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EDITORIAL

Nothing is lost, much is to gain

LOOKING at the big picture, the year 2003 has been a success for Slovakia and, although there is good reason to be concerned about what 2004 will bring, it may also turn out to be a pleasant surprise.
Slovaks have hoped for entry into NATO and the EU for years. They offer not only the prospect of economic benefits, but have an important impact on the nation's morale.
After decades of communist oppression, after years of isolation caused in great part by its own authoritarian leadership, Slovakia has a chance to become a part of the much-admired and prosperous Western world.

LOOKING at the big picture, the year 2003 has been a success for Slovakia and, although there is good reason to be concerned about what 2004 will bring, it may also turn out to be a pleasant surprise.

Slovaks have hoped for entry into NATO and the EU for years. They offer not only the prospect of economic benefits, but have an important impact on the nation's morale.

After decades of communist oppression, after years of isolation caused in great part by its own authoritarian leadership, Slovakia has a chance to become a part of the much-admired and prosperous Western world. And what's more, it will enter this world as an equal, one who can have a role in its future.

After the parliamentary elections in the autumn of 2002 brought to power a pro-democratic and pro-Western coalition of parties, Slovakia's entry into both NATO and the EU were approved by representatives and members of these institutions.

In 2003 the country had to take the final step, one which many underestimated: approve entry.

Given the enormous support for EU entry, it appeared the obligatory referendum would be a mere formality. Content with opinion poll results which constantly showed solid backing of the country's accession, the government failed to come up with any real referendum campaign. In the end, just over 50 percent, the minimum requirement for making a public vote valid, participated and voted overwhelmingly in favour of entry. Slovakia passed the test.

Although recent developments within the union - including France's and Germany's violation of the economic stability pact and the failure of members to agree on a constitutional agreement - show that it has many problems of its own, these problems will hardly be remembered by history. And the joint effort of as many as 25 European countries to work together for a better future, which will become a fact in 2004, definitely will.

Activists also called for a referendum on Slovakia's entry into NATO. In light of the military conflict in the Middle East, the ruling coalition wisely opposed a public vote, which led pro-referendum groups to collect signatures for a petition asking President Rudolf Schuster to call such a vote. Weeks later, the parliament approved NATO entry and representatives of the petition initiative had to admit that they failed in getting enough signatures. This test, too, Slovakia passed.

The coalition of right-wing and centre parties that formed after the general vote promised to reform the tax, health care, social, and education systems, among others, and it has done much to meet its promise.

One example is the introduction of a flat tax rate, which will come into effect as of January 2004, and which has boosted Slovakia's image as a highly attractive investment destination.

It is true that the opposition, which has joined forces with the labour unions, is pushing hard for early elections, in which populist opposition leader Robert Fico, according to most polls, would be the clear winner.

It is also true that it is hard to anticipate just what would happen if Fico gained power. At its recent summit, his Smer party adopted a hard anti-reform policy, pledging to undo all of what it calls the current coalition's "socially damaging" reforms if it gets into government.

However, it is highly unlikely that early elections will materialize. Although the current coalition does have its very large share of internal problems, none of its members would benefit from any elections held any time soon.

It is therefore very probable that ruling politicians will continue to look for compromises and hope that once the positive effects of today's reform are reflected in people's everyday lives, voters will be merciful. For that to happen, the coalition will certainly need all of its remaining three years - when regular elections are scheduled to take place.

Even if the opposition persuades President Schuster to call a referendum on early elections and that referendum is successful, which is not too likely, the coalition could still use legal loopholes to avoid it. And if its representatives want to avoid political suicide, they will do just that.

There is therefore little reason to believe that the already passed reforms - expected to improve the quality of public services, increase living standards, and attract further investment - are under any real threat.

Admittedly, throughout 2003 there have been some high-profile problems. The intelligence service has been involved in too many scandals - including the phone-tapping of state officials and independent media - some allegedly independent journalists have turned out to be spies, the PM has made wild accusations about mysterious interest groups tied to state officials fighting for power in the country, and he has in turn been accused of being involved with a similar group himself.

But these problems are in no way new. They are only new to the public's eye. The fact that these problems have now surfaced and the people's outrage at the intertwining of business, politics, and intelligence services may have set the stage for a true shift in the way public affairs are run in Slovakia.

As in so many other fields, the year 2003 provided an opportunity. The year 2004 will show whether Slovakia can take advantage of it.

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