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LETTER FROM THE EDITOR

Visions of Slovakia: In search of leaders

Half way through the Dzurinda government's term in office, an academic and a journalist crossed swords over Slovakia's future, or more precisely, who was responsible for producing a vision of it.
In an article titled "Crooked mirror: Slovak self-reflection is built on wrong foundations," Zuzana Wienk, a journalist with the Domino Fórum weekly, criticised a book published every year by the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) think tank, called Global Report on Slovakia.
Wienk took issue with many things the book did and didn't do, but what stuck out was her remark that the Global Report ought to have given a view of the ideal future of Slovakia, rather than be content with chronicling last year's events. "If public debate over the identity of society is not led by the media, it's a pity. If it's not launched by the intellectual elite, it's a missed chance," she wrote.

Half way through the Dzurinda government's term in office, an academic and a journalist crossed swords over Slovakia's future, or more precisely, who was responsible for producing a vision of it.

In an article titled "Crooked mirror: Slovak self-reflection is built on wrong foundations," Zuzana Wienk, a journalist with the Domino Fórum weekly, criticised a book published every year by the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) think tank, called Global Report on Slovakia.

Wienk took issue with many things the book did and didn't do, but what stuck out was her remark that the Global Report ought to have given a view of the ideal future of Slovakia, rather than be content with chronicling last year's events. "If public debate over the identity of society is not led by the media, it's a pity. If it's not launched by the intellectual elite, it's a missed chance," she wrote.

Her article brought a response from IVO President Grigorij Mesežnikov, who raised doubts as to whether Wienk had actually read the book she was bashing. Mesežnikov also said that as Domino itself had made many dire predictions that had never come true ("the fall of the government, the change in the prime minister's position, the dissolution of the government coalition, the absolute failure of many reforms, integration failures and so on"), the paper should "check its own mirror, to see if it hasn't become bent over time."

Apart from being an entertaining exchange of civilised insults, the two articles had this much in common: neither author offered a road map for reaching an ideal future Slovak society, but both thought it was important that such a map be provided.

As Slovakia approaches its third general elections since independence in 1993, the choice being offered to citizens is once again a very basic one: more democracy or less democracy. People may have thought the country closed the door on this issue four years ago, but one look at the vulpine grin of Robert Fico and his shallow campaign ads will tell them that it's all to play for, all over again.

The reason this is so is that the Dzurinda government has not offered the public what it needs so desperately: An idea of where it wants to lead the country, an honest appraisal of how long it will take to get there, and what sacrifices it will require.

This road map is more important to Slovaks than to the citizens of most countries. "Many of us live in a state we didn't want," writes Wienk, referring to the fact that neither Mečiar nor Czech leader Václav Klaus permitted a referendum on the separation of Czechoslovakia in 1993. "In a state which is built on bad foundations, which has not created a single positive constitutional tradition in the last decade that might have united society, whose political system lacks a basic consensus, and whose market economy is without creativity and ideas."

No society could solve such problems without direction and leadership, and no country can prosper if they are long ignored. Members of the Dzurinda government, however, speak of lapses in communication with the public, as if the complete absence of statesmanship were a peccadillo rather than a cardinal sin.

The government's trance of inactivity aside, we're a little closer this week to seeing the future of Slovakia than before. A study produced by the Slovak Academy of Sciences, looking at possible scenarios for Slovak social and economic development until 2010, warned that costs associated with EU entry would temporarily outweigh the gains, and that regional economic differences would widen unless local governments look sharp. The study also said that the ratio of people over 60 years to children under 15 would rise from 81:100 now to 120:100 by 2010, and that the Slovak population would likely shrink as a result of emigration to EU states.

The IVO is working on a similar study, a vision of Slovakia through 2015, which should be produced in book form in the fall.

Pace Zuzana Wienk, academics in Slovakia are doing their jobs - mapping out the terrain, and giving politicians a basis on which to decide the country's future. Slovak journalists, too, in keeping the issue alive and savaging any political action that isn't forward-looking, are fulfilling their basic function.

Slovak politicians, however, are not playing their part. The proposal of the FNM privatisation agency, for example, to fritter away a large part of the $2.7 billion in revenues from the sale of the SPP gas utility on election-year 'development projects' shows how critical the absence of leadership has become, even on no-brainer issues like paying down the foreign debt. And the decision of the same agency to sell an 87 per cent stake in shipping firm SPaP to the ubiquitous Penta Group is not just amoral - it's evidence of what interests really run the show, and how little it matters what the public thinks.

If Slovak society is once again troubled by Mečiar this September, or failing that in presidential elections in 2004, it will be because the 'democratic forces' elected in 1998 proved to be followers rather than leaders, and to be incapable of subsuming short-term personal interests to long-term national goals.

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