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EDITORIAL

To laugh or weep? President Schuster's tale bears scrutiny

It's a sure bet that Slovaks have heard enough of President Rudolf Schuster's brush with death last year. But the launch of a book this week by Schuster's daughter Ingrid entitled 'Don't Cry, Mummy, Dad's Still Alive' shows that the nation's highest official still hasn't grasped to what extent the personal is political, and how little sympathy people have for a public servant so mired in self pity.

It's a sure bet that Slovaks have heard enough of President Rudolf Schuster's brush with death last year. But the launch of a book this week by Schuster's daughter Ingrid entitled 'Don't Cry, Mummy, Dad's Still Alive' shows that the nation's highest official still hasn't grasped to what extent the personal is political, and how little sympathy people have for a public servant so mired in self pity.

To recap - Schuster's mid-2000 affliction with a perforated colon - and his treatment in Slovakia - almost destroyed him in body, while the way in which the President's powers were assumed by the cabinet deeply injured Schuster in spirit ("they couldn't wait to get rid of me" he wailed to a German newspaper soon after regaining consciousness, if not his senses).

Almost a year later, the President on May 8 was bedewing his britches with tears at the book launch for 'Don't Cry Mummy', telling TV cameras afterwards that he hadn't been able to get beyond the first page.

The President's self-absorption wouldn't be so bad if he actually fulfilled his declared political role - that of an independent check on excesses by both the government and opposition, a man motivated by a noble desire to improve Slovakia's image abroad and represent its humblest citizens at home.

But Schuster's two-year tenure as Slovakia's first directly-elected President hasn't lived up to his own billing. Foreign policy analysts writing last year in the review Slovakia 2000: A Global Report on the State of Society panned the President's foreign policy as reflecting more often a "personal public relations campaign" than a sincere desire to play a constructive role in aiding Slovakia's integration ambitions.

The President's announcement this year that he was forming a team to come up with a long-range economic strategy for Slovakia was also criticized by economic experts as a case of Schuster meddling in affairs he knew little about.

Nor did political experts credit Schuster's April 2001 claim that relations between his office and the government were as poor as those between sworn enemies Vladimír Mečiar (former Prime Minister) and Michal Kováč (former President) from 1993 to 1998.

Novelist Richard Adams, in Watership Down, had an expression for what seems to be affecting the President. Adams called it tharn, the fascination with the lights of onrushing cars that freezes rabbits caught in the middle of a highway. Tharn killed rabbits, much as Schuster's fascination with his own person is killing the Presidency.

The Presidency, and Slovak society itself, has been hurt by more than Schuster's inability to get over his illness. Even today, the Slovak political scene is paying the price for how Schuster used his former popularity to guarantee himself the Presidency.

In an ill-advised book he wrote himself in 1999, called 'Return to High Politics' and removed from shelves within days after distribution because of scandal over its political tattle, Schuster recalled that "Juraj Śiroký, during a personal meeting, recommended two people for party posts [in Schuster's Party for Civic Understanding, founded in 1998 and currently a member of the ruling coalition] that he had worked with - Ferdinand Petrák and Mária Machová."

Juraj Široký is the head of the Harvard Investment Fund, a powerful financial player. He has sat on the boards of large Slovak firms such as pulp and paper maker JCP Štúrovo, chemicals firm Chemolak, defence group DMD, and gas storage giant Nafta. Machová, the colleague he recommended that Schuster include in his Understanding party, is now Privatisation Minister; Petrák is the party's economic expert.

There's no evidence to suggest Široký's business interests have had anything to do with Civic Understanding's politics, even with Machová's recent attempts in the government to stall the sale of the country's SPP gas utility. But in accepting nominations by Široký, in return for whatever 'friendly' considerations, Schuster contributed to a plague that has infested the country since its independence - the enslavement of politicians to business interests, and the corruption that this breeds.

Schuster left Civic Understanding, and Slovak politics, to its fate in 1998 when he wrested a promise from government parties to support his Presidential candidacy in return for fewer cabinet seats than his party deserved. He can't now accuse the government for failing to deal with a situation - political instability and corruption - that he himself helped to create.

Nor can he go on weeping in public over his own poor health. Many people in this country go through what he endured, and even without the luxury of an expensive state-funded recuperation in Austria, are forced to get on with their lives and work.

If Slovaks shed any tears over 'Don't Cry, Mummy', it will be in despair over a self-intoxicated President who has shown none of the dignity, courage and honesty his position requires.

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