A great day for Slovakia

IT HAS been a turbulent 60 years for the generation born after World War II in the former Czechoslovakia. This generation grew up being told that a flourishing socialist future was under construction and that one day capitalism would be defeated.

IT HAS been a turbulent 60 years for the generation born after World War II in the former Czechoslovakia. This generation grew up being told that a flourishing socialist future was under construction and that one day capitalism would be defeated.

In the late 1960s many began wondering when - or even if - that day would arrive, and ended up hoping that Czechoslovakia might just open up to the west instead. But in 1968, after the armies of the Warsaw Pact had invaded - in order to encourage people's thoughts to return to that glorious socialist future - the communists' grip on the country's neck became tighter. The post-war generation, in their twenties at the time of the Prague Spring, saw their dreams flattened by the iron hand of socialist 'normalisation.'

When a different kind of 'normalisation' finally arrived with the fall of the communist regime in 1989, most of them, now in their forties, had a decade or more to go until they expected to retire. But many found themselves jobless rather sooner, carrying not just the handicap of Communist party membership and delusion but also the burden of unemployment.

By the time Slovakia entered the European Union in 2004, people of this generation were close to retirement. And when Slovakia was given a pass to the Schengen zone many of them were already there, some unable to fully comprehend what the disappearance of the once-jealously guarded borders actually meant for the post-communist nations. Children had long since become impatient with parents who kept dwelling on the upsides of the old regime, when bread and beer were cheaper and even criminals had jobs.

It is this generation which is probably the most apprehensive at the news that next year they will no longer have to deal with Slovak crowns, but with euros instead.

Celebrating the European Commission's green light for Slovakia's entry to the eurozone in January 2009, Prime Minister Robert Fico said on May 7 that people should not worry about the new currency, but rather see it as a huge chance for every single citizen.

Without doubt, adoption of the euro is, along with its entry into the European Union and the Schengen zone, one of the most significant projects that Slovakia has embarked on as part of its decade-long effort to reclaim a place in the European family.

But the concerns of people about the adoption of the single currency have significantly increased, with 56 percent of those surveyed now expecting disadvantages rather than advantages, according to a poll by the Slovak Statistics Office's Opinion Poll Research Institute.

And the older the respondent, the greater the fear. The poll suggests that 37 percent of those aged between 13 and 24 expect disadvantages as a result of euro-adoption. However, this number climbs to 70 percent for people older than 60. People with elementary education also tend to worry more than university graduates, the poll suggests.

The state now faces the task of explaining to these people why the euro is not a reason for fear.
The cabinet has approved a set of measures to eliminate the risk of speculative increases in the prices of goods and services during the run-up to euro adoption and the post-switchover period. The government claims that the adoption of the euro itself does not present any valid economic reason to raise prices.

In fact, it might be the present supporters of Robert Fico and his government who end up being hit hardest by the impact of euro membership. And it is likely that Fico will have to pay for a tougher post-euro climate with his popularity, now at an impressive 34 percent.

The prime minister couldn't help but indulge in a little politicking in his comments on May 7. Needless to say, he was silent on the foundations laid by the previous government of Mikuláš Dzurinda, whose economic policies certainly helped pave the way to the euro. Instead, he dwelt on the visions of catastrophe laid out in 2006 as the likely consequence of failure, helping to create the impression that he had taken command of an economy on the brink.

Paying some credit to his predecessor would have been diplomatic, even statesmanlike. Instead he interpreted the European Commission's verdict on the economy as an expression of trust in his own government, a typically wilful misreading of the facts which he knew the Commission would not correct.

Regardless of the political implications, May 7 is a great day for Slovakia, even if it was not enhanced much by the statements of Slovakia's leaders; all the greater, perhaps, because the country's economic destiny will soon be less dependent on exactly such statements.
Yet many Slovaks will have cause to reminisce as they give up their banknotes: the verdant Sk20 bill, with its image of Prince Pribina; the violet Sk1,000 bill, with Andrej Hlinka's stern gaze staring out; and the golden (and, for most of us, depressingly scarce) Sk5,000 note, featuring Štefánik's noble lines. But such reminiscences are unlikely to last for long. After all, who now, among that postwar generation, agonises over the loss of the Czechoslovak notes that they used for so many decades?

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