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The Wild West of the East: Corruption and Violence in Post-1989 Slovakia

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What little appearances Slovakia makes in the media tend to involve its professional hockey players, a former major export, or more recently its vocal stance against the EU migration quotas along with the rest of the Visegrad Group. However, in the dark days of sociopolitical collapse of the 90s and the years of trying to find its footing in the early 2000s, the situation was drastically different. Slovakia was making headlines, even in North America, over the violent organized crime gangs that terrorized the country coupled with a wave of corruption which continues to this day. The biggest tragedy was that all of this was at worst aided and abetted, and at best passively accepted by the government.

At the forefront was the gruesome trio of Vladimir Meciar (Prime Minister 1991-98), Ivan Lexa (Former director of Slovak Information Service, “SIS”, 95-98) and Jaroslav Svechota (Deputy SIS director). All three became notorious for their connection to organized crime. However, corruption could not be complete without a co-operative judiciary, and that is where Stefan Harabin came into play.

A former constitutional judge, justice minister, and, for reasons that defy rationality, the current chairman of the Slovak Supreme Court. While these men occupied and misused the seats of legitimate power, the underworld exploded with various rival groups seeking to cut themselves a slice of this newly founded capitalist paradise. The traditional modus operandi for the street crews were mainly extortion, racketeering, and the smuggling of industrial goods. A passive and bought off judiciary, under Harabin’s watchful eye, permitted these events to take place by throwing cases out of court against alleged perpetrators or handing out slap-on-the-wrist sentences. The free range that the mafia groups had across the country did not come without a price. Many times they were called on by the big three to help out in certain “matters of state” but there are two cases that stand out.

The first is a lunatic plot from 1995 conceived by Meciar, allegedly aided and abetted by SIS and the mob, which saw them kidnapping and taking the son of then president Michal Kovac to Austria for a night session involving beatings, jumper cables and a car battery. The point was to embarrass and discredit president Kovac who had recently had a falling out with PM Meciar. The crime has never been solved.

The second time that the state colluded with the mob and misused the intelligence agency directly followed the preceding incident. Oskar Fegyveres, former SIS, testified in a court case that the kidnapping was organized and perpetrated by the SIS on orders from Meciar and Lexa. For obvious reasons he went into hiding in Austria, where he remains to this day, and would only communicate his testimony through his best friend and former police officer Robert Remias. For this, Remias was put under constant surveillance by the SIS and due to his refusal to reveal Fegyveres’ location and refusal to quit testifying on his behalf, he was assassinated on April 29, 1996 in broad daylight by car bomb. Involvement of the notorious Slovak mob hitman Jozef Rohac, previously freed under the poorly thought out Havel amnesties, is suspected, as is the supervision of the hit by the SIS, all ordered by Meciar and Lexa. The crime was never solved.  The reason why the above mentioned cases have remained unresolved and will continue to stay that way is due to the wide-ranging amnesties and immunities Meciar issued to his criminal friends and colleagues.  The Ministry of Justice has been sometimes unable and sometimes unwilling to revoke them due to reasons too numerous to discuss here.

Besides the collusion between state and underworld a new form of asset stripping, colloquially named “tunneling”, emerged in the former Czechoslovakia. In essence, it involved the top executives in newly privatized industries slowly running down their companies while extracting as much liquidity as possible. Usually this was done by conducting business asset sales for pennies on the dollar to their relatives or shell companies owned by themselves and then selling them to third parties while pocketing the money. These companies were so massive, that the collapse of one meant the collapse of the industry. The sale price did not matter, it was all profit. Any loans or signatures required were provided and approved by the corrupt judges. Business assets that took the public decades to build were, for the most part, dismantled by private interests in less than five years. The once productive mines, smelters, and logging camps around the city of Kosice stand empty as a testament to this avarice.

Extending from this, the political and economic elite of the country have been rocked by several scandals such as the infamous 2011 leak of the so-called “Gorilla” papers, named after the call sign given to the SIS wiretap operation from which the  documents originated. The papers detailed the open and unbelievably brazen collusion between state and industry that went on between 2005-2006. It even sparked rare protests in the capital, complete with people throwing bananas at the presidential palace. This reckless behavior continued with the 2007 “noticeboard scandal” when the Ministry of Development was offering a contract worth €119.5 million and their idea of an open competition involved posting a wanted notice in a ministry hallway closed off to the public. Understandably, the winner of the competition was already predetermined.

Slovakia has had a very rocky road since independence trying to get its house in order. Further revelations of continued collusion between government and industry such as the 2010 scandal, which once again involved a politician with ties to the underworld, have not helped matters. Things have improved since the early days of the republic. However with the government and police being consistently voted by citizens as the most mistrusted and corrupt institutions, there is a long way to go.

 

Michal Scur
Michal Scur is a doctoral student at the University of Ottawa specializing in microbiology and immunology. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from University of Toronto, majoring in microbiology and evolutionary anthropology, and a Master of Science degree from Louisiana Tech University. His main interests are health policy, infectious disease, and epidemiology. He is also an avid amateur scholar of geopolitics, military history and economics. On top of English, Michal can speak fluent Slovak and Czech, and has a working knowledge of Russian.

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