A VISITING journalist from a major Western daily said in late February he couldn't understand why Slovak media were so brutally critical of the Dzurinda government. Where he worked, things seemed to be going well for Slovakia, and apart from a single cloud - the possible return of Vladimír Mečiar - the horizon was full of encouraging omens.
Prophetic words. In this past week the government has taken steps against corruption, racism, paternalism and political insanity that give even embittered domestic journalists pause for thought.
The government on March 11 launched a web site (www.government.gov.sk/mpmms) on the Office of Government portal that describes 1998-2001 Slovak projects that received EU taxpayer funding, gives the names of the recipients and the amounts transferred. It's still largely under construction, but will eventually name subcontractors who made money off pre-accession projects approved by Brussels, and provide hyperlinks to the online business register. Compare this to the vault of secrecy that guarded EU aid this time last year, when Government Office employee Roland Tóth was getting the boot for allegedly ripping off the Union for millions through subcontractors.
Deputy PM for Economy Ivan Mikloš on March 12 introduced a draft bill giving the public, NGOs and professional groups access to law-making. The bill sets the rules for consulting laws with the public before passing them to parliament (something the Labour Code and Universities Law could have benefited from). The government will have to publish drafts on the Internet 15 days before they go to cabinet, and if the public's comments are not included in the bill, someone has to explain why not. "We will not tolerate explanations that say only 'your comment goes against the spirit of the law'," Mikloš said. A fine sentiment if espoused by members of cabinet like Agriculture Minister Pavol Koncoš, a communist mute if there ever was one. Koncoš, by the way, was on a visit to Moscow when the draft was unveiled.
Cabinet also on March 6 unveiled another bold Action Plan, this one against racism. The idea is to have the Education Ministry get schools to teach kids about racist attitudes, and to have the police hold 'sensitivity training'. It's to be followed by an anti-discrimination law and a new Centre for Equal Treatment.
Finally, on March 14, cabinet approved the sale of a 49 per cent stake in gas utility SPP. The government won several concessions in the sale contract, regarding oversight, layoffs and business intentions, but more importantly ignored the business acumen of politicians like President Rudolf Schuster, who said the sale should be called off because of the allegedly low price.
That's a lot of good news for one week, and may have had our Western colleague nodding with vindication in his office.
But there's another side to this, and it has to do with who's doing the looking, not just what's there to be seen.
For us foreigners, the positive changes happening in Slovakia appear reassuring. After all, they make the country look a lot more like places we grew up. Even some of the warts (20 per cent unemployment, hysterical graft) seem rather homely if you owned Enron shares.
But for people sitting in an Orava pub, it must represent a bewildering upheaval whose justification (Western integration) is about as relevant to their lives as Michael Jackson.
Not only have they lost what the Slovak nation has known for a thousand years - someone to tell them what to do - they are being asked to peer into the social maelstrom that we foreigners call a 'country in transition', identify their new roles and come up with personal 'action plans' for living them. It sometimes doesn't occur to us how difficult that must be for a 50-year-old Slovak miner who loses his job, never having known unemployment and never having had a choice of what he studied or where he lived. Whose opinions were never sought on public affairs, but who is now required to comfort his family with a strategy for their future.
This isn't bleeding heart stuff. People adjust quickly to new situations if they're given the tools to do so. But the problem is that foreigners can't understand how much explaining Slovaks need, how much translation of concepts we grew up with into language they understand. Another problem is that the people who should be doing the explaining - the country's leaders - seem as clueless as the people they govern. The biggest problem is that no one really knows why all of this turmoil is necessary, whether it's worth the agony.
A simple question asked by simple people - why integration? Why the EU, why the global economy? It's fair they should be given an answer, if their living standards still don't match pre-1989 times.
The usual response is that in moving to the West Slovakia will be forced to clean up its act. People will be free to decide their fate, sloth will be punished by poverty, and hard work rewarded with prosperity. But the integration hustle falters when asked whether giving international capital a greater say in deciding people's lives is a good thing, or why a shiny McDonalds is to be preferred over a sallow village pub.
Westerners by and large stopped asking those questions 20 years ago, once our countries began to profit from the new order. Slovaks, new to the game, are understandably suspicious when they don't get plain answers, and less impressed by each step the country takes towards the global market.
What all of us see when we look at Slovakia says more about who we are than what is actually happening. You can bet that if that foreign journalist traded lots with an unemployed Slovak miner, he'd curse his fate as lustily his mates in the pub.
And the Slovak miner, with his feet up on a Western office desk, might say that the government's anti-racism plan was further proof the country was moving in the right direction.
18. Mar 2002 at 0:00