Let's give credit where it's due

ONE does not have to be a political analyst to see that some ministerial posts in the Slovak government are particularly troubled. Since the beginning of the election term in 2002, the country has seen three economy ministers, two labour ministers and, a few days ago, its third defence minister.

While the public has become accustomed to seeing ministers glued to their seats and pretending that suspicions of corruption and cronyism are merely malicious media inventions, the resignation of Defence Minister Juraj Liška, who decided to leave following the crash on January 19 of a military plane that killed 42 people, is a novelty on the Slovak political scene.

Some may vaguely recall the resignation of former Health Minister Tibor Šagát, who stepped down in 2000 after Slovak physicians allegedly botched the treatment of former President Rudolf Schuster, who had to be sent in critical condition from Bratislava to Innsbruck where Austrian physicians saved his life.

When former Labour Minister Ľudovít Kaník resigned in 2005 over corruption suspicions, the media also described it as a positive development on the political stage, although many thought Kaník should never have been appointed to the post in the first place.

But in a country whose parliament specializes in the "theatre of the absurd" - such as "non-confidence motions" organized by the opposition as exercises in rhetoric and political provocation - the decision of a minister to resign over a tragic accident for which he was not personally responsible is certainly a scene from a new script.

Optimists hope that Liška's move could start a tradition of political refinement, according to which ministers under whose management something goes irreparably wrong simply step down. Pessimists, however, ask what the real reasons were behind Liška's resignation.

In politics one naturally assumes that even emotional speeches and tears running down well-known political faces have pragmatic motives. The same goes for smiles, handshakes, baby kisses, donations to charity, and visits to nursery homes and homeless shelters - it all looks good, and it's all grist to the political mill.

However, if Liška's resignation does indeed sow a good political tradition, one can perhaps forgive or overlook any ulterior motives he might have had.

Some suspect that Liška resigned under pressure from Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda and the spin doctors of his SDKÚ party, who may have calculated that a departing Liška could be more beneficial for the party ahead of September's general elections than the spectacle of a minister clinging to his seat after the worst plane accident in the country's history.

Some analysts have even suggested that the person who truly benefited from Liška's departure is Dzurinda, who thereby eliminated a possible challenger for the party leadership.

The resignation could also relieve the immense pressure that other cabinet members have been under recently to resign, largely over reforms they have launched, or their management styles.

The Slovak media (of course) generally do not believe Liška's claims that his overburdened heart prompted him to step down.

Nor have Liška's coalition partners been vocal in praise of the SDKÚ minister and his resignation decision. On the contrary, they have suggested that his departure would have seemed more heartfelt if he had announced it immediately after the crash.

Surprisingly, the opposition has been kinder. The Communists said they received the news of the resignation with "understanding", while the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) thought it was appropriate. The ruling coalition's toughest critic, Smer, said it respected Liška's decision.

Even ex-politicians have gotten in on the act. Former PM and Justice Minister Ján Čarnogurský wrote a passionate article for SME daily arguing that Liška had made a serious mistake by resigning, as there was no evidence that he bore the slightest responsibility for the crash.

"Unfortunately, we have to get used to the fact that with foreign missions there is an increased risk of accidents," wrote Čarnogurský, who has in the past advocated neutrality for Slovakia, and suggested that NATO entry was not the best option for the country. He faulted Liška for leaving the ministry without strong leadership.

So is there no purity of heart in politics, no straightforward motives? No, and there probably never have been. But if one looks back at the countless politicians whose controversial decisions affected generations of people, and who told outrageous lies but clung to their seats like limpets, Liška's act is downright progressive, and should thus be received positively.

In the end, speculation that Liška's resignation could put a more sympathetic face on the SDKÚ, or that it could ease the sorrow of those who lost relatives, is absurd. Giving up one's seat in such situations is simply dictated by the standards of civilized politics, and given that Slovakia has seen so little civilized behaviour among its ruling elite, Liška's decision should receive the credit it deserves.

Beata Balogová

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