Every now and then, as a foreigner in Slovakia, you sit in on a conversation between two Slovaks that resembles a child's first trip down the dark basement stairs. Disquieted by the decades-old furniture, but secure in the company of older and wiser cousins.
Ever the reliable narrator, we'll tell you from the outset that we've changed the names of the people involved and camouflaged where they work, because neither can afford to lose their jobs, and even if they could wouldn't be pleased.
Both are in their early 30s; David has returned for a holiday from his foreign diplomatic posting, and Mária, his former schoolmate, has just taken over as director of a sector in an important ministry.
Mária has a problem at work with the department of 20 people she has inherited. About half are nearing retirement, and have worked at the ministry since Ham surprised Noah in his Old Testament tent. Several openly drink at work, cracking the cognac in the morning and then waiting until 4 p.m. rolls around. She feels her staff neither respect nor listen to her, which is tough when the minister expects her work to be on time and flawless. She stays until eight most nights, covering for staff she doesn't have the nerve to fire or even admonish. One woman has been working on a single letter for almost a month; another man keeps a bottle and glasses in his desk drawer.
She might do something about the slackness, but what? Call the police to administer a breath test for alcohol and fire those who fail? Not so easy under Slovakia's civil service law. Talk to a superior? Perhaps not a wise career move given the private industry lobbyists who seem to have the run of the ministry and daily come to get 'the inside track' on tenders for state property in which they will bid.
Mária is confused about many things. Would she take a bribe? "Wouldn't you?", she shoots back. What bothers her most about her job? "I enjoy the work, but I feel I'm powerless to do what's necessary to make things better. The minister talks about waste of money, such as dozens of million crowns here and there, but there are billions being spent on absolute crap, and people stripping state assets in totally crude ways."
Her story isn't going down well with David, who confesses he has missed Slovakia terribly, but on reflection doesn't know if he could ever live here again. He finds the people in his host country somewhat shallow, but envies their sense that rules are generally obeyed and enforced.
What emerges from their conversation, for the foreigner who listened on his trip down the stairs of their disappointment, is that changing the way many Slovaks approach ordinary things like work and corruption is going to take far longer than anyone is letting on. Whatever anyone says, the 2002 elections may easily produce a return to the past because a great majority of the population does not understand why electing Mečiar might ruin the country. Flight of capital, a return to 30% borrowing rates, international isolation - these are concepts only dimly understood in comparison with tried formulas like 'Slovakia for Slovaks' and 'who doesn't steal from the state steals from his own family'.
The overall process of change is irreversible, aided as much by the simple greying of the population as by the exhortations of NATO and the European Union. But this is little cause for celebration if the change is going to take 30 years, the entire productive lives of many young adults who, 12 years after the revolution, are already out of patience and wondering how long they can take it.
27. Aug 2001 at 0:00