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SCHUSTER'S STATE OF THE NATION SPEECH DRAWS BARBS FROM BOTH SIDES OF LEGISLATURE

Schuster: Elections 'last chance'

PRESIDENT Rudolf Schuster, in his annual State of the Nation Address on June 28, told a packed parliamentary assembly that September general elections were the most important ballot in the country's history since the fall of communism in 1989. Schuster appealed to citizens to go to the polls despite their disillusionment with politicians.
The one-hour speech, the last to be addressed to members of the current parliament (MPs) and the cabinet before elections, brought few positive reactions from the government or political analysts, and harvested lukewarm applause in the legislature, a reaction that paradoxically made the president happy.
"I'm not very particular about applause, be it from one or the other side. I'm happiest when both sides are unhappy. Then I think I'm doing a good job," Schuster said to journalists shortly after the speech.


PRESIDENT Rudolf Schuster said politicians too often seemed to prefer intrigue to serving voters.
photo: TASR

PRESIDENT Rudolf Schuster, in his annual State of the Nation Address on June 28, told a packed parliamentary assembly that September general elections were the most important ballot in the country's history since the fall of communism in 1989. Schuster appealed to citizens to go to the polls despite their disillusionment with politicians.

The one-hour speech, the last to be addressed to members of the current parliament (MPs) and the cabinet before elections, brought few positive reactions from the government or political analysts, and harvested lukewarm applause in the legislature, a reaction that paradoxically made the president happy.

"I'm not very particular about applause, be it from one or the other side. I'm happiest when both sides are unhappy. Then I think I'm doing a good job," Schuster said to journalists shortly after the speech.

Two months after the elections a Nato summit in Prague is expected to decide on invitations for new members of the Alliance. Several high-ranking Nato officials have said a return of former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar and his opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) party to power could bar Slovakia's entry bid.

European Union officials, while less forthright than their Nato colleagues, have also said Mečiar's return could bring a halt to Slovakia's EU entry aspirations, now hoped to result in an entry treaty being signed in March 2003.

"We can best alleviate these concerns with the highest possible voter turnout," Schuster said, adding that a widely-attended vote would better reflect the real wishes of the country's citizens.


MIKLOŠ (left) and Interior Minister Šimko compare notes.
photo: TASR

While praising the president for his appeal to citizens to participate in the elections, Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda disagreed with the president's criticism of the cabinet's performance in spheres such as economy, privatisation, and domestic politics.

Ivan Mikloš, Deputy Prime Minister for the Economy and a member of Dzurinda's Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) ruling party, said that an "essential problem of the report is that it feeds the very untrue myth that in foreign policy everything is going well, while in domestic politics everything is bad, including the economy."

The president noted the strong progress that Slovakia has made under Dzurinda in recovering from international isolation during the 1994-1998 Mečiar regime.

"If the president's evaluation was correct we wouldn't have been able to achieve such successes in integration and foreign policy," Mikloš said.

Schuster's speech, which Soňa Szomolányi, head of political science with Bratislava's Comenius University, thought should have been cut to half its length, touched upon a range of other issues including almost 20 per cent unemployment, the country's under-funded and unreformed education and health care sectors, as well as unfinished reforms.

Schuster also mentioned the bankruptcy of several non-banking investment funds this past spring, in which around 200,000 Slovaks lost their savings, and the country's "omnipresent corruption". He said that the cabinet's "results in uncovering corruption are unconvincing, and there is a general perception that the investigated people were considered rather 'small fish'."

Throughout the speech, however, Schuster stressed the need for citizens to "go to the polls and reaffirm one more time our orientation towards a brighter future.

"I know that many of you are disillusioned by the performance of this and past governments, due mainly to broken promises," he said. "However, a low voter turnout will certainly not bring us closer to what we all desire - a better future and a higher standard of living."

Declaring that his "role [is] to call attention to the problems that our people have to deal with and in the face of which they are often helpless," Schuster criticised politicians for disunity in serving citizens, and said it often seemed that "rather than helping the people the focus is on fighting over power and influence".

Szomolányi said she felt the best elements of the speech were those dedicated to the country's western direction, but that overall it had "lacked self-reflection" when discussing domestic problems.

"Although the president's goal was civic reconciliation, he himself could have done more," the analyst said, adding that in his evaluation of the development of society over the last four years, "the president did not show any greater insight than that of a common citizen.

"Frankly, I expected a greater sense of perspective from the president," she said.

František Mikloško, a member of the Christian Democrats (KDH) ruling coalition party, added that Schuster, who before he was elected president in 1999 led one of the country's ruling parties (Civic Understanding - SOP), should not have forgotten his own responsibility for the current situation in the country.

"The president's speech was sort of a summary of what has been written in the press," he said. "Slovakia still lacks people who are in touch with the pulse of this country's soul, and its feelings about today and the future. This speech was that of an opposition politician who has forgotten he used to be the head of a ruling coalition party."

Opposition MPs, on the other hand, said they were happy with the speech, with HZDS MP Ján Cuper noting that Schuster was "still too soft" on the government.

HZDS election campaign leader Peter Baco added: "It's hard for him to be more critical because he himself is responsible for some bad steps.

"The president also failed to mention that it's only thanks to the HZDS that the country's entry into Nato is supported by 60 per cent of citizens," Baco remarked, referring to his party's declared support for entering the Alliance since 2000.

Appealing to politicians for a fair election campaign and reiterating that Slovakia's western integration was a "worthwhile endeavour", Schuster said that future decision makers should continue rather than negate the achievements of the current cabinet. "Cabinets come and go, but the people remain the same," he said.

Slovakia's one chance to join developed democracies depended on the September vote, Schuster said. "If we miss that chance now, the door to either Nato or the EU might remain closed for a long time."

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