A year of crisis and scandal

SO THIS was the year of crisis? It was, but not that alone. 2009 was much more.

SO THIS was the year of crisis? It was, but not that alone. 2009 was much more.

It was the year when, in an unprecedented move, the president of a neighbouring country was requested not to step foot in Slovakia, and when extremists armed with hate talk marched into towns and villages to discipline the local Roma and offer their “solutions”. 2009 brought many more unwanted “gifts” to the country.

It was the year that Štefan Harabin ascended to the president’s chair of Slovakia’s Supreme Court from the post of justice minister, despite massive protests by political ethics watchdogs and the concern of many observers.

This was also was the year of “Five Sentences” a document that 105 judges signed in the hope that it might initiate a serious debate about the state of the judiciary in Slovakia. The petition came only shortly after a group of outspoken judges wrote an open letter to the country’s leading officials warning about the growing abuse of disciplinary proceedings against judges who had been critical of developments in the judiciary – and, in particular, of Harabin.

Yet the state of the judiciary, which has already evoked concern in diplomatic circles as well, won’t change with the arrival of the new year. But it could change following the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2010, if those result in a changed political atmosphere: one in which someone who carries Harabin’s political baggage was no longer allowed anywhere near the Justice Ministry or the Supreme Court.

2009 was also a year of outrageous tenders in which lavish deals ended up in the lap of companies close to the parties that make up the ruling coalition; tenders in which the creativity of political cronies entered the domain of the absurd. The fame of the bulletin-board tender dreamed up by the Slovak National Party (SNS)-controlled Construction Ministry, for example, crossed state borders and reached the ears of European Commission officials. The tender, worth €119 million, went to a consortium including two firms, Zamedia and Avocat, believed to be close to SNS boss Ján Slota. The piquant reason for the tender’s sobriquet is that the original announcement was posted on a bulletin board within the ministry building, in an area not normally accessible to the public.

The aftermath of the scandalous sale of Slovakia’s excess emissions quotas to a mysterious firm, Interblue Group, whose registered address was a lock-up garage, and the murky transfer of valuable land under the High Tatras to a company reportedly close to another coalition partner, HZDS boss Vladimír Mečiar, were among the “blessings” that 2009 brought to the long-suffering Slovak public. And these make up only a fragment of the host of deals and tenders that have evoked suspicion.

Instead of contrition, Prime Minister Robert Fico has decided attack is the best form of defence, and has stepped in to slam journalists for acting, he says, as his political opposition and for failing to report on the positive things his government has produced. This is where Fico appears to misunderstand completely the role of media. He seems not to understand that scandals are not just fleeting details which come and go, leaving no trace in the memory of those who are guarded by intellect rather than the instincts of the masses. These scandals overshadow most of what he calls the achievements of his government, which would in any case hardly make it onto the list of “memorable moments” of 2009.

And in 20 or 30 years time, people will hardly remember that in 2009 the Slovak prime minister had a meeting with some international leader, unless it was the president of a superpower, or that his government approved a one-time bonus for pensioners which was unlikely to improve their standard of living.

But they are likely to remember expressions like “hot air deal” and bulletin-board tender, and that politicians continued resorting to the Press Code though they had originally claimed it was passed for the benefit of the common people. They will remember the expression “Pilot Slota” which is how the media dubbed SNS boss Ján Slota after he enlivened 2009 with his lavish private jet flights financed by undisclosed means.

Behind the scandals, it was a year of real crisis for many people who lost their jobs and were pushed to the brink of existential uncertainty. These people can hardly be comforted by intellectual statements that downturns are a natural part of the economic cycle and will pass one day.

These are also the people who are betrayed by each euro that goes into the pockets of the cronies of those in power, but who far too often vote for them again and again.

The statement that people get the governments they deserve might hold some truth, but its validity is surely now, at end of 2009, in doubt. Hopefully, in 2010 Slovaks will get a government they truly deserve. Or perhaps one they don’t, but which serves them rather better all the same.

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