My wife was raised in Slovakia; I was raised in Canada, where we live. We are currently in the middle of our fourth and longest trip to Slovakia. However, I am not involved in business here. We arrived just before the recent elections and I have since been following developments with great interest.
My in-laws have supported the HZDS [former governing party of Vladimír Mečiar] and [the far-right nationalist party and former HZDS coalition partner] SNS since Slovak independence; no surprise for an older couple in a small city.
One of their frequent complaints to us is the almost uniformly negative media coverage Slovakia has received internationally since 1993. Since my command of Slovak has not been sufficient in the past to really understand the subtleties of the political situation, I have tended to agree with them somewhat on that point. After all, as a tourist coming back every year or two, one sees a continuous increase in the number of new cars, nicely refinished buildings and new businesses. Boring as these signs may seem from an ideological perspective, they are evidence of a new prosperity and a process of modernization. They have an aesthetic value not to be found in mere acquisitiveness, since the pride involved in private ownership produces much more attractive people and environments than the almost uniformly ugly visual legacy of communism.
Given these outward signs of prosperity, one had to ask if Slovakia could really be as bad as the foreign reports suggested. I always felt the answer was no, it was not that bad, and I believe post-election results confirm this. I have no doubt that your publication, like many others, was very accurate in its criticism of the HZDS. It is likely that such criticism was important in bringing about the desirable goal of removing the party from power, and it is even possible that any positive coverage would have been counterproductive.
However, ends and means aside, I believe this reflects a fundamental error in the view of history, even history in the making, that such periodicals possess. It is essentially the view that history belongs to a few important people, who shape it and move it. In Slovakia, this translates into the view that because Meciar was anti-democratic, nationalistic and xenophobic, Slovaks must be so as well.
In fact, throughout the Mečiar era, ordinary Slovaks strove to improve on the ugliness of the Communist legacy, painting their houses, building new ones, buying new goods from smart new stores, frequenting pretty new cafes and restaurants, traveling abroad and embarking on a host of other activities that make them feel part of a greater Europe.
It is this activity that is bringing Slovakia towards the west more than anything else: people who have had a taste of freedom and choice are not about to turn their backs on it again, even when prices are rising much faster than wages. If Slovakia were so bad, why is it that within a few days of the formation of the new government, everybody's talking fast-track membership in NATO and the EU?
It strikes me as exceedingly unlikely that a simple change to a more democratic government would be enough to fast-track many nearby states to the south and east, so there must be something else that Slovaks are doing right. This view is verified by the recent United Nations ranking of Slovakia as ahead of some nations already in the first round for NATO and EU membership.
Lastly, crony capitalism is far from ideal capitalism, but the west was falling all over itself to ignore crony capitalism in Asia until last year. At that point it became obvious, as it should have been all along, that loans and deals made on the basis of personal and political obligation, rather than merit, are not economically sound in the long run, and therefore that Asia was not as mighty as it seemed.
Still, crony capitalism under Meciar was not tolerated by the west from the start, which is a double standard. One thing Slovaks, and indeed all central and eastern Europeans, desperately need is to change their pessimistic, negative envy of visible prosperity to a positive, optimistic envy; the idea that "I can make it too". But maybe that's just not the European way. It remains to be seen whether a Government with a healthy dose of ex-communists from the SDĽ party, who would really rather not privatize anything, can improve on the kind of visible westernization that has occurred over the last six years.
30. Nov 1998 at 0:00