Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan eats lunch every day in the ministry cafeteria, grousing good-naturedly about the soup with even his lowest minions. He is a respected professional who has refused to countenance patronage at the minstry, and who has opened the door to young, talented Slovaks on their way up the diplomatic ladder,
In style and substance, Kukan is a perfect example of what is different about Slovakia at the end of 1998.
Kukan stepped into his job with 25 years of diplomatic experience. But colleagues who had known him throughout his career were amazed by the direct and forceful speech he delivered to ministry employees in November. No longer, Kukan said, would 90% of Slovak diplomatic posts go to friends and family of ministry workers. No longer would people with talent and drive be blocked by older employees, diplomatic fossils who jealously guarded their jobs and their influence.
A tour of the ministry's Bratislava headquarters shows that Kukan has been as good as his word. Beardless faces swarm in and out of elevators, while crisp business suits and pinned-up hair rule the corridors of power.
The trend towards youth is not restricted to the Foreign Ministry. Ľubomir Andrassy, at 25, is a member of parliament and vice-chairman of the ruling coalition SDĽ party. Andrassy talks solemnly about the need for other deputies to comport themselves properly. Party colleague Milan Ištván is even younger, at 23.
Ľubomír Kaník, at 29, has been made head of the FNM national privatisation agency, which is charged with the important mission of putting the last and richest state firms in private hands.
Tibor Búza, 28, has been made programme director of the state-run STV channel. Despite his youth, Búza is expected to cut through the web of intrigue at the station and return it to its public function.
Everywhere you look these days, young people are being given positions of authority and prestige. They are also being given a sense that it might be worthwhile sticking around Slovakia for a year or two, instead of emigrating as so many of their companions have done over the last four years.
The previous government of Vladimír Mečiar derived most of its support from elderly people. The "babky demokratiky," or 'grannies of democracy', became famous as a group of fierce elderly women with blue hair who travelled everywhere in support of their beloved 'Vladko', defending his honour with the points of their umbrellas and sometimes with their fists.
Mečiar was not slow to see the political benefits of catering to elderly voters, who felt aggrieved at having lost the prestigious social role reserved for them under communism. For years under Mečiar, the state apparatus was controlled by middle-aged appointees who stifled the development of the country as effectively as a bung in a barrel.
But with September elections and the formation of a new government, the power relations between the generations changed overnight. Professionals like Kukan took the top posts, and resolutely emptied their ministries of chair warmers and sycophants. Twenty-somethings stepped smartly to the fore, and the nation bore down on Christmas with something like renewed hope for the future. And that was a change indeed.