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GUEST COLUMN

New government means more democracy

For the better part of the past three years, we have had some sharp differences with the policies of the present Slovak government [of outgoing Premier Vladimír Mečiar]. Increasingly often, as time went by, these differences were spelled out publicly. It would not serve any purpose in the waning days of this government to inventory our disagreements. Suffice it to say that we found its increasingly autocratic conduct to be completely inconsistent with its declared aspiration to join NATO...
This September's elections have turned a new page for Slovakia. The parties that have been elected campaigned on a platform of political and economic reform and have pledged to end the politics of intolerance and exclusion...I am convinced that we can look forward to a far more open and democratic political life and to an end to the abuses of power, including the misuse of the intelligence service, that characterized the present regime.

For the better part of the past three years, we have had some sharp differences with the policies of the present Slovak government [of outgoing Premier Vladimír Mečiar]. Increasingly often, as time went by, these differences were spelled out publicly. It would not serve any purpose in the waning days of this government to inventory our disagreements. Suffice it to say that we found its increasingly autocratic conduct to be completely inconsistent with its declared aspiration to join NATO...

This September's elections have turned a new page for Slovakia. The parties that have been elected campaigned on a platform of political and economic reform and have pledged to end the politics of intolerance and exclusion...I am convinced that we can look forward to a far more open and democratic political life and to an end to the abuses of power, including the misuse of the intelligence service, that characterized the present regime.

The new government will inherit some serious economic problems, including a bloated government deficit, a very substantial trade deficit, extremely high levels of non-performing loans in the banking sector and a climate of corruption. However, assuming, as I do, that it is prepared to tackle these problems in a straightforward way, I am confident that it will enjoy the full support of the international community, including international financial institutions.

Furthermore, I expect a major improvement in government attitudes towards foreign investment. Until now, foreign investors have too often been viewed as unwanted competitors for domestic entrepreneurs. Now I believe that both Slovakia's private sector and its new government will take a much more positive approach to foreign investors...

Some of the issues I think ought to be taken up [by foreign and domestic business groups in Slovakia] with the new government include the need for a functioning bankruptcy law, the termination of the import certification system, which is simply a non-tariff barrier and an open invitation to corruption, greater transparency on capital markets, meaningful bank supervision and the power to enforce it, wholesale elimination of the regulatory thicket that kills small businesses in the cradle...This is far from a complete agenda, but it would be a good starting point for dialogue with the new government.

Central Europe is obviously not the only place in the world where corrupt practices are a problem, but they are becoming a major political and economic issue here. Protection rackets, the "tunneling out" of privatised businesses, bribery in connection with major and minor purchases: corruption here has spawned a whole new vocabulary. In polls conducted before these elections, Slovak citizens indicated that corruption and organised crime were among their greatest concerns...

The people of central Europe are extremely well educated, and they want to make up for the time they tragically lost under 41 years of communist rule. If they are to be successful, they need to follow your example, as corporate citizens of the United States, rather than living out the caricature of capitalism that was preached tothem until 1989. You have a great opportunity to do good while doing well.

Excerpts from a speech delivered by Ralph Johnson, US Ambassador to Slovakia, to the American Chambers of Commerce in Europe, in Bratislava on October 19.

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