This essay was written gradually between November 2015 and January 2016. It is the fruit of my conversations with Martin Filko throughout the years about the society around us, which grew into a motivation to write something together. I see this text as a very accurate portrait of how we both saw the world. I am thankful for this memory of my friend, personally, and intellectually. We were planning to edit and shorten this text rather substantially, but due to the circumstances I decided to keep it in its longer form. The essay is not trying to capture the evolution of Slovak politics after the election, but, unfortunately, it predicted it in many ways (Martin Dubéci).
Written by Martin Dubéci and Martin Filko
Slovakia grew up on overcoming challenges. Although many times we were in the position of an outsider, we rarely failed. We always managed to learn from our failures and from periods of stagnation. One hundred years ago, at the beginning of the World War I, we had neither our own country nor any national institutions. Today, we have a chance to be – from the standpoint of both economy and politics – a co-author of continent-wide political and economical decisions, rather than just their passive receiver.
One of the clichés about Slovak politics is that it lacks any substantial topics. We beg to differ. There are at least two issues that are of a crucial importance to our continent and our country: How to move Slovakia to the highest possible standard of life through the reform of public institutions, and how to keep Europe – through further unification – a continent of peace, freedom, and prosperity. These themes are not new and are repeatedly talked about by many. However, we fear that to many of those they are nothing more than exercises in rhetoric.
We are beyond the topics of discussions of the past decades and the size of the state is becoming a minor subject. What becomes much more important is the quality of both our public institutions and the services that they provide, as well as our future in a free Europe. After all, the tasks related to our accession into the European Union, not the ideological conflicts, moved us closer to the most developed countries.
Instead of the end of history, a decade of standing at the same place
It is true that the period after our accession into the European Union, and after the financial crisis hit us, was not encouraging of great ideas. All substantial questions seemed to have been answered. Before the financial crisis, our rapid growth meant we did not have to make any difficult decisions; after the crisis, budget consolidation prevented them from being made. Growth and success of those political players who focus on the marketing aspects of politics, fast media cycles, and the growth of social media brought it about that public issues are often decided by the first-signal system.
In the past 20 years, Slovakia experienced the most rapid growth of wealth in its history, as well as in comparison with the majority of European countries. However, in most areas of public sphere, we continue to achieve below-average results compared not only to the most developed countries, but also to our neighbors. Our healthcare system is worse than that of our neighboring countries, and this problem does not have to do with the amount of money that we pour into it. Our courts, that cost us roughly as much as they cost our neighbors, are the slowest decision-makers in Europe.
We cannot solve our problems simply by pouring more money into things. And we do not even have resources that would allow us to do so. The European agreement about a strict budget policy set the boundaries that we cannot (and do not want to) ignore. Hence, what is left is the unpopular way of trying to achieve “more for less,” and the faith in economic growth that would be faster than that of our neighbours.
In order to have balanced public finances that would be able to face potential future crises, grim demographic trends, and climate change, we need to – in the medium-term – lower the difference between income and expenses by 2% of our GDP (approximately 1.5 billion EUR).
We are also going to need money for development. This is because many public areas – most notoriously education – are undoubtedly under-financed. However, we do not even know yet how to set the standards in such a way that the money invested in these areas would bring about the highest benefits.
To enhance the results of our public sector and at the same time save public finances is not going to be an easy task. We already harvested the low-hanging fruit of consolidation. Tax increases are unlikely and slow down the economy. The fight against tax evasion is not enough to achieve a balanced budget, even though such a fight is necessary. Furthermore, cuts in public spending do not distinguish between redundant and necessary programs, and sooner or later we will have to face freezes of investments.
In order to have a better, more frugal state, we need to be able to analyze in advance and, after some time, publicly and intelligibly evaluate which of the state’s decisions are contributing to the wealth of the society, and which do not. If we want to talk about increasing the number of policemen, we need to back up this decision by a rational, data-based basis: what are the results that we expect from this decision? Are there any other means through which we can bring about these results? There are instruments that help us to answer questions of this kind, which in turn allows us to publicly discuss them and make well-informed political decisions about them.
Slovakia has an economy centered around massive exports. We have the highest percentage of the labor force working abroad within the European Union. The same holds true for our college students, after small island countries. The success of Slovakia depends on the success of Europe and our integration into it. We do not see any other alternative path that would ensure our progress and safety. Furthermore, the Euro crisis, the pressure of the refugee crisis, as well questioning the Schengen zone, show that current state of things is not cast in stone.
Decentralizing powers in Europe go against the basis of our national interests. When Schengen was being created, the maps were showing Slovakia behind its borders. Creation of an institutionally interconnected environment with the gradual share of a larger number of responsibilities on a European-wide level is strengthening our position. Already, the voice of our minister of finance is – thanks to our membership in the eurozone – more resounding than that of Czech or Polish ministers. Of course, it is impossible to pursue a closer European cooperation without the creation of authentic democratic European politics. The current state of partial integration and high process costs is unsustainable in the long term, and a possible disintegration would cost us dearly.
The most important question of Slovak politics is not about the Left or the Right, but about the tension between progressive and reactionary powers
The Slovak republic is 23 years old. Immersed in the day-to-day of Slovak politics, it is easy to lose a broader perspective. In 1989, there were very few people doing politics in the broadest sense of the term, and all of them were consumed by the question of our national identity. Our society is young. Our oldest university is not even one hundred years old, and most of the institutions that create the backbone of our state are even younger. A quarter century is not enough for us to establish a tradition that was elsewhere built through many generations.
The role of progressive public institutions is to be aware of the interests and preferences of the citizens and then proceed to improve the society while holding a democratic mandate. These institutions have a moral obligation to fulfill: They are not here simply to provide the best public services possible, but also to be the moving force of positive social change. They must not serve the oligarchs, businessmen, areas of industry with a lot of power, or bureaucrats with the access to relevant information. They are here in order to defend the public interest through their manners, values, and rules.
We often see the opposite of this approach – not only here in Slovakia, but also in the whole of Europe. This is the attitude that things simply do not work, they cannot be done, and they are stuck, because private interests (inside or outside) push them to the point where they no longer function. From the ministries, through regulators, to municipalities we hear stories of things not getting done or things being done in unfair ways.
The current state is prefered by many people. In many cases this has to do with personal gain. But most of the time, it has to do with laziness and satisfaction with the status quo which divides profits (economic, symbolic, and social) in a more or less predictable way, and lets the citizens pay for the scattered losses.
Change is an enemy that has unpredictable effects and changes the way the profits are currently divided. From the consumer prices of electricity, we subsidize solar energy, so that we will not pollute the air by electricity produced by coal plants, which we subsidize in the same way. What we hear from the more “experienced” ones is that absurdities of this kinds can never be avoided, that we are a small country where everyone knows everyone, and we cannot try to implement methods from the outside world.
Calling someone “left-wing” or “right-wing” is nothing but a meaningless label nowadays. The more significant division of Slovak politics is happening along the lines of conservation of the status quo versus attempts to change it. We see progressive political powers that are pushing for a positive change, for a renaissance and a move forward, and powers that – despite all the rhetorical figures – prefer the current state of affairs. We can observe this division across all kinds of democratic parties in Slovakia.
The greatest challenges that lie ahead of Slovakia are not of an ideological nature. Independent and professional civil service, functional and enforced rules, decision-making based on relevant data, arguments, and thorough discussion – these issues are, in our opinion, of an organizational rather than ideological character. To achieve these things is a task just as progressive as it is technocratic. It undoubtedly requires technical skill, but at the same time also requires faith in progress and determination to overcome old barriers and institutional tracks. Therefore, we do not want to waste our energy on unnecessary conflicts. We are convinced that the priorities we strive for can be agreed on by a progressive Christian or liberal, a sensible right-winger or socialist.
Another variable that defines the progressive versus conservative character of the Slovak politics is our relationship to the outside world. During the 20th century, geopolitics was the only way in which the Slovak political community was impacted by foreign countries. In this regard, we have been living in a radically different environment in the past 10 years. Since 2004 we have been a member of a political fellowship that completely stirred the boundaries between the domestic and foreign. Slovakia became one of the most integrated countries in the world. In Brussels, career diplomats have moved into the background a long time ago, and prime ministers and ministers are texting each other with the same spontaneity as they do with their domestic colleagues.
However, our constant contact with the outside world is not only of a political character. The interactions go beyond the political realm and they have to do with every individual on a daily basis. From open borders to economic competition, global pop culture and sports, and migration – we are facing the external influences all the time. From the history of similar countries we know that progressive politics looks for ways to seize this openness as an opportunity. Conservatives are trying to preserve the status quo, seclude us and convince us that no change is necessary. If we have to choose between the well-tried devil and an open sea, we should not be afraid to give a chance to openness.
Constant contact with the world and a growing number of people who have experience from abroad is radically increasing the expectations that people have with respect to state and society. A few kilometers from Bratislava, Slovaks who live in Austria suburbia can see municipal politics that work in a completely different way than in their home country. Hundreds of thousands of Slovaks experienced life abroad. Their expectations are growing faster than the results brought by the state.
A well-functioning state is not the only challenge. A challenge is also presented by relationships among people, non-governmental organizations – that is, the private sector. In order to have a successful democracy we need to build social capital – a social trust that enables cooperation and abiding to written and unwritten rules without the need of a coercive apparatus.
Stories about arrogant behavior of civil servants, unexpected public aggression and long-term failures of public institutions are symptoms of low social capital which cause society to fail even outside of the public realm. Turmoil caused by these phenomena is proof that many people hope for things to work differently.
Let us be clear – most of us are taken care of and at the end of any scenario we will experience a European standard of life. The question is whether we are going to be at its lower level or a higher level. However, this equation is not true for tens of thousands of citizens of this country who live pushed out to the edges of society, many times in the circumstances that resemble third world countries.
Immense differences in the living standard are also a pragmatic issue, since they build up tension that can explode and penetrate our comfortable lives. A solution to communities that live excluded from society is not only a pragmatic need. It is also our moral imperative. If we are one community, then no one – Romas, Hungarians, homosexuals, or migrants – should be excluded from it. If we do not achieve their integration, it will present the greatest ugly mark on the face of our generation, and our grandchildren will rightfully blame us for it. Our society’s moral integrity is most clearly revealed through the opportunities we provide to the least privileged members.
We all want to be proud, content Slovaks. Even children from dysfunctional homes that like people of the same sex, even Romas and people from foreign countries that found their new home in Slovakia. We want to trust even the people that we do not know, to cooperate with them, and to be rewarded for our good will – not disappointed.
We live for today, pushing our problems in front of us
We know that we are a young country and that time will gradually refine our politics, bureaucracy, and society, which is consequently going to solve the above-mentioned issues. However, we refuse to wait for decades. People’s expectations are clear: they want to have better lives and they will continue to demand more and more from their elected officials, as well as from the professionals paid from public money. Looking at other countries and different times, we know that, without bold public leaders, great expectations combined with unsatisfactory results are only going to result in anger, frustration, and destruction. Positive change requires action, no one is going to bring it about for us.
In principle, we can all agree on the main issues within education, healthcare, and poverty (especially among Romas). Now we need determination and the skills to change things. The most successful reforms so far were the ones built on change of the rules (e.g. when it comes to taxes), not ones that involved changes of organizations, or depended on direct management of many actors. However, today, no significant challenges within the healthcare system, judiciary, or education can be overcome without those kinds of reforms. In order for us to be able even to think about successful changes, we need to radically change our approach to recruiting people to the ranks of the public sector. The state is the biggest and the most important organization within the country. This fact needs to be reflected in its management.
What we have in mind here is not the sort of empty statement repeated by businessmen that the state needs to be managed as a business. We need to create a system of talent-management and skill development of civil servants, which will provide them with enough opportunities for career growth and will prevent personal or political interests from putting pressure on them. The way in which top civil servants and politicians manage the institutions entrusted to them (on both strategical and operational levels), and their choices of staff to help them actualize their plans, ought to be closely monitored.
One of the most costly omissions, consequences of which are suffered primarily by local clients, is taking local offices in less developed regions as a place where positions are assigned according to loyalty to the governing party. In the same spirit, exchange of many local and regional officers with the arrival of every new government is promoting loyalty at the expense of skill and provides us with people who have, at most, an average skillset.
It would be naive to wonder why things do not work the way they should in a world where politics has a greater effect on the work of a civil servant than his performance and abilities. We need to set clear rules for the bureaucracy and public policies, and enforce them. Once observation of these rules is truly rewarded, the results will follow as well.
Truth and love
Achieving the best results of our public sector in a unified Europe is not going to be easy. It requires not only technical competence, but also a change in attitude towards politics. Fear and convincing people that things cannot be done differently should belong among the rarely used political means. Examples of effort, ingenuousness, and positive results achieved by both individuals and the institutions are all around us. Positive energy spread by more and more of our citizens should not create only a few unique islands of positive deviation; it should not work as a contrast to politics. On the contrary, it needs to penetrate the center of important public and private institutions.
We do not think that this kind of effort is worthless. Quite the contrary – at the end of the day, positive forces will always have the upper hand. Truth and love will always defeat hatred and lies, because they better correspond with reality, they are more resilient, and more desirable by any individual and community. We are not under the oppression of some imperial power, we have our own country and our own political community that can achieve whichever goal it sets for itself.
Let us work together to fix our country and our continent.