Vol 1, No 7, 9 August 1999
S L O V A K I A:|
The Cost of Joining the Club
Slovakia's potential EU membership has its price
Michael J Kopanic, Jr, PhD
Ever since Mikulas Dzurinda assumed the office of Prime Minister of Slovakia in the autumn of 1998, visions of European Union membership have been dancing in his head. One of the first acts of the new government was to stress its interest in joining the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) defensive alliance. It also made an immediate effort to try to mend the fences with its Visegrad neighbors which the Meciar government had strained.
While the previous Meciar government had claimed it also wished to join the EU and NATO, its actions spoke louder than its shallow words. Domestically, it had used the law to stifle its opponents to the fullest extent possible. It denied one deputy, Frantisek Gauleiter, his seat in parliament after he left Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS). On the other hand, it offered political allies major chunks of stock in Slovak companies that were privatized at bargain basement prices.
Although a free press existed in Slovakia, public funding and the state support of publicly owned Slovak Television (STV) blatantly favored the parties in power. The Interior Ministry squashed an attempt to submit a referendum on direct presidential elections and approval for joining NATO. After President Michael Kovac's term of office expired in March 1998, Meciar and the former parliament refused to compromise on a candidate to fill the office. Meciar's subsequent assumption of many presidential duties did not sit well with the West.
On the diplomatic scene, Slovakia had courted Moscow more than NATO and EU. Even though trade was mainly flowing westward, the government attempted to negotiate a greater share of business and military contacts with Russia. Meciar even had kind words to say about Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic and had personally invited him to Slovakia for a hunting jaunt.
A new start
In order to drive home the point that post-Mecairist Slovakia meant what it said, Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan and the foreign ministry went on a diplomatic marathon in the months following election, scheduling numerous meeting with neighboring states, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and top EU and NATO officials. When NATO sought cooperation to use Slovakia's airspace for its Kosovo mission, Dzurinda's government jumped at the chance to show his loyalty to the Western alliance despite the fact that three-quarters of Slovakia's citizens looked with askance at the bombing of Serbia.
The new government also moved to strengthen democratic institutions. It restored a measure of objectivity in the state-run media, de-politicized the judicial system, and has sought to revoke what it deemed unfair and illegal privatizations. Early in 1999, parliament passed a law for the direct election of the president, and Slovakia's citizens chose Rudolf Schuster to be their new chief executive this past May.
While stumbling blocks remain, it appears that Slovakia has taken the first steps towards approaching that lofty goal of EU membership. Over the last nine months, Slovakia has come a long way toward meeting the minimum criteria necessary for joining the first round of contestants being considered for the exclusive club. But it still needs to adapt many of its laws to EU norms, so that they will work in practical everyday circumstances (See the English-language Slovak weekly The Slovak Spectator, 8-14 March 1999).
The minorities' language law was a prime example of progress in this direction. On 9 July, Slovakia's parliament approved a new minorities' language law. Shortly after its passage, the European Commission (EC) expressed its general seal of approval. It opted not to comment on the specific content of the law and said it would reserve that for EC specialists to study in future months (See CTK, 12 July 1999).
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) also responded positively to the minorities' language law. The OSCE High Commissioner, Max van der Stoel, greeted it as a sign that the Slovak government was willing to harmonize its laws with European-wide standards (CTK, 19 July 1999).
However, the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) refused to support the law because it did not incorporate any of their proposals. Although the law met European standards for the official use of minority languages where the populations amount to 20 percent, the Hungarian ethnic minority wanted more far-reaching political and cultural statutes. The Hungarian government also expressed its disapproval and stated that the law did not observe the Hungarian-Slovak state treaty. The recent exodus of Roma from Slovakia who were seeking asylum in Finland also points to other issues that the minorities
An angry opposition
While aiming to please the EU, the Dzurinda cabinet also had to keep in mind that the more nationalist opposition would play up the issue to make the law look like a sell-out to the Hungarians. On 28 July, the opposition parties submitted a petition with 446,823 signatures asking for a referendum against the official use of minority languages and against the privatization of strategic companies (CTK, 28 July 1999).
The opposition is also making political capital out of the perception that the Dzurinda government is pursuing EU and NATO's interests rather than those of Slovakia. And the message is hitting home. A recent public opinion poll showed that Meciar's HZDS commands a 28.7% following among the population. Dzurinda's Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK) has seen its approval rating fall to 19.6 percent, or nearly eight percentage points lower than its 1998 election total. The right-wing, nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS) has reaped the greatest gain. Its support rose to 12.4% - around double its 1998 election tally (See TASR, 21 July 1999). If nothing else, this should serve as a wake-up call to the current government coalition.
Rather than seeking cooperation with the opposition, the cabinet has aggressively gone after leaders from the former government such as former secret service chief, Ivan Lexa. There has been no real attempt to work constructively with the opposition, and this bodes ill for the future of democracy. For democracy to work, compromise among all major parties is essential. Parliamentary committees need representation from all parties and deals need to made that are acceptable to all parties. Otherwise, Dzurinda's crowd may find itself relegated to the backstage if it loses the next parliamentary elections.
Slovakia's chances of getting into first-round EU negotiations appear to be better after the Kosovo crisis, according to EU ambassador to Slovakia, Walter Rochel. But even though Slovakia was fulfilling the political criteria, it also needed to put its economic house in order, and that is no easy task.
Joining the EU club will not occur without pain. Opening Slovakia's markets to tariff-free goods will no doubt introduce new competition and hurt some domestic Slovak companies. It will force them to become mean, lean, and efficient. On the other hand, the prospect of joining the EU offers Slovakia the advantage of lucrative export markets. Since the Slovak crown has plunged nearly fifty percent since the 1998 elections, Slovak goods are more competitively priced in the global markets.
The Slovak economy has been on a backslide since 1998. In fact, the economic downturn partially explains why Meciar's coalition failed to be re-elected last September. While the Dzurinda government is not hesitating to try to put Slovakia's economic house in order, it is also reaping the painful consequences of economic restructuring.
In its report on the Slovak Republic for 1998-99, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) had warned that even with economic reform, Slovakia would face a decline in economic growth, a steady rise in inflationary pressures, and an increase in unemployment. OECD experts projected that Slovak economic growth would slow from the 6% of the past few years to about 2%. The currency and real wages would drop due to several years of deficit spending and the impending economic slowdown (See The Slovak Spectator, 12-18 April 1999).
The predictions are already coming true. Unemployment in Slovakia has reached its highest level since the Velvet Revolution and has been inching up nearly every month. By the end of June 1999, the unemployment rate (which is based on those available to go to work) reached 17.68%. In reality, the total unemployment rate was as high as 18.63%. The number of unemployed has soared by 121,000 since this time last year. The National Employment Agency in Slovakia projects an unemployment rate to get as high as 20% by the end of the year.
To be fair, much of the economic mess was inherited from the previous government's term of office. The Slovak Finance Ministry released a Black Paper which showed that the deficit climbed from over a billion US dollars in 1997 to about 1.8 billion in 1998. A fiscal policy of deficit spending has made the belt tightening that much more painful (Slovak Monthly Report, February 1999).
The challenge for the current government is to convince the citizens of Slovakia that the present-day sacrifices are worth the price. That is no easy task. The people in Slovakia have become increasingly cynical about politicians and their promises. They have been deceived too often over the course of their history. In Slovakia, there exists a lacuna of leadership which is competent and can relate to the electorate. What is needed is an outstanding and charismatic leader with appeal at both the domestic grassroots level and the international arena of foreign governments, the EU and NATO. Unless someone comfortably fills those shoes, Slovak politics will be in turmoil, and EU membership itself will be at risk.Michael J Kopanic, Jr, PhD, 9 August 1999
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