More than they can chew

The new Slovak government took office full of stern resolution on October 30, promising to defend democracy and improve the moral tone of the country. Just the things Slovakia needed, perhaps, but a little bit prim for all that, and not a platform that promised much light amusement.
The government's first foray into parliament, however, proved that its Calvinist political image had been a clever disguise, concealing a playful ignorance of the rules of parliamentary debate and a witty failure to map out an intelligent plan of action. What fun!
The chief wiseacre was parliamentary speaker Jozef Migaš, who feigned a comical unfamiliarity with the basic rules of his job. Migaš is not a very tall or imposing figure, and as he approached the lectern to call the house to order, he found he had to lower the microphone from the level it normally rested at for former speaker Ivan Gašparovič.

The new Slovak government took office full of stern resolution on October 30, promising to defend democracy and improve the moral tone of the country. Just the things Slovakia needed, perhaps, but a little bit prim for all that, and not a platform that promised much light amusement.

The government's first foray into parliament, however, proved that its Calvinist political image had been a clever disguise, concealing a playful ignorance of the rules of parliamentary debate and a witty failure to map out an intelligent plan of action. What fun!

The chief wiseacre was parliamentary speaker Jozef Migaš, who feigned a comical unfamiliarity with the basic rules of his job. Migaš is not a very tall or imposing figure, and as he approached the lectern to call the house to order, he found he had to lower the microphone from the level it normally rested at for former speaker Ivan Gašparovič.

"Get him a chair to stand on so we can see his face," shouted Ján Cuper, a deputy for the HZDS party that ruled the country for the last four years. Cuper, who is himself often too clever to be understood, suggested to his grinning colleagues that Migaš was not up to the job of speaker, having never served in the house even as a deputy.

Migaš, going along with the game, proceeded to bungle and botch the order of items to be discussed, to assign bill proposals to the wrong people, and generally to keep house members shaking with mirth as they watched his red and flustered countenance.

Then it was the turn of the entire government to follow Migaš's Chaplinesque lead. In order for house business to be conducted, 21 new deputies had first to be sworn in to replace those members who had been drafted into the ranks of government and thus lost their voting rights in parliament. But without the votes of the replacement deputies, the government did not control enough seatsto be able to swear them in in the first place.

When the opposition realised this, they sat back in their chairs, stretched and yawned and did everything but declare themselves present to vote. The upshot was that the government did not have enough votes to continue, and the session of parliament had to be called off for four hours while the cabinet scratched its collective head and pondered its next move.

When the session was finally rejoined, thanks to the support of the opposition far-right SNS party, Migaš turned his speaker's function over to his deputy, Pavol Hrušovský, and spent the rest of the evening poring over the rules of procedure.

Perhaps the most amusing aspect of the entire debacle was the fact it was Migaš in the first place who had insisted on being made speaker as the price of his SDĽ party's participation in government. Having bitten off more parliamentary responsibility than he could chew, Migaš and his burdensome ambition presented a comic tableau matched only by the nation's eager, earnest andaccident-prone new government .

Revealing SIS secrets

Of all of the recent nominations to civil service posts, the most important by far was the installation of Vladimír Mitro as boss of the Slovak secret service, the SIS.

When Mitro entered his new office on November 3, he was returning to his old hunting grounds. One of the founders of the SIS and its first director, Mitro has said he will put the service firmly back under public and non-partisan control, will make himself accountable to parliament, and will prosecute any agents found to have been involved in illegal acts under the former government of Premier Vladimír Mečiar.

These commitments, if kept, will result in a significant improvement in the security of Slovak citizens. For at least four years, the SIS was used by the Mečiar cabinet to pursue its political aims by rather dubious means. Opposition politicians and journalists were tailed and harrassed, and rumours abounded of the SIS's links to the underworld and involvement in the kidnapping of Michal Kováč Jr. and the assassination of SIS informant Robert Remiaš.

Because so many SIS files have recently been destroyed by outgoing officers, it is highly unlikely that these crimes, if they involved the SIS, will ever be solved. Mitro's general distaste for the press, and his determination to return the SIS to a low-profile role, also make gaudy spy trials a remote possibility. But in preventing the service from again being used by the government against its opponents, Mitro will be doing his country a real favour.

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