by the embassy, which under Ron Weiser had "refused to release a list of Dzurinda's "black business dealings" to the press at Fico's request."
But in other ways it is clear that Washington regarded Fico as an unwelcome and even troubling departure from amicable business-as-usual under Dzurinda. "Slovakia has recently been developing into a key partner for the US both in Europe and elsewhere. Fico's willingness to warm relations with Russia may indicate that Slovakia could slip off the international stage and again find itself a quiet country wedged between the transatlantic alliance and Russia. It is clear that we will have to work harder under a Fico-led government and push our policy points more aggressively than was necessary in the past."
The Slovak circus
Realpolitik may largely account for the embassy's double standards in reporting corruption under Fico and Dzurinda, and the obvious favouritism it showed the more US-friendly of the two. But in deciphering the underlying messages in the Wikileaks cables, we should also note the personal imprint left by their individual authors. As in other countries, US diplomats featured in Wikileaks went to lengths to "tell a good story" from their foreign postings with humour, homey metaphors, and, occasionally, with exaggeration for good effect.
Ambassador Rodolphe "Skip" Vallee was probably the most given to folksy imagery. A college athlete himself (Vallee was captain of his university ice hockey team), "Skip" used sports jargon extensively to liven up his cables. Robert Fico was - perhaps inevitably - described as "a puck hog" (hockey slang for someone who never passes the puck and always tries to score unaided). ANO party chairman Pavol Rusko was said to be under a "full court press" by his coalition partners (a basketball idiom) over corruption allegations. However, Rusko was not expected to accept his 2005 dismissal from the Dzurinda government lightly, and would likely "go down swinging" (boxing).
The decision of the Christian Democrats to quit the Dzurinda government in 2006 was compared to that of a sulking child to quit a street game ("KDH: Taking their ball and going home"). Even popular culture got a look-in, as suspicions that the votes of independent MPs were being bought by Penta led to their "moving in mysterious ways" in parliament (the reference is to a song by Irish rock group U2).
This enthusiasm for metaphor and "fun" prose can also be glimpsed in portraits of marginal Slovak politicians, whose very inconsequence perhaps allowed them to be spoofed. Slovakia's political scene was always parochial and lacking in statesmanlike talent, as the cable writers noted: "Emboffs (embassy officials) constantly are reminded how small the leadership elite continues to be as everyone knows each other, either from university days or through family connections. Dzurinda's government, and subsequent prime ministers, will most probably continue to operate within a style of cronyism that remains a legacy from communism."
However, there were egregious standouts even by Slovakia's low standards. Economy Minister Jiri Malcharek, the embassy noted with barely-concealed contempt, "has no previous experience with economic issues and is better known as the owner of a car racing company."
Malcharek's predecessor as minister Pavol Rusko, meanwhile, was pure comic fodder. "At a press conference to commemorate the opening of the $500m Ford transmission plant, Rusko ranted about the stupidity of the Cabinet's decision on the Hankook tire investment (in which the government overturned Rusko's generous investment stimulus offer to the Korean company), proclaimed he could 'not be in the same room' as the Prime Minister, and said not a word about the plant opening. The Ford official sitting next to him was stunned."
Rusko later improved even on that performance during a visit of potential German investors to US Steel Kosice in 2006. "Rusko, though uninvited, burst in late, behaved strangely, and looked like Mickey Mouse. The businessmen commented after that, 'in Germany, we have to buy tickets to see such a circus performance'."
In the end, we'll never know whether the portrait of Slovak politics found in the Wikileaks cables was driven more by Washington's interests or by the demands of telling an interesting story with a consistent narrative. All we have are the cables themselves - and they are as unreflective as they are self-revealing. Just like any correspondence that was never meant to be read by anyone except the addressee.
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