Settling into an office armchair, Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Mikloš peered at a photo of the four leaders of Slovakia's ruling coalition parties that had been snapped as they announced a deal on October 29, 1998 to form a new government. The picture had been run on the front page of The Slovak Spectator, and was being shown to Mikloš as we sat down for an interview almost three years later to the day.
"They all look so young," he said with a faint smile.
An offhand comment, perhaps, but one worth examining for the perspective it betrays. Did Slovakia's leaders really look unusually youthful then, or do they simply appear unusually haggard now after three years in power?
It's a point that was also made by French political scientist Jacques Rupnik, who said at a conference last week that rather than look back and fault the country's leaders for the work that remained undone, Slovaks could just as easily put themselves alongside those youthful, naive faces and, looking forward from 1998, marvel at how much has actually been accomplished.
Is the government's cup of achievements half full or half empty? Here's a balance sheet to aid judgement:
1. Entry to the 'club of the rich', the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in September 2000.
2. Sale of the three largest state banks to private investors, and securing the assistance and approval of the World Bank and IMF for the process.
3. Economic stabilisation including repairs to the trade balance and public finance deficits; bringing inflation and interest rates under control.
4. Partial takebacks of fraudulently privatised firms including steelmaker VSŽ, gas storage firm Nafta Gbely, the forced return of Slovintegra's 10% stake in refiner Slovnaft; sale of stakes in some of these firms to reputable investors.
5. Foreign policy advances, taking the country from outcast status to frontrunner for membership in Nato and the EU during coming expansion rounds.
6. Direct election of the president in May 1999 that resolved a constitutional crisis.
7. Amendment of the Constitution in 2000 to bring Slovak society closer to European norms.
8. Reform of public administration in 2001 that brings government closer to the people and meets a key EU demand.
9. Anti-corruption measures including a Freedom of Access to Information Law, the business register on the internet, international standards tenders for state property, raising public awareness of corruption.
10. Improved security situation, featuring gains against organised crime, lower crime rates, higher crime solution rate.
1. Failure to resolve almost 20% unemployment.
2. Falling living standards and real wages despite pre-election pledge to double wages.
3. Failure to balance the state budget as promised.
4. Failure to launch pension, health care and school system reforms.
5. Failure to lower overall tax burden.
6. Failure to address Roma problem and tackle racism in a meaningful way.
7. Continued corruption despite promises.
8. Failure to secure a single conviction in high-profile political cases.
9. Failure to reduce bureaucracy for investors.
10. Failure to communicate accomplishments in terms voters understand.
Several things should be noted regarding the debit side of the ledger. First, given the amount of work that the government faced in 1998, and given the ideological breadth of the coalition (from communist throwbacks to Hayek free market liberals), four years was simply not enough to follow through on all promises.
Second, while many of the social and economic distortions the government faced had been created relatively recently, during the lawless 1994-1998 Mečiar era (privatisation, international isolation), some of the most important reforms involved confronting communist shibboleths that will require decades to topple (corruption, work ethics).
It hasn't helped the government that so many parliamentarians and state officials (ie President Rudolf Schuster) served the communist regime, and since 1989 have simply turned their jackets inside out to sport a more democratic weave.
Schuster, for example, attended an October 29 ceremony at a cemetery in the Bratislava suburb of Ružinov to honour the victims of communism (he himself joined the central committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1986, and was the last Communist Party chairman of the Slovak parliament). He explained the apparent conflict by drawing attention to the vastly more benevolent attitudes of 1980s communists like him compared to their orthodox 1950s predecessors.
That didn't convince one participant in the ceremony, Anton Tomík, 69, who was sentenced to death by the communists but later served only a decade in jail for protesting communist repression of Catholic priests. Tomík asked Schuster why Slovakia was still the only regional post-communist country not to have a law compensating the victims of communism.
Schuster, red-faced, couldn't answer, but the bowtied chairman of the Association of Political Prisoners saved the day by scolding Tomík for picking such an unsuitable manner and occasion for raising his grievances.
It was a bleakly amusing ceremony, with the fresh democrat Schuster clearly at a loss for where to place his massive bouquet through some lapse in protocol, and swearing he would have come last year had he not had "one foot in the grave".
It was also a reminder of the huge tasks that remain for any government which follows the 1998-2002 Dzurinda administration - an impatient electorate, a half-reformed economy, and a host of former communists and Mečiar adventurists declaring solidarity with the ideals and people they trampled while in power.
5. Nov 2001 at 0:00