Slovaks want a break, not a new beginning

A FEW weeks ago, a political commentator who had been fairly critical of the Fico government in its first months experienced a moment of self-doubt. The cabinet had just approved its euro-friendly budget draft, the crown was at record strength against the European currency, and visiting financial investors were reporting cautious optimism about the prospects of the economy.

A FEW weeks ago, a political commentator who had been fairly critical of the Fico government in its first months experienced a moment of self-doubt. The cabinet had just approved its euro-friendly budget draft, the crown was at record strength against the European currency, and visiting financial investors were reporting cautious optimism about the prospects of the economy.

"Maybe we should stop scaring people about the government," he said, taking a ruminative sip of coffee.

Fear and a lack of charity have dominated media coverage of the new cabinet since July. Compared to the first cozy months of the preceding Dzurinda governments, Fico has been attacked with unflagging if somewhat contradictory zeal. He has been criticized for altering some reforms, and at the same time for not fulfilling his promises to dismantle them. He has been sneered at for being a lukewarm socialist by the same people who feared a truly socialist government. He has been dismissed as a populist, even though what he has actually done so far has proven exceedingly popular.

Things have reached the point that even when this government does something quite normal - like recalling political ambassadors - the story is reported as another example of political bullying. In the US, by contrast, ambassadors who are not career diplomats customarily resign following a change in government, and then are either confirmed or withdrawn by the new president.

Despite its many flaws, the Fico government deserves more credit than it has received so far from its opponents. Not only has it not (yet) done significant damage to the country's economy or moral fibre, but it may actually be just what Slovaks needed after the past eight years - a break from "integration correctness".

Like its political namesake, integration correctness is an emotional hair shirt that countries occasionally feel the need to remove. It too requires that people behave and speak in an exemplary way, which quickly proves exhausting, and then starts to cause resentment. In the name of securing membership in the EU and NATO in 2004, for example, Slovaks were asked to accept many things - foreign capital, US influence, less job security, greater tolerance for minorities, reduced sovereignty - before they were ready for them, while they had to reject national passions just as they were finding out what it meant to be a nation.

Those parts of Slovak society that are more Western-oriented, which includes mainly the current political opposition, NGOs, the media, and university-educated urban residents, supported integration correctness enthusiastically, and punished any deviation from it. In doing so they performed a service to their country, for there was never any real alternative to joining Western alliances. But now they have to learn to give way for a season to people with different political convictions - graciously, and without fear.

There will be plenty to criticize under the current Fico government, because the people who find themselves in power are certainly no better than any to date. But there is a lot less to fear than some of us originally believed. No, Fico didn't mean all of his pre-election promises seriously, nor did voters take them seriously, and in this harmony of supply and demand lies the secret of the prime minister's popularity. Yes, people want a break from relentless energy price rises, from the widening gap between rich and poor, and from small-shouldered international policy. But a break is all they want - not a new beginning.

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