Mikuláš Dzurinda is a tough interview. Not in the usual sense, in that you have to prepare well to elicit good answers, but in that the most banal of questions can be met with inexplicable hostility. Seldom is an honest answer guarded more fiercely.
This isn't the first time that this newspaper has had a perplexing conversation with the current prime minister. Back in August 1998, when Dzurinda was an opposition politician fighting for the top job, a reporter with this paper dared to ask him how he proposed to manage a party which de facto was composed of six chairmen - the heads of each of the Slovak Democratic Coalition's founding five members, and Dzurinda himself. The question was unprofessional, the reporter was told, and should be better prepared before it was put again.
The then-spokesman of the party, Martin Lengyel, arranged a second interview at which the same questions were asked and intelligible responses given. We decided to go with the second interview because we felt readers would have gotten little out of the first save that Dzurinda must have been having a tough day.
Two years later, we have all come to know him better than that. Mikuláš Dzurinda has a quick temper, and bristles like a cat if he doesn't like the tone or content of questions put to him. He is fond of stock phrases ("I am deeply convinced...", "I firmly believe..."), and rarely seems comfortable giving answers that haven't been rehearsed. He will defend his position tenaciously even when he appears unsure of the facts. Above all, he's a political scrapper who favours pitched battles over rough skirmishes.
These qualities have probably served him well as the leader of a multi-party coalition. He has had to put down insurrection from coalition partners such as the leftist SDĽ, as well as take a high hand against dissent within his own SDK party, tasks his confrontational nature has doubtless helped him to accomplish.
But they are not qualities which have served him well with the public. With real wages in decline and unemployment over 20%, people have wanted to hear something more substantial and heartfelt than that their leader is "deeply convinced" of his own rectitude. With perceived levels of corruption still high, with three ministers now gone, and with little done so far to change the system, people deserve a better explanation of the government's performance than that 'media pressure' and disingenous reporting have blown the problem out of proportion.
Indeed, it is Dzurinda's relationship with the media that offers insight as to why he isn't more popular with voters, and as to why many people feel disappointed with the slow pace of real change in Slovakia since 1998.
From Dzurinda's decision to appoint a young former radio reporter as his spokesman, to unproven accusations that his SDK party paid reporters to provide favourable coverage during the 1998 election campaign, to the prime minister's cosy and informal relationship with star journalists such as TV Markíza's Daniel Krajcer, one gets the feeling that the Dzurinda camp (as well as other top coalition officials) separates the media into groups which are either for or against the prime minister.
It doesn't seem to have dawned on anyone yet that there is no place for either friendship or animosity in relationships between politicians and journalists - that questions are asked of a desire to elicit information deemed important to readers, not to antagonise or flatter the respondent.
This state of affairs has had a twofold impact. First, it has reinforced the impression that the relationship between the government and some media is too close, and that parliament has become a nest of privilege where politicians receive kind treatment from reporters on the lookout for sinecures.
Secondly, it has shown that some members of the current government have an idea of the role of the media in a democracy that is rather similar to that of the previous government. True, the Dzurinda cabinet has not written up a media 'black list', has vastly improved access to information and has passed an information law that requires state employees to publish all data that is not classified.
But at the same time, the prime minister clearly still has a problem fielding 'unfriendly' questions, and does not realise that as a state official who is supported by our taxes, his duty lies more in giving honest and clear answers to the public than in dismissing the questions he is asked as "irrelevant" or "groundless". He reminds one of former Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus, who used (not) to answer journalists' questions with the admonishment, "that's not the question".
Jaro Filip, a Slovak actor and entertainer who died this summer, advised Dzurinda almost a year ago to get out of his government BMW once in a while and reestablish the contact with people he formed during his 1998 pre-election bicycle tour of the country. But given the distance that has come between Dzurinda and his voters, and between pre-election expectations and post-electoral reality, one wonders if getting back on that bicycle will be sufficient.
The next time around, the PM should really consider walking.