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EDITORIAL

The judges' protest: One complaint too many

At one point during the parliamentary debate of the budget draft, the address of Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Mikloš could not be heard over the whistles, jeers and desk-thumping that came mainly from the opposition benches. Debate actually had to be interrupted after Mikloš accused the opposition of having stolen from the state while it was in power from 1994 to 1998.
Just as the defence of the budget fell on deaf ears in parliament, the more mundane implications of Slovakia's economic crisis seem to have been appreciated by few of the nation's citizens. The simple truth is that everyone - from entrepreneurs to state employees to unions - will have to tighten their belts for the next couple of years. Everyone will lose something, everyone will suffer, and the experience will only be tolerable if borne with some stoicism.


Farmer Ivan Mikloš has done his best to explain the implications of his farm's economic crisis to his barnyard charges. But no one seems to be listening - the cows are striking, the pigs are protesting and the chickens are squawking with anger. Small wonder that he gets tired sometimes, and wonders if it wouldn't have been better to remain a politician.

At one point during the parliamentary debate of the budget draft, the address of Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Mikloš could not be heard over the whistles, jeers and desk-thumping that came mainly from the opposition benches. Debate actually had to be interrupted after Mikloš accused the opposition of having stolen from the state while it was in power from 1994 to 1998.

Just as the defence of the budget fell on deaf ears in parliament, the more mundane implications of Slovakia's economic crisis seem to have been appreciated by few of the nation's citizens. The simple truth is that everyone - from entrepreneurs to state employees to unions - will have to tighten their belts for the next couple of years. Everyone will lose something, everyone will suffer, and the experience will only be tolerable if borne with some stoicism.

But little civic stoicism has been displayed so far. As the government has announced austerity measures and struggled to deal with unexpected economic downturns, the air has been rent by cries of indignation. Everybody, it seems, feels unfairly picked on, as if singled out for some special economic misery.

Here are a few examples. The government has raised the minimum wage from 3,000 Slovak crowns to 3,600 and been roundly criticised for it. Not enough, bleated unions. Too much, cried economists, who argued that the increase would only result in more unemployment and less investment as labour became more expensive.

The cabinet also toyed with the idea of raising VAT as a way of increasing state revenues. In response, unions called a May 1 protest to express their resentment at the government's shabby treatment of lower income groups.

A law freezing the salaries of judges has brought yet another storm of gobbles, this time from the nation's judiciary. The salaries of judges, judges said, are inviolate - they are the chief guarantor of judicial independence, and any political regulation of them makes judges the tools of parliament.

What nonsense! According to law, full judges make three times the national average wage, calculated on the basis of whatever the average wage was last year. The salary 'freeze' adopted by parliament on March 23 actually means that in 1999, judges' wages will be calculated on the basis of 1997 figures rather than 1998 statistics.

Is this really too much of a sacrifice to ask of some of the nation's better paid public servants?

Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda - perhaps sensing that trouble was brewing - made a public appeal to the judges on February 25 to understand the situation the state was in and accept the wage freeze with good grace. Which, of course, drew another squeal of protest from the Council of Judges - how dare the Prime Minister make a political appeal to the independent judiciary?

C'mon, guys. C'mon everyone. Somebody has to be big here, to take one on the chin for the team. And who better to get the ball rolling than justice-loving judges, the most impartial bunch around?

After all, they could say to each other, this salary freeze wasn't really dictated by politicians - it was made necessary by the same economic mess that every Slovak lives in. And if by year end we are going to see 20% unemployment, the least we could do is forego an increase in our fat salaries.

For that matter, they might continue, we really should stop dropping these dark hints that the wage freeze endangers the independence of the judiciary. We don't want people to think that judges might pad their salaries with bribes, because then citizens might start demanding that the government leave judges salaries as they are, and that would be blackmail.

In fact, what harm would it do us to show a little leadership here? After all, we are among the best educated citizens in the country, with schooling paid for by our compatriots... maybe we should just grin and bear that salary freeze.

How easy it would be if everyone just stopped complaining for a second - just shut up and let the voice of economic reason be heard.

But if parliament is any indicator, 1999 will be a noisy year. Fully 77 deputies signed up on March 23 to comment on the budget. On the first day alone, amid the din and uproar, only six people managed to speak. If so many people have so much to say, who is left to listen?

Wasting His Breath

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