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Gorilla on the Loose in Slovakia

Allegations of high-level political corruption supposedly contained in a secret file just won’t go away, even if previous investigations have ended up nowhere.

by Martin Ehl 3 January 2012

Journalist Tom Nicholson recently described the implications of the so-called Gorila file as the “end of illusion” about the state of the political system in Slovakia. In recent days, the file, which allegedly shows the powerful influence of one of the country’s financial groups, has been shaking political life in Slovakia, as various people either deny or confirm its veracity. Or maybe titillating Slovak political life is a better way to describe its effect. Nicholson, who has lived and worked in Slovakia for more than 15 years, says he tried to offer the file for deeper analysis to several Slovak media, but they declined. They feared lawsuits that might arise for publicizing its contents without supporting documentation, he said.


At the same time, with proper investigation, the file would supposedly prove widespread corruption during the second government of Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, from 2002 to 2006, including the buying of votes in parliament. The file also allegedly contains transcripts of wiretaps by the Slovak Intelligence Service that prove that a single financial group, Penta, has been deciding on the methods of privatization in Slovakia (the wiretaps allegedly recorded a Penta representative meeting in a Bratislava apartment with politicians from almost all parties across the political spectrum).


According to Nicholson, who gave an interview (in Slovak) to the SME newspaper, the file
demonstrates two things. First, the political party system is underfinanced from legitimate sources so the parties need to create “fictive or ‘black’ sources of income to survive.” And second, the roots of democracy in Slovakia are shallow if “it’s possible to buy votes in parliament, and some financial group decides that it’s necessary to privatize more in order to maintain (its) revenues.”


The police have investigated Gorila twice and twice the investigations have somehow been tied up in knots. Now there is again much talk about the file, with copies circulating on the Internet. It might have served as ammunition in the approaching elections, but almost everyone has allegedly been implicated in one way or another, showing rather a systemwide problem of corruption in political life.    


According to an analysis of corruption in Slovakia – part of an annual report about the state of society published by the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs – the most corrupt sector in the country is the judiciary, with political parties coming in second. After taking power in 2010, the government of Iveta Radicova targeted the judiciary and other areas. The mandatory publication on the Internet of public-sector contracts brought Radicova’s cabinet the most praise, and the institute’s researchers deemed Radicova and her team the most conscious of all modern Slovak governments of the problem of corruption.


But former Prime Minister Robert Fico and his leftist Smer party are expected to win the elections in March. While in power from 2006 to 2010, Fico’s government drew attention for dubious reasons rather than for any anti-corruption fight (or at least anti-corruption rhetoric). From a systemic point of view, it will be interesting to see with whom Fico will form a coalition after the elections. Even assuming a landslide election victory, he probably won’t risk bearing the brunt alone of implementing the unpopular decisions that will come with the euro zone crisis. Right now, it seems that Dzurinda’s Slovak Democratic and Christian Union or the Christian Democrats could be partners. But both parties are, according to Gorila, tainted by corruption. Not only for that reason, then, are Slovakia's prospects for this year not too rosy.


Still, Slovakia did gain points in the latest Nations in Transit report published by Freedom House, which regularly monitors the state of democracy in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. In the 2011 report (analyzing the events and trends of 2010), Slovakia improved in the areas of electoral process, national democratic governance, judicial framework and independence, and the fight against corruption. Since the overall message of the report forecasts the return of authoritarianism in the post-communist world, the evaluation of Slovakia was a positive exception.


But the expected return of Fico, who is primarily a populist, forces a skeptical assessment of the future. Though the Smer chairman could surprise us, the party and the financial groups connected with it depend on the survival of the current system, so expecting change is unrealistic. According to Nicholson, without major changes to the system and a change in the current government, no one will even begin to properly investigate the suspicions contained in Gorila. The litmus test may be the publication of Nicholson's book about the file and its fate. Nicholson is looking for a publisher, because the pre-election atmosphere scared off the previous one.

Martin Ehl is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared.

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