I can't recall exactly when I first went to Bratislava but it was sometime between the autumn of ’97 and the spring of '98. I was appointed as Group Head of IT for a TV business in August of '97. The holding company, based in London, owned and operated a number of TV stations in Central and Eastern Europe. It was my job to make sure we had common IT systems across the group.
We were making progress with most of the TV stations, yet there was one that remained a mystery: TV Markiza. The emails I sent to Markiza's IT manager seemed to fall into a black hole. TV Markiza had a bit of a reputation for being political and had several run-ins with the Slovakian government. There were rumours that the head of the station hired Russian Mafia, (Bratva) for protection.
So it was with some trepidation that I entered the TV station for the first time. It was 8:30 am, the TV station had a relaxed atmosphere, with small huddles of people drinking coffee and chatting. Maybe I'd been worrying about nothing, I reflected, while I followed a Bratva muscleman to TV Markizas's Boardroom.
I was shown to my seat at the end of a very long polished walnut table. I was trying to figure-out how much that had cost, and how that squared up with the lack of profit from Markiza since its launch three years earlier. When I looked up to see a man in a very expensive looking suit. He was the Director General of TV Markiza, Pavol Rusko. He took a seat at the other end of the table, and after the briefest of handshakes, I decided to fill the uncomfortable silence.
"Thank you for seeing me and you certainly seem to have an impressive operation here at Markiza”. I said, attempting to sound diplomatic, but probably sounding like a creep.
It felt very odd sitting four metres apart. Is this a mind-game he’s playing, or maybe just Slovakian culture, I mused. I couldn’t fathom why this was a one-on-one meeting with the Director General. Surely he’d want his IT manager to be there?
This is when things got even stranger. Mr. Rusko stared hard at me, waiting to see my reaction. He reached inside his jacket and slowly revealed a silver pistol. He placed it with a clunk on the walnut surface.
"I just want you to be clear about your visit today, Mr. Green".
He spoke with what I can only describe as a typical Eastern European 'gangster' accent; like the bad guy in a Bond movie. My mind raced as I tried to figure-out my next move. The pen and toothbrush in my jacket pocket weren’t a match his weapon. I gulped back the growing lump in my throat, and wiped my brow. The voice in my head asked if this was really happening, and without hesitation, screamed ‘YES’.
Enjoying my obvious discomfort for a little longer, he finally smiled, and said:
"I have arranged a full day of activities for you to enjoy and you'll be my guest at my Chateau for dinner.”
The Director-General showed me to the door with a pat of my shoulder, as if to say; “There’s a good boy, I know you won’t misbehave”.
Once again I followed the burly chap back to the TV station's reception area where a couple of young employees sat waiting. I discovered they were both TV presenters in their day-jobs, but today they would be showing me around the station, and joining me for dinner at Rusko’s Chateau. It took a while for my nerves to settle, but after an hour or so, I was quite enjoying their company while we tour the station. The one topic we didn’t discuss was IT. With self-preservation in the front of my mind, I didn’t ask why, I just went with the flow.
That evening the three of us were bundled into a huge black Audi and driven off into the night. Suffice to say, I was more than a tad nervous when we arrived at Rusko's Chateau. After a few glasses of wine, I relaxed enough to join in with the conversation over dinner. Once after-dinner drinks were over, I was again, whisked-off in the black limo, this time, without my two young friends. I don’t remember much after that, but somehow, I woke up, with a sore head, in my hotel bedroom.