SLOVAK WORD OF THE WEEK

Byt

FOR A foreigner, learning the difference between “byt” (an apartment) and “byť” (to be) can be just as difficult as it is for Slovak politicians to grasp that getting a nearly free apartment from your buddies at town hall can threaten your political being.

FOR A foreigner, learning the difference between “byt” (an apartment) and “byť” (to be) can be just as difficult as it is for Slovak politicians to grasp that getting a nearly free apartment from your buddies at town hall can threaten your political being.

The news that KDH boss and transportation minister Ján Figeľ received a flat in Bratislava’s Old Town for less than €2,000 and that dozens of other public figures have enjoyed a similar advantage since the early 1990s shows two important things about Slovakia.

First, it is another proof of how badly socialism corrupted society. Decades spent in an environment with no free market, with little regard for private property, and full of heavy state oppression means that as soon as the oppressed get to power, they find it fair to compensate those from their own ranks. Local politics in Bratislava, which since the fall of communism have been controlled by the right, offer innumerable examples.

Moreover, society faced the impossible task of transferring property back into private hands: original owners were impossible to find, wealth created under state rule had never even been owned by anyone else, there was no private banking sector to finance the transition.

If you didn’t plan to sell everything to foreign private capital, there was really just one option – you gave stuff away. And throughout the transformation period, much was indeed given away – not only flats but entire factories.

Given the ethical norms of the 1990s, today’s problems of Figeľ & Co. were almost impossible to anticipate. Someone eventually had to get that piece of real estate – so why not me?

The other thing the scandal shows is that it’s still impossible to apply Western ethical standards to Slovak politics – because if someone tried, hardly anyone would be left to run the country.

The fact that there are hardly any more factories and flats to hand out gives some hope. But then again, state procurement and EU funds may breed a new generation of politicians whose main motivation for being in public life is a nice new “byt” in the centre of Bratislava.


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