Highways, speedways, supermodels

EACH political regime has a set of pet promises to feed to the masses. Slovakia's post-communist era politicians have been keen to promise highways, speedways and carriageways. And their creativity in coming up with different unrealistic deadlines has known no limits.

EACH political regime has a set of pet promises to feed to the masses. Slovakia's post-communist era politicians have been keen to promise highways, speedways and carriageways. And their creativity in coming up with different unrealistic deadlines has known no limits.

Vladimír Mečiar's 1998 election campaign - when the then-prime minister invited German then-top model Claudia Schiffer to open a highway section in Slovakia - should be recorded with golden letters in the history of Slovak politicians' highway affections. The Movement for a Democratic Slovakia party has never really told the public the cost of this fancy election moment, just as it never seriously assessed how it wanted to finance all those highway sections that the Mečiar government planned to impress the voters.

Highway construction not only impressed the voters, but also boosted GDP growth - though it was at the price of harmful debts of the country, economists said.

Slovakia has most likely not had a single government that has not promised a cross-country highway in one way or another. Indeed in 2007, the country still does not have a highway to link western Slovakia's Bratislava with eastern Slovakia's Košice.

For a while, Prime Minister Robert Fico thought that his government might be the one to wrap it up in 2010 and give the nation its dream road crossing a small Central European country that is not longer than about 430 kilometres across, as the crow flies. But it seems that this pleasure will be left for the government that's in power from 2010 to 2014.

Political promises aside, the country has always had an urgent need for concrete veins to link the underfed east with the muscular west. Whenever foreign investors were asked what Slovakia needed the most to boost regional development, the need for speedways and highways was among the first things they listed.

To prove that it is taking its plans to speed up highway construction seriously, the government has already installed a special proxy for highway construction. Now Igor Choma, who serves as chairman of the board of directors for the National Highway Company, will be in charge of coordinating all the related processes, including adopting legislation to boost the construction.

One of the laws that the Fico team has managed to draft to simplify and speed up the expropriation of the land needed for the highway has stirred concerns that it might violate citizens' constitutional right to property. Once the draft is passed, the state would not need to have all the ownership rights settled in order to receive a construction license from the transportation authority. It would only need have all these rights settled by the time the construction is wrapped up and the final review takes place.

Even if the Fico government does not finish the very last tunnel of the promised cross-country highway, it will be the one to invite investors to bid for its most ambitious road infrastructure project ever: building 151 kilometres of highways and dual carriageways.

While experts agree that bringing private money into highway construction has its undeniable pluses, they are concerned that the Slovak government might be in too much of a hurry to announce the tender and design the deals.

The director of the Transportation Research Institute, Ľubomír Palčák, said any failure to prepare the tender and the contracts well enough will have serious consequences that future governments will pay for.

Bankers and EU institutions have been warning that the PPP model is in no way a cure-all, and it can hardly turn a badly-prepared project into a successful one with private money alone. Experiences of several European countries show that the success or failure of the PPP project hangs on a clear definition of the project, the conditions of the contract and the transparency of the tenders.

This will be a marriage that should last for at least 25 years. Once the tender is announced and the investor or the consortium is picked, it would be unhealthy for Slovakia if the process was killed because a politician decides the deal is not advantageous and might not fit the interests of their supporters.

What a PPP project requires is, first of all, a stable business environment where the rules are clear and are not changed on a monthly or annual basis to fit political moods and interests. If observers ask whether Slovakia provides such a stable environment right now, they are asking a completely legitimate question.

By Beata Balogová

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