What is it about Schuster that fails to convince?
For starters, there's his diction. Like Dan Quayle, Schuster delivers public addresses with all the grace of a pig on skates. He has a small vocabulary at the best of times, so when his team hands him a speech full of foreign tongue twisters like 'diametrical ("diametrálny"), he comes a cropper. There's also his accent - a very hard Slovak dialect that is spoken in the west of the country, with none of the softened 'n' and 'd' consonants that true ("spisovná") Slovak requires. Neither of these failings is terribly serious, but each detracts from the authority of the speech and the man who gives it.
Then there are his pretensions. Rudolf Schuster loves to pass himself off as a man of the people, a simple sort who has never forgotten his roots. After being elected president in May, he made a big show of travelling around the country by passenger train rather than by jet or Presidential Office BMW - despite the fact that in order to accomodate his whim, two railway cars had to be attached to the train for his personal use, a state-owned BMW had to follow the train in case it should break down, and police had to man every station the train passed through.
He also maintains he has no use for the gilded rooms of the Presidential Palace, and that he and his wife kept a little two-burner stove where they cooked bryndzové halušky, the country's hearty national dish. Slovak Foreign Ministry officials sometimes refer in a rather tight-lipped way to the president's habit of showing his modest Palace lodgings to visiting foreign dignitaries.
Nothing about Schuster's spoken Slovak suggests he is not what he claims - a very average Jozef who rose to become the people's president. "I am not a philosopher," he told parliament on November 2, "nor a political or economic theoretician. I'm just an ordinary Slovak citizen."
However, this "ordinary citizen" is the same man who became a high communist party official in the 1980's, and who was chairman of the last communist parliament in 1989. He has also been Czechoslovak Ambassador to Canada, Mayor of Košice and leader of a national political party (the SOP) - not the career path of a simple hayseed, but that of an astute and relatively unscrupulous politician.
Schuster is also the man who wangled for himself the joint support of the ruling coalition parties for his presidential candidacy. The deal, which was agreed during coalition negotiations last October, cost Schuster's SOP party a cabinet seat, and ensured that no 'people's candidates' would be fielded during direct presidential elections. With such backroom bargaining behind him, Schuster's 'home-cookin'' homilies look rather out of place.
Then there's the question of his political leanings. During his state of the nation speech, Schuster praised the opposition HZDS for its support of Slovakia's NATO and EU ambitions, which is the equivalent of thanking Ronald Reagan for his support of the environment. Anyone with even a basic understanding of Slovak politics knows that the HZDS thumbed its nose at these two western alliances during its last four years in power, and was instrumental in derailing the country's integration ambitions.
Schuster also blamed disunity within the largest coalition party, the SDK, for frustrating the reform process in Slovakia. However, the SDK factions which want to break away from the party are its right wing platforms - which unequivocally support the same economic reforms that Schuster touts. The real brake on reform comes from the left wing parties in government - the former communist SDĽ and the President's former SOP - neither of which caught Schuster's critical gaze.
President Schuster could have used his state of the nation address to great effect. For the first time in years, the Slovak cabinet turned out to hear the Slovak president speak; for the first time in years, the country has a government which might act on the criticism it heard. But instead of sense Schuster talked bosh, giving credit where it was not due, censure where it was not deserved, and leaving unsaid what the nation needed to hear.
8. Nov 1999 at 0:00