The return of the prodigal sons
[31.10.2005, Beata Balogová, NEWS]

It seems as though political parties have never been less popular in Slovakia with fewer people trusting the motives of politicians than today. People tend to believe that personal gain and a thirst for power are the only forces driving people to enter public life.

The public neither trusts political party fundraisers nor wants to see taxpayer money flowing into political party causes.

And who can blame them? Over the past three months, three ministers of the Mikuláš Dzurinda cabinet have been accused of cronyism and corruption. Pavol Rusko and Ľudovít Kaník have had to leave their ministerial posts, the first under duress and the other left with little choice but to resign. The third, Zsolt Simon, still enjoys the trust of the prime minister and his party, the Hungarian Coalition Party, but faces public disapproval.

Each ruling coalition party has its Rusko and Kaník. It does not require digging deep into one's memory to recall the scandals associated with certain members of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), for example, or Smer's unexplained links to the energy sector.

It also seems that almost every political party has its Simon, the Prodigal Son it is willing to forgive at all costs.

By now it is certain that Agriculture Minister Zsolt Simon will keep his job. The suspicion that he abused his position as agriculture minister by receiving a large sum of money from the very ministry he headed will only hurt the image of the SMK.

Even though Simon sold his company, Agrotrade, which received agricultural funding worth Sk8 million (€205,000) back in 2003, the money did, in fact, come through the institution Simon was managing.

The SMK claims that Simon kept the process transparent overall, and that the information was right under the public's nose at all times.

Just as former Labour Minister Ľudovít Kaník did before him, Simon argued that he did not violate any laws. But unlike Kaník, Simon could insist that he could not interfere with the decision-making process. The criteria that determined funding were not subjective.

Simon's deputy, Marián Radošovský, an appointee of the Christian Democratic Movement, also received funding and is using similar arguments.

Even the prime minister agrees that the conduct of the ministers is unethical. However, unethical conduct has never been a deadly disease forcing politicians out of office. On the contrary, it often ensures their survival. Thanks to a lack of political ethics, certain politicians have been able to exchange parties based on political mood, not principles.

Simon has forced Dzurinda into another awkward situation. While the prime minister managed to persuade Kaník to step down after the labour minister's involvement in the Sk22 million (€557,000) EU grant was exposed, the SMK trusts Simon and do not want Dzurinda to dismiss him.

Simon's conduct mars the image of the SMK, a party that so far managed to keep its record clean. At the same time, it also damages the credit of the Dzurinda government.

Many have pointed out that Kaník, Rusko and Simon are typical examples of businessmen who make it to politics but are unable to relinquish their business roots in deference to their new political responsibilities.

Businessmen who turn to politics often understand their public commitment as something that can help them create further business contacts. If their political careers nosedive, they do not have much to lose. They simply return to their former lives and continue flourishing, basking in the rays left behind by the politician's influence.

A conflict of interest is not always about violating laws per se. However, every case gives a blow to the public's trust.

Radovan Kazda, an analyst of the Conservative Institute of M. R. Štefánik, wrote in the daily SME that the greatest risk of corruption in Slovakia does not pertain to state subsidies that state servants can access.

"It is only a negligible part of the sum that state officials can gain uncontrollably in the shade of the property worth several billions of crowns that remains unnecessarily in the hands of the state," Kazda wrote.

He thinks that corruption is not a phenomenon infecting the public administration from outside, but on the contrary, "it is one of the natural, though very negative side effects of the public administration."

Simon's story is not a new one. The daily Pravda wrote about it in 2002, but once the media's attention gets shifted elsewhere, the government wraps itself in silence and hopes that journalists will forget.

Simon, perhaps to play it as safe as he could under the circumstances, published the information on the Internet, making the impression that there was nothing wrong with his firm receiving subsidies from the very organization he managed.

His state secretary, Radošovský of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), followed in the footsteps of his boss. However, the KDH has a more serious transgressor than Radošovský. Rača Mayor Pavol Bielik, who is suspected of corruption, plans to run for re-election. A KDH party member, Bielik has been resisting those who would like to see him step down.

Voters can only hope that political parties will offer strong platforms during next year's elections. Those who reject the HZDS and the populist policies of Smer and still want to cast their votes for ethical conduct look like they might face some serious dilemmas.

Article was published in the Slovakia`s English-language weekly The Slovak Spectator.

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