A shadow keeps falling over the Slovak government's redoubtable accomplishments in foreign policy and economy. It's not one cast by President Rudolf Schuster's monumental self-pity or ignorance of the law, but by a mountain of destructive government acts that increasingly looms over the cabinet's golden image abroad.
Take, for example, a roundtable that was held one week ago between Dutch investors, diplomatic and commerce chamber representatives and government officials. In all, about 25 people were present, including Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Mikloš, late on a Thursday afternoon in Bratislava.
Mikloš spoke in fairly general terms about conditions for foreign investors in this country, and after fielding several questions, picked up and left for another engagement. His advisor, Katarína Mathernová, lasted about five minutes before packing up as well. Alan Sitar, investment advisor to Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda and a lead player in the new SARIO investment agency, stuck it out bravely, but in the end had to excuse himself too. And there they were - a dozen or more investors and an Economy Ministry official who had brought a prepared speech on trade figures for the last quarter. Oh, and a SARIO bigwig who tore into those present for not asking tougher questions of Mikloš, and for entertaining naive illusions as to the ability of his agency to help them.
Everyone was very gracious about it all, and expressed the conviction that foreigners could be doing more to help the government, handicapped as it clearly was by a pressing manpower shortage, to sell the country's virtues. But as September 26 comes and goes, and the second anniversary of the 1998 election victory of the government parties gives rise to reflections on their record, one can't escape the feeling that incidents such as that roundtable tell a far more eloquent tale than all the OECD invitations and EU flattery combined.
It's often said that foreign perceptions of Slovakia have failed to keep up with the pace of real change here, that the country's image remains darkened by Mečiar's destructive heritage even though a bright economic and political future is dawning. This may indeed be true in foreign capitals, where George Bush Jr. clones are still confusing Slovakia with Slovenia and pleading dyslexia.
But for those of us who live here, foreigner and Slovak alike, it's beginning to look as if the opposite is true - that the government, mindful of the imperative need not to be left out of any future alliance expansions, is doing its best to look the part abroad and is letting domestic reality fend for itself.
Take, for example, the government's anti-corruption fight. Everyone hates corruption, as we all know, and few more vociferously than the Slovak government. Plans to fight shady doings were put on the Internet by every government ministry and department September 18, which looks admirable until you read what was thought up by some departments - basically, we promise to do what we should and avoid what we oughtn't. But we won't tell you how we're going to achieve this fine goal.
Take again the way in which the government is handling the 'Roma question'. On the diplomatic front the Foreign Ministry is working with European governments to restrain the outflow of gypsy asylum seekers, while top government officials express horror at crimes like the recent slaying of gyspy mother Anastázia Balászová. Just as it should be - until one looks closer, and finds that the Parliamentary Immunity Committee this month refused to recommend that strutting nationalist MP Víťazoslav Móric be stripped of his immunity from prosecution. Móric, remember, is the author of the notion that gypsies be herded onto reservations. "What is humane," he asked, "about letting idiots impregnate idiots, about letting mental retards propagate, about allowing the percent of idiots and boneheads in our nation increase?" The Committee was prevented from recommending he be released for prosecution for spreading racial hatred when two government MPs abstained from voting. "I did it [abstained] partly to avoid needlessly escalating social tensions surrounding the Roma question," said ruling SDK party MP Jozef Krumpolec after the vote. Ri-ight.
Take also the vital reforms to the constitution and to the regional power structure, reforms which are vital to EU membership and to improving the nation's judicial system. It looks well abroad that the government has embarked on the process and has written it into its programme aims, but at home it appears that political egos have again triumphed over the needs of the country. The Hungarian coalition party, tired of being snubbed by its government partners, is now holding up constitutional reform by demanding a radical change to the proposed new regional map. Both projects will likely be delayed until after the November 11 referendum on early elections, to avoid hurting the government's precious image in the run-up to the plebiscite. As if the painful reality - warring factions fighting for narrow interests - weren't plain for all to see.
It's everywhere you look, this continental drift between image and reality - in Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner's abortive "war on skinheads", in what Prime Minister Dzurinda claimed to be doing and what he really did to his own SDK party, in objections to and arguments for the privatisation of state monopolies (ie. those against stand to make more money from keeping the firms in state hands, while those for often profit from legal and middleman functions the sales require).
But strangely enough, only 40% of people surveyed in a recent poll think the government will not survive its entire four year term; a year ago, that number was 50%. It's almost as if people have gotten over their initial disappointment that life in Slovakia didn't change overnight after 1998 elections, as if last year's painful emotions have hardened into an amused cynicism at what continues to pass for leadership in this country. It's almost like the Olympics, which people continue to watch and enjoy even though they're aware that many athletes may be taking drugs.
Still, resignation does not equal acceptance, and with opposition and non-parliamentary parties still commanding well over 50% of voter support, the government is going to have to start keeping its promises. In 1998, Dzurinda was elected on the strength of fatuous pledges like doubling people's wages; at mid-term, the government is lucky to be taken seriously even on its alleged desire to stay intact.