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Conferences getting academics talking

It took a few minutes to explain to world famous economist Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard University that he was sitting too close to the camera feed, but once he had grasped the problem and moved back, there he was - properly in focus and live by satellite from stateside, taking part in an October 12-13 Bratislava conference entitled "Western Influences on Central and Eastern European Transitions".
"It's the new face of Slovakia," remarked conference co-organiser Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the Bratislava-based thinktank Institute for Public Affairs (IVO).
Sachs, director of the Center for International Development at Harvard, can be considered a 'new' face in that he is one of a growing number of high-profile academics and statesmen who have been attracted to conferences in, on or about Slovakia since 1998 national elections. The fact that such conferences are being held far more frequently now than during the former Meeiar government is also evidence of the new and more tractable face Slovakia is presenting to the world.


Grigorij Mesežnikov, head of the Bratislava thinktank Institute for Public Affairs (IVO), says that the increase in conferences is evidence that Slovakia is "back in the fold" internationally.
photo: Courtesy IVO

It took a few minutes to explain to world famous economist Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard University that he was sitting too close to the camera feed, but once he had grasped the problem and moved back, there he was - properly in focus and live by satellite from stateside, taking part in an October 12-13 Bratislava conference entitled "Western Influences on Central and Eastern European Transitions".

"It's the new face of Slovakia," remarked conference co-organiser Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the Bratislava-based thinktank Institute for Public Affairs (IVO).

Sachs, director of the Center for International Development at Harvard, can be considered a 'new' face in that he is one of a growing number of high-profile academics and statesmen who have been attracted to conferences in, on or about Slovakia since 1998 national elections. The fact that such conferences are being held far more frequently now than during the former Meeiar government is also evidence of the new and more tractable face Slovakia is presenting to the world.

"There's been a great increase in these kinds of gatherings, absolutely," said Franz Kaps, senior partnership advisor with the World Bank Group in Hungary, as the last IVO conference participants packed their bags and left to catch trains and planes. "Slovakia has approached us [the World Bank] in trying to catch up, and it helps that this government has been willing to discuss issues that were kind of taboo in the past - financial sector reform, pension reform and so on.

"In my experience there's been an increase, not just in Slovakia but around the region - Bratislava, Budapest and Prague," said Geoffrey Pridham, director of the Centre for Mediterranean Studies at Bristol University, lingering over lunch before returning to the UK. "It's part of what I call 'informal integration' - you have EU negotiations at the political level, and then a lot of spin-offs from these where personal networks are built. Gatherings like this are a cross between policy makers, academics and people from policy instututions. It's quite a good mix, actually."

No one has any hard data on just how many conferences are occurring these days, either in Slovakia or involving Slovak participants and themes. Mesežnikov said that while IVO's main focus was research and writing rather than organising talk shops, he himself now attended about one conference a month, due largely to invitations from Slovak state officials to accompany them abroad. "We generally focus on having our people attending other conferences," he said. "These invitations simply didn't come under the previous government."


IVO's April conference on euro-Atlantic integration attracted leading diplomats from both sides of the ocean.
photo: Courtesy IVO

Nevertheless, having put together a spring meeting in the western Slovak town of Pieš?any on the funding of political parties and an April conference on trans-Atlantic cooperation, the IVO is getting ready for its fourth confabulation this year - a December meeting on the oil and gas industry.

"For Slovakia, these conferences are an important signal that we are considered to be 'back in the fold'," said Mesežnikov.

Another NGO, the Slovak Foreign Policy Association (SFPA), has also registered a steady increase in conference activity. Alexander Duleba, the director of the SFPA's Research Centre in eastern Slovakia's Prešov, said that his foundation had put on only one workshop in 1997, two the next year, five in the first full year of the Dzurinda government and fully 10 during 2000.

"The interest of our western partners is growing, the agenda is growing, and so is Slovakia's need to keep these contacts," he said in explanation of the furious activity.

Not to be outdone by the IVO, the SFPA has managed to attract a star attraction of its own - Zbigniew Brzezinski, US State Secretary under the Jimmy Carter administration, who will be attending the SFPA's November 2 plenary session of the Slovak-US Action Commission. The latter body has three working groups; one to improve business conditions in Slovakia, another to improve the banking and financial system, and a third to deal with foreign policy and security issues. The working groups are staffed by 35 heads of Slovak firms and 12 heads of US companies.

Wider impact

The question, of course, remains what effect such conferences have either on the Slovak voting public or on the decisions the country's leaders take - if they are more than just opportunities for academics to present papers and spend grant money.

František Šebej, one of the founders of the IVO and an MP who heads the parliamentary integration committee, said workshops like the October 12-13 Bratislava conference helped to freshen lines of communication that had become bogged down in ritual.

"Ritual meetings such as those between joint parliamentary committees very quickly lose any meaningful content," he said following the final conference discussion. "These seminars are live discussions which often bring up controversial themes, and make for very useful communication."

Controversy may have been in short supply at the IVO conference, but there was no lack of thoughtful debate. Mitchell Orenstein, an assistant professor at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, remarked that the role of the West was frequently to relieve the 'legislative overload' on policy makers in transition countries. "You frequently see too many problems coming across the desk [of such policy makers] at once. You get an excess of problems and a paucity of solutions, meaning that in the end the solutions that are applied are often random." The role of international organisations in such situations, he said, was agenda-setting, and offering standardised answers to particular problems faced by countries in transition. In this way, responses to legal and economic challenges across the region would become more predictable.

Šebej, in response, said it wasn't surprising that solutions applied by transition countries were random, since "when you are overloaded as a lawmaker, you can either collapse or screen out the less important problems. And sometimes, problems that have been screened out get forgotten."

Another female academic, who asked that her name not be cited by the media, drew a comparison between the government's present problems achieving 'transparency' with the country's communist past. "Transparency is the main problem of post-communist societies," she said. "Under communism, information was concealed because they didn't want to make it easy for people to work out their own solutions or different ways of doing things."

Šebej, for his part, joked that because communism had not been as harsh in Slovakia as in other parts of the region - "a professor here might lose his job but become a librarian, rather than a garbage man as he might have been in the Czech lands" - Slovakia might not have as serious a problem with transparency as its neighbours.

Whether exchanges such as these actually change the way policy is made can never be guaged. But Šebej was convinced that at the very least, bodies like the IVO had a major influence on public opinion. "I have evidence that what they write influences journalists and politicians, and I also see how they use it - I recognise pieces of IVO text in newspaper articles," he said.

"The IVO plays an extremely important role in bringing the Slovak public and civil society up to speed," added the World Bank's Kaps. "I hope civil society will benefit from these types of gatherings."

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