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EDITORIAL

Regional reform: Why anyone should care

It's unlikely that many foreigners living in Slovakia will be directly affected by a new level of regional government created July 4 by parliamentarians. But the next time any of us get crummy service in a restaurant, feel a flush or anger at residence permit bureaucracy, or wonder why the rest of the world is so much more gung-ho about the Dzurinda government than the country's own citizens, knowing a little about the regional reform may help us understand.
What has happened is this - MPs have approved the election of representatives to eight regional governments that will sit in Slovakia's existing regional capitals - Bratislava, Trnava, Trenčín, Žilina, Nitra, Banská Bystrica, Prešov and Košice. They will function much like Canadian provinces - midway between the national elected government and municipal elected governments, with their own powers to tax and raise finances, their own responsibilities in areas like schooling and health care, and their own fixed assets (once these three vital areas are defined).

It's unlikely that many foreigners living in Slovakia will be directly affected by a new level of regional government created July 4 by parliamentarians. But the next time any of us get crummy service in a restaurant, feel a flush or anger at residence permit bureaucracy, or wonder why the rest of the world is so much more gung-ho about the Dzurinda government than the country's own citizens, knowing a little about the regional reform may help us understand.

What has happened is this - MPs have approved the election of representatives to eight regional governments that will sit in Slovakia's existing regional capitals - Bratislava, Trnava, Trenčín, Žilina, Nitra, Banská Bystrica, Prešov and Košice. They will function much like Canadian provinces - midway between the national elected government and municipal elected governments, with their own powers to tax and raise finances, their own responsibilities in areas like schooling and health care, and their own fixed assets (once these three vital areas are defined). The European Union is excited about the change, because it brings government 'closer to the people', and follows the EU principle that any tasks than can be carried out by a lower level of government should be devolved to the lower body. Elections to the new governments must be called by the beginning of October 2001 at the latest.

Lest it seem that nothing could have been simpler, a squabble over whether Slovakia would get 8 or 12 new regions erupted in April last year and dragged on until US Independence Day 2001. The beef was mainly about political power. The former communists and socialists in government, along with the opposition HZDS party, draw a lot of their political support from the ranks of state bureaucrats, having filled those ranks with their own supporters during their turns at the political helm. As Slovakia already has eight regions, each with its own state-appointed administration, these parties were loath to see the country's territorial boundaries completely redrawn into 12 regions, and its comfortably ensconced bureaucratic supporters sent packing either to new jobs or to the bread lines.

On the other hand, the three pro-reform coalition parties saw the 12-region plan as a way to break the grip of yesterday's officialdom on the nation - and, of course, a way to get a few of its own faithful into either the state or elected regional apparatus.

In the end, the reactionary forces won by cleaving together and pushing through their eight region model, which was reluctantly supported by the 12-region boosters. The upshot is a reform that meets the basic requirements, but falls far short of the ideal.

Before the cynics get to work with their "that's politics" analyses, let it be said that the gap between the ideal and what Slovakia's politicians have offered this last decade has caused much public anguish. The past has proven far more difficult to throw off than at first hoped, partly because the social attitudes that produce poor service and senseless red tape are identical with those expressed by defenders of the political status quo.

The July 4 reform will get a big round of applause from foreign governments, largely because it appears to be a big step in the right direction. But it will likely be savaged in the domestic media if only because of what might have been, had Slovakia, in rejecting first the communists and then Mečiar, at the same time rejected the values these political dinosaurs stood for.

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