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EDITORIAL

Losing touch with reality: Dzurinda, from bicycle to BMW

Slovak musician Jaroslav Filip used a recent issue of the Slovak weekly opinion paper Domino Fórum to give his friend Mikuláš Dzurinda some heartfelt advice. "The most important thing, God dammit," he wrote, "is once in a while to roll down the window of your BMW!"
To anyone who has watched the feisty Dzurinda claw his way up through the political ranks these past eight years, it seems curious that anyone would accuse him of being an ivory tower politician. On the contrary, the current Prime Minister has in the past often seemed rather too folksy to inspire confidence in his leadership skills (viz. a campaign bicycle tour of the country last fall that saw him and his entourage regularly pelted with rotten vegetables).


'Miki' Dzurinda, once a man of the people (seen here during last summer's election campaign), has lost the common touch since he traded in his bicycle for a BMW.
photo: Peter Brenkus

Slovak musician Jaroslav Filip used a recent issue of the Slovak weekly opinion paper Domino Fórum to give his friend Mikuláš Dzurinda some heartfelt advice. "The most important thing, God dammit," he wrote, "is once in a while to roll down the window of your BMW!"

To anyone who has watched the feisty Dzurinda claw his way up through the political ranks these past eight years, it seems curious that anyone would accuse him of being an ivory tower politician. On the contrary, the current Prime Minister has in the past often seemed rather too folksy to inspire confidence in his leadership skills (viz. a campaign bicycle tour of the country last fall that saw him and his entourage regularly pelted with rotten vegetables).

But Filip may well have got it right. Growing signs of civil unrest around the country indicate that Dzurinda has lost his popular touch, while growing signs of instability in the ruling coalition argue that Dzurinda has acquired little feel for politics in the meantime.

The economic scandals of the past 10 months are too well known to need restating. They show, quite simply, both how little the Prime Minister and his colleagues grasped the extent of public disgust with corruption, as well as how little they understood of international capital markets, and how lightly they took their own pre-election promises.

The rather tentative teacher's protests which were held in three cities on September 2 showed again that the Dzurinda government doesn't understand who its voters are.

Slovak teachers felt utterly humiliated by the previous Mečiar government. Their salaries were allowed to fall to among the lowest of any state employees. The school buildings in which they taught were allowed to collapse around their ears. "No books, no photocopies, no chalk" was a litany that school administrators repeated to teachers during the lean years under former Education Minister Eva Slavkovská.

And so, with Mečiar deeply suspicious of academics and determined to bring universities to heel, politically speaking, teachers simply bided their time, waiting for last year's national elections which were almost certain to return a more friendly government.

This September's strikes were an important signal to the cabinet, and to Dzurinda in his BMW, that teachers are running out of patience as they wait for the government to fulfill its educational promises. There are still few books, photocopies or sticks of chalk to be had. Teachers still can't live on their salaries, and now face the prospect of losing their jobs as well in a new round of cuts. Slovaks still say the country's schools turn out a high calibre of graduate, but that myth is becoming sadly worn.

Dzurinda has shown equally little public concern with the rate of unemployment in Slovakia, up to 19.2% according to the latest figures. When he took office, unemployment stood at a little over 13%, but the Prime Minister has appeared oblivious to the pain and fear people feel.

This is not to suggest that Dzurinda abandon his government's macro-economic vision, but given that his corporate restructuring programme may push a third of industrial companies into bankruptcy - and thus increase unemployment to around 30% before things improve - one feels he ought to start breaking the news to people in a sympathetic fashion.

Instead of using the teachers' protest and the threatened union strike to show off his old people skills last week, Dzurinda remained engrossed in BMW-style high politics. Feeling that the SDK party was no longer his ticket to political success, Dzurinda returned to his old Christian Democratic party in a laughably-staged decision. Only days after 69 Christian Democrat members from Dzurinda's native Prešov region appealed to their party mates to support Dzurinda, the Prime Minister, looking much-put upon, agreed to return to the Christian Democrat fold to revive the party (and save it from the leadership of Justice Minister Ján Čarnogurský).

Although Dzurinda did not officially leave the SDK party, he crippled it politically by choosing another vehicle for his ambitions. It now seems unlikely that he will be able to unseat Čarnogurský, and equally unlikely that he will be able to revive the SDK as a political force. What now becomes of all the coalition agreements that the SDK signed with its three partners is anyone's guess.

To top it all off - the doubtful political strategy, the apparent indifference to public protests - Dzurinda showed up at a celebration held by Markíza TV for its most popular on-camera "personalities." Dzurinda was there, in his tux and white scarf, and if ever a man looked out of touch with the average Slovak, it was 'Miki' holding a glass of champagne.

Almost a year after his triumph in national elections, Dzurinda sorely needs to get back on his bicycle.

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