In 1994, as red-faced Vladimír Mečiar left the polling station claiming the electoral committee had prevented him from casting his vote by leaving his name off the electoral list, he scored a big victory by putting on a convincing show of righteous indignation. All day long television showed his angry face sending Slovak voters to ballot boxes by their thousands and handing nearly absolute power to their favourite politician, who had been set upon by dark forces.
Since then nobody has managed to pull a diabolical trick that could significantly impact the election results and Slovakia’s future – right up until now. Shortly before Christmas, less than three months before the scheduled early election, a book-length text appeared on the Internet bearing the strange title Gorilla. Ever since then this has dominated public debate in Slovakia and a recent opinion poll suggests that, as a result of the information in this document, 20 per cent of the electorate have decided to cast their vote for a party other than the one they originally intended to.
A window on Slovak politics
The document codenamed Gorilla – a title bestowed upon it by an anonymous analyst working for Slovakia’s intelligence service SIS – is a report detailing links between politicians and the Penta finance group between 2005 and 2006, i.e. the period when Mikuláš Dzurinda’s right-wing government was in power. It is based on wiretaps from a safe house used for meetings between Penta’s representative Jaroslav Haščák and a number of politicians, including the then economics minister Jirko Malchárek and the head of the National Property Fund, Anna Bubeníková. The whole saga is basically a transcript of conversations revolving around how many millions a certain politician or a party should receive for the privatization of companies, primarily in the energy and transport sector.
Unlike various illegally published transcripts of telephone conversations, in which people are much more guarded, the conversations from the safe house are shockingly straightforward and uninhibited. For example, discussing members of parliament who were to be bribed to vote for Dzurinda’s minority government, Haščák and Malchárek go through them one by one: one is “unpredictable”, another is completely mercenary, he’ll go wherever he’s offered more, a third “will obey for four million”, the fourth had asked for money before Christmas but “half a million will be enough to make him serve us until the day he dies” and so on. The Gorilla brief is a window that has allowed everyone to look directly into the guts of Slovak politics and get the impression that it’s just the lackey of businessmen who tell politicians what to do and remunerate them for their services. It is a detailed probe into “mafia capitalism” which everyone knew existed but only few had a clear idea how it worked.
The affair has branched out into various directions at lightning speed. A growing amount of published information confirms that the files, or at least parts of them, are authentic even though Penta itself claims it is a load of nonsense and threatens to go to court to ensure the files are removed from all websites from which they have spread to the public like wildfire. However, by firing Bubeníková two weeks ago Iveta Radičová’s caretaker government basically admitted that it has taken the files seriously; the Prime Minister has even found a copy in the government archives.
Information contained in the files circulating on the Internet refers, for example, to a bribe of 200 million Slovak crowns [before joining the European common currency 1 euro bought approximately 30 Slovak crowns] for helping Penta privatize a number of companies. Allegedly the money was laundered by a company called Elementa, a company that did exist, and Bubeníková’s husband was involved with it. A lot of other circumstantial evidence has come to light and further examples keep emerging.
After leaving office, former minister Malchárek, originally a racing car driver, opened the largest Audi showroom in Bratislava with the help of credit from a bank owned by Penta, and as the daily SME discovered, he has also done business deals with Penta in the health sector. The Gorilla Brief mentions kickbacks for Malchárek to the tune of hundreds of millions of crowns for doing Penta’s bidding, a claim denied by both himself and Penta.
The files contain countless similar examples. Entire passages are concerned with haggling over how much money Gabriel Palacka, treasurer of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union SDKÚ [former Prime Minister Dzurinda’s party] will demand for various privatization deals (Penta’s Haščák estimated a figure of up to a hundred million crowns). The files contain the following statement: “Palacka was happy when Haščák proposed an all-inclusive commission deal, meaning he wouldn’t have to do anything himself except sending Haščák details of a bank account from London to which the latter was to send the money.”
However, in themselves the files do not constitute evidence, particularly since the original wiretaps have allegedly been destroyed by the secret services in accordance with the law. Nevertheless, they provide extremely valuable guidance for the police and Minister of the Interior Daniel Lipšic has already set up a special investigating team. The case is overseen by the Special Prosecutor, a body founded years ago specifically to deal with corrupt politicians and organized crime. Minister Lipšic, who has long based his political reputation on fighting corruption, has claimed theatrically that the Gorilla affair is Âthe most horrific thing that has happened to Slovakia since the days of Mečiar and that he will do everything he can to ensure the police catch as many members of this “criminal grouping” as possible. He suggested that this time the investigators would also follow up foreign bank accounts and transactions that are hinted at in the Gorilla Brief.
If the police really manage to uncover bribery and money-laundering, that would shake up Slovak politics to its foundations. That is clearly the reason why the police have not yet discovered anything, even though they investigated the Gorilla brief in 2006, when the wiretaps were still fresh, and also three years later (eventually shredding the documents).
But that was a very different situation, as at the time the public had no idea the brief existed. Prime Minister Radičová has now appealed to President Ivan Gašparovič to remove the executive privilege of the secret services with respect to this affair and Minister Lipšic has called on the public to keep an eye on politicians who might want to delay the investigation or sweep it under the carpet.
The very fact that there is now a public debate has shaken up the political scene and the scandal is very likely to affect the outcome of the early election. The SDKÚ is likely to suffer most, as the brief contains numerous unflattering references to the party’s two top representatives, Mikuláš Dzurinda and Ivan Mikloš, who [at the time in their capacity as Prime Minister and Finance Minister respectively] took the major decisions while people like Bubeníková and Palacka were mere pawns on the larger chessboard of corruption.
For more than ten years Dzurinda’s party had been the workhorse of the liberal Right and as recently as the election campaign two years ago it managed to deal with allegations made by the then Prime Minister and its key political rival Robert Fico that it had laundered money from kickbacks using secret bank accounts in London.
Party leader Dzurinda decided not to contest the elections and step aside in favour of Iveta Radičova. The SDKÚ electorate perceived this as a gesture of humility and the party preserved its leading position within the Slovak Right. This time, however, the disillusioned Radičová is not standing for office and plans to leave party politics. Dzurinda’s and Mikloš’s response to the affair has been rather evasive and they both voted against the caretaker government’s decision to fire Bubeníková. This behaviour might test the patience of even the most loyal SDKÚ voters, as demonstrated by a recent poll, the first since the Gorilla brief came to light.
The remaining parties have shown varying degrees of horror at the information contained in Gorilla, trying to convince the public that this time they really mean their pledges to fight corruption. Two new right-wing parties in particular, whose representatives were not active in politics in 2006, are at an advantage. The first is Richard Sulík’s Freedom and Solidarity (SaS); the other is the so-called Ordinary People, a grouping that is formally a party but has virtually no membership, its list of candidates comprising a motley crew of famous personalities of mostly conservative persuasion.
The Gorilla affair has thus reignited a long-smouldering generation conflict, in which the younger generation, especially on the Right, has long been waiting for an opportunity. This has now been handed it and Sulík is openly saying it is high time for politicians like Dzurinda and others to leave the field. Some suspect SaS to have been behind the Internet publication of the files, which had been circulating among politicians and business people for years. It is alleged that they did so to improve their own position, which had suffered because it was Sulík’s members of parliament who brought about the downfall of Iveta Radičová’s government (of which SaS was a junior coalition member) by refusing to vote for the European financial stability measures for saving the euro. The vote in parliament was then won thanks to the support of Fico and his opposition Smer party, in exchange for the collapse of the government and an early election.
The story has spun out of control but what makes it most peculiar is the fact that there are no heroes here. Sulík himself was forced to admit that he and his party colleagues had read the Gorilla brief two years ago. Since they chose to say nothing at the time, their current indignation is not very convincing. Moreover, a Penta representative told the daily SME that until a few months ago his company had enjoyed excellent relations with Sulík.
The media who have subjected politicians involved in the Gorilla brief to a daily pounding on their front pages don’t come out of the affair smelling of roses either, for it turns out that the document was circulating around the offices of several right-leaning newspapers as early as 2009, yet none chose to deal with it, while the Canadian-born Slovak investigative journalist Tom Nicholson, who had studied the files, had done the rounds of these newspapers asking them to publish his findings, to no avail.
On the other hand the Slovak media are in a difficult situation since Slovak courts often mete out draconian fines (often up to one million crowns) if a politician or businessman takes them to court for even the smallest inaccuracy contained in an otherwise flawless investigative article. As a result journalists are cautious, resorting only to completely bullet-proof facts and leaving the readers to guess at the complex background information.
It is in the explosive nature of this background information that the greatest value of the Gorilla brief lies since, by means of a one-act drama set in a flat where various characters chatted to one another, it has conjured up a detailed vision of a corrupt system. Journalists’ hands have been untied only by the – rather belated – will of politicians, primarily those from SaS. Their original caution, or rather, cowardice (perhaps also an unwillingness to endanger a right-wing government) has become part of the story of a country controlled by a cartel of politicians, businessmen and the judiciary. However, all this could change as a result of a broad public debate. Journalists now have a chance to show what they’re capable of and not let the affair disappear off the face of the earth even if the police fail to complete the task.
It is still too early to assess the impact the Gorilla brief will have on the parliamentary election in early March but one thing is already certain: in the one month since the files have been uploaded on the Internet (further evidence of the Internet becoming a driving force of history) the scandal has completely supplanted another key issue of the election campaign, Slovakia’s relations with Europe. Following the collapse of Iveta Radičová’s government a cautious alliance of pro-European parties across the political spectrum was beginning to emerge, including Robert Fico’s left-wing Smer and some of the three traditionally right-wing parties. Now, however, this alliance has been given a new label: Sulík and his SaS refer to it as the “gorilla coalition”, i.e. an alliance of corrupt old groupings.
Shortly before the election, then, two great and competing crises have clashed in Slovakia. The first crisis hails from Europe and Slovakia will weather it only if a majority of its political elite reaches a consensus regarding the issue of Europe. The other is an internal crisis of this very political elite whose years of links with business are about to break its neck. They are competing against a new generation of right-wing parties with marked anti-European views and a strong populist streak.
The experience from Poland, where the so-called Rywin corruption scandal had swept away the political elite, ushering in the era of the Kaczyński twins, and from Hungary, where the making public of a recording of the left-wing Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány in which he boasted of having “lied from morning till night” brought Viktor Orbán to power, is not exactly encouraging. In both cases anti-corruption agenda soon deteriorated into autocratic practices by the new rulers.
Slovakia’s population is sinking into skepticism and this turbulent period may give rise to unexpected developments. A survey by the Institute for Public Affairs has shown that the Slovaks’ pride in their country has sunk from 77 per cent in 2008 to a mere 49. And that was before they had even heard of the Gorilla affair, which has quite undeservedly turned this peace-loving primate into the bugbear of Slovakia’s political fauna and a symbol of evil.