BANKNOTES can sometimes say more about a society and what it stands for than merely what they are worth on any given day. Because these slips of fine paper can lose their value overnight: not only through crisis-induced devaluation; but sometimes literally, if they are replaced by new bills before being pulped and recycled.
Generations of Slovaks still remember the dark green 100 Czechoslovak-crown bill featuring an ideal proletarian couple, their eyes gazing hopefully into the distance, as grains burst forth on one side and the chimneys of a huge factory poured out their liberating fumes into the horizon on the other. The banknote was issued in 1962, and for some still recalls an entire weekend’s food bill, a pair of shoes for the kids or a pretty good Christmas present. The 500 Czechoslovak crown bill, with its rusty hue and portrayal of the partisans of the Slovak National Uprising, meant – in packs of eight – the monthly salaries for a whole generation.
Then there was the colourful blue-tinted bill featuring Czech composer Bedřich Smetana and lilies-of-the-valley surrounding the 1000 sign: a bill which represented significant wealth between 1985 and 1993, when the Czechoslovak federation split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
At that time saying goodbye to the bright green 100 Czechoslovak crown bill portraying Klement Gottwald, Czechoslovakia’s first - and perhaps nastiest - Communist Party leader, also meant farewell to a regime that collapsed with the Velvet Revolution.
Slovakia then got its own banknotes, more colourful ones: the rosy-hued hundred and cerulean fifty; the violet thousand and the muddy 500. What do they stand for? Perhaps a sentimental interpretation would suggest that these banknotes represent a long and painful economic transformation; massive layoffs at companies ruined by privatisers who acquired them overnight for their loyalty to a party or a leader; but also the first foreign investors to discover Slovakia on the maps. These banknotes also stand for the period when Slovakia was dubbed the country of flat-taxes, an investors’ paradise and a champion of reform.
On January 1, 2009, Slovakia’s territory will change its currency for the sixth time in less than a century, this time to the euro. State officials are busy releasing statements assuring everyone that the public is now up-to-speed on the process and mostly optimistic, and that among their biggest fears are that they will mix up the euro coins in their purses or will end up with too many of them.
Obviously, some of the importance of the switch to the euro and the potential excitement about it has been overshadowed by the financial crisis, a tsunami whose early waves are already lapping Slovakia. So whenever the country’s economy is pondered, assessed or worried about, it is mostly in association with the global crisis, whereas the adoption of the euro has not been given any of the leading roles.
Many had thought that 2009 would be the year of the euro in Slovakia and many now wish that it were so. However, it also will be a year when banks maintain their caution when offering loans and financially afflicted businesses will struggle to survive.
It will also be a year of vote-hunting: Slovakia will hold presidential elections; vote to elect the members it sends to the European Parliament; regional elections are scheduled for the fall; and then in 2010 Slovakia’s parliamentary elections are due to take place. In short, people had better get used to a lot of campaigning and propaganda: some plain and harmless, some wicked and unfair.
Some are also wondering what 2009 will bring for the government led by Robert Fico, who continues to enjoy 40-plus percent popularity, a level of support which no political scandal seems able to shake.
Fico’s sixth minister left the cabinet at the end of 2008. Jan Kubiš, the country’s foreign affairs minister, is exchanging his ministerial position for a prestigious United Nations job, surprising no one who thought that Kubiš was far too good a diplomat to have his career damaged by the thankless task of trying to finesse the effect of the Slovak National Party’s antics on Slovak-Hungarian relations.
This means that the Fico government will start 2009 with a new foreign affairs minister.
The media business is also anticipating a difficult year. Businesses have been reshaping their budgets, and considering more carefully how and where to advertise. News that previously strong daily newspapers in the United States will only be printed only once every two weeks, with more regular online updates, arrive from across the ocean, giving significant pause for thought to Slovak publishers.
Some say that the strongest publications, with good vision and professional journalism, will survive.
Time will show if these hopes are justified or merely textbook phrases reflecting how the media market should work in theory.
Nevertheless, Slovakia will experience all this with a new currency, which should at least connect Slovakia more closely to the place it belongs.