As the current government nears the midway point of its four year election term, Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda has much to cheer about. The trade balance and the public sector deficits, which ballooned under the 1994-1998 government of Vladimír Mečiar, have been brought under control; interest rates have fallen dramatically, while important privatisation projects such as the sale of banks, telecom and utility firms are underway. In recognition of these accomplishments, as well as of the political about-turn the country has taken since 1998, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) asked Slovakia to join its ranks at the end of July.
But if one looks beneath the rosebush, one finds problems that refuse to go away. Unemployment, below 14% at the end of the Mečiar government, has shot up to 20%; real wages fell 3.1% in 1999 and a further 6.1% in the first quarter of this year, although economists now agree they have probably reached bottom. Public sector corruption has proven difficult to eradicate, and according to a majority of Slovaks remains prevalent particularly in schools, hospitals and state offices. Continuous political squabbles between the ruling coalition's 11 member parties have created the impression of instability, for all that the government has never been seriously in danger of falling.
While the macroeconomic triumphs and foreign policy success may have brightened Dzurinda's star abroad, at home his popularity rating has fallen to reach 11.1% this past June, according to the Statistitical Office's Public Opinion Research wing. And with his SDKÚ party trailing Mečiar's opposition HZDS and independent MP Róbert Fico's Smer by a wide margin in the polls, Dzurinda will clearly have to make up lost ground if he is to repeat his 1998 election success.
The Slovak Spectator spoke to Mikuláš Dzurinda on August 8.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Jaro Filip, a friend of yours who recently passed away, once wrote an article for the Domino fórum paper in which he advised you to roll down the window of your BMW occasionally. What do you think he meant by that?
Mikuláš Dzurinda (MD): I think he meant that I shouldn't lose contact with people. I've tried to be faithful to his advice. I run along the banks of the Danube [River], I buy Slovak products, [such as] mineral water, and I visit the Bratislava market once or twice a week. I've made about 38 trips around Slovakia, each one of which ends with an hour-long walk around a [village or town] main square, where people can tell me what they think. Jaro may be pretty happy with me.
TSS: So you don't think that two years into your term you've lost the contact you built up with people when you did your bicycle tour during the 1998 election campaign?
MD: No. I honestly don't [have that feeling]. I don't lack contacts with citizens. Sometimes I walk home from my office, and I take every chance I get to interact with people. I go for walks in Bratislava very, very, very often, and you can meet me with Martin Lengyel, my former spokesman, or in one of the many conversations I have with citizens. I really don't have anything to worry about. And between us, I feel first and foremost like any other citizen of the Slovak Republic.
TSS: You have devoted a great deal of time during the first half of your term in office to solving relations within your SDK party. Your critics within the party say that in abandoning the SDK and forming the SDKÚ, you not only broke a pre-election promise to them to return the SDK to a five-party coalition, but you also stripped the political assets of SDK founding parties such as the Democratic Union. Do you see yourself as a modern-day Slovak Machiavelli?
MD: Everyone who claims that I promised to return the SDK to a five-party coalition is lying. Can it be said any more clearly? They're lying. For another thing, why did we take our case that we were a political party to the Supreme Court? For another thing, I was empowered by the SDK Congress to sign a ten-point commitment to voters - to the citizens of the Slovak Republic from the Chairman of the SDK. It's craziness and trickery if anyone accuses me of having promised to break up the de facto winner of the parliamentary elections and to send it somewhere [ie. to destroy it]. From beginning to end it's a lie, and I have have nothing else to add.
MD: And one more thing. I really didn't waste that much time on this matter. It was simply people who had nothing better to do with their time that were messing around. It's an optical illusion [that Dzurinda spent much time on the SDK]. These petty conflicts didn't cost me almost any time. Sometimes I would come up with a proposal in good faith. I proposed a union of political parties, but the KDH and DS [SDK founding parties] refused it; they have now forced me into founding the SDKÚ, by trying to turn me into a spokesman [for the SDK]. The boss of the party which won elections, and a politician who received over 300,000 preferential votes - they wanted to turn me, the Prime Minister, into a spokesman! So what was I supposed to do? I founded a political party and I am offering unification. That's all.
TSS: But sometimes, when one looks at your style of governance, one also sees a certain ruthlessness, such as when you didn't tell Finance Minister Brigita Schmögnerová that the United Nations was considering her for the post of executive director of the European Economic Commission because you felt she was too important a member of cabinet to lose [former EEC boss Yves Berthelot had passed the information on to Slovak Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan at a cocktail party last November, but neither Kukan nor Dzurinda let Schmögnerová know - Ed. Note]. Has the job of holding power and keeping the ruling coalition together forced you to change your political methods?
MD: No. Why do journalists so often take a superficial view? Why don't they want to see the truth? Mrs. Schmögnerová never received an offer from anywhere through Mr. Kukan or myself. How is it possible that truth and reality are sometimes so hard to understand? In the end it was shown that Mrs. Schmögnerová had participated in a formal job interview [in April], that Kofi Annan had asked her to the interview with various other talented people, but had chosen someone else. I have already stated very clearly for important media that I won't be taken in, I won't be made a postman, that I won't be a carrier of rumours or backroom gossip. Now, in the 21st century? When we have e-mail, Internet, satellites? If anyone looking to fill a job has an interest in someone else, he should reach out for a phone or the Internet and say "come on over and let's have a talk." Do we need such backroom intrigue for this person to hear of it [a job offer]? Come on, that's sick. From beginning to end, A to Z, it's sick. I never did it, and I have never liked such political intrigues. Should I have come to the minister and given her the impression I'm kicking her out of the cabinet? It was not my job to do this. No one asked me to do it.
Dzurinda's bicycle tour of Slovakia played a key role in wooing voters, particularly the younger generation. The PM says he has not lost touch.
photo: Courtesy SDK
MD: So why didn't she call the UN and ask them why they gave her this information only later? In the end it was discovered that she had been to a job interview. Kofi Annan invited her to Paris for breakfast and spoke with her in the same way he spoke to the other candidates. This all came out later. The truth does not lie anywhere else, certainly not in the assertion that Dzurinda uses unethical methods. I won't be made the fall-guy for this. I've got nothing to do with it. It went in one ear and out the other. If someone had asked me to pass it on, I would have. But am I expected to practice government politics on the basis of absolutely indirect, unsought, hearsay information? I am a responsible person. If the UN was interested in Mrs. Schmögnerová they should have made her an offer, which I believe they did. She was one of many talented candidates. She wasn't accepted. Everything else is a fabrication, a complete fabrication. If she had been accepted and had needed the government's approval, she would have attended a cabinet session and we would have expressed our opinion. I wouldn't have voted in favour of her departure, but if it had been the will of the majority of cabinet members, there you are...
TSS: Two days ago, the opposition parties delivered a petition for a referendum on early elections to the Office of the President. If such a referendum takes place, what will the government's strategy be - to appeal to people not to take part, hoping that the referendum will not attract the 50% of voters it needs to be valid, or to appeal to people who are against early elections to show up and vote 'no' in the referendum?
MD: We will ask citizens to ignore the referendum, and not to take part in it. It's complete nonsense. It all about Mečiar and the HZDS, about the pathetic and destructive political tactics of Slovakia's non-standard opposition.
TSS: Isn't this a rather dangerous strategy? What if some people who are against the referendum show up and vote anyway, giving the plebiscite just over the 50% quorum it needs, but not adding enough 'no' votes to defeat the motion for early elections?
MD: Don't underestimate the citizens. People understand very well that the greatest fiasco for Mečiar would be if people simply ignored him in the referendum. It's the simplest solution, and it saves time. It's absolutely effective for people, and it's effective politics.
TSS: Béla Bugár, head of the Hungarian coalition party, said that if the referendum does draw a quorum and returns a 'yes' vote on early elections [meaning that parliament would then have to vote on early elections, which would only take place if 60% of MPs were in favour], government parties should vote in parliament according to how their voters cast their ballots in the referendum. If a majority of voters supporting lefttist parties like the SDĽ and SOP wanted new elections, this might make the vote very close. How do you think government parties should react if the referendum on early elections is successful?
MD: In my opinion, your question is absolutely irrelevant. I'm not a Machiavelli in Slovak politics, but I see myself as a realistic politician. And your question seems unrealistic to me.
TSS: Róbert Fico [head of the non-parliamentary Smer party] has said that he would be willing to enter a coalition with the HZDS as long as [HZDS chairman] Vladimír Mečiar was not in the party. How about you? Would you enter a coalition with a Mečiar-less HZDS?
MD: In the first place I don't think you've paraphrased Mr. Fico's position very exactly. I'm equally convinced that again, this is an artificial, unreal fiction. The HZDS without Mečiar does not exist. From the beginning this is a poorly posed, artificially posed problem.
TSS: You don't think he would ever leave the HZDS voluntarily?
MD: That's right.
TSS: People from the DS [platform within the SDK] have said they see your meetings with Mr. Fico as preparation for early elections. They have asked why the Prime Minister meets so often with one independent MP. What is your answer?
MD: (pause) Every step I take, and every rational argument, shows that I am acting in order that parliamentary elections be held at the regular time. I am the one person in this country who wants parliamentary elections to be held at the regular election time. All others [questions] are themes that I find a waste of time.
TSS: The nomination of political representatives to posts at state companies, a practice which was adopted by the government parties following the 1998 elections, has led to accusations of clientelism and to resignations such as that of Štefan Košovan [former head of the SE energy utility] and Ján Odzgan [former head of the State Material Reserves Fund]. Why, after it had been shown that this system of nominations led to corruption, did you continue nominating political candidates to these posts?
MD: Because it was necessary to change the old guard left by Mečiar in these positions very quickly. It wasn't possible to use standard methods to organise huge job searches, because they would have taken a very long time, and we would have found the same blank bills of exchange that we did at SPP [gas utility] at many other factories as well. We had to come up with a quick, aggressive solution.
TSS: Have you started working on any job search criteria that might allow you to gradually change this system of appointments?
MD: These criteria don't need to be drawn up. It's enough to use the standard methods which were known to us when we took power, and which are still known to us. They are generally known methods such as job searches and so on. I submit to your attention the selection of the new SE director, who was chosen in this way. Doubtless we could say the same of the new director of ST [state telecom firm] and many others.
TSS: At the end of February this year you were given a report by the Slovak Information Service [secret service], which described in detail how corruption [asset stripping] was occuring at the State Material Reserves Fund [which stockpiles materiel such as wheat for use in the case of a national emergency - Ed. Note]. In spite of this, you didn't react for several weeks, and the head of the Fund, Mr. Odzgan, was not recalled until July 3. Why?
MD: Because secret service information cannot be the basis for action in this area. [If we used it as such] we would not be a legal state. These are just data which can be an indication, information or a basis for the legitimate judicial organs and organs of criminal prosecution such as the financial police or police per se, prosecutors, courts. We can't make personnel decisions on the basis of secret service information. [If we did] we would end up in a very, very, very bad state.
TSS: Couldn't you have used your power to put pressure on those police organs which were empowered to investigate affairs at the Fund, in order that they solved the matter more quickly?
MD: That's not within the power of the Slovak Prime Minister.
Photo: Spectator archives
MD: It's not within the powers of the chairman of the state defence council. Police and investigative organs are absolutely independent. Look at the law! We want to go towards the West, so we have to learn western methods. It's forbidden for the prime minister or the chairman of the state defence council to dictate the tempo to the bodies active in criminal prosecutions. And another thing - you know, we shouldn't beat our heads in a desire for perfection. That's another one of the ways I see the world - that it shouldn't matter to us so much whether we act a day or two, or a week or a month later than some people would like to see according to their standards, or according to some metre stick. That wouldn't be healthy either. Let's not whip ourselves or traumatise ourselves for things we can't help, because this can be depressing and take positive energy from us. There are many cases in which we showed very responsible political behaviour, and which were a fundamental reversal of the kind of thing that existed here before. Today we can speak not only of the head of the Material Reserves Fund, but also of ministers, of three members of my cabinet who knew what was appropriate [Transport Minister Gabriel Palacka, Economy Minister Ľudovít Černák and Health Minister Tibor Šagat, all of whom resigned - Ed. Note]. The same goes for changes of the guard at [state-owned] monopolies. You've mentioned SE and the Fund, but let's talk also about ST, where the [former] chairman of the supervisory board and the director are no longer there. We could mention other firms, many of whose [politically-nominated] directors have acquitted themselves well. Let's look at [state banks] Slovenská sporiteľňa, VÚB and many other nominations. And wherever these people don't behave well and there are problems, we will simply proceed further [with dismissals]. Let's talk about parliamentarians, about MPs Ďuraček and Sládeček [who face criminal charges] and others where we showed great political culture. So I refuse to see the world in such a way that we act on the basis of data or information from the secret service, that we act as if the day could be stretched to 25 or 26 hours. These simply aren't methods that lead us to our goals.
TSS: Why has it proven so difficult to eliminate contacts between political parties and various private companies such as Devín banka, Prima Print or TV Com, which last year was connected with the KDH?
MD: I could show you many cases in which we have managed to do so. The question here is not to handicap or point the finger at this or that firm. That's not my job. Let the bodies in the criminal prosecution system make statements about TV Com and other cases. We have to again ask ourselves if we have chosen the right course, if we are addressing these themes correctly, if again we aren't trying to be holier than the Pope. The CDU also has its problems, and Germany dictates the tempo of Europe. The CDU was in government there for 16 years, and look at what problems they have today. I have the feeling that even the European Commission was recalled on suspicion of corruption. So again, let's not create more trauma than is healthy, and let's ask correct, legitimate and constructive questions - if the reversal has been positive, or if it has led to stagnation and even a slowdown. And my answer is that we have turned in the right direction, a direction followed by the rest of the developed, polite, standard world.
You will always find a company and suspicions, always. As long as we are made of flesh and bone, and as long as we are born with such natures. But the important thing is that we generate in ourselves enough will to name these things, to fight with these maladies, to put into practice positive tendencies, and to enjoy the fact from one day to another that for two years now this is the way it has been.
TSS: It has been shown that the system of political nominations leads to corruption. So why do you still use it?
MD: Give me an example.
TSS: For example Mr. Odzgan, whose replacement at the Material Reserves Fund was also a political nominee [Stanislav Rajec, nominated by the SDK - Ed. Note].
MD: Ah, but let's make a distinction. That's the way nominations go in Austria, Germany and Britian, in France or in America. That [the Fund] is a central state body. It's a political nomination. It's not a factory or a monopoly.
TSS: But if the system shows it isn't working, shouldn't you try and change it? Even if it is a political nomination, whichever party the post 'belonged' to could get some credit out of not putting their man there and saying instead it was looking for an absolutely independent candidate, so voters would believe the party itself had clean hands...
MD: That is the way this person [Rajec] was chosen. He is a person who has a long professional background, who has worked at the Fund for more than a year. But I repeat, it's a central state organ, whose boss carries political responsibility [for his performance]. That's not the problem - the problem is that there has to be a mechanism for controlling [what occurs] and for reducing the possibility of corrupt behaviour or actions in conflict with good morals. The new boss of the Fund recently gave an interview for one Slovak paper, and I was very happy with its content. Read it. It speaks of systemic change, about how [the Fund will] do business in a transparent and clear manner. He has asked me and the deputy prime minister for a meeting.
But nominations for such positions... in a moment, will we be choosing ministers as well through job competitions? Let's differentiate between jobs that are political posts under the law, and those that are professional functions. I see it clearly. If there is a problem at the Fund it is my political problem, hence the nomination is a political one. But if there is a problem at a [state-owned] company, that's a problem for the minister [under whose jurisdiction the firm falls], for the supervisory board [of the firm] and the bodies of the company in question. I see it very clearly. My business is to make sure it is clear that we were successful in picking the new representative of the Fund. It's my political skin on the line. I stand by this. I also stand by Odzgan, and I will answer for him to the voters.
TSS: The National Fight Against Corruption programme was announced in early March [it was actually announced on February 27 - Ed. Note]. Action plans were supposed to have been prepared by each ministry by the end of June. But again, these plans weren't ready on time, and the deadline for submitting them was pushed back to September. Why has it taken so long to prepare these programmes, or to take any concrete action to eliminate corruption?
MD: If you'll pardon me, my answer may initially seem rude. On what basis do you permit yourself such a statement on missed deadlines?
TSS: I was at the press conference where it was announced the deadlines had been changed from June to September.
MD: That's not true. The first relevant document which we can seriously talk about is the National Fight Against Corruption programme. The deadlines for this are different, and we are keeping them. The 27th of July was the deadline when we were supposed to get an overview from each ministry as to what licenses, permissions, funding and whatever else they have given out. The action plans will be ready in September, and the global action plan on October 13. So let's put things in the correct light.
TSS: Could you be fighting corruption any more aggressively? Given that the action plan will now not be ready until almost three quarters of a year after it was announced, and over two years after 1998 elections, people may be getting the feeling that nothing is happening and that you are not serious about fighting corruption.
MD: You have no arguments which justify formulating your question in such a way. Show me one person or profession of which it could be said that they could not act more aggressively, quickly and more professionally in their jobs. Why do you ask questions born of this desire for perfection? How can you say nothing is happening when everything has been progressing smoothly since March? After I have just told you that the overviews were to have been ready on July 28? I am not satified with some of them [the overviews received], and we are going to fill them out. But in what sense is nothing happening?
TSS: It's not just we two reporters who are suggesting things could be happening faster and putting such questions to you, but also groups like Transparency International...
MD: Don't blame others, we are sitting here and talking among the three of us. Don't put the blame on anyone else. We're talking here, and I'm asking you what arguments you have for asking such questions. What do you mean 'nothing is happening'?
TSS: The very fact that the action plan should have been ready by now but...
MD: You haven't been able to show me a document to back up this claim. You're wrong.
MD: So you're wrong.
MD: And another thing, is this a simple business or not such a simple business? Why, why do we have to fashion ourselves according to an ideal of perfection and traumatise ourselves with the fact that we didn't fix everything yesterday? Or that today, 100% of citizens aren't saying we are [as innocent, clean as] lilies? (laugh) This isn't the way to do it. But you're wrong.
TSS: So as long as we're sitting here talking with you, we can't mention the investors we have spoken to, who have told us they would have liked to see quicker action taken against corruption? That while much has indeed changed since Mečiar, the change hasn't been as great or as quick as they would have liked?
MD: But I stress that much has changed since Mečiar. I'm not stopping you from stressing that more should have changed. Let's find a compromise. I say that we inherited a country in such a terrible state that we can thank God we are where we are. That's how I see the world. And you can criticise me as much as you want. Should we have done this much more [gestures with hands]? Or this much [hand gesture widens]? How much?
TSS: Do you think then that people's expectations that corruption would change after Mečiar's departure from one day to another were simply too great, that they were unrealistic?
MD: Of course. But the trends are improving. When [Deputy Prime Minister for Economy Ivan] Mikloš and I introduced the National Fight Against Corruption programme, the numbers showed improvement - not drastic, but gradual and steady. That's what it's all about.
TSS: But a survey by Transparency International showed that Slovakia fell from 48th position in 1998 to 53rd in 1999 on a ranking of corruption in countries around the world, and that our corruption index fell from 3.9 points out of 10 to 3.7.
MD: But Transparency does surveys which show that the trends are improving. I was at their seminar, and I have these data.
MD: Let's move on, let's not argue.
TSS: Fine. If real wages, unemployment and economic growth don't turn around before the next elections in 2002, and put more money back into voters' pockets after the series of economic austerity packages you have introduced, you may have to fight elections on the basis of one major area of achievement - foreign policy. Apart from the recent invitation to join the OECD, what other foreign policy achievements do you expect to be able to show voters by 2002?
MD: Citizens will have a very positive personal experience of four years of our governance. We are passing through a critical time right now, seen perhaps in the fall in real wages. But in the year 2000 we can expect a return to real wage growth. I could send you statistics which show that practically every economic indicator has stabilised or is improving. Beginning with developments in the trade balance, the national debt, inflation, the balance of payments and many others. These positive macro trends sooner or later will find their way into the pockets of citizens. We have already lowered income tax, interest rates are falling at commercial banks, money is becoming more available for citizens, we are building more and more flats. On the basis not only of the numbers and indicators, but also of the practical experiences of citizens, I am not worried in the slightest about the next parliamentary elections.
TSS: Which foreign perception of Slovakia would you most like to change?
MD: I wouldn't want to change anything at all. Last year I made 36 trips abroad. We are awaiting excellent visits in the coming days. The German chancellor is coming, the Swedish and Dutch prime ministers; the Spanish prime minister has visited Slovakia, Prince Charles is coming. Slovakia today is simply a country which is enjoying a good reputation. Wherever I travel abroad, I'm proud that I'm Slovak and a citizen of the Slovak Republic.
Note: In this interview, anything that appears in square brackets [ ] has been added to the text by The Slovak Spectator for the sake of increased clarity.