Two representatives from the American group National Democratic Institute (NDI) dropped by the offices of The Slovak Spectator last week looking for suggestions on how to improve communication between the government and its various audiences - the media, the electorate, the third sector and so on. NDI is preparing a series of seminars on communication for Slovak parliamentarians starting in September this year.
NDI arrives at a propitious moment. The current government desperately needs help improving its image, selling its policies and plugging its embarrassing leaks of information.
It is far from certain, however, that the government's PR problems can be cured cosmetically through dialogue and seminars. The image of parliamentarians is poor, for example, not because deputies are rotten at showcasing their virtues but because their ambition and avarice are too often on display. The government's policies are derided not for lack of public information but because they are often half-hearted and late in arriving (viz: economic packages #1 and 2). And information is leaked not because state officials know no better, but because the government hired a whole crew of young former journalists to serve as ministry spokespeople. Discretion does not come naturally to young former journalists.
A few recent examples help to illustrate these points. The daily paper Sme recently carried a report explaining why, in the cabinet's most recent austerity package, the increase in the basic VAT rate was not the expected 12% but 10% instead - why, in addition, increases in regulated prices were not as stiff as had been projected. The answer was that the former communist SDĽ party, a member of the four-party ruling coalition, had been playing back-room politics to soften the impact of the long-awaited package.
Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda was reportedly furious that the SDĽ armtwisting had been reported in the media. But who had blown the gaffe? The Master's eye apparently fell on one Róbert Žitňanský, who was working as a spokesman for Deputy Prime Minister for Economy Ivan Mikloš and who had previously been a reporter with Radio Free Europe. Žitňanský was fired over the incident, but has so far refused to discuss the case publicly.
Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether Žitňanský had actually spilled the beans (or whether Dzurinda was simply looking for a scapegoat to placate the SDĽ), it would appear that the government's promise of transparency when it took office last October is beginning to sound a bit hollow. With the economy in a bind and coalition relations in a tangle, the government now has much more to hide than it did eight months ago. At the same time, cabinet spokespeople are under increasing pressure from their former media colleagues to explain the hidden workings of government. As media reports carrying news from 'sources close to the government' begin to multiply, cabinet may be rethinking its original notion that hiring journalists as spokespeople would improve relations with the media.
But embarrassing leaks pale beside the government's embarrassing inability to march in step on major issues. A typical week in politics seems to begin with Dzurinda proclaiming cabinet unity on Monday, Agriculture Minister Pavol Koncoš saying he doesn't support the cabinet's economic package on Tuesday, Parliamentary Speaker Jozef Migaš disclaiming Koncoš' outburst on Wednesday, Telecom Minister Gabriel Palacka calling his own private tender for a mobile phone license on Thursday and Dzurinda apealing for cabinet unity on Friday. No spokesman was ever born who could silence this Babel of cabinet tongues.
Nor was any PR agency ever created which could change the public's impression that parliament is a rogue's gallery. The most recent injury to the Slovak electorate's confidence in its politicians was delivered by Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner, who revealed last week that police had found documents linking the international Ukrainian mafia group known as 'The Syndicate' to Peter Baco, currently a parliamentary deputy for the HZDS. The latest charges add to quite a crop of political bad apples since last October: the SNS' Ján Slota, with his drunken anti-Hungarian outbursts, (former) SDK deputy Peter Ďuračka with his drunken car crashes, the jailed Ivan Lexa, the impugned Gustav Krajči, the murdered Ján Ducký...
William Russell, a correspondent for the London Times in the mid-nineteenth century, once got into a flaming row with British cavalry leader Lord Lucan (shortly before Lucan's blunder that resulted in the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade). Lucan had objected to something Russell had written about the conduct of the war. Russell, his beard bristling, shot back, "If you don't like what you're doing being reported, my Lord, then don't do it."
The current Slovak government would do well to heed Russell's advice. If, for example, Economy Minister Ľudovít Černák doesn't like rumours of political influence circulating about the choice of brokerage firm Slávia Capital to help manage the sale of Slovak Telecom, then he should be careful to avoid chosing the exact firm which has managed bond issues for Slovak utility companies in the past.
If the government doesn't like its privatisation record criticised, then it should choose a Telecom Minister who is capable of inspiring investor confidence in the sale of Slovak Telecom, one of the crown jewels of the Slovak economy - not the butter-fingered Palacka, who has managed to drop the ball on the GSM 1800 tender and the Slávia Capital selection, and who is making achingly slow progress on the sale of the state's stake in Globtel GSM.
And if the Prime Minister wishes to give people the impression that his government is unified on the need for austerity measures, on the virtue of having Hungarians in the cabinet - indeed, on any of the important issues of the day - then he should buy gags for his ministers, not fire his spokesmen.