Report on the state of the republic by the president

Report on the state of the republic by the president

On Friday, June 5, 2020, President Zuzana Čaputová presented for the first time her Report on the State of the Republic during the plenary session of the National Council of the Slovak Republic.

Mr Speaker of the National Council of the Slovak Republic,

Mr Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic,

Members of the National Council of the Slovak Republic,

Members of the Government of the Slovak Republic,

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

Fellow citizens,

In other circumstances, my report on the state of the republic would be mainly my account of what is working in our country, the areas where extra effort is needed and what needs more decisive change. The pandemic crisis that is now coming to an end has rendered the accounts for me. Nothing could better highlight what is viable, what we can rely on, what is just getting by, and what needs urgent attention. Let me then take a few minutes to point out what the crisis has revealed about us and about Slovakia.

Just a few weeks ago, hardly anyone could imagine how fast and how fundamentally our lives and all our plans would be overturned. A few months ago, before the parliamentary election, our society was deeply polarised and a few days later we ran into a real threat and we started to come together. In the way and resolve to overcome it. While the former resulted in a divided society, apprehensive of what would come after the election, the latter united effort made us one of the most successful countries in the world. This is the first lesson of the pandemic crisis and the one that I consider the most important – when we have a common goal and we work together, we can do great things, on a global scale.  

If I wanted to start my state of the republic report with a message, it would be - Let us not restore the state of society before the coronavirus!

There are still many reasons and many goals for which it is important to come together. Not just so that we can climb up some imaginary rankings. But mainly because to do so is in the vital interest of our country, our community and citizens. To overcome hardship that the economic and social crisis has yet to bring. I am convinced that we have what it takes.

Ladies and gentlemen,

If we perceive the pandemic that we have been going through as a test, we need to work out our results for its first phase. When we compare ourselves to others, we can say in all modesty that Slovakia has been among the most successful countries. Several world media have also noticed this and praised us for acting fast and not allowing the pandemic to spread out of control.
Peter Pellegrini’s outgoing government, as well as Igor Matovič’s incoming government, took the right decisions at key moments, and this is one of the reasons why Slovakia has the fewer COVID-19 fatalities than its neighbours. The numbers of victims in Italy, Spain, France and Belgium remind us what we have managed to avoid. It is something that we can be proud of.
The pandemic tested not just the government’s capacity for rapid action and decisions but also our people’s willingness to respect the restrictions that had been imposed. In a short time, we not only created, but also strictly implemented rules of behaviour that responded to the high level of concern and uncertainty at that time. Discipline was our collective reaction and it significantly reduced this uncertainty. We made it!

It is natural that with the speed that was needed and in a situation which none of us had experienced before, some measures also brought dissatisfaction, discomfort and even imposed themselves on individuals’ rights. This was undesirable but the results makes it evident that the adopted measures successfully protected the life and health of most people. 
Just as while rolling out the measures it was necessary to reflect the need for a timely response to emerging risks, in recalling them it is necessary to choose the right moment when safety and hygiene no longer require restrictions of freedom. All restrictions and limitations are just tools and not ends in themselves.

The pandemic threat mobilised our society and produced another perspective on Slovakia – in a crisis, we can show support and solidarity.  Individuals, entrepreneurs and non-governmental organisations showed exemplary initiative by acting quickly and selflessly to help Slovakia. Several firms purchased and donated medical supplies at a time when they were in critically short supply. Thanks to the personal courage and hard work of medical and social workers, drivers, shop assistants, postal workers, police officers and many other workers, our lives did not come to a halt and we all came through hard times of the emergency together. Fear and anxiety did not divide us but brought us together. I want to express my gratitude for this once again. As commander-in-chief, I would like to especially thank them our armed forces, who despite their underfunding, have been a reliable pillar of help.
We all wish to win not just in the first round against the pandemic, but also in the struggle with its effects on the economy and people’s social situation. Otherwise our victory in the first clash with the coronavirus will be meaningless and all our previous sacrifices will have been in vain.
Ladies and gentlemen,

Maintaining cohesion should be the highest goal of our present efforts. With great regrets I have to say that I also see evidence of the opposite today. I mean voices calling for changes in cultural-ethical legislation, without having first gone through an honest debate among specialists and the public, and having taken into account opponents’ views with empathy. Such efforts pit several groups of citizens against each other and create new dividing lines that weaken our ability to cope with the social and economic consequences of the crisis. They also diminish our will to work together for a common cause, in case of a second pandemic wave.
After the election you, the top representatives of the coalition parties, promised that you would be a government also for the 20% of the population, including members of national minorities, who do not have representatives in this chamber. It is an important promise, especially in a place where laws are passed that affect all the citizens of Slovakia, which many unrepresented voters are relying on.  

Ladies and gentlemen,

Another matter that the pandemic has made clear for us is how vital scientists are for our society. We have outstanding epidemiologists, virologists, biochemists and doctors that the public knew very little about until their lives became dependent on their knowledge and expertise.
Despite being overlooked for so long, when our scientists join forces and cooperate, regardless if they work in government, academia or the private sector, they are capable of world-class achievements. We can see it in the way they developed a Slovak test to detect COVID-19 in just a few weeks. This is further evidence that we have the potential to be more than just recipients of advanced technology from outside. We ourselves can offer cutting-edge technologies to the world.
We all therefore have reason to regret that the potential of Slovak science and research has long been denied the support that it deserves. You just have to remind yourselves about how recently hundreds of millions of Euros for science and research were lost, because priority was given to other interests, whose aim was to benefit organisations with a purely parasitical relationship to science. Science and research have shown themselves viable in a hostile environment, so in friendlier circumstances they could become an important factor of change in our overall model of economic development.

Slovakia would greatly benefit if professional expertise could be fully applied in more areas. Only a systematic knowledge-based approach makes it possible to take qualified and informed decisions on matters of a complex character.

It is all the more important because in the wake of the pandemic, the world is being swept by an infodemic – the promotion of disinformation and the cultivation of so-called parallel truths. It would be a great and unforgiveable mistake to treat the infodemic as something that the state can disregard. It must take an interest. If society is misled, the republic will be less capable to respond appropriately to real threats.
Fighting with falsehood or a deliberate lie is always an unequal struggle. When we seek truth, we are confined to a limited range of facts, which is always narrower than the endless space offered by lies, which are not bound in this way and have no restraints. This often results in expressions of hatred and therefore disinformation and lies are never without consequences and require our due attention.
Ladies and gentlemen,

After the declaration of a state of emergency on March 12, work and public life had to go online. The crisis showed that while the private sector managed it quickly and without major problems, the public sector ran into serious difficulties. Its infrastructure was insufficiently prepared for the crisis, even though millions of Euros had been spent on its development. At a time when public investments in digitalisation should have paid off for us, mainly their weaknesses were revealed instead. This is evidence that past criticism was not just political in nature but reflected the facts on the ground.
Until public procurement of electronic services becomes an open and fair competition between firms, we will not even know what benefits a functional digital infrastructure could bring to the country. Not even how much it could help in modernising education, for example.

The closure of schools turned many parents into teachers, which is an experience that they had not had for decades. Parents learned first-hand that teaching is not at all easy and they may now have a greater appreciation of teachers’ work. They also gained personal experience of everything their children learn in school and saw that a lot of it consists of things that are totally unnecessary. There will need to be an in-depth review of the school curriculum based on the experience of the teaching process in crisis. The school closure showed that there are many talented and dedicated teachers who have found effective ways to teach despite technical limitations, so that in the vast majority of cases the necessary lessons were covered and children would not fall behind.  Reliance on the internet and technology in the crisis has shown what a significant influence families’ economic situation can have on their children’s chances in education.  If we do not solve this problem, the already large differences in the chances of a good education will only continue to widen. The crisis has given us another convincing reason why we must not be afraid to make big changes if they are needed for our children and young people to get a modern education which levels an unequal playing field. 
Ladies and gentlemen,

For years we have been hearing about the vulnerability of our economy, overly reliant on the car industry. When the crisis came around, it highlighted our weakness because with automotive plants shut down, we saw how many of their suppliers had to shut down too and how many people could not go to work. There is more evidence of this in the assessment report the European Commission published just a few days before the pandemic broke out. Our economic performance is no longer converging toward the European average. Whereas we seemed to be catching up with the EU’s average economic performance between 2003 and 2008, we have practically been stagnating since 2012. The economic model based on low pay and efforts to attract foreign direct investment appears to have exhausted itself. The Commission concluded that our country had not taken advantage of the good times of economic growth and was lagging behind in areas that would be crucial to building prosperity in future. We lag behind in the quality of our public administration, the quality of public services, education and digitalisation.
Let us take this as another opportunity to reconsider which sectors of the economy we should support and choose a plan that will not intensify our dependence on an monocultural industry. We should see Slovakia’s time as a workshop for the carmakers of the world as a transitional step that had its advantages, but one that we need to move on from by supporting an economic environment for development, innovation and modernisation.
Our healthcare system has also undergone a major stress test in recent months. In March and April we were afraid because nobody had any illusion about the load that our healthcare system could bear after years of underfinancing. We had good reason to fear what would happen if we had as many infections as Italy, for example. We are close to the limits of our equipment and lack staff because we have long had a shortage of doctors and other healthcare professionals, and their age structure is another wake-up call. The crisis is teaching us to think about the vital importance of health care especially when we discuss government priorities and the state budget.
The crisis has also shown us that we would not come by without people in some of the lowest-paid jobs. I am talking about all jobs in social and health services. Healthcare workers, carers, doctors and many others whose jobs we have for years called a vocation rather than work, as an unconvincing way to justify their low pay. The crisis has revealed how important they are, and it should inspire us to commit ourselves to increasing their pay so it corresponds to the importance of their professions.
In recent months we have been able to see clearly that we are only as strong as the weakest amongst us. We are thus only as strong as our ability to protect the most vulnerable and the poorest: seniors in social care homes, people living without drinking water or sanitation, homeless people and people who are dependent on the help of others. Let us use this opportunity to understand an important fact – when we help these people, we are not just helping them but our whole society.

For many economically active people, the last few weeks of having to stay in one place has felt like living under house arrest. We were experiencing something that thousands of seniors had long lived with – the struggle with loneliness and a sense of isolation. We had a chance to realise that providing for a decent old age should concern all of us, whatever our age.
The crisis has also shown us that global phenomena like reduced biodiversity and deterioration of air quality have a direct effect on the illnesses we face and how vulnerable we are. Protecting nature thus means protecting our own lives. We have a duty to rigorously assess the impact of our efforts to maximize profits on long-term environmental sustainability. Slovakia has accepted all major international commitments relating to climate. It is important that we continue to implement these commitments and put them into practice. If we remember what a refuge nature was to us during the pandemic, we should take much more interest in its conservation and demand strong protection for it.
Art and culture, and the people who work in this area, also need our care and attention. The work of artists helped all of us in getting through the time of crisis. They were amongst the first to feel the impact of the strict measures and they will probably be the last to work fully as they did before the pandemic.
The crisis also showed that public administration was not prepared to respond at short notice to the demands of the new situation. An illustrative case was the provision of economic assistance to entrepreneurs and employees suffering damages due to the adopted measures. The success of this assistance depended on getting it quickly to those who really needed it. The fact that this was not achieved to a satisfactory extent was not due to unwillingness on the part of the government or to civil servants’ sabotage of the government regulations or their unwillingness to work in an extraordinary regime. It resulted from the overall condition of the Slovak administration. Furthermore, there were problems with the forms of assistance on offer, as many potential beneficiaries felt excluded or gave up on state assistance altogether. Either because it would not improve their situation or because an error could have harmful consequences. The lesson this teaches us for the future is that we need to act fast and build an effective infrastructure for assistance whose success will not depend on complex bureaucracy.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We have all contributed to the cost of coping with the pandemic through our exemplary respect for strict measures. In the next period it is therefore important that the government build a safety net that mitigates the effects of the crisis without letting anybody fall through the gaps. The economic crisis manifested by a fall in GDP is accompanied by a social crisis. In Slovakia we have too many families who cannot cope with unpredictable expenditures and unforeseen loss of income. Fear of unemployment multiplies their legitimate concerns about securing their existence, losing their home or having their social status diminished. Economic aid packages therefore also need to reach not just those for whom the crisis means a loss of markets and sales but also those whose very existence may be at risk. Let us not waste our energy on disputes that have nothing to do with people’s real needs. Please think about these people when you decide how to use your mandate and what laws to give priority to.

It is good we can also expect stronger help from the European Union. At the start of the pandemic crisis, the European Union and its institutions were criticised for not doing enough to help Member States. Now the European Union is launching an initiative that may be of historic significance for us too.
The EU’s Next Generation instrument includes an allocation of billions for Slovakia, mainly in the form of grants for reforms and investments. Everything indicates that we will have funds in an amount never seen before, that we will get them quickly and with fewer administrative requirements and restrictions than before. As the money is intended to help overcome the crisis and rebuild the economy, it will have to be invested very quickly and sensibly.

This will be historic and unprecedented opportunity for Slovakia. It would be no exaggeration to say that we can leap forward a generation if we seize the opportunity. At the same time, it also places today’s political leaders under a historic responsibility to the country and its future. This is absolutely not the time to repeat the sad history where we only manage to use around 33% of the funds offered to us. We must not repeat the mistake of using funds to invest in areas that are not strategically significant and have no multiplier effect. And it would be absolutely if the way we spend funds would be marred by mistakes that mean we have to repay them to the EU.
It is a chance to build a greener, more digital and more resilient economy. It is a chance for us to rebuild our economy and improve the lives of our citizens much faster and more effectively that we could otherwise expect. This will require working from day one, even before the funds become available. It will be the plans that we draw up that determine whether we get the funds and whether we are able to use them effectively to benefit Slovakia and every single citizen. Slovakia simply cannot afford to waste this opportunity.

Ladies and gentlemen,

To achieve all this, we need rule of law that delivers justice through an uncorrupted judiciary.
The state of the republic has recently been showing signs improvements. We are seeing trials of economically influential people who had allies in the judiciary and in politics. We are witnessing the prosecution of several judges, cases that point to a long suspected problem of corruption in the judiciary, which is an especially severe problem because it is the judges’ job to provide justice and not use their function for their own enrichment. Developments in these and other criminal cases involving public officials and their associates will be a litmus test for our development from post-communism to a strong rule of law. This depends on development following the path of an independent and above all responsible judiciary that serves only the law and justice.
It is not just a question of investigating individual cases. The virus found in Threema messages also points to systematic failures. How is it possible that only the tragic death of two young people and its investigation could bring to light such abuse of power in the courts and the prosecutor’s office? How is it possible that such an extensive web of services rendered and returned could grow for years and operate without any suspicion of failings on the part of judges and prosecutors, either outside or inside these systems? The answer is relatively simple – nobody stopped them. The way the judiciary is currently set up favours the spread of the virus of corruption. If any judge or prosecutor is unaware of this, they should ask themselves whether they are in the right job. Self-reflection in both professions is more than socially desirable, it is a basic condition for further change. Fundamental change is thus also needed in the disciplinary system for judges and prosecutors because it still does not work as self-cleansing mechanism for the judiciary. It is fair to add that there were and are people in both the judiciary and prosecution whose critical voices have been heard and who have had to endure discomfort or even bullying for their views. Nevertheless, they remained isolated examples and they have not yet brought about more substantial change.
We also need changes in the prosecution system. While the police and courts have undergone several important changes in recent years, the prosecution has changed only very little in the last 20 years and we can probably all agree that in its current form it cannot meet the demands of the time or scale of the problem that we face, especially since the publication of the Threema messages. The current prosecution model needs to be improved and freed from political influence by stronger public control and procedural independence for prosecutors. These changes must be thorough, well thought through, and implemented in a legislative process that gives space for expert and public debate.

For our republic to operate in a civilised way, citizens must trust the state and the state must trust its citizens. The only way out of the vicious circles of mutual distrust is to be consistent in the fight against corruption and lawlessness. The electoral success of parties that promised such an approach before the parliamentary elections has given the public great expectations. It is therefore a high political and moral obligation of the new government to deliver on its pre-election promise.

I will assist the government in keeping this promise because it coincides with the promise that I gave to the public a year ago on my inauguration day. I would, however, like to remind you that the mere promise to defeat corruption does not make any of us automatically better, and that if we compromise on the highest standards of fairness and transparency, we will have failed to achieve our goal. Our highest political interest must be to restore society’s faith in justice and the rule of law. It is not only important to choose the right ends but also to choose the right means.

This promise also requires the introduction of clear and firm rules that will unquestionably also apply for those who come after you because they are right for our country. Pass only laws that you would like to apply when your opponents are in power. And pass them in a way that you would wish them to pass legislation too.

I want to assure you, Members of the National Council, that I will be as constructive and responsible as I can in performing my role in the legislative process. To set up our relationship, I would like to inform you in advance that it will be difficult for me to accept laws passed in an expedited legislative process when there is no legal reason for it, or so-called “rider” legislation. In other words, laws that are adopted in violation of the legislative process. A high-quality legal review process and input from experts are, in my view, expectations that the public are legitimately entitled to and they are fundamental requirements for building confidence in the state. Circumventing them instead weakens this confidence in the state.

Members of the National Council, Members of the Government,
The pandemic has been ruthless in exposing problems that we have known about for years and experts have warned about. However, it is only now that we can see with our own eyes the effects of ignoring them. Let us seize the opportunity that it offers us and use of shared awareness to make tackling these issues a priority.
The world is facing not just the pandemic crisis and its economic impact, but also a crisis of confidence in democracy, rule of law and our ability to tackle the climate crisis.
What that could really help us and what we very much need is the globalisation of compassion. The globalisation of cooperation. These are prerequisites for overcoming the problems that we are facing together.
Let us who have taken responsibility in elections also contribute. Let us manage our responsibilities through dialogue, with respect and mutual cooperation. Only in this way can we fulfil our mission of public service and create a strong and cohesive Slovakia.

Thank you for your attention!