To coincide with our first weekly issue, The Slovak Spectator selected seven young Slovak personalities who we felt represented the future of the country. They are people whose names do not dominate the headlines every day, but who are quietly working towards a vision of the country's future that we shared - a vision of a unified, outward-looking Slovakia determined to solve its own problems and to make a success of economic and political transition. Their stories and their thoughts are below.
By Tom Nicholson
Martin Kabát: " I'm staying here"
"I realized all of a sudden that it's more important how you live than where you live," he said. "If I left Slovakia for good, I might be more successful and have a better life, but that's only one side of it. I would always be a foreigner, without my family. I might earn more, but I would also spend more, and my view is that a career is not the only important thing in life."
Now 29, Kabát returned to Slovakia in the spring of 1995 and left the field of engineering. "If I had continued with my studies, I would eventually have to have worked for a big state firm. With so many people in the field, and with the kind of mentality at those firms, I would have had to queue up for a decent position."
So, with the kind of professional flexibility so common to educated Slovaks living in a transitional economy, Kabát gravitated towards a Bratislava brokerage house named Slavia Capital. Starting in as a market analyst, he had to begin putting out a monthly investment report for the firm's corporate clients within two weeks of joining the Slavia team. At the same time, he returned to school, pursuing an economics degree on weekends.
For Kabát, it was a steep learning curve at a time when even Bratislava's Economic University professors were having to learn the ropes. "Teachers, students, we were all just trying to figure out the rules of the market. Everyone had to start thinking in a different way," he recalled.
Today, Kabát is a successful broker at Slavia who is able to discourse knowledgably about the stock exchange and corporate Slovakia. "Capital markets have played a different role in this country than in others," he said judiciously, leaning forward in his chair. "The ideas in the beginning were very nice, but in the end it was simply a privatisation tool."
If Kabát is not optimistic about Slovakia's economy - "market recovery will take many years, and depend on a steady macroeconomic situation" - he is decidedly more positive about the social and political future of his homeland. "People are used to tough situations here," he began. "We are survivors."
Nevertheless, he argues, the future will depend on the degree of unity the country can achieve. "Look at the UK or the US - you see only two parties. Here, we are split between many, with each politician doing his best to win an extra few points for his team. It will take us at least another four years to change direction and head back towards Europe."
In the end, Kabát is not a political fellow - "I like pancakes, Czech folk music and sports," he says - but feels that the patriotism of his fellow citizens has been abused by the current administration. "The government used people's desire for their own state," he said, not smiling for once. "People would have given their lives for it, but now they are already tired, and the country divided."
Proud of "[World War I Slovak General Milan Rastislav] Štefaník and the fact that an independent Slovakia was able to survive on its own," Kabát vows to stay on in his native Bratislava. "Relationships with people are too important to me," he said.
By Ivan Remiaš
Rudolf Biermann: "Culture is at least as important as the army or heavy industry."
Biermann is the owner of two independent film production and distribution companies - Charlie's in Slovakia and In Film in the Czech Republic. Since 1995, he has also served as the General Manager of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic.
"When I was a child I always dreamed of making films," Biermann said. He started making amateur films with a few friends at high school. "We filmed ourselves working on farms in the summer and stuff like that," he recalled, remembering times when class trips and school gardening were the most frequent subjects of his art.
After graduating high school, Biermann wanted to study film production, but his parents insisted that he study "something serious," so he ended up at the Law Faculty of Comenius University in Bratislava. As a young lawyer, though, Biermann decided to cleave to his childhood dream rather than practice law in the communist legal system.
"I promised my grandmother that I would finish my law degree first, and then the family 'approved' my earning money making films," Biermann grinned. At the age of 24, he started working as a production assistant with Koliba, a state-run film studio. "No one there even knew what the job required," he laughed, adding that he had to teach himself everything about film production.
Biermann regrets that in November 1989, when the foundation stones of the future market economy were laid, the younger generation did not pursue changes in Slovakia's growing independent cinematography more strongly. "We were taught to respect the older generation, and maybe we respected some of their ideas too much," Biermann said.
Himself a younger generation film lover, Biermann parted ways with state sponsored culture soon after the revolution. "In May 1990, I decided to leave Koliba, because I did not share the opinions of the rest of the company management," he explained.
In September 1990, as a co-founder of his first private company, Biermann sufferred an unpleasant experience when his two partners deserted him one week before the shooting of "Rochade", a film for Austrian television (ORF) with Michael York playing the main role. He had to draw up new contracts and produce the film himself. "Ever since then I have always run a company on my own," he concluded.
Biermann's productions include titles that are highly acclaimed by the international artistic community, as well as popular 'easy-to-watch' box office hits.
The films "Everything I like" (1992) and "The Garden" (1995), both directed by Martin Šulík, are among the best Slovak films ever made: each film received awards at over ten world film festivals, including famous gatherings in Toronto, San Francisco, Bologna and Rotterdam.
In Biermann's opinion, success like his can spur people onward to achieve ambitious goals. "My dream is to make a film in the English language which would then get a bunch of Oscars," he said of his deepest ambition.
Slovakia and its future
Having spent half his life on business trips around the world, Biermann has never felt his origin an obstacle. "Even in the past, I kept telling everyone abroad that I am Slovak, and that there is a Slovak nation which has its own language, culture, and so on," he claimed.
For Biermann, the split of the former Czechoslovakia in 1993 was a blessing. "I said OK, at least from then on nobody could blame others for our own faults," he explained.
But life in the new Slovak Republic has not fulfilled all of Biermann's early hopes. Very little attention, he said, has been paid to culture as means of educating new generations and creating ethical rules for society.
"Given these functions, culture must not be politicized. People, and especially influential people, must understand that culture is at least as important as the army, heavy industry or engineering," he said.
Disappointed with the lack of cultural freedom in Slovakia, Biermann added that poor social communication and materialism were sapping the nation's strength. "I wish Slovak people would not get so antagonized by money," he said.
By Slavomír Danko
Klára Orgovánová"A person who fights for the rights of a minority is often rejected by its members."
Despite these credentials, Orgovánová does not believe she has yet fully comprehended the inner life of her ethnic community. "The fact that I am a Romany does not necessarily mean I understand all Romanies. It's more than just a question of knowing them, it's a matter of how society as a whole functions," said Orgovánová, who is programme director at the Open Society Foundation, as well as director of the Foundation for Romany Children and the InfoRoma foundation.
Taking the first steps
Orgovánová first seriously began to deal with the Romany issue after the "Velvet Revolution" in 1989. After working as a clinical psychiatrist, she became a member of the local government in Prešov in eastern Slovakia, where she worked for another six months. "We created a small group of Romanies who knew that something should be done in this field, but nobody was really sure what exactly," she said.
After a stint teaching at the university in Nitra, Orgovánová got a job with the Slovak government office. In 1991 she took on the post of minority groups consultant, focused especially on Romany issues.
One of her most important initiatives here was a plan for new housing facilities for "poorly integrated social groups," which in reality meant shifting Romanies living in ghettos to new village-type settlements. However, "no money has ever been released for that," she said.
Since that disappointment, Orgovánová says she has been unsure of how to solve the Romany question, and has considered both communication and mutual understanding with "white" Slovaks as well as a more aggressive approach through demonstrations and public pressure.
Orgovánová is proud of her roots. "My parents came from musician families, both highly respected in the towns they lived in [Prešov and Košice] and maybe that's why I have never felt my minority status as a burden," she said.
It was the family who inculcated the principles of life in her. "If you have some principles, you know how to solve any kind of situations," she said, explaining that in her case the principles were: honesty, truthfulness and love.
Despite a "better childhood," Orgovánová has always felt somehow set apart. "I was the only Romany at high school, the only one at university, the only one in the hospital. But I have never had a problem with that. I just didn't think about it that way," she explained.
After her experience with the state administration, Orgovánová started to work in the non-governmental sector. In 1991, she established the Foundation for Romany Children, aimed mainly at supporting the education of Romany children and their mothers. "A significant part of this project is also giving about 90 scholarships every year to Romany students, who otherwise wouldn't be able to handle it financially," she explained.
InfoRoma is another NGO directed by Orgovánová. Started in 1996, the foundation's core idea is to monitor and analyze Romany activities in Slovakia. Both foundations are partly financed by the Open Society Foundation, where Orgovánová works as a programme director.
Reality and future
"The majority of Slovak Romanies live very poorly, but sometimes we [others] are more depressed by that than they themselves," said Orgovánová. She is convinced that Romanies are not prepared for major changes in their lives, which is why they don't accept help easily.
"A person who fights for the rights of a minority is often rejected by its members, because their expectations are not fulfilled as quickly as they want," she explained.
According to her, the good things she has achieved for the Romany community so far have been only small steps. "To take a major step, we have to create a big group of people who are willing to cooperate, which we still don't have," she said, referring to the Romany elite or intelligentsia which she has been trying to create for a long time without success. And without such a group, she said, her community had little hope of establishing a serious Romany political party.
Orgovánová says she is skeptical of the future of Slovak Romanies. "The current political climate in Slovakia is not good for solving Romany questions - it is still a marginal problem. Maybe they will have to go to the streets to advance things further," she said.
By Tom Nicholson
Adriana Litomerická: "Communism wasn't all bad. Parents then could spend more time with their children than we can, and they were not so anxious and caught up in their own existences."
As the director of the Bratislava real estate agency 1. Národná Aukčná Spoločnosť, Litomerická, 36, has turned her passion for helping others into an enormous business asset. In five years, she has risen from being a broker with the firm to her present position as part owner and as the Slovak representative of FIABCI, an international real estate association. "My job with FIABCI is to try and persuade foreign investors to come and do business in Slovakia, as well as to represent the industry as a whole, not just my own company," she explains.
And if that weren't enough, Litomerická is also an active member of the board of the Baťa Junior Achievement Foundation.
When communism fell almost ten years ago, few people would have guessed that Litomerická would make such a successful adjustment to the demands of a market economy. "1989 was a wonderful time, but I was sitting at home on maternity leave with a small child," she remembers. "I was a computer programmer, and my only regret was that I wasn't a student, that I wasn't in the middle of things."
Nevertheless, as the heady months of revolution and change passed, Litomerická took her chance as well. "I stopped work immediately. Everyone said it was risky to go to a private company, but my husband and I decided to do what we wanted." She used her English skills to market herself to western firms, and hasn't looked back since.
"I am proud of what I've accomplished, you're right," she smiles widely. "It's a result of hard work, and perhaps the secret has been my ability to communicate." Part of the satisfaction, too, has arisen from "success in a 'man's' business," and has increased Litomerická's appreciation for the relatively strong position of women in Slovak society. "Women who are professional and want to work are accepted like anyone else," she says. "Their position is pretty good."
A few regrets
But the years of work have not been without a few tinges of nostalgia for a more tranquil past. "Communism wasn't all bad," she says. "My mother was home every afternoon when I returned from school, not like it is for my daughter now. Parents then could spend more time with their children than we can, and they were not so anxious and caught up in their own existences."
Still, she says, Slovakia has great possibilities within reach. The country's location on the frontier of eastern and western Europe, the high level of education still available and the work ethic of the people are resources that must not be squandered, and which may make up for the social costs of a hectic economy.
"The only danger is that we will not go in the right democratic direction," she warns. "We have to be clever enough to use our advantages. I believe in our future, but as an economist I have learned to be realistic."
By Barbora Holánová
Miroslav Lajčák: "I do not want Slovakia to watch the backs of our neighbours [as they accede to EU membership]. I want to be in the same row with them. Our people deserve it."
Slovakia's former ambassador in Japan, Lajčák has spent a lifetime in diplomacy and speaks English, German, Russian, Bulgarian and Serbian fluently, with a bit of conversational Japanese thrown in for good measure.
A born diplomat
Born in the northern Slovak town of Poprad in 1963, and raised in an ordinary Slovak family, Lajčák credits his father for guiding him to the right career. "My father did not really show me the way as such, but he broadened my horizons," said Lajčák. "I never wanted to be anything else than a diplomat."
It is a profession in which he has excelled. After taking a degree in law at Comenius University in Bratislava, Lajčák moved on to Moscow's prestigious Diplomatic Academy. Since graduating in 1986, he has held postings in Bulgaria, Russia, Greece and from 1994 to June 1998 in Tokyo. "Diplomacy is exactly the job I feel good at," he said. "I never wanted a nine to five job. Diplomacy is full time, and it's more of a mission than a job. You affect the way in which events develop, which keeps it interesting."
One of the personal qualities that has served him well in his career, Lajčák said, was his sense of responsibility. "I could not receive a letter without replying to it," he laughed. "Responsibility is engrained in my character, and I have never been scared of it, because it stands for what I am."
The pros and cons of travel
As he talks about his career, Lajčák betrays a fascination with other lands. "Japan is completely different - the culture, the mentality of the people, how they show emotions, prepare food, it is a different world," he said. "The Japanese have kept their own traditions, and indeed allow them to walk hand in hand with modernization."
But the incessant travelling has not been an uniterrupted tale of fascination and marvel. "On the one hand, you have the opportunity to get to know almost the whole world in detail, to meet a huge number of interesting and important people," began Lajčák.
"But on the other hand, it's a very nomadic life. My daughter is 11 years old, and has attended school in five different countries. She has been educated in four different languages. I am glad to be back home again. I want to get to work, to help influence foreign policy"
In his current position as a political officer in the Slovak Foreign Ministry, with special responsibility for bilateral relationships between Slovakia and EU/NATO countries, Lajčák has a chance to steer policy in the direction he wants. "I do not want Slovakia to watch the backs of our neighbours [as they accede to EU membership]," he said defiantly. "I want to be in the same row with them. Our people deserve it."
Lajčák said he believes that "Slovakia has a great future because Slovaks are very hard working, hospitable and well educated. The country occupies a good geographic position in Europe. The Japanese people who visited me said that they were deeply impressed with the countryside, with its greenness and health. 'It's the real thing', they told me. 'You can lie on the grass and touch it."
Indeed, Lajčák says, there was a great deal about Japan that could be applied to the Slovak model. "I'm an optimist. It would be fine if Slovakia could take inspiration from the Japanese example, where the old traditions live side by side with the new."
By Ivan Remiaš
Vladimír Tvaroška:"I feel disappointed when a journalist makes up information, or an entire story. On the other hand, I am disgruntled when a story proves that someone in a high post tunnelled an enterprise and nothing happens."
Born in 1972 in Trnava, Tvaroška is currently one of the most respected business journalists in Slovakia. As a student at the Economic University in Bratislava in 1993, he started working as a reporter with the Czech Press Agency (ČTK). After six months on the loose travelling around the globe, he got a job with the reformed communist daily Pravda in 1994, eventually becoming second chief editor.
Falling in clover
"I came across the job by accident, when as a student I saw an ad that ČTK was looking for a business reporter," Tvaroška recalled. "I didn't really believe that they would accept me, but they did. I had never thought of being a journalist, and I promised to myself that I would quit the job after graduation, that I would start working in finance or business."
He didn't quit, but although many of his former school mates are now successful businessmen, Tvaroška said he never regretted not becoming a yuppie. "I don't lack money. More important to me is the liberty that I find in my work. I do what I want to do, not what I have to do," he enthused.
As a journalist, he began to look at the world differently, with "more critical eyes." His investigations have turned up baskets of dirty laundry, but he said he has always managed to remain calm and rational. "The world is not painted in just one color," he said, adding that his calm approach has brought him through difficult life situations with fewer bruises on his soul. "That's why I never mix my private life with my profession," he claimed.
Five years after he began as a journalist, Tvaroška says the job remains fresh for him."It's always about looking for new stories, new ideas. You are pushed forward by trying to be the first who has the story, and that means motivation to me," he observed.
Motivation, however, does not always save him from bad feelings. "I feel disappointed when a journalist makes up information, or an entire story," he said.
"On the other hand, I am disgruntled when a story proves that someone in a high post tunnelled an enterprise, and the only effect of it is that a few people talk about it for a week, but the person stays at the post and nothing really happens." A lack of fundamental business ethics and respect for the law, Tvaroška said, were the things he regretted the most about Slovakia.
Still a young man for all his stature as a reporter, Tvaroška said he did not expect great social changes to occur in Slovakia in the next few years. "The process is long, and it takes time for things to become clear. It's hard to say what the future holds, but if the economy improves, people will get better as well."
By Slavomír Danko
Martina Lubyová: "I'm in a state to move labor market policy forward."
"I must have inherited academic genes," said Lubyová. "We always had books and papers all around the house, like a proper family of scientists." Her mother was a chemist and her father a physicist at the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV). Her sister holds a doctorate in molecular genetics, and Martina herself now works at SAV and teaches at the University of Economy in Bratislava.
In 1990, Lubyová was a regular student of the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics at Bratislava's Comenius University. After graduating, she went to Prague on a whim "just to pass the TOEFL [English certificate]," but ended up applying for a PhD programme at Charles University and being accepted. Henceforth, she travelled in the sphere of economic and social policy.
"The whole point of going to Prague and study there was curiosity. I said to myself: Why not? And I just took off," remembered Lubyová. After her second year of study in Prague, she went to the Netherlands to start working on another PhD. This one was focused on the field she covers now - social policy and labor markets in transitional economics. In two years she graduated and came back post haste to Prague to wrap up her first doctoral programme.
In the meantime, she found eight months to spare in Paris as an OECD correspondent, working on a review of the labour market and social policy in Slovakia. To soak up any free time she hadn't already accounted for, during the Prague doctoral programme she started to study law at Comenius University in Bratislava, a degree which she finished in 1997.
The years of study in an international setting have left Lubyová with mixed views on the virtues of her country's labour policy. Recent reforms, she said, have relieved the burden of unemplyment payouts on the state budget and passed them on to a general unemployment fund supported by contributors. But at the same time, the changes have de-motivated the workforce, and with unemployment at a record high level of 14.1%, the ever increasing number of payouts are threatening to bankrupt the welfare system.
As for the future, Lubyová is convinced that she is able to bring positive change to her field of interest. The only obstacle she sees is in the application of her ideas to real life situations. "I can say quite honestly that I'm in a state to move labour market policy forward. The only question is whether the responsible authorities will accept my ideas and apply them," she concluded.
A film maker, a diplomat, a journalist and a stock broker - what they have in common with a businesswoman, an activist and an academic? All have seen their careers take off since 1989 and all have adjusted to the new circumstances in which the country finds itself. All, furthermore, are young English-speaking professionals whose futures are as bright as that which awaits Slovakia. The Slovak Spectator, in conjunction with the launch of its weekly format, has profiled them below.
7. Sep 1998 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson, Ivan Remiaš, Slavomír Danko, Barbora Holánová