The decline of the Slovak crown in mid-May had one very positive effect - it awakened the government from its trance and stung cabinet into launching long-awaited economic reforms. Incredibly, however, it now remains to be seen whether internal dissent within the government will again soften or slow down the latest package of measures.
One would think that the recent steep and steady descent of the crown would be enough to convince cabinet members of the need both for new economic austerity measures as well as for public unity on the matter. But on May 24, Agriculture Minister Pavol Koncoš told the Sme newspaper that he would not support the government reforms - a VAT hike, price liberalisation and an import duty - announced on May 17. In typical ad hominem style, Koncoš produced a sum proving, he said, that raising VAT taxes from 6 to 12% would cost each citizen an additional 1,419 Slovak crowns per year in food bills, or 118 crowns ($3) per month. He couldn't support the tax hike, he said, because it would take food out of the mouths of ordinary Slovaks.
Koncoš understands very well that economic reforms are vital if Slovakia is to avoid years of stagnation. However, he also happens to be a member of the former communist Party of the Democratic Left (SDĽ), the second-largest member of the four-party coalition government. During the eight months that the current government of Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda has been in power, the SDĽ has constantly played to voters, putting its own partisan interests ahead of the economic and political future of the entire country. Koncoš' media ruse was an effort to wash his hands of responsibility for the austerity measures, to direct the frustrations of Slovak citizens away from his precious SDĽ and towards the other members of the coalition.
Let it be remembered that this is not the first occasion on which the SDĽ has sacrificed the unity of the government and the good of the country for political gain. In October 1998 negotiations over the formation of the government, the SDĽ came out publicly against the inclusion of the Hungarian minority party in the ruling coalition. The ploy was popular with many Slovak voters, but made little sense given the international community's desire that Slovakia accord its Hungarian minority a voice in public affairs. It was also a public embarrassment to Dzurinda, who stood four-square behind the Hungarians and the 14 parliamentary votes they added to the government majority.
When coalition negotiations ended, however, the success of the anti-Hungarian strategy became apparent - the SDĽ had been given far more cabinet power by the other three parties than its electoral results warranted.
The same kind of gambit was used by SDĽ deputy Róbert Fico over Dzurinda's revision of an amnesty from prosecution issued by his predecessor in two high-level cases (those of former Interior Minister Gustáv Krajči and former secret service boss Ivan Lexa). Fico broke with the government over the issue, presenting a sympathetic face to voters who supported the opposition HZDS party of former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, but doing little for the cause of political stability in Slovakia.
The SDĽ's Koncoš is also remembered for a March struggle with the Hungarian party over the top post in the Slovak Land Fund. Although the Agriculture Minister later withdrew his threat to sue Hungarian leader Béla Bugar for libel, the squabble did nothing to improve the government's public image (although it raised the SDĽ's stock among HZDS voters).
And as presidential elections drew near in May, increasing the internal divisions in the government, Finance Minister and SDĽ member Brigita Schmögnerová nominated party colleague Peter Magvaši for the top post at giant steelmaker VSŽ. Magvaši didn't get the job in the end, but the episode revealed once again the SDĽ's quid pro quo approach to politics.
It's high time that the SDĽ was exposed for what it is - a political millstone around the government's neck, and a hindrance to Slovakia's economic recovery. No one can take seriously the party's claim that it is looking out for the interests of the average citizen, for those interests lie in economic reforms and the political courage necessary to launch them.
Last week, renowned ratings agency Moody's Investor Service confirmed its negative outlook for Slovakia, saying that Slovakia faced "a host of domestic problems," including the political diversity within the cabinet. One of the greatest dangers the country would face in the next two or three years, Moody's wrote, was that "the government will lose its political will or cohesiveness in the face of mounting economic difficulties."
The SDĽ has done more to undermine the government's "political will and cohesiveness" than anyone could have predicted last September. If the latest package of measures does not turn Slovakia's economy around, citizens will have only the SDĽ to thank - the very party which claims to have their best interests at heart.
31. May 1999 at 0:00