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EDITORIAL

The culture of protest: Why aren't Slovaks picketing?

Protest at high gas prices has spread like wildfire across Europe recently. Beginning with the furious French it has been taken up by the bolshy Brits and the belligerent Belgians. It has not, however, made significant inroads with the long-suffering Slovaks, who in real terms pay four times more for a litre of gas than their European confreres.
Despite the fact that an average wage in Slovakia will now buy only 314 litres of gas compared to 1,150 in Britain, we've seen no action here stronger than a plea by transport union Česmad that Slovaks boycott gas pumps owned by domestic refinery Slovnaft. True, Česmad has said it "can't rule out" a blockade of some sort, but them's hardly fightin' words, and other major gas consumers like taxi companies have already ruled out any kind of protest.

Protest at high gas prices has spread like wildfire across Europe recently. Beginning with the furious French it has been taken up by the bolshy Brits and the belligerent Belgians. It has not, however, made significant inroads with the long-suffering Slovaks, who in real terms pay four times more for a litre of gas than their European confreres.

Despite the fact that an average wage in Slovakia will now buy only 314 litres of gas compared to 1,150 in Britain, we've seen no action here stronger than a plea by transport union Česmad that Slovaks boycott gas pumps owned by domestic refinery Slovnaft. True, Česmad has said it "can't rule out" a blockade of some sort, but them's hardly fightin' words, and other major gas consumers like taxi companies have already ruled out any kind of protest.

The quiescent attitude of Slovaks to all forms of collective action, from trade union strikes to political demonstrations, has deep roots in the mentality of the nation. Darina Malová, a Comenius University political science professor who has built her career on analysis of collective behaviour in this country, says that while Slovaks approve of strikes, they rarely participate in them.

"The real culture here is that the boss is the boss, and he can do what he wants," she says. "The level of approval for strikes is much higher than the incidence of strikes."

This theory isn't based on hearsay - a 'content analysis' of Slovak press from 1990 to 1994 cited by Malová revealed that the form of protest most often used by Slovaks was letter-writing and petition-signing - in her words, non-disruptive behaviour. The results of the study have been confirmed time and again by opinion polls during the last decade.

Lack of labour leadership, too, has shaped the nature of protest here. While 33% to 35% of Slovak workers belong to labour unions, a proportion similar to that in France, one can simply not compare the aggressive tactics of French labour leaders to those of their docile Slovak counterparts. According to Malova, workers here protest only when their backs are against the wall, and even then, strikes are more spontaneous affairs than carefully orchestrated union events.

The implications of Slovakia's weak protest culture clearly go far beyond filling stations. For one thing, it means that politicians in this country have far greater scope for negative behaviour than they are allowed in other nations. That the cabinet of former PM Vladimír Mečiar was allowed to drive Slovakia into international isolation, bring the economy to the verge of ruin and flout democratic principles during four years of essentially peaceful governance illustrates the downside of this cultural forbearance.

On the other hand, the fact that the current government has been able to implement tough economic reforms which sent real wages into a tailspin and drove unemployment over 20% - all without sparking a popular uprising - shows that Slovakia's protest culture may embolden governments to apply tough cures whenever needed. The fact that the November 11 referendum is still unlikely to draw a quorum of voters is further evidence that the people, not the government, are to thank for the country's enduring political stability.

As far as employers are concerned, the fact that Slovaks don't strike ought to be an invitation to the exploitation of labour. The fact that such exploitation is not widespread is due to the country's labour code, a socialist-inspired document which makes it virtually impossible to fire anyone unless he knifes the boss or sets fire to the factory. Even in such cases, employers often can no more than issue a terrified warning, or fork out five months wages if they feel the infraction was simply too gross.

It is interesting to note, however, that the firms which claim to have the greatest problems with the labour laws are foreign companies, which tend to take the rules at face value. In fact, when companies do ignore the labour code and fire an employee on the spot without compensation, they frequently get away with it. Slovak construction firms are well known for this; having taken the measure of their workers, their attitude is sometimes "sue me if you don't like it." The average Slovak labourer, burdened by ignorance of the court system and an instictive respect for authority, is unlikely to take them up on it.

So it would seem that far from being a curious anomaly, Slovak acceptance of ruinous gas prices gives one a fascinating window on the political and economic behaviour of the average voter. It argues that nervous investors should not fear the coming referendum on early elections - but at the same time should not expect much in the way of protest if Vladimír Mečiar were somehow to find his way back to power.

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