Of all the fascinating fauna which spring up in a new democracy, few are more colourful than its politicians. Slovakia, with its decrepit hospitals and yobbish mafia gangs, wouldn't be half as interesting without its strutting, conniving and seldom subtle power-mongers.
Media bully Pavol Rusko has finally gone public with his plans to start a new party, which he may cunningly dub Nova ('New'), much to the annoyance of the Czech TV Station of the same name. Rusko has had dreams of political power for years, and may have thought he could ride the coattails of Deputy PM Pavol Hamžík, whose SOP party Rusko's Markíza TV so shamelessly promoted during the 1998 elections (Rusko's wife Viera used to be an MP for the SOP). But Hamžík, sensible fellow, wouldn't have him, so Rusko is forced to strike out on his own with a cabal of TV Markíza reporters and anyone else who doesn't know better. He says Markíza will not unduly promote his party, but that its journalists will obey their consciences. Just as they were conscience-bound to pander to the presidential campaign of former SOP boss Rudolf Schuster.
Then there's Bobby Fico of the non-parliamentary Smer party ('Direction'), whose visit to Russia last week caused such a flap in the Slovak media. Fico, like Rusko, is betting his political future on the allure of having no recognisable names from Slovak politics in his ranks (a 'you've had your time' gambit with voters tired of the same old faces).
But Fico, for reasons best known to himself, is violently in favour of the completion of the third and fourth reactor blocks of the Mochovce nuclear plant, a discredited project which stands to cost the country hundreds of billions of crowns more than it can earn in exporting the excess electricity produced. Slovakia's nuclear lobby (and those in Russia who might profit from supplying and processing Slovak nuclear fuel rods) is all for it, as was the former government of Vladimír Mečiar. Fico also favours honouring Slovakia's (Mečiar-era) promise to buy 6.5 billion crowns worth of SS-300 missiles from Russia, which would horribly complicate the country's NATO ambitions. For all his 'new faces' rhetoric, Fico would be for Russia a welcome return to the halcyon days of Mečiar and the energy sector cleptocracy.
If there is a lot of the old (and tired) in these new faces, we have seen fresh willingness to compromise in a government that had almost been written off by critics of reform. The Hungarian Coalition Party, under the candid Béla Bugár, has managed to 'extort' fulfilment of the promises the government made in 1998, and is now willing to add its crucial 15 parliamentary votes to the business of the legislature. It's a shame the Hungarians had to twist arms among their ethnic Slovak political partners, but as they were only brought into government at the last moment to assure the election of President Schuster, it's understandable that they have had to fight for their rewards.
But perhaps the only truly new face to have emerged in politics in recent years is that of ex-Columbia University professor Tibor Papp, who is chiefly remembered for having killed 13 chickens in a protest last year. It was an accident, he says, and he had no idea the chickens were too old to be hurled over a three metre fence in front of the Office of Government.
Is one reminded of the US sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati, in which radio nitwits Herb Tarlik and Art Carlson throw 500 turkeys from a helicopter only to discover the plummeting gobblers can't fly? Or of professor Avenarius in Milan Kundera's Immortality, who mischievously slashes car tires in a spirit of play with a world too tired to respond?
One can understand Papp's dismay that his chickens died, just as one can comprehend his frustration at the futility of standard political tools - letters that go unanswered and petitions that are ignored. And as general public anger with unemployment, corruption and living standards continues, one can also understand the attraction that charlatans like Fico and Rusko have for voters. But until everyone understands which variety of political bird can fly, we run the risk that in 2002 elections it will be raining turkeys.
5. Feb 2001 at 0:00