Feeling wanted but bitterly disappointed, Finance Minister Brigita Schmögnerová waxed philosophical over a recent decision by two senior government colleagues not to allow her to take an important foreign posting.
"After the famous Slovak writer Laco Novomeský was released from prison, he responded to the question of whether he'd been disappointed by saying that 'disappointment does not accurately describe my feelings'," the Finance Minister said.
Schmögnerová's melancholy was the result of her having missed out on the chance to become Executive Director of the European Economic Commission (EEC), a posting which analysts said would have been the most prestigious ever given to a Slovak. But the honour is not to be, since Slovak Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda and Foreign Affairs Minister Eduard Kukan decided not to inform Schmögnerová of the EEC's interest because, they reasoned, she was simply too important a cabinet member for the government to lose.
Kukan first learned of the potential job offering in November last year when he met with the current EEC Executive Director Yves Berthelot. With his tenure nearing its end, Berthelot said that the United Nations was seeking a suitable replacement and that UN officials were impressed with Schmögnerová's professional qualities. Were she interested, he reportedly said, she stood an excellent chance of being appointed as early as June 1.
Kukan conferred with Dzurinda, who decided that Schmögnerová was too valuable to let go, and that furthermore she would not be informed of the EEC's interest. Schmögnerová only recently learned of the circumstances when she was approached by Berthelot himself to find out whether she might not change her mind.
When asked why he hadn't discussed the issue with Schmögnerová, Dzurinda said simply that she could not be set free. "I am happy that she is in the current ruling government - not somewhere else," he said.
While Schmögnerová said that she appreciated her importance to the coalition, she admitted that had she known of the possibility, she would have taken the job. "If the government had supported me I would have taken it," she told The Slovak Spectator on June 5. "It would have been a great opportunity for Slovakia as well as for myself. Offers of this calibre are simply never refused. A similar opportunity won't likely come again."
Dzurinda's secret decision was criticised by Schmögnerová's colleagues from the leftist SDĽ (Party of the Democratic Left) as well as other parliamentary deputies. SDĽ member Peter Weiss said that such a posting would have been the most significant distinction for a Slovak politician in history. "Minister Schmögnerová should definitely have been informed about this," he said.
Analysts, meanwhile, said they understood both sides of the issue. Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the IVO think tank (Institute for Public Affairs), said that Schmögnerová's role of designing and carrying out necessary economic measures was so vital to the country that it made Dzurinda's decision understandable, if unorthodox and rather unfair. On the other hand, he added, Schmögnerová could have vastly improved Slovakia's international status as the EEC's Executive Director.
"Schmögnerová's departure from the government would have made life much more complicated for the coalition," he said. "But if she had taken the job it could have contributed to the strengthening of Slovakia's positive image abroad."
Together with the Deputy Prime Minister for Economy Ivan Mikloš, Schmögnerová is credited with achieving considerable improvements towards the transformation and stabilisation of the Slovak economy. The duo are often viewed by observers as a reform tandem and guarantors of economic stability in Slovakia.
Mesežnikov said that if Schmögnerová had taken the post, Dzurinda would have been left with the difficult task of finding a suitable replacement. Under the coalition agreement, the post would have to be filled from the SDĽ, a party Mesežnikov said was not likely to produce an adequate replacement.
Schmögnerová herself said she could not think of a fitting substitute. She explained that when she took the post of Finance Minister, she'd started several reforms aimed at narrowing the economic gap between the former countries of the eastern bloc and Slovakia. The only replacement, according to her, would be a person who could continue what she began in 1998. "I don't know the person's name," she said, "but I desperately hope that he or she exists."