"I am not a small boy," said Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda.
As a conversation starter, this was an arresting statement, rather like a bold if unorthodox chess opening. It was followed by several unanswerable assertions.
"I have a nose," the PM continued, touching a forefinger to the organ in question, "and two..." He tapped his nostrils eloquently. "And I think you like to make problems."
The scene was Bratislava's Ante Portas pub, where a reporter from The Slovak Spectator had bumped into Dzurinda in the men's room. The Prime Minister was out on the town with Deputy PM Ivan Mikloš, who that day had agreed to join his SDKÚ party. They had invited a dozen journalists from various media (the Spectator not included) to celebrate with them.
Having met the nation's leader, our journalist decided to ask him why it was that the Spectator's interviews with him usually ended up with the PM in a huff. The Prime Minister, using his nose as a prop, seemed to be saying the fault was ours, which it may have been, and that we enjoyed goading him, which we don't. Why it occurred to him to say he wasn't a little boy is anyone's guess.
The point is that at Ante Portas, as several times in the past, Dzurinda acted churlishly, a luxury he could afford as a waiter, perhaps, but not as Prime Minister of the country. He's behaved the same way to other journalists, to political partners, to some members of the business community. People who have been slighted by him have developed a theory that the choleric PM can't abide being challenged or opposed, that he needs to have things his own way.
It's a portrait of Dzurinda that few foreign diplomats or politicians would recognize, but one that domestically has shaped Dzurinda's public image. For many people who voted for Dzurinda in 1998, and have since turned away in disappointment with the slow pace of change, this image speaks volumes about why their expectations have not been met. And as pessimism and cynicism grow in step with unemployment, some of Dzurinda's critics have even said there isn't much difference any more between the current leader and authoritarian former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar.
That, of course, is nonsense. There is no real political option in Slovakia to Dzurinda and his SDKÚ party. Irascible he may be, but Dzurinda has presided over a reversal of the country's long-term fortunes, and has managed to find agreement on essential reforms despite the gross irresponsibility of some of his coalition partners. Voters may be fed up with him, but can they really imagine trusting politicians like the populist Robert Fico or the rudderless Pavol Rusko to run the country? Critics may call on Dzurinda to bang a fist on the table and force cabinet to agree on further reforms, but nothing could be easier - and less likely to produce results. As a backroom bargainer among the coalition's nine parties, Dzurinda has done a creditable job of forging unity when necessary.
That said, having Mikloš in the SDKÚ fold may help to compensate for Dzurinda's political liabilities. It's unlikely that anyone will be able to convince the PM to put a leash on his temper, but Mikloš may be able to steer Dzurinda towards greater cooperation with his political rivals in the coalition. He may also convince the PM to consult his public announcements with an advisor before delivering them: Dzurinda has been making noises recently about cutting unemployment by raising the minimum wage, a notion which is almost as ludicrous as his 1998 promise to double nominal salaries by 2002 (the problem is that while a higher minimum wage may give people more reason to get off social security, it also leads to lower employment as firms cut jobs to save costs).
If the Deputy PM can wield this influence over The Boss, he will go a long way to ensuring the SDKÚ's - and his own - success at the polls in 2002. But he's got his work cut out for him, for as Dzurinda's apparent deputy he'll likely face some jealousy among senior SDKÚ people such as general secretary Ivan Šimko. He'll also have to be careful that association with some of the SDKÚ's less savoury types (i.e. Roman Vavrík) doesn't stain his hitherto spotless record where corruption and clientelism are concerned.
Mikloš took quite a gamble in joining the SDKÚ, for all that the potential gains all round are significant. But in signing up such a poised and respected politician, the unpopular Dzurinda also may have taken an unwitting risk - for if anyone at that table in Ante Portas looked like the next leader of the country, it was certainly not Mikuláš Dzurinda.
30. Apr 2001 at 0:00