"Ladies and gentlemen... we are there." The smile on the face of Deputy Prime Minister for the Economy Ivan Mikloš as he told waiting reporters of the outcome of the July 28 OECD meeting in Paris said it all. Slovakia had achieved a goal that had appeared chimeric only a month earlier.
The invitation to join the OECD came after weeks of hectic behind-the-scenes negotiations. Slovakia's plenopotentiary for the OECD, Ján Jursa, had spent much of the last week in Paris, pleading the case for pushing Slovakia into new territory - membership in at least one prestigious western organisation. Rejections in the late 1990's from NATO and from the first wave of accession negotiations with the European Union had been a niggling thorn in Slovakia's side. But on July 28, that thorn was plucked.
Membership in what is referred to as the 'club of the rich' brings little in itself, but far more in the potential for opening more doors. Increased investor confidence, stronger arguments for speeding up negotiations on EU entry and joining NATO, increased international standing - all the economic perks that Slovakia so desperately needs.
But perhaps even more than that, Mikuláš Dzurinda's government can finally flourish an international accolade and declare it has achieved something for Slovakia. The economy has been the focus of the Dzurinda administration's domestic policy. Tough reforms were a big risk politically, but one that the prime minister and his coalition cohorts felt was necessary after the boom and bust years of Vladimír Mečiar's lavish borrowing. The legacy was awful, and the austerity programmes were understandably tough. The electorate has still to see the final fruits, which may not fully ripen before the next scheduled elections (2002). The government would find it hard to run a campaign for re-election on the slogan "honestly, the reforms are working, just wait a bit longer..." Much better if it could bill itself: "The government for western integration."
However, being part of the OECD is something that Dzurinda must not only preen about, but build on. His initial comments after hearing the outcome of the meeting in Slovakia included allusions to higher standards of living, a boost for the country, Slovakia moving forward. The truth is a bit more complex than that.
Slovakia has moved forward only slightly. Investors make decisions based on perceived and actual risks. Membership of the OECD only deals with the former. A few more high-level votes of confidence are needed before investors are going to feel really secure in pouring significant amounts of money into the country. Indeed, the transition jigsaw puzzle has at least the NATO and EU pieces to be fitted before it is complete.
The government must not be blind to these facts. It is important to blow the trumpet of self-congratulation for achieving something that its predecessor singularly failed to do, and in fact actually drew away from at the last minute. Yet at the same time that pat on the back should be tempered with the knowledge that far more has to be done to convince a sceptical electorate that things have really been accomplished. The feelings that accompany unemployment rates of 30% in regions like Prešov are unlikley to be mollified by news that Slovakia is now a member of an organisation that few people in the street have actually heard of. For anyone struggling to pay their bills and wondering who to vote for at the next election, the OECD is far from their thoughts.
What Dzurinda and his coalition must do now is use the OECD membership as a platform for furthering Slovakia and its integration. Investment will or will not come largely independently of recent events. Joining the European Union and NATO has a more direct relationship with being in the OECD. If one says yes, the others, sooner or later, will also open their doors. The government would do well to make sure it is sooner rather than later.