What happened in Slovakia sounds like a scenario of a political movie: a private investment company, a bench of political leaders, a backdrop of national elections opposing the outgoing right wing party and the leftist populist candidate, and a secret file released on the Internet.
To me the most hurting is that the corruption operation took place during the integration of Slovakia into the EU. What was supposed to be a democratization and modernization process was completely diverted to serve the interest of the dominants. Open your eyes people, “Europeanization” is not what we have been told… Free market economy, democracy, human-oriented values, transparency and accountability, consumer protection… Where are all these things and how can we trust European institutions? And above all, how can we trust the political class?… Well to that second question, Slovaks already answered with indifference. No one is really surprised by the scandal, but still the governing party stepped down.
So what are exactly the Gorilla file and the Penta affair?
The Gorilla file: Slovak election overshadowed by huge corruption, protesters toss bananas
For two years, the dossier claims, politicians of all stripes were pocketing kickbacks from members of an influential private investment group. In the wall of the apartment where the clandestine meetings took place was a listening device planted by a secret agent intrigued by why so many high-level visitors were dropping in.
The “Gorilla” files — mysteriously posted online by an anonymous source in December and said to be based on the wiretaps — have rocked the already-raucous world of Slovak politics ahead of elections Saturday. The fallout looks certain to propel populist former leader Robert Fico back into power, even though he himself has been implicated.
The file purportedly documents shady dealings between 2005 and 2006, and suggests investment group Penta bribed government and opposition politicians to win lucrative privatization deals. Politicians from almost all major parties have been tainted in the scandal, named after a beefy Penta guard whose apartment provided the venue for the meetings.
Prime Minister Iveta Radicova’s Slovak Democratic and Christian Union, whose free-market reforms earned the country NATO and EU membership, looks likely to be hit hardest. The party was in power in 2005-2006 and then-prime minister Mikulas Dzurinda is now foreign minister and party chairman.
Polls indicate the party will win only about 5 percent, despite overseeing an economic boom driven by solid growth, strong exports and the implementation of much-needed pension reforms. The early elections were called when the government fell after failing to approve Slovakia’s contribution to an EU bailout fund.
The left-wing Fico, who ruled from 2006 to 2010, says he is innocent and doesn’t recall the meetings he was said to have attended, adding that he couldn’t have influenced any decisions because he was in opposition.
One big winner in the scandal? Fruit vendors. Angry protesters, some in gorilla masks, have taken to the streets in numbers not seen since the final days of Communism to pelt Parliament and government offices with showers of bananas. In Prague, the capital of the neighboring Czech Republic, large painted gorilla footprints have been splashed along the streets leading up to Penta’s offices.
“You can’t really call it a proper election campaign — no programs or goals of political parties have been discussed,” said analyst Miroslav Kusy. “It’s all about these negative issues.” He said Slovaks — for whom “all politicians are just thieves” — could turn out in record low numbers of just 40 percent in a sign of their anger.
The spy agency — SIS — has refused to confirm the file’s authenticity. SIS heads are suspected of sweeping the wiretap findings under the carpet; police are now investigating following the anonymous leak.
Penta has vowed to clear its name.
The group’s Bratislava spokesman, Martin Danko, says the scandal has “undoubtedly negatively hit our reputation in Slovakia” but claims business has not been affected. In Slovakia, the group owns a health insurance company and two banks and has invested heavily in privatized firms.
The file claims that one former economy minister received the equivalent of $13 million for his assistance and that the head of the National Property Fund took in about $9 million. As with all figures caught up in the scandal, they deny wrongdoing…
What is Penta?:
Penta’s initial capital originates from the business that the two founding members, Marek Dospiva and Jaroslav Haščák, conducted in China. In the early 1990s, during their studies in Beijing, they began importing Chinese textiles to chain stores in Czechoslovakia.
Back in Bratislava, Haščák and Dospiva teamed up with their future partner, Jozef Oravkin, and began trading on the newly expanded stock exchange. At the end of 1993, they founded Penta Brokers and acquired two new partners – Martin Kúšik and Juraj Herko. All of the Penta partners had been schoolmates during their studies in Moscow and Czechoslovakia. The business name, Penta, is a tribute to the five original partners who founded the company.
In 1999, Penta was restructured into a holding with its mother company in Cyprus.
In 2005, Penta was changed its structure to that of a standard private equity company. In 2005, Penta decided to diversify its portfolio. Apart from its buyout business, Penta decided to invest in real estate.
Thomas Nicholson: Why Slovakia’s corruption scandal is good for democracy
14 March 2012. He is the man who shook Slovakia. For years, Thomas Nicholson, a Canadian investigative journalist living in Slovakia, tried to publish the “Gorilla” file about corrupted politics in the country. No one would pay attention to it, until the beginning of this year when the documents he had received from a secret service agent surfaced on the Internet. The file had a major impact on the March 10 general elections. “Politicians will have more and more difficulties to continue practice corruption”, says Nicholson, when we met in a Bratislava café on the wake on the election.
Some people say that “Gorilla” pushed more people into social-democratic leader Robert Fico’s arms. What’s your opinion on Fico coming back to power?
I am surprised by how little effect the Gorilla file has had on these elections. The expectation was lower ballot participation because people would lose faith in democracy; the right wing would be absolutely destroyed, because this corruption scandal primarily affects them. They were in power when it happened, but in fact we have had the highest turnout since 2002 (60%). The right was punished but they got a second chance.
There are many positive things about these elections. First of all, the Nationalists did not get back into Parliament. And finally we have Fico as a single party government that will have no excuses, no Nationalists or Populists to blame for corruption or for his failure. It’s a good recipe for a better government than the last time he was in power [2006-2010].
I think all in all, these elections, even though they were bad news for the Right, are about as good as what we could have hoped for. People were tired of instability, stupid arguing and inability to make compromises. Gorilla has not much to do with it in the end. People were tired of instability. Fico himself is not an angel but compared to the right wing he represents stability and that was what people were looking for.
Fico is apparently mentioned in the Gorilla document. Do you think the investigations will continue during the second Fico government?
Fico is not directly threatened by Gorilla, but his party is. Obviously his secretary was in the incriminated flat [in which politicians were meeting members of the Penta financial group and which was wire-tapped by the secret service. The transcripts form the material of the Gorilla file], he accepted money from the Penta financial group to finance his party Smer. Whether he will support or not the investigation, that is very difficult to say. There is lot of public anger about this file, and this anger goes all across the political spectrum. If he wanted to gain political points he would appear to support the investigation. But we know how politics works. He can easily stop it. This file was buried in 2006 by Josef Magala, the head of the Slovak secret service SIS, when police got it under Fico they absolutely failed. So he is not probably going to be enthusiastic about the investigation.
Do you believe that thanks to the revelation of such a scandal Slovakia will become a more democratic country?
I do. It might sound naive, but I have concrete reasons to think that. I don’t think it’s possible anymore for any financial group to do business with the government or politicians, in the future these connections will be very politically fraught with danger for any politicians to have.
As a result of this Gorilla investigation there will be a lot of initiatives that have started focusing on transparency and clarity in politics. I am a good example. I will probably leave journalism to set up a website which will be a database of connections between politics, financial groups and organised crime. It will be publicly available to voters, especially when the next election comes around. All kinds of these initiatives will come up in next four years.
The public has been empowered by knowing how corruption works, it’s a knowledge about oligarchy, politicians, political nominees, how they work. Important is that people know about these connections. You have no governmental groups providing this kind of information. All that changes the environment that we had before. Politicians will have more and more difficulties to continue to practice corruption.
Your book about Gorilla has been banned by a tribunal in Bratislava. But you’ve started publishing some fragments of it anyway in the newspapers. The Penta group, which is considered as a financial shark swimming in the Central European waters, has pressed charges against you. Do you think you can win against them?
The suit against me is 500 pages long. But at the same time they have no foundation to stand on. These people, when they can’t buy someone or scare someone, they run out of ideas because they don’t know anything else. Besides the individual discomfort of being threatened by these people, I don’t need money, I don’t need fame, anything really. And I don’t have anything to lose. As Janis Joplin said a long time ago: freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. I don’t really care about their lawsuit. I have the publishing house Petit Press, who represent me. Whether the court will be for me or against me doesn’t make much difference, because Penta lost in the Court of public opinion and I don’t think anybody is afraid of them anymore. So whatever they win in terms of financial squeeze of my double-mortgage house, they are welcomed to it.