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EDITORIAL

Mikloš and political art: Was more really not possible?

To hear Deputy Prime Minister for Economy Ivan Mikloš speak, one would come away with the impression that Slovak voters in 1998 were laughably naive to credit the country could be rescued overnight from its 1994-1998 Mečiar-era excesses. Mikloš has often said he believes such gullible optimism is behind his government's current unpopularity - that real change takes a magnitude of time beyond voters' ken and patience.
Mikloš' words ring true of the economy - you can't turn 13% unemployment into 3% when much of your country's bankruptcy-bound corporate sector is already being propped up by government handouts. You can't, as PM Dzurinda promised in 1998, double real or even nominal wages in one election term when your country's firms need to increase labour productivity to remain competitive. And you sure as hell can't quickly reduce the national debt when the previous government was borrowing abroad at over 30% interest.
But there's another side to optimism, when it derives from political change. While Mikloš may be right to say people shouldn't have expected the economy to produce more jobs and better wages quickly, voters had every reason to believe that the attitude of the government to corruption and the rule of law could be altered from one day to another. It was, after all, simply a matter of listening to what opposition politicians had been saying for years.

To hear Deputy Prime Minister for Economy Ivan Mikloš speak, one would come away with the impression that Slovak voters in 1998 were laughably naive to credit the country could be rescued overnight from its 1994-1998 Mečiar-era excesses. Mikloš has often said he believes such gullible optimism is behind his government's current unpopularity - that real change takes a magnitude of time beyond voters' ken and patience.

Mikloš' words ring true of the economy - you can't turn 13% unemployment into 3% when much of your country's bankruptcy-bound corporate sector is already being propped up by government handouts. You can't, as PM Dzurinda promised in 1998, double real or even nominal wages in one election term when your country's firms need to increase labour productivity to remain competitive. And you sure as hell can't quickly reduce the national debt when the previous government was borrowing abroad at over 30% interest.

But there's another side to optimism, when it derives from political change. While Mikloš may be right to say people shouldn't have expected the economy to produce more jobs and better wages quickly, voters had every reason to believe that the attitude of the government to corruption and the rule of law could be altered from one day to another. It was, after all, simply a matter of listening to what opposition politicians had been saying for years.

Citizens and residents of this country always believed from the moment of independence in 1993 that just and honourable politicians existed in Slovakia, even if they weren't always concentrated in the government. When over 84% of voters turned out to cast a ballot from September 25-26, 1998, many of them believed that their votes would finally empower a political stratum that wanted justice and reform. If they have been disappointed since then, it's not because they were naive, but because they were misled. They simply couldn't have known how many politicians espousing Western values were insincere, and how ineffective the minute pro-reform group would prove against the many guardians of the cynical status quo.

Mikloš told the weekly paper Domino fórum last week that many government critics still doubted that politics was the art of the possible, and that Domino was "the flagship" of this doubt - again a reference to the naivete of the populace. But the paper was right to question whether the government, of which Mikloš is a senior member, has not broken too many moral contracts with citizens to lay claim to the 'art of the possible' alibi.

On August 15, the cabinet confirmed its intention to amend the 2000 Freedom of Access to Information law to more than double times allowed - henceforth as much as two months - for bureaucrats to respond to public requests for information about how public servants spend taxpayer money. The cabinet also decided to re-classify the wages of top bureaucrats in command of state companies. This despite Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda's evaluation of the original law as "one of the pillars" of the government's fight against corruption.

On August 25, the national council of the coalition's greatest foreign and domestic political asset, the SMK ethnic Hungarian party, is to decide whether to leave the government over a trail of broken promises culminating in a cynical deal between some coalition and opposition parties July 4 to pass a regional reform bill against a previous agreement with the Hungarians.

On August 10, a draft bill promising a list of powers to be devolved from the state to lower elected governments was again scrapped after government ministries refused to give up powers in accordance with an April 2000 cabinet resolution.

If we look further into the past, the trail of broken deals and bad faith leads on and ever on, cobbled with graft, obstruction and profiteering. While one of the Dzurinda government's main promises in 1998 was to jail privatisation criminals, not a single crook has gone to prison, and it wasn't until July this year that a state watchdog was even allowed access to the files of the FNM privatisation agency, a notorious 'get-rich-quick' platform.

Given such a record, disappointment is justified. Turning back the clock on anti-corruption measures already passed, turning a blind eye to crimes once the focus of opposition indignation, turning a deaf ear to calls for the cabinet's own programme to be fulfilled - these aren't so much failures to overcome insurmountable barriers as an abandonment of the trust coaxed by Dzurinda and his colleagues from the Slovak electorate.

Unfortunately, while the economy may be fixed in years to come, the effect of almost a decade of high-level amorality may take far longer to repair. If what has happened since 1998 is truly the art of the possible, then Mikloš and his colleagues should either dispense with art, or start telling people the truth about what it is possible to achieve in four years in this country.

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