Cover ‘Slovakia 2007’ – Self-Fulfilling or Self Liquidating Prophecy?

For aesthetic reasons I prefer the elegancy of non-overcrowded covers of publications, therefore I confess that the folklore Jánošik motive of the Global Report 2006 cover didn’t inspire me that much. Although in the end it proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I saw the road roller filling the whole cover of the Global Report 2007 during the presentation, to me as a person who is not really sensitive to marketing, it appeared too half-heartedly realistic. But whereas IPP is here to speak to the widest interested public and form a public discourse, I accepted it as a means of how to effectively attract attention.

The reaction of Prime Minister Fico – after experiencing in 1995 the grumpy reaction of the then PM Mečiar in the form of a complaint due to my essay illustrated with a small picture of a shaky cart – nevertheless shocked me. Not that it irritated him, but because his contra productive personal belligerence which in the case of the prime minister of a democratic state doesn’t have an analogy. At the same time I acknowledge that the new publication couldn’t wish for better PR. Not only in terms of selling. I assume that the curiosity drawn from the caution of the boss of executive powers in Slovakia will also strengthen the readability of the Report in the era when although we publish and buy books we read them less and less. Eventually we read something, but in the faster tempo of work and living there isn’t time for any feedback. We need to start from ourselves and therefore I will try for one.

For those who have not had this thick, but then again rich in information, publication in their hands at least a summary characteristic of this year’s Report on the State of Society in Slovakia in the slightly adapted words of its editors M. Kollár, G. Mesežnikov and M. Bútora is needed. Their ambition, as well as that of the other 53 authors of the Global Report, was to diagnose in 23 chapters the current state of society. The Report is per standard divided into four thematic parts: Internal Politics, Foreign Politics, Economy and Society. The authors of the publication observe an evident deviation from the current prevailing trends and strategies, which came about in the year 2007 in various spheres of public life. They especially warn about the statism trend of the current government politics, its excessive technocratic trend, the revision of approach to reform, strengthening of centralistic elements, the paternalistic reasoning for the realized socio-economical measures, the change in the tone of foreign policy and the ethnicization of political and the wider public discourse. Paradoxically, the mentioned phenomena have been accompanied by the ongoing process of Slovakia’s growth into the integration structures of the united Europe, embodied by the accession to the Schengen Area in 2007 and preparations to adopt the Euro that wouldn’t be possible without the actual promising economical progress.

Like previously, this year’s report is also the work of a wide collective of authors who are invited to cooperate predominantly on the basis of their expertise in their specific field regardless of their personal political orientations. In addition, the editors deserve the praise that they always give the opportunity to less known authors and therefore the cooperation on this report is a sort of initiation into the professional community, which thanks to this cooperation is showing promising growth and rejuvenation. It creates a fruitful informal connection of people from various working environments – from independent institutes, think tanks and also from the academic institutions – as a basis for cooperation also on different projects.

Personally lacking the ability to patiently collect information and monitor everyday politics I know that for formulating generalized evaluations about Slovakia and its position in comparison with other countries there isn’t a more precious source of data in one thick publication, and soon to be available in a significantly thinner CD. What’s left is just to sigh that a similar report isn’t published in the other V4 countries.

A few ideas were inspired by reading selected chapters. I agree with the opinion of the editors that this report is a basis for creating a ‘deeper and integral view’ of political strategists, analysts and advisors. I particularly recommend to those analysts, who when approached by the media formulate at the speed of light the viewpoint on various questions about internal politics, to read with epistemic submission at least some of the chapters of the new Report to better understand the normative structure of the society or the layout of attitudes according to the socio-demographic characteristics, before they pass conclusions about current events or comment on the behavior (appearances) of the political actors (players).

Even though the holders of the executive and legislative powers have the largest responsibility for the outcome of the politics, the dominant topic in commentaries on the domestic politics in the media is the low voter support for the opposition parties, inefficiency of their functioning, defensiveness, passivity, etc.

Paradoxically, less attention is given to the question why the government coalition – to which the Global Report attributes a stronger root of ‘partocratic- clientelistic practices’ (p. 45) and reducing transparency in administrating the public finances- is still highly trusted by the voters. Explaining this support for the ruling coalition parties and mainly the strongest, the passivity of the opposition or its so called disunited (non-uniform) activity is only an expression of personal impressions and not an empirically based explanation. I also recommend to the authors the cliché about ‘decreasing preferences’ of opposition parties, to look at the table about trends of preferences (p. 254), and then to talk about it. By now, traditionally in a professionally elaborated(qualitatively processed) chapter about public opinion (Bútorová – Gyarfášová) I also draw to attention the findings that mostly captures the interest of the voters – in 2007 it was mainly the “realized or advised changes in health care with impact on the wallet of a patient” (p.243). While that which is on the agenda of the opposition parties- clientelism and nepotism, abuse of authority by the public servant interested only 2% of respondents.

What can the opposition do in a situation, when the global report 2007 in the chapter about economic development we read that in spite of an attempt by the current government to dismantle certain reform measures of the previous government in the sectors of taxes, health care or pension system, a more distinct disruption in the development of the economy didn’t occur, rather the positive tendencies from the years 2005 – 2006 strengthened (p. 398) and achieved “not only a strong but also healthy growth along with an acceptable rate of stability (falling deficit of the current account of the balance of payments, falling deficit of public finances, a drop in the inflation rate, regression of unemployment)” (416). Taking into consideration the measures which are connected with the final phase of preparations for the Euro in 2008, “a further moderate drop in the inflation rate is being anticipated and also a continuance of a significant growth of a real wage”. No other government, which Slovakia previously had, took over such a well launched (started) economy. In the time of creating auspicious conditions for economic development the persons involved in reforms became for most of the citizens untrustworthy and refused by the people who suffered from their social costs (directly bore the social weight). When social benefits (profits) came, again the majority cognitively or affectively cannot admit that it is the result of the so oft deprecated reforms and of those involved. It suggests a culturally propogated tendency not to forgive those who have caught us doing some unfair activity.

The overall growth of satisfaction with the direction that Slovakia is going and its economical development in 2007 shows that in the end the public accepts the results of the mainly rejected socio-economical reforms introduced by the previous government. Exactly 1% more of respondents accredit the economical success to the current PM (25/24%), Fico. In contrast to the ‘voice of the people’, the experts accredit the record fast GDP growth in Slovakia to the results of work by both Dzurinda governments, the first one contributed 20%, but mainly the contribution of the second was evaluated as 42%. The most significant measure accepted by the previous government was the tax reform (21%) and reformation of the labor market (10%). According to this research the contribution of the Robert Fico government to the current growth is 2%. The current management of Slovak entry to the Euro zone has a positive influence (3%), on the other hand the government slowed down the growth of the economy by regulating the tax reform, canceling fees in the health service and has made businessmen unsure (-1%)). So the merits of Fico are mostly in the fact that up till now he has not realized all the radical steps which he promised to his voters and which eventually won him the elections. I have to admit that not fulfilling the promises is, in this case, the better alternative for this country. What can the opposition politicians really do in such a favorable economic situation? If they want to compete with the government parties in courting voter preferences, it is worthwhile to look at neighboring Hungary where such a search for votes had led the country into economical stagnation and a high dissatisfaction among those voters who the politicians from both left and right had continuously courted. Again, the voters do not like to hear about any attempts to prevent damage to this favorable environment, pointing to harmful medium-term outcomes. However, this won’t surprise specialists who do not share the myth of the rational Voter.

Certainly there are issues (topics) where points can be scored – lagging in law enforcement and the bad state of the judiciary or the still high level of corruption. Empirical findings also prove that the voters of the opposition parties are much more sensitive towards these issues than the voters of the coalition parties. But the problems with the judiciary and legally consistent state are considered the most serious by only 6% of respondents (p. 241). Although, the authors of this Report together with international rating institutions consider it as the most problematic issue in Slovakia.

What interested me after reading the chapter about the legal state was the more general problem of how to judge the condition of a legal state and the trends prevalent in its development. After the preliminary claims of the authors that the second year of the ruling coalition Smer-SD, SNS and ĽS – HZDS “has been noticeable for the obvious distancing from the principles of a legal state” and the weakening of legal certainties and the populations confidence in the law; the analysis of the development in the field of the legal state is summarized by the words that “the foundations of the legal state, due to the consequences of the policies carried out by the governing coalition, began to shake” (p. 141) with respect to the attempt to enforce a ‘suppressive press law’ which after all predicts a ‘stiffening up of the dispute about the essence and protection of a democratic legal state’. If we compare this evaluation with recent years – a problem arises of how to ‘measure’ the situation let’s say, the last whole year of the Dzurinda’s government in 2005, with this last year. The situation was then evaluated very critically – for example M. Kollár in reaction to Fico’s affective attack stated as evidence (verification) of the same meter used by the Global Report authors on all executives. “In power-political science the legal state becomes an annoying empty phrase, in law making the infirmities of improvisation have become deep rooted and the judiciary, in spite of all the effort, remains rather one of the challenges for further progress rather than a display cabinet for the country. A well known sentence says that after a battle scars are always decoration. A lot of the scars that will be left behind on the face of the public sector by the acts of the present garniture could possibly be viewed as decoration perhaps only by Machiavelli. This power will surely not perish of beauty despite choosing whatever make-up in the last year of this electoral term.”

I agree – it is evidence of criticism against all executive bodies, no matter of their left-right profile (coloration). But that ‘same meter’ remains questionable. What is concerned here is a broader problem about the phenomenon being scaleable, not easy to be quantified and by reading out of context ‘apples and pears’ are sometimes compared. Nevertheless I still think that a less metaphoric language would prosper for a more objective judgment of trends in the legal state field. A good example to follow in this case is the effort to move the corruption rate appraisal from measuring the index of corruption perception to the transparency index of public orders and index of political patronage, which are worked out on the basis of ‘hard’ data in the chapter Transparency and Corruption, (Sičáková- Beblavá). To conclude I want to underline that also other parts of the Report deserve attention, the reason why it did not happen is the necessity of selection. Its optics is given subjectively – by my scholarly interests. It doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of anything not mentioned, notwithstanding for monitoring the development of society and politics of meaningful chapters.

Finally, coming back (returning by way of a curve) to the theme of the cover, I can imagine that a sound self-confident man in the seat of prime minister could respond to the cover that made him angry and also respond creatively: “Just wait and see ‘IPA guys’, this time that ‘roller’ will only be a case of self-liquidating prediction and you will fill next year’s cover with Slovak inhabitants happily waving Euros in their hands!” Unrealistic to expect something like this from the mentioned politician? Why cannot also social scientists sometimes dream that a powerful political actor (player) will ‘wittingly’ defeat their prediction?

Review: Prof. Soňa Szomolányi: M. Kollár, G.Mesežnikov, M. Bútora (eds). Slovensko 2007 –  Súhrnná správa o stave spoločnosti. (Bratislava: Institute for Public Affairs, 2008), In: International Issues & Slovak Foreign Policy Affairs Vol. XVII, No. 1/2008.

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