This has been a year of big goals for the government: a solid macro-economic turnaround, the restoration of political stability and a series of foreign policy triumphs culminating in an all-but-certain invitation from the EU to begin entry negotiations.
But while the score may be five-nil for Slovakia's improved reputation abroad, a closer analysis of the game footage at home reveals that domestic problems may be gaining momentum as the government approaches the second half of its four-year term. Leading the pack of troubles is sure to be crime and personal safety.
Last week, a letter arrived in The Slovak Spectator's mailbox written by a Chinese student at the Bratislava Institute for Academic Preparation of Foreign Students. The writer had been attacked on the street by two men, one of them with a shaved head, and left with facial injuries requiring medical treatment.
When the student, accompanied by the Chinese embassy attaché, went to register a complaint at the Sasinková Street Bratislava I Police Headquarters, he was forced to wait outside for over an hour before a policeman came out to see what he wanted. After the student related the incident, the policeman initially refused to take his statement, and it was only under pressure from the Chinese attaché that the officer finally agreed to fulfil his duty.
Later, having remembered an important detail of the attack, the student called the police station again; the phone was answered by a man who asked the caller to identify himself. The student wrote that after he had given his name, the policeman on the other end of the line put his hand over the mouthpiece and said quite audibly: "It's that Chinaman again," which was followed by loud guffaws.
Statistics show that criminal acts fell in 1998 from 1997, but the tension and aggression visible in society tells a different story. The streets of Slovak cities are getting meaner, as police neglect their duty and courts fail to punish offenders adequately.
A recent report on TV Markíza told the story of a man who was beaten up outside a bar in a Trenčin-region village. His assailant beat him first with his fists, then with a 40 kilogram flower pot. Although the victim died a few minutes after the fight began, the attacker took the inert body as a provocation and broke all of the fingers on the dead man's hands, then dumped the corpse in a heap outside the bar. Although the fight was witnessed by more than 40 people, no one called the police or the ambulance.
Incredibly, the attacker was quickly released from court and is being investigated while at his liberty - prompting witnesses to weigh the dangers of testifying against him.
In another recent case, a Trnava court released a pair of men from custody who had been arrested for beating, torturing and shooting a man in both feet. The victim has since applied for police protection, much good it may do him.
Many foreigners in Slovakia have observed that violent crime in this country is far below levels common in many western cities, and that Slovaks should therefore think themselves lucky. But in the west, crime is somewhat restricted to 'the bad part of town,' while citizens can at least expect that if they call the police, help will come. In Slovakia, on the other hand, the police are intimidated by criminals and unimpressed by victims, while attacks can occur at any time and in any place.
Slovakia's star has risen abroad, but at the expense of increased aggression and violence at home. One can only hope that after a year of champagne lunches and jet-setting diplomacy, the government has the energy to join battle with criminals and with the country's under-educated, under-qualified and outgunned police.
13. Dec 1999 at 0:00