THE TREES go down in Zvolen as a civic petition flaps in the breeze.
As the years have passed, however, those gentle hills have been going bald as trees are logged in huge swathes that city officials describe as 'sustainable forestry'.
Every developing country faces tough choices between protecting the environment and affording people a living. As sick as it may make you feel to watch centuries-old trees cut down for lumber, few of us are ever asked to choose between trees and our own livelihoods, and thus are rarely forced to test our environmental opinions.
Often, however, these difficult questions are made more complicated by corruption and bureaucratic arrogance. In high-unemployment Slovakia, for example, you can understand pressure to log forests given the 18 per cent jobless rate. On the other hand, how much of the yield from those forests goes into the pockets of ordinary people, and how much to the companies that obtain the permits and the bureaucrats who issue them?
But this isn't just about logging in huge nature reserves such as the High Tatras, Low Tatras and Poloniny national parks. In central Slovakia's Zvolen this past week, the city council pushed ahead with plans to cut down 64 trees to make way for a refurbished town square. The Zvolen square, which is the second largest in central Europe, is to be cobbled and prettified in the manner of many other late-1990s makeovers of Slovak public gathering places. That, apparently, requires removing trees that have been growing there for 150 years.
The town council skirted the land-use law by declaring to district planners they were changing only the appearance, rather than the function, of the land, which allegedly does not require as long an approval process or public input. Having done that, the council also ignored a petition signed by over 7,000 people protesting the cuts, and authorised police on October 18 to remove activists protecting the trees by force.
Regardless of who wins the court case the activists have promised (the trees will be long gone either way), the behaviour of the Zvolen council reminds us all that state paternalism is alive and well in Slovakia. Compare the Zvolen decision to that of bureaucrats in a small central Slovak village several years ago, who fined a group of citizens for cleaning up an abandoned quarry and turning it into a summer picnic place - the citizens, the bureaucrats maintained, had altered the function of the land without permission.
One of the things people expect from the new Slovak government is true leadership. No more shilly-shallying on whether the US is right to be so aggressive towards Iraq, trying to please both the EU and Nato by saying nothing. No more mewing that reform is impossible because half the government doesn't want it. Instead, the second Dzurinda cabinet is expected to define the nation's longer-term priorities and tell people how they will be achieved.
One of those priorities is surely protecting Slovakia's natural beauty from logging companies and tree poachers. The law on nature preservation approved this year makes clear-cut logging in natural parks illegal, but given that for almost a decade of this country's life such logging was thought to help "renew" the country's oldest forests, one can see that state environmental policy needs a rethink.
This rethink has to involve Slovak citizens, not just bureaucrats under pressure to accede to business demands. Decisions such as that taken by the Zvolen city insult voters and stir public anger; larger decisions not taken about protecting 400-year-old stands of pine and spruce cause physical damage that can never be repaired.