Slovakia: A Gorilla tearing down the system
1 February 2012
Explosive and mysterious, a file named “Gorilla” contains evidence of corruption in Slovakia’s political and economic elite. Two months away from early parliamentary elections, who stands to benefit from the revelations?
The file, which an unknown analyst with Slovakia’s secret service, the SIS, gave the code name “Gorilla”, is a report linking the financial group Penta with politicians in the years 2005–2006, i.e. the right-wing government of Mikulas Dzurinda. The file is based on wiretappings from a “safe house” in Bratislava where the co-owner of Penta, Jaroslav Haščák met with, among others, the former Minister of the Economy Jirko Malchárek and the head of the National Property Fund Anna Bubeníkova. In principle, the whole saga revolves around the wiretap transcripts and the talk about how many millions which politician or party is to get for the privatisation of enterprises, especially in energy and transport.
The Gorilla file is a very public window into the bowels of Slovak politics that gives the impression that politicians are mere tools of businessmen, who allocate tasks to them and pay fees. It is a detailed probe into a “mafia capitalism” that everyone was aware existed but few had concrete evidence of.
The whole case has spread across society with dramatic speed. The authenticity of the file, or of parts of it at the least, is being confirmed by the growing volume of published information. Penta, though, claims the file is a “tissue of lies” and has threatened lawsuits against the operators of servers if they fail to take down the file from all the websites it has been posted on, and from where it has been spreading like wildfire among the public.
Two weeks ago, however, the outgoing government of Iveta Radičová dismissed Bubeníkova from her position, which confirms the government is taking the case seriously, and the prime minister even found a version of the file in the government archives.
If the secret police have indeed managed to uncover bribery and money-laundering, the revelations could force a sea-change on Slovak politics. That also evidently explains why until now the police have not launched an investigation, despite compiling the transcripts in 2006, when they were still fresh. Three years later, they had still not begun to investigate. By then, they had finally shredded the file.
This was a totally different situation, because the public had no idea the file even existed. Today Prime Minister Radičová has asked President Ivan Gasparovič to release the secret service from its obligation to maintain confidentiality in this matter, and Interior Minister Daniel Lipšic has appealed to the public to follow closely those politicians who would like to delay the investigation or sweep it under the carpet.
The public debate on its own has shaken up the political scene, and it is very likely that the scandal will influence the outcome of the early elections. The party hit hardest may be the conservative SDKÚ, whose leaders, Mikulas Dzurinda and Ivan Miklos, are very often mentioned in the file in unflattering contexts. Even many loyal SDKÚ voters may truly lose patience, as one survey on voter preferences – the first since the Gorilla scandal burst open – has already shown.
The other parties are expressing various degrees of dismay at what the Gorilla file reveals and are trying to persuade the public that, this time, they are taking the fight against corruption seriously. The parties benefiting are, in the main, two new right-wing parties, whose leaders were not yet in politics in 2006. One is Freedom and Solidarity, led by Richard Šulík. The other is the Ordinary People coalition, which is formally a party but has practically no members and whose candidate list brings together a group of well-known people mostly of conservative views.
The Gorilla scandal has thus cracked opened a smouldering generational conflict, in which the younger generation, especially those on the right, have long waited in vain for their chance. Suspicions over who uploaded the full file onto the internet, after it had been making the rounds in Slovakia’s political and business circles for years, have fallen on the SaS.
A special feature of the story, which has now gone beyond anyone's control, is that almost no one emerges from it with clean hands. The media, whose front pages are hammering away every day at politicians caught up in the affair, are not without blemish themselves. It turned out that the file had been circulating in the newsrooms of several right-wing leaning periodicals in 2009, but none of them inquired into it seriously. Tom Nicholson, a journalist originally from the UK and Canada, who had dedicated himself to the file, pestered the editors in vain to publish what he had uncovered.
On the other hand, the Slovak media finds itself in a difficult situation. Unlike in the Czech Republic, The Slovak courts frequently levy heavy fines for even minor inaccuracies in an otherwise faultless investigative text that a politician or businessman decides to sue over.
The Gorilla file is especially valuable because of the explosive nature of those relationships, which, in a Bratislava flat all but converted into a theatrical stage where various characters chatter away, sketch out a portrait of the whole corrupt system. It was not until politicians, mainly from the SaS, found the will – suitably delayed – that journalists’ hands were untied.
Their initial caution, or perhaps cowardice, becomes part of the overall story about a country carved up by a cartel of politicians, businessmen and lawyers and judges. This may change, though, thanks to a wide public debate.
It is too soon to assess how the Gorilla file will affect parliamentary elections in early March, but one thing is clear: it has pushed aside in the pre-election campaign the other key issue, which is Slovakia’s relationship to Europe.
Since the Radičova government fell, a cautious pro-European alliance of parties straddling the political spectrum has formed, bringing the left-wing Smer under Robert Fico together with elements of the three traditional right-wing parties.
This alliance is now getting another label: Šulík of the SaS refers to it as a “Gorilla coalition”, i.e. an alliance of old and corrupt political camps. Its opponents among the new generation are on the right, with a distinctly anti-European stance and strong leanings towards populism.
Experience from Poland, where the Rywin corruption scandal swept away the political elite and brought in the Kaczynski twins, or from Hungary, where published recordings of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány saying “We lied from morning till night," brought Viktor Orbán to power, are not exactly encouraging. In both cases, the anti-corruption agenda quickly descended into autocracies under new rulers.
Translated from the Czech by Anton Baer