Slovakia: A Pleasant Surprise
When Slovakia became independent in 1993, many people were concerned about the future development of this small, Central European country. The events of 1994-1998 demonstrated that their fears were by no means groundless. A great struggle took place for control of the country’s direction. The public, the intelligentsia, and even the political elite were divided. The government of 1994-1998 espoused a vaguely specified “Slovak Way,” embarked upon the privatization of state property on the basis of unclear rules, and pushed through nationalist policies that showed intolerance towards minorities. This course culminated in the use of anti-democratic methods, so it was no surprise when the democratic world gave a clear response. Slovakia found itself isolated, due to its unacceptable machinations.
Opposition to such policies grew, citing the need for the true democratization of the country and a Euro-Atlantic direction, while pushing for positive political steps with regard to minorities. The last of these demands was important in the Slovak Republic, because approximately 20 percent of its citizens are members of various minorities. Minority policy in Slovakia is therefore a true gauge of the state of democracy there, reflected in the fact that the largest minority community (the Hungarians) founded their own, powerful party—which, in the cited struggle, took the side of those pressing for true democracy and integration into Euro-Atlantic structures.
Real changes started to occur after the 1998 elections, when democratic forces assumed power in the country. And it came as a surprise, even to Slovak politicians, when this orientation also was accepted during the elections of 2002; moreover, their outcome enabled the establishment of a government composed of like-minded, center-right parties. This was a surprise, because not a single observer had anticipated the desire for political continuity, expressed through free elections, in such a youthful country.
Despite the fact that this small country’s economy was struggling (and to a certain extent, still is struggling) with significant structural issues, the period of 1998-2002 saw a relatively rapid stabilization of the banking sector. The structure of the Slovak economy was revitalized, and important foreign investors appeared on the scene (such as US Steel, Volkswagen, Samsung, Deutsche Telecom, and Gas de France, to be followed by Kia Motors, Ford, Peugeot-Citroen, and others). This explains how the situation in the country could change so quickly. Slovakia’s problems between 1994 and 1998 stemmed from the unacceptable politics adopted by the regime of the time. Once the power-political situation had changed, its relatively healthy economy and positive economic climate for small- and medium-sized businesses provided a sound basis for rapid change.
After the 2002 elections, the new coalition government was able to implement six key reforms in the areas of health care, welfare, pensions, finance, education and the decentralization of state authority. As a result of these changes, Slovakia has been rightly referred to as the most reform-oriented country in Europe; investors have often described it as the “Tiger of the Tatras,” thanks to its investment-friendly climate, and, of course, thanks to the fact that it has not wasted its energy on trivialities. Inter-ethnic and Slovak-Hungarian issues, which were a source of tension in the past, have been gracefully resolved through the participation of the SMK (Hungarian Coalition Party) in government. The party has repeatedly gained the confidence of voters, and analysts have stated that it has played a highly stabilizing role since 1998.
Nobody can predict the future; another parliamentary election will take place in 2006. But it appears that the keyword of this election will be “continuity,” i.e., ensuring that the positive orientation of this genial country will continue, based upon its achievements between 1998 and 2006.
Deputy Prime Minister of Slovakia for European Affairs, Human Rights and Minorities;
Deputy Chairman of the Hungarian Coalition Party