Generations from now, Elections '98 may own a place in Slovak folklore as the moment when voters rescued the country from the hands of despots, thieves and zealots. For the moment, though, the nation seems to be taking Mečiar's defeat in stride, giving no hint that the crushing opposition victory was historically decisive.
Part of this phlegmatism derives from the fact that Slovak politics is not a simple contest between brave white knights and dark scoundrels, despite all of the attempts of the opposition parties to present it as such. In casting their ballots for the opposition, electors actually chose the lesser of two evils.
It may sound strange to call the former opposition, composed of four pro-western parties who talk like democrats, merely a 'lesser evil' than the autocratic government of Premier Vladimír Mečiar. But the recent behaviour of some opposition politicians suggests that the next government may not be as different from the last as people expect.
The relationship between journalists and the largest opposition party, the SDK, is a case in point. As election day wore on at the SDK's Bratislava headquarters, and exit polls gave the party a healthy lead, it became increasingly difficult to tell the difference between celebrating politicians and the exuberant journalists who were covering the event, presumably objectively.
This professional chumminess had something to do with the dozens of Ministry press department jobs that will become available if the former opposition forms a government. But it owes even more to the "us and them" mentality that pervades both the SDK and the journalists who cover it.
Journalists who 'step out of line', like Domino Fórum reporter Štefan Hríb did when he exposed a bribery scandal in which the SDK's public relations firm was offering reporters money to write flattering articles, are summarily excommunicated by the group of reporters who cover the SDK kindly without being paid to do so. "They still hate me," said Hríb at the SDK victory party.
And journalists who ask tough questions of SDK leader Mikuláš Dzurinda, as a reporter for this newspaper did several weeks ago, are liable to be called "unprofessional" and "unprepared" for their interviews. SDK spokesman Martin Lengyel, himself a former reporter with Rádio Twist, said that if he hadn't known the reporter personally, he would have suspected a plot to make Dzurinda look bad.
Such things are small beer beside the gross behaviour of the HZDS these four years past. But they do make one realize how thoroughly the autocratic, paranoid style of the HZDS has saturated the political culture of the entire nation.
In the book Animal Farm, George Orwell's political allegory, the animals who band together and overthrow the evil farmer establish a set of rules to guide their society, the highest of which is "two legs bad, four legs good." But by the end of the book, the pigs, who masterminded the revolution, have started wearing clothes and sleeping in beds. Four legs are still good, the animals are told, but two legs are better.
Over the last four years, the HZDS refused to allow journalists it didn't like to talk to cabinet members. It held exclusive press conferences for government reporters, and cancelled conferences for the rest. It took over the public STV station, and held tenure while reporters were beaten up and threatened. In many ways, Mečiar's relationship with the press epitomized what his brand of politics was all about.
So a small piece of advice for Mr. Dzurinda, at the outset of what may be the long road back to a normal Slovakia. Let all reporters ask tough questions, and answer them openly. Don't allow your professional relationship with the media to be cramped by the desire of some journalists who cover your party to take personal credit for its triumph. And make sure that having defeated your enemy, you don't take on some of his characteristics yourself.
5. Oct 1998 at 0:00