A wounded Slovakia needs stability and clear, united leadership

A wounded Slovakia needs stability and clear, united leadership

President Zuzana Čaputová gave her state of the republic address to the plenum of the National Council of the Slovak Republic on 28 September 2021. 

In her speech to MPs, she spoke about the effects of the pandemic and the challenges that the next wave would bring. She emphasised the need for reform in several areas in connection with the Recovery Plan. She also reflected on topical issues in justice and the investigation of corruption, as well as public confidence in the state and its institutions. 

According to the president, the Slovak Republic is a wounded country that needs to get through the global health crisis with the smallest possible losses while also dealing with the other challenges that we face. “Today Slovakia is in desperate need of stability. Clear and united leadership. Peace based on truth and justice, but also matter-of-factness and solidarity. We can achieve that only by working together and I believe that it is a goal that unites most of us.”

At the beginning, the president recalled her first state of the republic address 15 months earlier in which she expressed a wish that we would not go back to the pre-coronavirus state of a polarised and divided society. "As I stand here today, we face even wider social divisions. Dear citizens, I will try to sum up the most important elements in the state of our republic. Dear political representatives, I speak today as one of you, an elected representative of the people. I want to speak of things as they really are, which means I cannot avoid criticism because these are complicated times. But I also hope to remain objective, to create as little division as possible, and I invite every one of you who cares about the good of Slovakia to join me."

Discussing the pandemic and its effects, the president emphasised how a threat that should have united us had become the source of our most intense conflicts. “We lived through a year of trauma and thousands of bereaved survivors will bear lifelong scars. Like every serious crisis, the pandemic crisis showed us where we are most vulnerable. Crisis management and crisis communications did not solve problems but became a part of the problem. We also encountered deficits in civil defence, healthcare and social care for seniors. In spite of this, the people working on the front line did incredible work and all deserve once again our warm thanks. The fact that our health system did not entirely collapse in the autumn and winter months was due mainly to the great dedication and sacrifice of our medical professionals. Unfortunately, they have paid a high price for this. Because they were treating patients at a time when vaccines were still not available, thousands of them were infected and dozens of them lost their lives to the disease.”

The president therefore believes that personnel stabilisation in healthcare must be one of our key priorities, otherwise the consequences could be fatal for all of us. However, she also recognised that healthcare is not the only sector that is being severely tested. “Many of the workers in social service homes now suffer from acute stress disorder, having gone through the same traumatic period as healthcare workers. The strain on their resilience was all the greater because social service facilities in Slovakia were short-staffed by about a quarter even before the pandemic. A functional system of long-term senior care with a sufficient number of beds and a sufficient number of care workers receiving decent pay must become a reality in the maximum possible extent as soon as possible.”

The president’s speech also mentioned children, who suffered not just because they could no longer get a proper education but also because their social ties were cut off overnight. “The situation was especially hard for children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, who faced inequalities in education even before the pandemic. In the school year 2020/2021, nearly every fifth child in the second stage of elementary school [lower secondary] was unable to connect to online learning and one in ten took no part in distance learning. As a result of these changes and the trauma that society suffered, the number of children with anxiety or depression has grown alarmingly. What children and adolescents now need most of all is a period of psychosocial convalescence. If, for whatever reason, we do not allow them it or fail to provide it, these effects could mark a whole generation.”

The president’s speech also reflected on other problems created by the pandemic. “For many months, fear became the dominant social emotion, and as psychologists have long known, fear discharges itself as anger. Fear and anger are the emotions which have predominated in many people’s reactions to the pandemic crisis. These emptions, especially as they apply to vaccination, are dividing our society, sometimes even separating families, colleagues in the workplace and neighbours. My positive attitude to vaccination is well known and I consider it the most effective route out of the pandemic. I also think we should remember that the mere fact of not being vaccinated does not make a person bad or stupid. I can understand why people are afraid because fear is a deep human emotion.”

What is not a deep human emotion, in the president’s opinion, is the deliberate abuse or exploitation of anger and fear to direct hatred against other people and then to try to capitalise on this wave of hatred. “People who do this have no desire to bring people together and no interest in earning trust. All they are interested in is undermining our faith in everything. In public service, in institutions, science, medicine. At the same time, it is entirely legitimate to criticise the errors that have been made in managing the pandemic. Objective criticism intended to save lives is even desirable. If, however, someone thinks that they can ride on a wave of hatred or turn it to their advantage, they are mistaken. History has shown us over and over again that hatred creates nothing, only destroys, even those who create it. And now we need to save the world and our Slovakia within it.”

Regarding the economic effects of the pandemic, the president noted that our actions now will determine whether we succeed in creating conditions for continued economic development, and whether our living standards will continue to catch up with western countries or stagnate. “No government in the history of Slovakia has ever had so many resources at its disposal as we do now. Funding from the EU funds and the Recovery Plan is sufficient to modernise our society increase the productivity and sustainability of our economy and create conditions for a rise in living standards. To achieve this goal, we have to start taking seriously the issue of poverty and regional differences.” 

According to the president, it is equally important to deal with the rising prices resulting from the post-pandemic revival in the global economy, and it is worth considering reasonable, targeted compensation. On the topic of the environment, the president praised the strong support for ambitious climate goals and an effective circular economy, particularly through the introduction of deposits for PET bottles and cans in our country from next year. She also appreciated the opening of discussion on the reform of national parks and biodiversity protection. On the other hand, she criticised the failure to start remediation of contaminated sites. The president praised the united standpoints that government representatives had presented on most key foreign policy issues. She said that the important thing about consistency and predictability is not that others praise us for them but that they open practical opportunities for better negotiating positions and the promotion of our interests and priorities. Her speech also praised the efforts of our armed forces in recent months. Conditions for service in the armed forces can improve only if defence spending is stable and sustainable in future. 

On the timely issue of justice, the president praised several changes in the justice system such as the creation of the Supreme Administrative Court, reform of the membership of the Judicial Council, background checks of judges and checks of judicial competence, but she also commented on the investigation of major corruption scandals. In the president’s view, any healing process in society, including tackling corruption, must be conducted in a lawful manner. “We notice the absence of transparency, various interpretations of reality, the predominance of emotion over objectivity and abuse of the issue. This is to some extent understandable because there is a lot at stake. More than twenty people have admitted their guilt and given evidence of a parallel world where they could take steal the common goods without being punished. They have described the schemes they created, for which nobody has yet taken responsibility. What is thus at stake is the personal freedom of those under investigation and the healing and the future character of our state.”

The president said that politicians cannot and should not be able to interfere in ongoing investigations. “We must respect the division of power and the ongoing activity of the law enforcement agencies. Even I, the president of the republic, only know what the media have reported about specific cases, and this is as it should be. I will therefore refrain from using this podium to issue judgements in place of the courts. I want to have confidence in justice and that if there are errors in investigations, the courts are able to assess the evidence and the legality of its acquisition. We should respect the division of powers not just in our actions but also in our words, which have the potential to undermine what remains of public trust in the state and its institutions.”

The president recalled that the need to sort out control of the information services, reforms in the police inspection and the operation of the prosecution service are topics that have been discussed for years. “Thirty years after the Velvet Revolution, we are still stumbling over the same issues in the functioning of law enforcement agencies and the security services. This is our political responsibility. This must be the focus of our attention, energy and work. Years of apathy towards essential changes and reforms cannot, even with the best will in the world, be remedied by the work of a single commission. We must be aware of the risk that quick fixes designed to address one exceptional situation could just make things.”

The president concluded with criticism of the level of political debate, which she said had reached unprecedented depths. "Lies, vulgarity and ad hominem attacks have become commonplace. It would be naive to think that such behaviour ends in this chamber or affects only the recipients of insults. No, we shape our society together and every expression of hatred indicates to the people who elected us that we care more about our personal feuds than about people’s real concerns.”

The president said that the parties in the governing coalition should show unity and a clear will to cooperate. The opposition also contribute to the social atmosphere, participate in setting the level of political culture and thus also bear responsibility for Slovakia’s fraying social cohesion. “Feuding with each other will only deepen public mistrust.”  

The full version of the state of the republic address is available at the speeches section.