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The president’s speech

ONCE or twice a year, a head of state is expected to address the nation, ideally to provide vision, some sort of guidance, or even inspiration. Without doubt, only a head of state regarded as having moral authority can make history through a single speech. Slovak President Ivan Gašparovič will never make history with one of his speeches and most of the nation knows it by now.

ONCE or twice a year, a head of state is expected to address the nation, ideally to provide vision, some sort of guidance, or even inspiration. Without doubt, only a head of state regarded as having moral authority can make history through a single speech. Slovak President Ivan Gašparovič will never make history with one of his speeches and most of the nation knows it by now.

Slovakia’s head of state has contributed exceedingly well to turning political speeches into a formal act that serves as an empty gesture served up to the citizens. Certainly not every politician can be a deep thinker or philosopher and one could hardly expect Gašparovič to match the intensity of thought of Czechoslovak president Václav Havel, who passed away on December 18.

When asked to comment on Gašparovič’s New Year’s address, several political analysts said the speech lacked vision and offered few ideas. Political scientist Miroslav Kusý even commented that Gašparovič would have surprised Slovaks only if he had said something meaningful.

The president’s speeches have in the past been described as boring, as he had a tendency to avoid speaking about important political issues during the era of former prime minister Robert Fico.

Even if Gašparovič were to hire a new speech writer and deliver an address full of literary gems, he would still remind many people of Slovakia’s acute lack of statesmen who have maintained their personal integrity and are in a position to offer citizens a vision for the future.

Right now, with the country in the throes of another affair that has prompted suspicions of widespread political corruption, Slovakia is in urgent need of politicians with a moral compass, who might passionately address the nation, drawing on their own integrity to back up their words. When citizens face the prospect of tightening their own belts further and must then digest the news that more than two decades after the fall of the communist regime those in power can still easily abuse the intelligence services for their own political agenda, then either futility sets in or a tinderbox is ignited.

“I understand that a significant number of citizens have stopped trusting politicians and the political system and think that we are not taking the right direction,” Gašparovič stated. “Experienced observers also say that the distrust emerged because of disagreement between political forces in particular European countries. This is why I am stressing the constitutional and moral duty of politicians that they must care about the success of society and not about whether their political opinions are correct.”

Gašparovič added that life today calls for partisan interests to be replaced by national interests and even in Slovakia’s situation, with the interests of the EU.

One cannot fundamentally disagree that partisan interests need to be put aside. The problem is whether this sounds authentic coming from a man who has always owed his political success to supporters, opponents or other political figures that needed him to do a “particular job”.

While Gašparovič has often declared he wears a non-partisan emblem on his sleeve, a video recording published by the SITA newswire in which Gašparovič was speaking at a Smer party meeting in Košice in 2009 clearly revealed his affection for that particular party.

It is also only thanks to the Slovak habit of letting bygones be bygones in the political arena that too many citizens forget that Slovakia’s president was a staunch ally of Vladimír Mečiar, the three-time prime minister who in the 1990s pushed the country to the verge of international isolation. Gašparovič for years defended the indefensible policies of Mečiar and would have continued doing so had he not lost Mečiar's confidence and, in 2002, been removed from his senior position on the party’s candidate list.

To be fair to Gašparovič it would be nearly impossible for him to make history with a presidential speech while carrying such historical baggage and the truth is that few Slovaks expect him to do so.

But there is a president who did live his life in truth, offered a vision and raised his voice even when most other people were only whispering, fearing retribution from the totalitarian regime. For some time he was also Slovakia’s head of state: President Havel. His death reminded the world once again how deeply people need moral compasses – and words that do not ring hollow.


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