MY BEST friend at university in Toronto was Jan Cienski, a Polish emigrant who returned home in 1988/1989 for a year-long academic exchange. When he got back to Canada, and found me studying labour history (and extolling communism, and affecting a goatee), his disdain knew no bounds.
"You don't have a clue about communism," he said, taking in with a sweep of his post-communist eyes the rest of my goateed friends. "None of you do."
And he was right. We (my labour history seminar colleagues and I) were taught by an all-out Canadian marxist who kept a red leather bound copy of Das Kapital above his fireplace, and drove a shiny new red Toyota.
Almost 20 years later, Jan and I are once again almost neighbours, he as the Financial Times correspondent in Warsaw, and I having abandoned my goatee in Bratislava. And I have to admit he was right - none of us, growing our hair long and railing against the alienation of labour (over beer paid for with government loans), had a clue about communism.
But the Fico government has been like a study aid to everything we missed.
For one thing, it has reinforced the lesson that communism was about denial. It was about denying creative and free-thinking people the room to reach their potential. It was about denying the reality that human beings are not created equal. And it was about denying the fact that communism gave immense personal advantages - power, influence, and more power - to its new elite while denying them to everyone else.
Of course, the Fico government has shown us only glimpses of its ideological roots so far, and has invested much more into camouflage, i.e. populism. Still, there's been plenty of denial on display as well - denial of election promises, denial of obligations to political sponsors, denial of privatization tender results, and denial of various truths apparent to anyone who reads the papers.
The fact is that populism is not ideologically neutral. In the western tradition, power always flowed from accumulated capital, while in the east, the first objective was to achieve power, and then to figure out what to do with capital. Populism is nothing but a path to power for people with no natural political assets.
The main question to be answered about this government is which has the upper hand, the populism or the communism. On the road to power, populism was obviously the more helpful approach, but now that Smer is in office, ideology is getting more leeway. The latter half of 2006 was marked by pugnacious pronouncements - on energy monopolies, on revisiting privatization contracts - but pussyfooting on promised tax changes and reform reversals. This year has seen some bold legislative action, however - the Regulation Act, the Tripartite Act - and various trial balloons to see what the government will be allowed to get away with (the Labour Code, the Freeways Act). So what's next? The pension system? The tax reform?
It is a popular opinion in the business community that the Fico government is essentially pragmatic, and that common sense and the influence of business sponsors will win out over those deep-rooted communist instincts. If Jan were here, I know what he would say.
By Tom Nicholson
26. Feb 2007 at 0:00