As vote looms, Slovakia rocked by bribes scandal

Associated Press
FILE - This is a Friday, Feb. 10, 2012 file photo of demonstrators during a march against corruption in politics, in the center of Bratislava  with a banner that reads: “For Sale – Slovakia – Sold out”.  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. (AP Photo/CTK, Jan Koller, File) SLOVAKIA OUT
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BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (AP) — 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.

Fico, known for foul-mouthed tirades against journalists, is expected to win enough votes to gain an outright parliamentary majority — or at worst to lead a coalition.

Critics say he may use a strong majority to change the country's constitution to solidify his rule in an authoritarian manner similar to Hungary's leader, Viktor Orban, who has been assailed by the European Union for rolling back democracy.

"It would mean an Orbanization of Slovakia," Kusy said. "A Hungarian model with catastrophic consequences."

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