By Matthew Czekaj
Within just days of his party’s overwhelming victory in the parliamentary elections, Direction-Social Democrats (Smer-SD) party chairman and Slovakia’s new Prime Minister Robert Fico suggested to the media that a number of government ministries and agencies may be merged to increase efficiency and reduce public spending (TASR, March 20). Among the options discussed by Smer-SD officials has been to merge the Anti-monopoly Fund (PMU) and the Public Procurements Office, the Ministry of Education with the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Social Affairs with Health, and the Interior and Defense Ministries. The Slovak Ministry of the Interior has competency over domestic and border security, citizen registration procedures, as well as the police and fire fighting services. In addition, Smer-SD has proposed combining the civilian intelligence agency, Slovak Information Service (SIS), with the two military intelligence services, or at least to merge the agency of military intelligence (VSS) with military counter-intelligence (VOS). “We are not interested in going in for revolutions […] Slovakia needs peace and a normal political professional performance, and this is what we are striving for,” Fico told reporters, adding later, “all that can be integrated together will be merged” (TASR, March 20).
Opinion among experts is divided about whether such mergers are a good idea as previous attempts at this have failed in the past, according to Slovak political analyst Michal Horsky (TASR, March 20). Still, three former Slovakian Defense Ministers have gone on the record in support of combining the Interior and Defense Ministries. Ľubomír Galko of Freedom and Solidarity/SaS and Martin Fedor of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ-DS) both conceded guardedly that such a merger “could be possible in the long-term under certain situations,” according to the Slovak TASR news agency. Jaroslav Baška, a former Minister of Defense from the Smer-SD party, agreed but cautioned that “everything needs to be well-thought out in the most minute details.” Galko recommended that further debate and study of experiences from abroad be carried out first, and that military and civilian experts weigh in on the proper allocation of powers and competencies for the new ministry. Fedor suggested starting the procedure of combining the two ministries slowly with a joint procurement program, and he proposed allowing the Interior Ministry to use the military police much like a gendarmerie force found in other countries. If the government goes ahead with uniting the Interior and Defense portfolios under one minister, the process will have to begin before the end of this year, Baška added.
This was actually not the first time that the idea was floated to merge Slovakia’s police and military under one roof. In January of 2010, the head of the ultra-nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS), Jan Slota, suggested that the number of Slovak government ministries should be reduced following the June 2010 parliamentary elections. In addition to other mergers, Slota argued that the Ministries of the Interior and Defense should be combined to create an “armed forces ministry,” while transferring the civilian forces to the Construction and Regional Development Ministry – which itself, Slota proposed, would be joined with the Ministry of Economy. Indeed, initiatives for streamlining the Slovak cabinet were being publically discussed at the time. However, SNS’s then-coalition partners, Smer, headed by Fico, and the populist Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), headed by former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, expressed reservations with the prudence of Slota’s proposal. At the same time, the opposition SDKÚ asserted that Slota’s ministry consolidation plan was just an attempt to cover up the scandals SNS leaders were involved with at the very ministries he proposed to merge.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Fico’s recent complaint about Slovakia’s inability to properly finance its military services reflects a fact. As Polish news outlet, TVN24, reported in the summer of 2011, Slovakia’s “Army is crumbling” [link in Polish] and the country is losing the ability to defend itself. According to the Slovak Ministry of Defense, Slovakia’s outdated, under-equipped and under-trained military “is unable to survive on a modern battlefield.” Slovakia’s military modernization plan, which the country was supposed to undertake upon entering NATO, has stalled. Overall, the armed forces utilize only about 54 percent modern equipment. The air force is the best equipped, with 66 percent modern materiel; mechanized infantry comes in second with 62 percent. The most poorly equipped Slovak units are army engineer corps, with only 29 percent of their equipment meeting Alliance standards, and the signal corps, which has nearly no modern materiel at all. All of Slovakia’s main battle tanks, made up of T-72s, are outdated, as are its BVP-1 infantry fighting vehicles. Plans to replace its aging, Soviet-made MiG-29 supersonic fighters will likely be scrapped. Neither the country’s military personnel nor vehicles have proper active or passive defense systems, which makes them unfit for deployment to a high-risk battle environment like Afghanistan. Worse still, TVN24 points out that 90 percent of Slovakia’s stockpiled ammunition is past its expiration date.
Slovak military battle readiness has been further degraded by years of insufficient training. In 2008, 58 percent of Slovakia’s military personnel met NATO’s rigorous training standards; but, by 2010, only 44 percent did. Moreover, while the Air Force command is the only arm of the Slovakian military that is fully integrated into North Atlantic Alliance structures – the rest of the military is incapable of taking part in joint NATO operations even on its own soil – Slovak MiG-29 pilots log only 60 hours of flight time annually. The NATO recommended standard is a minimum of 180 training hours (TVN24, August 16, 2011).
The culprit responsible for the country’s military degradation has been a chronic under-financing of the armed forces. Since joining NATO, Slovakia has consistently spent below its Alliance obligation of at least two percent of the country’s GDP on military expenditures. Bratislava’s 1.7 percent spending in 2004 has been in steep decline, reaching just 1.1 percent by 2010. This decline can only be explained by increasingly large cuts to defense budgets. Despite government assurances otherwise, Slovakia’s overall economic growth has been too low over the past several years to make up for the defense spending’s shrinking percentage shares of GDP. That level of spending is inadequate to even sustain operational readiness, let alone armed forces modernization.
Slovakia’s new government has already been sworn in, and so far the Interior and Defense Ministries will be headed by two separate individuals – Robert Kaliňák and Martin Glváč, respectively. However, Defense Minister Glváč reaffirmed the government’s plans to combine the VSS and VOS military intelligence outfits starting in 2013, so other planned bureaucracy mergers may still be in the works. Bratislava’s inability to properly finance its military certainly gives the government good reason to look for cost savings and efficiency gains. However, for a country with a recent politically repressive past exemplified by former PM Mečiar’s misuse of the police, military and state security services, Slovakia should be very careful in its approach. Putting all force-capable services of the state under the command of one minister could prove destabilizing to the country’s democratic institutions.
Indeed, the pattern of ever sharper budget cuts to the military over the years suggests not that Slovakia needs to find greater efficiency and savings – even if it does – but rather that the country has consciously been undervaluing its own national defense. The Slovaks and their elected representatives will thus have to reevaluate not so much who should be in charge of the military and police, but instead what services they expect their government to provide and how high a robust national defense should be on that list.