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>Slovakia and Argentina: the East becoming the South – or the North?


Slovak daily Sme discusses the parallels between Argentina, Iceland and Slovakia as small vulnerable economies and, specifically, the state taking control of the second pillar of a reformed pension system (compulsory individual savings). The global financial crisis is of course in a sense, good news for politicians with genuine etatist leanings such as Robert Fico, for whom the three pillar pension system left by radically reforming predecessor governing has become a real battleground.

>Slovakia: Greens to take new direction?


Slovak right-leaning/liberal daily Smer reports on the difficult relationship with Slovakia’s Green Party. While the Greens in the neighbouring Czech Republic are a key part of a centre-right coalition and relations with the opposition Social Democrats are pretty icy, Slovak Greens, more conventionally, have signed a co-operation agreement with Robert Fico’s governing centre-left Smer (‘Direction’) party. (Having flopped in the early 1990s – as happened in so much of CEE – the Slovak Greens were previously part of the not too successful centre-left e coalition with post-communists and social democrats before Smer came crashing onto the political scene, so there is a of precedent ). However, Prime Minister Fico’s criticisms of radical environmental protesters in the Tatra national park have not endeared him to his new allies in the small extra-parliamentary Green Party and raised doubts about the supposed ‘greening’ of Smer, a party better known for its nationalist and populist inclinations than its post-materialist concerns.

The Greens have also laid into the government’s motorway building plans and are none too keen on the current Minister of the Environment, Ján Chrbet, a member of the radical Slovak National Party (SNS) and his ‘populist’ allocation of EU environmental funds. Commentators quoted by the right-leaning Smer dismiss the party’s ‘greening’ as a superficial exercise designed to boost its social democratic credentials in the eyes of West European partners. Given the Slovak Greens’ dissatisfaction and reasonably good 2.7% rating in recent polls, it looks like they may be tempted to go elsewhere and perhaps try their luck as Czech style eco-liberal party.

>Of parties, populism and partocracy


Slovak political scientist Miroslav Kusý writes a commentary about ‘partocracy’ in Slovakia in the liberal daily Sme. This theme, once a favourite uniting ex-dissidents, liberals and anti-political populists with a more rough hewn character, has receded from academic and intellectual debate in the past few years in favour of a slightly different take on the problem of (supposedly) defective and sub-standard democracy in CEE: populism a.k.a. ‘the populist backlash’.

Kusý’s definition of ‘partocracy’ is a fairly straightforward one: party government carried out for not the people but for parties- i.e. parties failing in their tasks of representing and aggregating the popular will (or some portion of it). A principal-agent problem, as we call it in the trade. Then, however, we descend into partisanship. The current coalition led by Robert Fico’s populist-cum-social democrat party Smer Kusý says is an example of partocracy because it lacks ideologically common position with its smaller nationalist coalition allies and is united with them by a thirst for office, as (supposedly) proved by various scandals.

Kusy also cites a recent article in the Czech intellectual weekly Literární noviny by Czech political scientist and ex-Havel advisor Jiří Pehe who regrets that parties have given up on ‘their traditional role of forces in society’ (and, yes, the language original Czech really does have that odd echo of the Communist Party’s ‘leading role’) but are instead (shock horror!) reacting to public opinion ‘to appeal to the largest possible number of people’. (Pehe’s piece is a rather dull piece retreading the Czech ‘party versus civil society’ Klaus-Havel debate of the 1990s, arguing that social modernization makes parties less necessary and a political role for NGOs, citizens and intellectuals more necessary).

Kusý himself laments the ‘vulgar vocabulary, party polemics instead of civilized dialogue, and insults instead of substantive argument’. Alas, as argument about democracy or explanation of developments in either contemporary Slovak (or Czech) politics none of this really washes. It’s hard to think of any concept of party competition by big parties that doesn’t involve appealing to large numbers of voters or many established democracies, where party political communication takes place at the level of an academic seminar without a dose of knockabout polemics. Pehe’s assertion that Western political parties have opened themselves up to civil society seems fairly questionable- who can he have in mind? Possibly Greens in a very early stage of development? And political polarization – contrary to what he seems to think – as often or not tends to increase political participation and the increase in turnout at the last Czech elections showed.

The argument in Sme about ‘partocracy’ is also pretty lame. Ad hoc, unprincipled coalitions do not add up to ‘partocracy’. The term was widely applied to clientelistic party systems with an element of cosy consensus between governing parties say as those of post-war Italy or Austria, but has an intellectual heritage going back the early 20th century. In a CEE context one of thinks of critiques of interwar Czechoslovak democracy, both in 1920s and 30s and in more exaggerated form after 1945 (Evard Beneš’s Democracy Today and Tomorrow – Beneš being one of the few political scientists ever to become head of state. He wrote a thesis about political parties in 1913. Woodrow Wilson comes to mind as another President-politolog). Havel’s writings both as dissident and President take up this tradition: his elegantly written fulmination against party government in his 1991 set of essays Summer Meditations, although not unprescient, was striking for the fact that it came when Czech parties had barely formed.

As conventionally used ‘partocracy’ refers not just to a vaguely defined lack of principle in coalition-making but to politicization of the state and/or party penetration of civil society by client-patron networks and a failure of representation. Both (especially the first) are problems in contemporary CEE, but the Sme article entirely bypasses these issues. More to the point, however, love it or hate, Fico’s rationale for forming a coalition with nationalist parties does have a pretty clear programmatic logic: the nationalist HZDS and SNS did after all his more statist (ahem, ‘social-democratic’) economic policies. A pragmatic power seeking logic of the kind the Kusý piece envisages probably would have led to the politically less costly option of a coalition of Smer with some outgoing parties of the right or centre. As for a failure of representation, Smer’s high opinion poll ratings suggests that such principal-agent problems are not bugging the median Slovak voter, whom seems to feel represented rather well.

All in the all, the problem seems to be that Slovak liberal commentators don’t like Smer and their Czech equivalents dislike both major parties of left and right. I think I share these dislikes, But they would probably do well to set out why, rather than dressing things up as a unique crisis of post-communist democracy complete with ill fitting notions of ‘partocracy’.

>Slovakia 15 Years On – or how we learned to stop worrying and love populism


Somehow without quite realising I agreed to co-organise a one day conference at SSEES on Slovakia 15 Years On. However, with the help of the British Czech and Slovak Association, the Slovak Embassy and colleagues from SSEES and elsewhere, this turns out to be a whole lot less onerous that I had feared and on the day the event itself both interesting and successful and we are even lucky enough to get a keynote address from the current Slovak Ambassador to the UK, Juraj Zervan.
The ambassador, suffering (like me) from hay fever, reviews Slovakia’s development as a small Central European nation bringing it up to date with a discussion of the current ‘dynamic and stable’ government, which he says is building upon earlier reforms while developing a less passive foreign policy than the previous government and not losing sight of the social side of economic development. My scribbled notes also say that he stressed the importance of using state monopolies to forward the development of the economy, but it is not clear (at least from my notes whether this means using existing state holdings, or actively developing them.

Over lunch I hear less sanguine views about the current government from others: it has no real interest in foreign policy and is mainly interested consolidating its domestic position (very successfully so far) in controlling the finances of ministries and doing advantageous deals with the Russians over gas without much of an eye to longer term energy security. On the other hand, Tomáš Valášek of the Centre for European Reform reminds us the afternoon session, Slovakia has an excellent corps of EU-minded diplomats and previous Slovak governments’ focus in democracy promotion in SE Europe (while successful) overlooked the question of Ukraine, whose future Slovakia a more direct interest in as far as its own security is concerned.

The rest of the politics session centres on the question of populism in Slovak politics. As Tim Haughton notes, this is less related to the EU, whose influence on domestic politics is somewhat tangential and ad hoc than the general trend of democratic politics across Europe to ‘go populist’. As Kevin Deegan-Krause explains in a presentation that is theoretical, accessible and witty, populists appeal tend to move around the political landscape depending on who is in power (and part of the establishment) and who is not and can use various bits of kit from the toolbox of populists appeals (there are many). Holding government office tends to wear down populist lustre and new parties therefore do best as populist insurgents. The big exception to this rule, is of course, Fico’s Smer, which has bucked the trend and remained popular and populist in office. The reason, as Karen Henderson highlighted, in her presentation on the disarray of the Slovak opposition, is that populist parties reflect social and electoral demand. It matters little that the opposition can depict Fico as a semi-democratic ‘Mečiar lite’ (my phrase, not hers) and win international support, when they lack any coherent unifying political project – either for themselves or society – and Slovak voters are elsewhere. Interestingly, although some Slovak officials and politicians can rather sensitive about discussion of the current government – seemingly fearing an outbreak of Fico bashing as soon as any Western political scientist takes the floor – intellectual undercurrents seem to be shifting towards taking Smer much more seriously.

The day it should be said also included a morning session on culture: presentations on the refraction of Slovakia’s transformation to a consumer capitalist society through fiction with an outwardly trashy and sensational edge; a clever and interesting sounding novel with a mentally handicapped narrator, which, again, offers a skewed, satirical perspective on Slovak society and reveals much more going on than first meets the eye; and the work of the Slovak composer Eugen Suchoň, the centenary of whose birth is rapidly approaching.

In the margins of the conference I also learn that Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico ate a lot of kangaroo steaks whilst a visiting scholar at SSEES in 1999; that a Slovak designed the dollar bill; that (allegedly) a fifth of Slovaks are of aristocratic descent and that some Slovaks may be allergic to the metals in the new Euro coins and will need to watch out for skins complaints when the single currency is introduced in Slovakia in 2009 (now a source of predictable anguish in parts of the Czech press – the fact that the Slovaks are ahead in European integration, that is, not the skin allergies). And for anyone who can’t work out the puzzles of Slovak politics or culture, there is always the rather neat (and rather cheap) Slovak-themed puzzle I came across from Puck Puzzles, which illustrates this post.

>Slovakia: Lecturers free to work harder


More interesting reports in Slovakia’s Smethis time that the new Universities Law has abolished the 58 hours a week working time ceiling for the country’s lecturers. This is not intended to allow Dickensian exploitation, however but to fit with EU regulations. The restriction was originally applied to curtail lecturing in multiple subjects at multiple institutions. In future, lecturers will be governed by the general restriction on working time in the Slovak Labour Code- a normal maximum of 48 hours a week – but, in practice, will be able to work longer if they have two jobs.

>Just the ticket

>Slovak daily Sme reports plans to establish a public transport link between Bratislava and the Austrian town of Wolfstahl now that Slovakia has entered the Schengen zone. There were plans for a longer link to Hainburg, but they have been scaled back. I have heard people say that under Austria-Hungary you could get a tram from Bratislava (then Pressburg) to Vienna, but I expect that is probably apocryphal.

>Slovakia: In a right mess


The woes of Slovakia’s centre-right Christian Democratic parties continue apace. Three deputies of the Christian Democrat Movement (KDH) have quit to found a Conservative Democratic Party (KDS), which, they say, will be more resolutely committed supporting traditional values and targeting financial support to (traditional) families. Meanwhile dissident members of the more liberal Slovak Christian and Democratic Union (SDKÚ) of ex-Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda (itself originally a breakaway from KDH) have been kicked out of the party for allegedly breaking resolutions not to air internal disputes in public. Their platform is a vaguer one of ‘generational change’ and renewal, outlined in a platform called Time for Change. The key generational change seems to be getting rid of Dzurinda, recently re-elected but seen as an electoral liability. Those expelled include several deputies and important elements of SDKÚ’s Bratislava organisation, where the party is strongest. Who know perhaps they will found a new party too? To complete the picture, we should perhaps add that Slovakia also has a further mainstream centre-right party – the electorally weak, but intellectually more influential Civic Conservative Party (OKS), which has never one parliamententary representation, who espouse a kind of Czech-style neo-con/neo-liberal fusion. The Slovak centre-right is clearly paying the price in opposition for its fragmented structure. This seem to provide cracks along which it fractures in the face of underlying strategic dilemmas: how to manage in a country with an electorate seemingly more inclined to the centre-left than centre-right; and what does being on the Christian Democratic right actually means in Slovak. The Czech right faced a rather similar situation in 2002, but with the crucial difference that the right is basically united in a single party, ODS, and that its long servingbut discredited leader Václav Klaus (finally) decided to step down.

Meanwhile, in the Slovak governing coalition things seem to have got rather jolly again. Vladimír Mečiar even recommends Prime Minister Robert Fico as Slovakia’s next president. Presumably, given the relative weakness of the Slovak presidency, Fico will resist this flattering offer. I suppose the idea of semi-presidential regime might distantly take his fancy, but he does not have the votes to change the constitution.

>Do Slovak and Czech Christian Democrats have a prayer?


The continuing dominance of Robert Fico’s SMER in Slovak politics – ably tracked and analyzed by Kevin Deegan Krause in the excellent Pozorblog – is aggravating an ongoing crisis of the sundry liberal and Christian parties that held sway amid a blaze oneo-liberal welfare and labour reform between 1998 – 2006. The splits and rivalries, seem basically about personal ambitions and rival personalities, but are punctuated by calls for generational renewal (is there a Slovak Barack Obama in the house?) and seem to also have an ideological/politcal subtext centring on one issue: about how to confront the populist/national-populist left, whose poll ratings and (worringly) dislike of NGOs and desire to heavy-handedly regular the press have uncomfortable echos of the dominance once exercised by Vladimír Mečiar and his HZDS (now seemingly relegated to a bit part in Fico’s coalition government).
The core of the Slovak centre-right is notionally Christian Democratic – there two mainly parties using the tag, the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), which has roots in the Christian dissidence before 1989, the more (socially) liberal Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), formed as something of a personal vehicle for then Prime Mikuláš Dzurinda, although various neo-liberal technocrats seems to have hitched a ride with KDH too. The woes of the various stripes of Slovak Christian Democrats have interesting echoes in the current travails of the Czech Christian Democrats who, squeezed between powerful free market right and social democratic and communist left, have never had the whip hand in government and never been able to integrate liberal forces to broaden their appeal. The closest they came to a breakthough was in the ill-fated Quad-Coalition (4k) project in 1999-2001 when the two big parties of left and right were cosying up to each other. The exit from poilitics of the adroit Josef Lux in 1998 after being diagnosed with leukaemia (he died in 1999) finished KDU’s prospects of being as much more than a niche party for Catholics in rural regions and confused centrist voters with nowhere to go. Despite good poll rating the fraught 4K project collapsed and split much like the Slovak Democratic Coalition, which indirectly it and spawned Dzurinda’s SDKÚ
There followed faction fighting between more liberal (Bohemian-based) and more conservative (Moravian-based) elements in KDU; consequent frequent changes of leader (none, however, very personally commanding) and the lack of a clear strategy as to what Czech Christian Democrats actually stood for and whether they were of the left, right or centre (a perennial dilemma for small parties in a system with well established large parties) has seen the party’s support dwindle to its core electorate leaving it hovering dangerously over the 5% threshold that spells political oblivion.
The directionlessness of the party was gruesomely illustrated by the sudden initiative of then KDU leader Miroslav Kalousek in 2006 to enter a Social Democrat-led minority coalition government with Communist support (it never materialized – he was sacked after an internal revolt) and its turning in desperation to newly elected Christian Democrat Senator and small town mayor Jiří Čunek, whose staggering popularity in the 2006 Senate election stemmed from expelling local Roma with chronic rent arrears from municipal housing in the town centre and re-locating them in the outskirts of town. Rapidly embroiled in corruption allegations stemming from his mayoral term(s) and squeezed out ministerial office (he was Minister of Local Development), but not the KDU leadership Čunek’s small town populism has proved inadequate to re-launch his party. As highlighted in other posts the Civic Democrats – behind in the polls to the Czech Social Democrats (who, nevertheless, have not reached Fico-like levels of support) – are effectively marking time to see which of their minor allies, the Greens or the Social Democrats, will implode first and which they might somehow absorb to bolster themselves ideologically and electorally.

Ironically, KDU’s long and detailed 2006 election programme, which, rather in the Slovak style, combined neo-liberal fiscal and welfare prescriptions (toned down to suit Czech tastes) as well as the usual social market, family protection, communitarian stuff was widely praised by experts as more realistic and better through through than the Civic Democrats’ shot-in-the-dark version of flat tax-led neo-liberal reform.
And generational renewal? Commentators and politicians in CEE are always harping on about this, but it’s hard to see quite how newer or younger will necessarily mean better. Such comments are, usually a disguised call for in political renewal or cleaner, better, more liberal government – amen to that, but even though there is no primaries system there is ample scope for new parties to emerge or young technocrats to parachute themselves into organizationally weak, elite-led parties. The Slovak experience suggests that many voters don’t want renewal of this kind, but stability. Is the Slovak Barack Obama actually Robert Fico?

>Slovakia: Empty lionizing of Dubček suggests social democracy lacks roots


A recent issue of Slovak daily Sme contains a report of a speech by Slovak PM Robert Fico (full text here) to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the death of Alexander Dubček, ill-fated leader of the Prague Spring and early figurehead of post-communist social democracy in Slovakia. As a man of the left, Fico, unsurprisingly has a positive take on Dubček whose thoughts he told his audience he and fellow leaders of SMER find alive and inspiring to this day and feel moral duty to continue them. Just what thoughts Dubček and his generation of Prague Spring reform communists more have to offer to contemporary Slovakia was, was however, left tantalizingly vague. Dubček, Fico told listeners, saw democracy as essentially an exercise in civilized dialogue. He was also a ‘leading figure in the European socialist movement’ and a humanist, aware of his responsibility for civilization, who believed in advancing knowledge through co-operation with scholars (s vedcami). Another speaker, Ivan Laluh, president of the Alexander Dubček Society , offered a similarly motherhood-and-apple-pie assessment of Dubček as standing for ‘humanism, social justice, decency and tolerance’ – which could apply to most European liberal, social democratic or (even) Christian Democratic politicians of any standing.
The awkward truth seems to be that, however sympathetically one might look at the tragedy of Czechoslovak reform communism – and it is something of a breath of fresh air to find more than the dismissal and amnesia characteristic of much Czech public debate on the period – it has little to say today. Dubček’s political inactivity during the ‘normalization’ period of the 1970s and 80s and short-lived political career after 1989 also amount to relatively little. So why the fuss? At one level, there is a simple a nationalist rationale. Slovaks Fico pointedly noted should ‘immerse ourselves more deeply in the thought of Slovak scholars and politicians, who have inscribed themselves on the consciousness of Europe’ even if – as in Dubček’s case – these are somewhat shallow waters. Dubček’s status in Slovakia is therefore understandably higher – Slovakia’s newest university in Trenčín was re-named Alexander Dubček University in 2002, an honour unlikely to be bestowed on any Czech leaders of the Prague Spring in their home republic.

Fico opponents might, however, detect a darker side in his comments that Dubček’s concept of democracy as civilized debate had not been attained in contemporary Slovakia as people were too intolerant and ‘too strongly intoxicated with freedom of speech’ which, translated, may mean there is too much criticism of his government in the media and society. Possibly, we should think back beyond the humanism and apple pie to remember the more authoritarian impulses during the 1960s of Dubček et al to regulate pluralism and debate so as to ensure they delivered social consensus around the ‘right’ result – something often overlooked in many accounts because the Prague Spring was progressive and democratically minded by the standards of communist one party rule in Eastern Europe. As Peter Siani-Davies’s excellent book on the Romanian Revolution reminds us the semi-authoritarian populism of the National Salvation Front in part had its roots in the technocratic authoritarianism and engineered dialogue to ensure Consensus of would-be communist reformers who opposed Ceausescu, as well as the country’s more obviously authoritarian and nationalist traditions.

In other ways, however, the vacuous lionizing of Dubček seem to underline the ideologically shallow roots of SMER and the Slovak centre-left. In the absence of a strong historic social democratic tradition, it has few models or historical figures to draw on not obviously compromised by association with the Stalinism of 1950s or the ‘normalization’ of the 1970s and 80s and ‘Europe’ no longer offers a comfortable template following SMER’s suspension from the Party of European Socialists. Moreover, as the current controversy over public remembrance of Andrej Hlinka awkwardly demonstrates, there are plenty of historic reference points for those of Catholic-populist-nationalist persuasion to fix on.

>Education portfolio too hot to handle for Czech Greens


Who’d be an Education Minister in East Central Europe these days? Once a something of a political backwater, you now face an unenviable set of competing demands: of implementling EU-endorsed plans for transformation of communist-era education systems to shape up for the knowledge economy, putting a culture of critical, independent learning and foreign language learning in place of entrenched ex-cathedra methods, rote-learning and a bias towards technical specialisms; an ageing, over-feminized and under-qualified teaching workforce at primary and secondary level, chronically underpaid but with relatively good levels of union organization; unreformed teaching training institutions; and a need to expand and reform higher education, similar lines taking advantage of sizeable EU structural funds while your country is still sufficiently far behind the EU average to qualify for them.

The most spectacular recent casualty of this conundrum was (now ex-)Czech Education Minister Dana Kuchtová, one of three Green cabinet members, in the current centre-right led minority administration. Projects for the reform of higher education, which should have qualified for tens of billions of crowns of EU funds, were not ready and not up to scratch, leaving rectors of universities furious. Although such situations are not untypical problem across the new CEE member states, given inexperience and not sufficiently professionalized or qualified civil service concerned Ms Kuchtová seems to have had the misfortune to have inherited problems at the Czech Education Ministry just as they came to a head and to have mismanaged the crisis both administratively and politically, making promises she couldn’t keep and antagonising MPs in the Education Committee of the Czech Chamber of Deputies.

Lower down the education system in the Czech Republic, a new reformed curriculum stressing theme and competences (‘learning how to learn’), rather than the accumulation of knowledge in traditional subject areas is being rolled out. There are sceptical reports in the press as to whether current teaching staff have the ability and inclination to teach it as intended with suggestions that it is essentially a Potemkin repackaging of the old syllabus. Conservative resistance is also coming directly by the traditional Czech intelligentsia and scientific establishment, who see traditional teaching methods based on a canon of knowledge as central to Czech national identity (and one might add, the rather elitist culture of the Czech intelligentsia itself). In a telling phrase a letter signed by a host of leading academics including the sociologist, ex-dissident and feminist scholar, Jiřina Šiklová, warns in a characteristic phrase that the new reforms threaten to lead to the ‘degradation of the Czech population into an unthinking mass (dav) of consumers’ (Cynics might say that was possibly largely the situation already, which was why reform is needed – why do Czech intellectuals harp on with fantasies of imminent national decay rooted in lack of culture/morality/education so persistently?)

Meanwhile, Czech unions representing secondary school teachers are preparing once again to stage strikes over low pay, joining their colleagues in Bulgaria, who are already locked in acrimonious series of strikes. Here, government ministers see salary increases as potentially budget busting and linked to reductions in the size of the teaching force justified by Bulgaria’s rapidly ageing population and consequently declining school population, performance-related pay and financial decentralization and ring-fencing of education budgets. Figures reported in the Slovak press recently also highlight that the country’s teachers are amongst the worst paid professionals in the country.

The political demise of Dana Kuchtová, under pressure from both the Civic Democrats and junior partner in the coalition, the Christian Democrats, has also triggered a minor crisis in the Green party, offering a focus for party members discontented with leader Martin Bursík for excessive accommodation of right-wing parties and in effect hanging, Kuchtová, a former activist with the South Bohemian Mothers anti-nuclear group, out to dry. The EU funds fiasco, they argue was no worse at the Education Ministry than at many other Czech ministries struggling to download European funds on time, but served as a pretext for the two right-wing parties in the coalition to target and pressurize the small and inexperienced Greens. Kuchtová’s resignation was partly prompted by a desire to head off factional conflict in the party.

Discontent is also mounting among some Greens about the role of the Green-nominated Foreign Minister, aristocratic and ex-Havel confidante Karel Schwarzenberg. Although his appointment was seem as a major political coup for the Greens at the time the government was formed, some Greens have, it seems, now worked out that Schwarzenberg is in no way carrying out a Green foreign policy but rather one informed by his own aristocratic sense of public service and Schwarzenberg family tradition. Clearly, the nation’s schoolchildren are not the only ones in the Czech Republic who need to learn faster.

Karolína Vitarová-Vránková, ‘Ekonomika a štěstí pro ZS’, Respekt, 1-7 October, pp. 60-1