An Elephant in Zemplín

A tale from Slovakia

Andrej Bán

Artwork by Mirza Jaafar

There’s this distinct memory, a sequence of images that I can't get out of my head. Or maybe I just don’t really want to get rid of them. The fall of the communist regime in November 1989 was, for my generation, the most momentous experience of our lives. So we find it very hard to come to terms with the baffling fact that people who are younger, who didn’t experience those events, take freedom for granted and regard us as sentimental fools. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. It takes an enormous effort to convey something you have experienced while the things you haven’t lived through can never be truly part of one’s life.

It is January 1990 and I’m on the night train from Bratislava to Michalovce on the easternmost edge of Slovakia. It’s not really the punishingly long journey that matters– after all, even two days and two nights on a Moscow-bound train can be quite enjoyable, but these five hundred kilometres are of a different order. The Slovak capital is alive, it’s throbbing with revolution as bearded chaps in baggy sweaters and Public Against Violence (VPN) badges (many of them will later become my friends) give their all to the moment. I’m not talking about the endless squabbling and silly personal attacks that are wrecking and distorting the picture of events. Nor about whether all communists should have been strung up on lampposts (of course they shouldn’t have) or whether we should have dealt with our totalitarian past much more thoroughly (of course we should).

No, what I’m talking about is something different, a powerful sense and sequence of images suggesting that these five hundred kilometres on a night train are akin to being in a time machine in a movie, travelling back into the past. And all this in just one small country. It is in January 1990 that I first experience something I have felt many times since: there isn’t just one Slovakia but rather two, maybe three, or even four. I fear that these deep civilisational rifts may be dictated by the very–literally–eccentric location of our nation’s capital.

The brakes screech and the train rumbles. I get off at Michalovce station on a pitch-dark morning. This my first visit to a city of which I had previously known only that it was home to the only Tuzex in Slovakia, apart from the one in Bratislava, that is. These were exclusive shops under communism where you could buy products not available in ordinary shops–from instant orange juice and American chewing gum right up to a car–in exchange for bony (coupons used in lieu of foreign currency, issued by the state and often hawked by shady money changers known as veksláci). Renaults and Fiats were to be had only for bony, but if you were paying with Czechoslovak crowns, the choice was limited to Skodas and Zhigulis. In the current era of shopping malls, the word Tuzex no longer sounds demeaning, just absurd. Nowadays, when every village proudly boasts its own “tuzex”, the question of whether the great longing for freedom was motivated mainly by unhampered shopping possibilities may sound sarcastic but is very much to the point.

Back then, under socialism, Michalovce had long been a remote province with almost feudal privileges, the likes of which would have been hard to find even among the moguls in the capital. A province with an almost impenetrable clan mentality. This mentality is still alive and kicking today, as demonstrated by mind-boggling stories of fraudulent land subsidies involving brawls in the fields and the theft of land and crops by perpetrators with close links to Smer, the ruling party, who get off scot-free, as I discover when I return in January 2018. Something this blatant and brazen I would have expected in the Balkans of the 1990s, not in this country.

In January 1990 I am walking through a Michalovce high-rise estate in the morning gloom. Not a sign in sight to indicate that socialism is over and done with, that the seemingly permanent regime collapsed in a pathetic heap. Quite the contrary: wherever I look I see bright red stars and banners celebrating the seventeenth or umpteenth congress of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. The train from Bratislava took seven or eight hours to reach this place but seven weeks of travelling in time haven’t been enough for the new political era to arrive here.

Perhaps it’s just something I deluded myself into believing, but I can’t help feeling that the glum folk I pass are all glaring at me as an intruder. Later that day, however, after a bunch of students from Bratislava arrive in Michalovce on a special train, I realise it’s not just my feeling. Their enthusiastic mission comes across as slightly risible, an effect that is further amplified by the fact that they really stick out with those huge red-blue-and-white VPN logos emblazoned on their backs. The students settle down on the floorboards of the local sports hall like a flock of exotic birds that has alighted in a bleak desert by mistake. How do the locals respond? Which of them addresses the crowd? I don’t remember, I forget instantly, they are not as important for me as the presence of the fearless apostles of freedom.

A week later I find myself in Šemetkovce, a small village in the back of beyond, in the remote northeast. A couple of dozen souls. The day before I arrive someone had filched valuable icons from one of the local wooden Orthodox churches (these would later be added to the UNESCO heritage list). The icons had most probably ended up with traffickers in the West.

“Anything going on around here? Any weddings or funerals about to happen?” I ask the mayor. He’s sitting underneath a huge Czechoslovak coat of arms with a five-pointed red star. A classic image. As soon as I utter my question, I realise how ridiculous it is. But it’s too late, I can’t take my words back. But the mayor isn’t thrown by my question.

“We haven’t had a wedding here for the past ten years at least, but if you hang around for a while, there might be a funeral.”

And that’s exactly what happens. Two days later a funeral is held in Šemetkovce. I get a chance to hear some beautiful Orthodox liturgical chants sung live. The funeral procession slowly winds its way through the snow towards the pillaged church. The locals quietly point out a man in a fur hat and heavy black coat at the head of the procession, the one with the most booming voice, who commands the respect of everyone around. He is the chairman of the local communist party cell.



I first meet Marek virtually. It’s always a nice surprise when people sign their real name in an online dispute. This is not what I’ve come to expect. Whenever he contributes to discussions that follow my articles, he signs his full name, with the added comment “self-employed, Michalovce”. I have to admit that I was more intrigued by the man himself than by what he had to say. This was a real person, not just a nickname! Marek’s discussion style is unsparing, sometimes verging on the naïve, but he is always fair. He never stoops to personally insulting journalists. That is another thing that strikes me as unusual.

“I’m on the front line of the barricade, there’s nobody else here apart from the opposition parties OĽaNO and SaS. No Bán, no former dissidents like Šimečka or Gál have ever shown any interest in me, a self-employed guy in the east,” he complained one day. I rang him to say that he was wrong and that I was coming to see him. He was taken aback.  

What kind of barricade? This is the question I have come to ask him in person in the midst of the hot summer of 2016. I meet a genuinely furious young man. Tall, full of unbridled energy. Marek will forgive me, but what I’m about to say will hardly come as news to him. I don’t like the word typical, but in his case, it is spot on–he is a typical easterner. Loud, neurotic, spontaneous. At first it annoyed me that he never let me finish a sentence, interrupting as if he knew what I was going to say. It took me a while to understand that this was not a lack of courtesy but rather a generally accepted form of communication (here in the east). You’re long-winded or plodding? You don’t stick an affirmative “yeah, yeah, yeah” into every sentence the way we do? Are you a bit slow? I’ll cut in and save us both some time. Just don’t take offence, for chrissake, it’s nothing personal. I think you’re actually all right, even though you’re from Bratislava, even though you’re an arrogant bastard and think you’re something special. All right, all right, don’t argue, don’t tell me I’m being unfair. I’m not being unfair, I’m just being to-ta-lly honest with you and giving you a piece of my mind about something you’re not even aware of, with your Bra-ti-sla-va disdain.

Marek, around forty, is in advertising, the publisher of a regional classified ads paper. He has been grappling with the foul practices of the locals linked to the ruling party Smer that allow them to enjoy (in a democracy!) privileges unimaginable for others. Not just a single case, but a dozen or fifty. . . Scores of people have risen to power in this way around here. It’s driving Marek crazy. Without hesitation, he attends every protest he can. He travels to Bratislava with his drum to demand the sacking of the corrupt hockey association president, and he doesn’t skimp on petrol for the thousand-kilometre drive to the capitol to have a good shout outside Bonaparte, a residential complex home to Smer leader Robert Fico, still the prime minister at the time. A remarkable determination in the face of a seemingly immovable reality. And behind his determination there is the hidden belief, full of barely concealed disappointment and anger at Bratislava's café intellectuals, whom he suspects would find even historical heroes such as Štúr and Štefánik lacking (let alone present-day opposition politicians Sulík and Matovič), and who just can’t get their heads round the fact that they have to stop brooding and go out into the streets. Because Slovakia needs them.

Thieves, as far as the eye can see, nothing but thieves! This is the monotone world according to Marek, the single word that comprises his gospel. An overused term guaranteed to grate on you after a while. But you can’t stop asking yourself if, in view of what is happening all around us, it may not, after all, be justified. If you set aside the theatricals and a certain revolutionary zeal, you have to admit that Marek’s friend Michal, a journalist from Michalovce, has a point when he speaks of Smer as a well-organised army. There in the east, under the current government led by a left-wing party whose representatives are, ironically, mostly businessmen, including some major ones, town assets are being sold off on a scale unseen since the fall of communism. We are talking land, historic buildings, even a part of the winter sports stadium. Local MPs for Smer, mostly doctors with an army of faithful patients who vote for them, have seized total control of the place. People are too scared to speak up or voice any criticism. This is a sad fact–thirty years after the end of the totalitarian regime. The dominant party has paralysed its opponents hereabouts, or it has co-opted them, or removed them from office. Three options, each worse than the next. It all sounds pretty hopeless.

But then, in February 2018, the journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová are assassinated. The event shakes up society. Initially the arrogant and until then cocksure Smer fails to understand and refuses to believe what is happening, but hitherto suppressed anger begins to explode up and down the country. The formerly fearless, well-organised army panics and starts looking for relatively acceptable ways to retreat.

Nearly all the media print the last, unfinished article by the slain young journalist, which he had been working on for months. It focuses on the country’s east. The Zemplín region is home to Italians linked to the ‘Ndrangheta branch of the Mafia as well as to Smer. Jesus, what kind of country are we living in?–people write to each other in text messages.

I return to Michalovce a week after the murder of the two young people. Just like in January 1990, it is freezing cold. Darkness, frost, deep snow. I ask Marek to organise a meeting with two or three people who have some information on the Italian suspects and their wheeling-dealing. As discreetly as possible, without any fuss. It’s best to play safe and try not to provoke a snake with one’s bare foot, especially since we don’t know when and how it might attack. I park the car and look around to check whether I’m being followed. Wordlessly, two friends of Marek, members of the Zemplín Civic Initiative, accompany me to a bar in the town centre. The Free DOM bar is ready, chairs for three dozen people face a table with a microphone. I look at Marek in silent reproach, wondering what this is supposed to be. “Well, a discussion. . . with you,” he laughs. I protest, it was meant to be the other way around. I was the one supposed to ask the questions and the locals were supposed to answer. “There’ll be time for that,” he says, waving his hand dismissively.

Gradually, the place begins to fill up. Over a dozen people have come, interested in hearing what I have to say. An elderly man pipes up from a corner: he’s clearly the worse for drink. He says his name is Miro. “I might know a thing or two about the Italians but I'm not going to talk about it. A company they have in Močerany, where I’m from, has burned down,” he says with a mysterious air. A woman joins in, without introducing herself: “The Italians? We barely knew they were around until now. They’ve kept themselves to themselves.” Another man concurs, adding that the Italians live a life of their own, people don’t know much about them around here. The first time the locals took any notice of one of their number, Diego, an older guy, was when his Ferrari careered through town at breakneck speed. It all sounds like something from a bad B-movie. No, I don’t want to listen to that, I tell myself. These people seem to have banded together to give me a distorted picture of the reality on the ground. Surely things can’t be this grotesque? But I do know that paranoia and conspiracies are effective methods of self-defence. Particularly now that these people have suddenly thrown off the burden of fear that’s been fostered for so many years. For them the sympathetic ear that has come to hear them out is the saviour of their tormented souls. I spend two hours being a nodding dog. Sometimes I look to the left, sometimes to the right, listening patiently to grievances and complaints about the injustices that these people have suffered for generations and that have been tolerated, or even ignored, by the state and the police. No, what I am witnessing here is not a return to communism. What is being exposed and laid bare here is feudalism in its purest form. I feel like a figure in a painting from the nineteenth century. Or, rather, the seventeenth.

An anonymous bearded guy, whom I dub The Man from the Woods, seems to enjoy peculiar, informal authority in this community. Everyone around here, including the lay people, senses that he has a point. It’s enough for him to take a breath and everyone else goes quiet, looking to him in the hope that he will articulate their thoughts. And The Man from the Woods holds forth about the arrogant Italians who fail to pay their employees’ wages while driving around in expensive cars. If you want my honest opinion, I’m amazed that none of these easterners has smashed an axe into Diego’s Ferrari.

“In the 1990s, when Mečiar and his HZDS party were in power, a couple of people here had acquired property and land, and immediately sold it on to foreigners for profit. That was not privatisation, that was pure daylight robbery! Under minister Baco all the fertile lowlands of eastern Slovakia were parcelled out. The Italians are just a part of the scam. They pay the owners peanuts, if anything, for the lease, and our people have to keep their mouths shut,” continues The Man from the Woods. The only thing the Italians are interested in, I hear one person after another complain in Free DOM, is the land of our forefathers, for which they pocket enormous subsidies. A woman in her forties chips in, saying that she, too, had leased her four thousand square metres of arable land to Diego. He pays her sixteen euros a year! A laughable sixteen euros! And I have absolutely no idea, the woman shouts, how much money in subsidies Diego gets for my land. The state has failed us totally: after 1989 it has not delivered on its pledge to consolidate land ownership, which has stayed fragmented from the old days under Austro-Hungary. It is in this rushing torrent of words, culminating like the Danube after the melting of Alpine glaciers, that I first hear the names Rošková, the Countess, and Šuchta, the ex-policeman. Little do I know at this point how important they are.

* * *

There’s one thing I find surprising. The media give us quite a good picture of what’s happening in the world, say in Korea or Iraq, yet Slovakia’s far east remains quite obscure to us. A terra incognita. Journalists no longer report on this region (probably because it’s too far for them to go) shrouded in the mist of myths. Even though we are dealing with systemic issues, not just something to do with the odd local character. The key to understanding why the solution to replacing the prime minister, or other government ministers, is to be found not in Bratislava but right here, on the border with Ukraine, in the part of the country where, according to (now ex-) prime minister Fico, there can’t possibly be any mafia since, as he claims, “there is actually nothing there.” In fact, this is the fabled El Dorado. Human trafficking or cigarette smuggling are just its more spectacular and media-friendly aspects. But there’s a lot more: blatant theft of land, of crops, and subsidies. And a police force, a judiciary, and state prosecutors who have ignored and covered up these rackets for years. Not just covered them up: our law non-enforcement has been brazenly laughing in the victims’ faces. Many have waited till now before speaking up, not finding the courage earlier. For over ten years the country’s east has been a Smer stronghold. In the general election of 2016, the party garnered 36.9 per cent of the votes in the Michalovce district, and as much as 46.6 per cent in neighbouring Sobrance district.

The question–how do you plough up a concrete car park – may sound absurd but only at first. In just a few hours any smart farmer can find out, for example, which parcels a company called Gard receives subsidies for. This is because everyone who receives a subsidy from the Agricultural Payment Agency can access the orthophoto map system, that is, detailed aerial or satellite colour photos of the countryside. This mapping system is called GSAA. It contains a huge number of cultivated lots or LPIS, i.e., compact areas of land for which EU subsidies can be applied. To be eligible for the subsidy, you don’t need to prove that you own, or even lease the land, only that you are farming it. You don’t have to till the soil, sow seeds or gather crops, all you need to do is drive a tractor up and down the lot for a while so that some activity is visible from the air. Or not even that.

How the subsidy scam works can be illustrated by the example of Gard, the company I mentioned earlier. It takes less than two days of searching the GSAA system for a farmer to find out that in 2017 the company claimed subsidies for almost fifty lots in the east amounting to a total of at least 150 hectares. At the standard rate of subsidy, some 240 euros per hectare, we are talking of 40,000 euros minimum. So what’s the problem? The problem is that this doesn’t really reflect reality and much of it is an outright lie. For example, in the Trhovište and Moravany lots, Gard claims to be farming permanent grass cover, although in reality the owners are tilling the soil there.

Or let’s take the village of Koňuš. Gard claims to be farming 6.6 hectares of compact permanent grass cover there. The reality? Even a complete layman can tell from the map that these are several individual crofts. You can tell by their colour and structure. There is arable land, bushes, and meadows, even some vineyards. Their owners don’t have a clue that Gard, a company that has never done anything there, is pocketing around 1,600 euros a month for their property and toil. The Agricultural Payments Agency does only random checks so the chances of the scam being detected are minimal. And even if that should happen, the recipient would simply return the subsidy. It’s like a thief caught in the act saying: “Sorry, I’ll return the haul,” and walking off unpunished. It is brash, bold, and brazen because every farmer and all the staff of the Payments Agency can look at the digital records and see that what this company is declaring is nonsense.

Gard is also claiming subsidies for arable land or grass cover on a concrete car park in Bežovce and a private orchard in Nižná Rybnica. How is such an absurd thing even possible? It’s very simple. Applications for subsidies are submitted once a year. If you happen to know the right person at the Payments Agency’s branch in Michalovce, and this person lets you know which parcels nobody is claiming subsidies for at this particular time, bingo! You can quietly apply for the subsidy yourself.

The person behind Gard (the company changed its name to Agro Porúbka in 2016) is the former MP for Smer and former district party leader Ľubica Rošková. She used to be the party’s number two in the region. Hers is an almost fairytale story of a girl from a poor Ruthenian family in Stakčín near the Ukrainian border. No one in Zemplín calls the former legislator anything but Countess or Her Majesty. So how did this unassuming, refined, and affable psychologist become one of the key movers and shakers in the east? The year is 2006, Smer is gaining momentum. At this stage the party’s vocabulary still includes terms such as the Left, a Third Way, or even, if you'll pardon my language, ideals. The current business model is yet to emerge. The party’s organisational structure in the region is being established by the former boss of Michalovce Technical Services. He recruits people and collects the membership dues. Ľubica Rošková volunteers as phone operator and secretary in the Smer district office. One of the ways of proving her loyalty to the party is by collecting the membership dues for the entire district and personally delivering them to Bratislava. Fico takes a shine to her and rewards her by giving her a slot near the top of the electoral list. She enters parliament for the first time as a replacement for Robert Kaliňák, who goes on to become Minister of the Interior. The scheme whereby you rise in the party ranks or receive nominations for positions in the state administration based on how much money you bring (donate, raise) to the party, initially shocks idealists in the east. But they get used to it. Rošková’s links to Kaliňák are strengthened by the fact that, as a psychologist with a private practice, she also runs tests for the police. So she knows a thing or two about them.

Like Mečiar’s HZDS before it, Smer also has a deeply entrenched system of selecting its nominees for various lucrative positions. Everyone, whether a party member or not, has to contribute a certain amount. Or, to put it in a way that resembles reality more, make a contribution to the company’s shares. Officially, the annual membership fee is eight euros. But what is referred to, quite openly, as “a nominee contribution”, is somewhere between five and 2,000 euros per year, depending on the position allocated. This is money in pure cash for the party. In the Michalovce district alone several dozen people may have been nominated, contributing an estimated 60,000 euros a year. But let me fast forward to the end of Rošková’s story: her dizzying career ends in 2016 following a scandal involving her husband, a doctor who was selling uncertified cancer medications. That went a step too far. The party dropped her, in exchange for her husband's activities not being investigated.

In the case of another key figure in our story, the former policeman Patrik Šuchta, the entry fee into the party, and thus a ticket to influential contacts, took the form of sponsoring a Smer ball in the village of Sobrance. He and the Countess become such close friends that after leaving parliament in 2016, Rošková took over some of the agricultural companies set up and managed by Šuchta and his people. They’ve divvied up the job between them–he does the rough field work, takes over land and subsidies, often at the cost of conflicts with other farmers, while she delivers the appropriate paperwork to the appropriate authorities in Bratislava. It’s mostly to do with EU funding. One of her sons has been appointed a section head at the ministry of economy, the other is involved in implementing checks on subsidised projects in agriculture. And he is also a business partner of Šuchta’s.

The first executive director in one of the many companies is a nurse from Rošková’s practice, but the Countess took over the running of the company now that her parliamentary career has ended. And although when I put a direct question to the ex-MP, she said she had no influence over nominations to the state administration or to state institutions, the reality is quite different. For instance, the brother of the head of the local branch of NAKA, the National Crime Agency, happens to be her son’s godfather. The local Finance Office doesn’t look over her accounts because she has someone on the spot – the daughter of a good friend, a Slovak Intelligence Agency official. She lunches regularly with the head of the district court. Ostensibly, she leads a modest life. She runs a small car and when her political career was over, it was in this vehicle that she took documents to her allotment to burn. Her guiding principle is to avoid acting too conspicuously. But she can break it on occasion. For instance, when she and some other women MPs for Smer popped over to do some shopping in St. Petersburg they used a government plane.

translated from the Slovak by Julia and Peter Sherwood