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Political warming

LOOKING back on 2006, one can't help but remark on how many fears accompanied the Fico government's accession to power in July, and how few of them have materialized since then.

LOOKING back on 2006, one can't help but remark on how many fears accompanied the Fico government's accession to power in July, and how few of them have materialized since then.

The budget was passed this week with a deficit of 2.9 percent of GDP, good enough to meet one of the main criteria for adopting the euro in 2009.

The country's tax laws were changed last week, but apart from requiring people earning over 2.5 times the national average wage to pay up to Sk18,000 more in taxes annually, very little else in the previous government's popular tax reform was disturbed. Even NGOs were allowed to keep the 2 percent of taxes they can be assigned by corporate donors, thanks to the improbable assistance of the HZDS party.

The cabinet has been approving investment incentive packages at a furious pace in December after changing the rules to allow them to be signed without notifying the European Commission. As a senior Economy Ministry staffer asked this paper - why wasn't this done before?

The prime minister has finally decided that the Special Court for organized crime cases will be preserved, after months of attacks on the court by Justice Minister Štefan Harabin, and months of wailing by NGOs and court supporters (including The Slovak Spectator).

The economy grew by 9.8 percent in real terms in the third quarter, but due to a combination of falling world oil prices and an aggressive government strategy to cap domestic energy rates, Slovakia may still make the inflation target for adopting the euro with percentage to spare. The central bank may not even have to raise its rates again at its next meeting.

What's going on? When is this leftist-populist government going to start living up to its political nature?

As Christmas grows closer with no snow on the ground and unseasonably warm temperatures keeping our coats in our closets, nature seems to be imitating Slovakia's warming political climate. We welcome the economic sense and good prospects, just as we welcome the mild weather, but somewhere deep inside we feel that it is unnatural.

As sure as the snow will one day fall, the Fico government will also reveal its stripes before its term is out. The most ominous clouds are gathering over the pension and the health care systems, where undoing reforms will only postpone the changes that must take place, whether those making the changes are socialist or neo-conservative.

Little is being done to clean up official corruption under this government, or to reform the judicial sector under the communist-era dinosaur Štefan Harabin.

In particular, the presence of the HZDS party in the government may prove the worst of the Fico administration, given the nature of its appointments to state posts so far, and the inability of HZDS Chairman Vladimír Mečiar to take a holiday from strife and mischief.

But while it lasts - while our snow shovels remain in the garage, and the dream of four years of sensible leadership remains intact - let's all enjoy the weather, despite the ever-present sense of foreboding.

By Tom Nicholson

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