Monday, March 31, 2014

Slovakia's 2014 presidential election, Part 2: Kiska wins

So, I realize that I completely dropped the ball on my promise to give you a presidential election update after the first round on March 15 (see first election post here), but I wanted to wait to see how the campaign between Robert Fico and Andrej Kiska developed, as some rather odd things were going on in those intervening two weeks. But then I got busy with various things and the days kind of whisked by, and suddenly here we are, a couple days after the second and final round of the election, where to the shock of many, Kiska, a former businessman, philanthropist and independent candidate with zero political experience, came out of nowhere to beat Fico in what has to be one of the biggest political upsets in the history of modern, independent Slovakia.

Here's how it went down. 

In the weeks leading up to the first round, the vast majority of the polls were saying that Fico and Kiska would advance to face each other in the run-off, which is obviously what happened. What pundits and pollsters weren't anticipating, however, is just how poorly Fico would fare in the fist round. He did manage to come out on top, but with only 28% of the vote, much lower than the 30-something percent or higher that many were expecting. Adding insult to injury, Kiska trailed him by a mere 4 points.

Another surprise in that first round was how well independent/right-leaning Radoslav Procházka did: third place, with 21% of the vote - considerably more than polls forecast (which often had him at around 12%), and losing to Kiska by a 3 measly points. Milan Kňažko came in fourth, with 12.9%, although interestingly, he won overwhelmingly in Bratislava, which prompted him to announce that he's now considering a run for Bratislava mayor in the next race. 

Pavol Hrušovský, the candidate of the KDH and the People's Platform (a coalition uniting all the centre-right opposition parties in parliament) and Fico's only opponent affiliated with/endorsed by any of parliamentary opposition parties, came in with a humiliating 3.33%. In fact, this crushing defeat has essentially ended the People's Platform. 

The campaign gets ugly

So, with the race narrowed down to Fico and Kiska, the mudslinging shifted into high gear. Fico hit hard by accusing Kiska of having ties to Scientology. Yup, you read that correctly. Apparently, Kiska wrote a book some years back which was published by a company whose owner is the president of the School of Management of L. Ron Hubbard. That publisher also wrote the foreword to the book. Kiska also participated in some business seminars/lectures put on by an institution that was also said to have Scientology links. But Kiska denied the allegations, saying he had no idea about the publisher's Scientologist ties, and that it was just an opportunity for him to get published, and that if he'd known about the Scientology thing, he'd have kept shopping his book around. Some have said they believe Kiska probably just made a simple, stupid mistake, and didn't properly vet who he was working with. 

But Fico refused to let it go. In one of several debates leading up to the run-off, Fico had the audacity to proclaim that since one of Kiska's former lending companies was called Triangel, and since Scientology uses the triangle as a symbol, therefore Kiska must be a Scientologist! You've got to love the logic of that. 

Kiska countered that the company had been created as a subsidiary of an already established US company called Triangel Int'l Group, and called Fico's accusation preposterous. 

Of course in the end, no actual evidence emerged of Kiska having ties to Scientology, and a representative of Scientology in central Europe made a public statement denying that Kiska had anything to do with the cult. (Let's just hope Tom Cruise never gets an invitation to the Presidential Palace). But the simple fact that the seed had been planted in the minds of the public had some people worried that voters in this deeply catholic country might get scared and vote for Fico. 

Fico also accused Kiska of having been a loan shark when running his money-lending firms. Now, Kiska had been facing these allegations even leading up to the first round, but no one seemed to be able to substantiate that claim with tangible proof. I would think it wouldn't be that difficult to track down and talk to some people who took out loans from Kiska's companies, or to locate some old contracts and read the fine print. One figure that was floating around was that he was charging 14% interest on personal loans (not sure if this was totally verified, though), which, while not ideal, isn't so different from what many banks would charge, and wouldn't qualify him as a loan shark. Keep in mind, there are some seriously sketchy non-banking money-lending companies in Slovakia who have been known to charge 100% interest, but no one produced any shred of evidence showing that Kiska was swimming in the same waters as those particular kinds of sharks. 

At one point news emerged that the police were given orders from higher up to look back into cases of suicides by anyone who'd taken out a loan that they couldn't pay back. This was a pretty low blow, and needless to say, they didn't find anything. The Interior Minister denied that police were being misused to dig up dirt on Kiska, saying they were simply collecting statistics on suicides related to non-licensed loan institutions, but not the firms that Kiska ran. 

Kiska also claimed that former employees of his were allegedly offered bribes in exchange for any dirt that could discredit him. He even said that some people were offered a €10,000 bribe to provide false testimony. When asked if he thought Smer was behind this, Kiska said, "these people have confirmed to me that people who offered them the bribes were representatives of the ruling party," as reported by TASR newswire.

Despite no evidence to support these allegations, Fico maintained that Kiska was lying throughout the entire campaign. 

Kiska responded to all this by filing a criminal complaint against Fico for libel. He also made references to the controversial Gorilla file, a document leaked to the internet and the media in late 2011 that allegedly contains transcripts of recordings of secret meetings that took place between high-level politicians and prominent higher-ups with the Penta financial group back in 2005-06. Fico was alleged to have attended some of these meetings. 

Some pretty nasty anti-Kiska leaflets made their way around the country during the campaign as well, but Fico denied having any involvement in that. 

For the most part, however, Kiska refrained from fighting back with the same kind of desperate, below-the-belt tactics. He managed to get a few barbs in on the televised debates, but stood his ground when denying all of the crazy allegations. I think voters definitely took note of this. 

The bungled press conference

On Wednesday before the election, Kiska scheduled a live press conference at which Procházka and Kňažko were supposed to show up and publicly endorse him. On a televised debate prior to the first election round, all four of Fico's top challengers promised they would support and vote for whomever made it to the second round. So this conference was their chance to make good on that promise in a very clear and public way. Unfortunately, things didn't go according to the script. 

Firstly, Kňažko, inexplicably, did a no-show. Instead, he made a statement to the media that day that he'd already told the public who he was voting for and had said everything he'd wanted to say on the topic.

Procházka was at least kind enough to show up, but when the cameras were on him, he started waffling, and made kind of a rambling, awkward comment suggesting that people should just vote for whomever they want. Kiska was apparently flummoxed by the whole thing, and the media and Kiska's supporters immediately took Kňažko and Procházka to task. I mean, are these guys' egos really so inflated that they can't leave them at the door for just a few minutes to try and help the better guy win? I mean, come on. 

This perfectly illustrates why the opposition in this country has consistently failed to get its shit together in the two years since Smer took an absolute majority in parliament. Too much clashing of unchecked egos has resulted in the opposition parties splintering into smaller, ineffective factions and rendered them completely useless. This is why the opposition has been in a complete shambles, and Fico has been able to sit there and gleefully watch them self-destruct. 

At any rate, Procházka issued a statement the next day apologizing for his confusing non-endorsement, and said unambiguously that he would be voting for Kiska. Kňažko offered a similar apology. Still, one wouldn't be blamed for wondering how much damage this botched press debacle had done. 

Slovaks vote

Fortunately, it seemed to have zero impact on Kiska. He didn't just defeat Fico, he mopped the floor with him, winning with a whopping 20% lead (Kiska garnered a hair under 60% of the vote, while Fico got 40.6%). This was a colossal, stinging defeat for Fico, who just a few months ago seemed unstoppable. Kiska even won more votes than Fico's Smer party when it won a majority in the 2012 parliamentary elections. 

So, what the hell happened? 

Oddly enough, Smer supporters did go out and vote in pretty big numbers. The news reports are saying that Fico actually did do a good job of mobilizing his base. But it wasn't enough, obviously. There was something about Kiska that voters couldn't resist.

But Kiska didn't win on any particular message that resonated with the public. He is by no means a brilliant orator, he offered no new mind-blowing ideas, he's not cute, and he is a bit lacking in the charisma department. Kiska won partly because people are fed up with the established political parties. Yes, this can be seen as a referendum on Smer/Fico, but also on all of the parties currently in the field. There seems to be a strong anti-establishment mood among voters. I think people are sick of the sense of stagnation, of working hard and getting nowhere, and they genuinely wanted someone with no political baggage, some fresh blood, to come in with a different approach.

A subsequent poll conducted among voters found the following: 89 percent voted for Kiska because they saw him as non-partisan, 84 percent said they liked Kiska’s character, 80 percent appreciated his charity work, and 20 percent said they voted for Kiska to prevent Fico from winning. So, it seems most people were drawn to his not being affiliated with any party and saw him as a kind of neutral personality.

(Interestingly, Terezia's mom worked at the polling station in the village of Lovinobaňa, where she said they got a lot of invalid ballots where people crossed out both names and wrote in things like "piča" [which is Slovakia's term for the English c-word] down below).

I also get the sense that Slovaks aren't as accustomed to negative campaigns and attack ads. In the US attack ads are ubiquitous come election time, and they can be pretty hostile, manipulative, dishonest, and disgusting. No one likes them, but we've come to expect them and roll our eyes when subjected to them. But I think Slovaks aren't so used to this and find the whole thing very off-putting. Several pundits here have said that Fico's negative campaign tactics may have backfired in the end.

The whole Kiska thing reminds me a bit of Ross Perot, the independent candidate who ran against George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton back in 1992. Perot, as you may recall, was that billionaire businessman with a heavy Texas drawl who ran as an independent and funded his whole campaign from his own pocket. He actually managed to garner considerable support from frustrated moderate voters who were disappointed with the Republicans, but not convinced by the Democrats. In the end Perot won no states, but did get 18.9% of the popular vote. His performance had few precedents in America's two-party system, and he played on a similar kind of voter dissatisfaction with the established parties. 

The problem is, we really don't know that much about Kiska. He's made a lot of general promises, offered some not-too-in-depth views on various things, but we really have no way of knowing just how effective he'll be once in office. We don't know quite what to expect. Voting for Kiska was definitely a gamble. 

While many are relieved that Fico lost (myself and Terezia included), there are a few too many unknowns with Kiska for comfort. Clearly he was the lesser evil, but let's hope he can master what will no doubt be a steep learning curve and be that counterweight to Smer that he promised to be.

That's partly why I was interested in Kňažko. He actually had a political history that one could draw on; although I admitted in my last post that I was having difficulty finding very many details about his years in politics (he mainly spent his time combatting the autocratic Mečiar, but also did a four-year stint as the culture minister. The only negative thing I found were a few articles that made vague references to Kňažko having bought some palatial home in the Bratislava hills whose worth exceeded his salary, implying he may have lined a pocket or two; but I couldn't find anything concrete on this). But the point is, at least he has firsthand experience with the system, and you'd kind of know what to expect.

So, we'll just have to wait and see. Some suspect Fico may try to make life difficult for Kiska. One pundit quipped that Fico might shut off the power to the Presidential Palace. I think the whole nation is wondering how this will all play out.

Of course, Kiska certainly wasn't someone who Terezia and I could get excited about. To us, a vote for Kiska was, like for many people, more a vote against Fico, rather than a vote in support of Kiska. It's always a bummer to have to vote for the lesser evil, when there's no truly inspiring candidate. But coming from the US, I can at least say that I'm certainly used to it. 

So, who voted for Kiska?

Take a look at this interactive map by the news outlet Sme (you can click in the center of each circle to see who won and by what percentage). Kiska (shown in orange) won in all of the bigger cities, and he also got solid support along the southern border with Hungary, where most of the ethnic Hungarian minority in Slovakia lives (Fico has made a habit out of alienating Hungarians). Fico (shown in red) did much better in a lot of the deep rural areas, in those small towns and villages in the sticks (but some of those went for Kiska, too). Fico also did quite well in the adjacent Trenčín and Žilina regions, both of which are located more in the northwestern part of the country. While Kiska still won in the main cities of those regions, Trenčín and Žilina, Fico did really well in the towns that surround them. There is quite a lot of industry in those areas, especially car and auto-parts manufacturing, and Fico is on friendly terms with the trade unions, so that could partly explain it. Also, this part of the country, especially Žilina, is said to be a hotbed of nationalism, and Fico has maintained close ties to certain segments of nationalists (as I mentioned in the last election post, Fico ruled from 2006-10 in a governing coalition with SNS and HZDS, two political parties notorious for their unapologetically nationalist and xenophobic views). Kiska also came out ahead in some of the bigger eastern cities, like Poprad, Prešov, and Košice. But in the more remote far eastern part of the country, it was almost solidly Fico (except down south by the Hungarian border, of course).

Monday, March 24, 2014

Modrý Kameň and a quick drive through Prague

While visiting the in-laws in Podrečany over the weekend, Terezia's brother Tony thought it'd be fun to go on a little Sunday morning drive to one of the many castle ruins that dot the Novohrad region around Lučenec. This time we opted for Modrý Kameň, a small town (population ~1500) that lies just beyond Veľký Krtíš, about 20-30 minutes southwest of Lučenec. (Terezia and I had been through Veľký Krtíš once before on an aimless driving excursion and noted its bleak nothingness - the whole place seems to consist of communist-era panelaks; it's a big mining town. The few people you see out on the street look chronically bummed out).

Modrý Kameň is a sleepy hill town that spills down into a ravine, a bit like Banská Štiavnica, although unlike that town, Modrý Kameň is much more modest and was subject to way more commie-era architectural intrusions, and while still picturesque, it is nowhere near as historical or ornately attractive, and it's quite a bit smaller. Whereas Banská Štiavnica is geared for and accustomed to tourists, Modrý Kameň's inhabitants all seem to peer out of their front doors suspiciously as you drive through their narrow, deserted streets.

But it's home to an imposing castle ruin that looms dramatically over the town. Like the vast majority of castles in the region, it was destroyed (by the Ottomans) and rebuilt (by various people) numerous times over the centuries. The castle affords an awesome view over the town. The highest point is currently roped off due to reconstruction, but the views from the areas that were accessible are certainly nothing to shake a stick at.

Should we go inside? It's only about 40 cents per person...
Overlooking the castle's mote.

In the 18th century a rather monochrome Baroque palace was built right next to the castle, which now houses an antique puppet museum, as well as a small exhibition on Slovakia's first dentist, František Kuska. The museum was closed, which is par for the course, but I can't say we'd have been clamoring to go inside, although one might get a perverse kick out of seeing the Kuska display given the laid back approach to dental hygiene that one often encounters in Slovakia.

When looking down from the castle walls, one couldn't help but notice piles of garbage scattered around at the base of the ravine, just behind the back yards of several dilapidated homes. Many of the homes at the foot of the castle hill are clearly old and historical, but in various states of disrepair. I would harbor a guess that much like Fiľakovo (which I wrote briefly about here), the town and its inhabitants lacked the money and/or the interest to fix these quaint, crumbly old houses up and instead let the local Roma community move into them. While on one hand at least the Roma aren't having to live in makeshift shacks in an illegal settlement just outside the town (as is the case in many other towns and villages), it's sad that these old houses will likely continue to fall into greater disrepair.

Terezia looking down at the garbage below. Notice the historically accurate barbed wire along the top of the medieval wall.
A cascade of trash.

And re: the garbage - it's unfortunately common to see piles of garbage strewn about in and around impoverished Roma communities. In many instances, this is because they can't afford to pay to have their garbage picked up, and the local authorities aren't willing to foot the bill. I would think, however, that the authorities in Modrý Kameň would want to make sure their star attraction and its immediate vicinity are free from debris and that they could work something out to keep the area clean, but apparently not. As Tony noted, in late spring and summer when tourist season picks up, the leaves on all the trees have grown back and probably hide most of the detritus, so the locals just say "fuck it" and leave it there.

Behind the castle is a calvary path that zig-zags up a very steep hill leading to an old temple with an alcove containing a creepy looking crucifixion scene. You can see this temple peaking out above the castle when you drive into town, so we were naturally curious to see what it was. Some paintings depicting Jesus encased in glass on the walls flanking the alcove were being eaten away by busy armies of termites.

Calvary thrill.

On the way out we noticed this, the Hotel Hrad (castle). Not sure if it's still in business. Would you stay here?

I wouldn't say Modrý Kameň is worth going out of one's way for, but if you're in the area, it might be worth the hour or so detour (especially if the puppet museum sounds appealing to you, or if you're strangely fascinated by old, slightly run-down, out of the way towns in the Slovak countryside). The road leading to Veľký Krtíš and Modrý Kameň is reasonably scenic, with a few typical rustic, old villages along the way, complete with narrow houses with sagging roofs and tumbledown barns, all centered around the requisite church steeple.

On the way back to the in-laws in Podrečany, we decided to take a quick side-trip through Praha (Prague)! Not that Prague, obviously, but Praha, Slovakia, population 94, which is pretty much just one street that you can drive through in under half a minute. Almost all of the houses that line the street are of the quaint, old, long, narrow variety typical of rural Slovak villages, complete with patches of exposed stonework and cool little designs. A few bedheaded locals who look like they haven't showered in a few days can be seen ambling around the street, eyeing you suspiciously, probably assuming the idiots passing through in the car got lost after taking a wrong turn a few miles back.

Slovakia's Prague was established in the 1400s by the Hussites, protestant forerunners who named it in honor of that other Prague, the Czech capital. The village's coat of arms features a chalice, which was a typical Hussite symbol. Even by Lučenec standards, Prague is fairly remote. The only road that leads there from the nearest point of anything resembling civilization (the tiny, charmingly ramshackle town Halič with its imposing reconstructed castle) looks like it hasn't been repaved since communism, although the closest village, Lupoč, is a just few miles away.

Leaving Praha.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Another good restaurant find in Bratislava: Vietnamese lunch at Papaya

I've been lamenting Bratislava's relative dearth of ethnic restaurants for a while now, but it looks like one popped up sometime last year which we finally just tried for lunch. I have to say, this place seems to be pretty promising.

There are a few Vietnamese joints around town, but they all have these really unappetizing photos of their dishes posted out front, and most of the entrees look fried, which is puzzling since we don't recall seeing very many friend dishes on the menus of the Vietnamese places we used to frequent in the Bay Area. I've poked my head into a couple of these joints and noticed people eating some greasy looking fried thing with a side of french fries and mayo. This made us come to the conclusion that these restaurants felt compelled to compromise their cuisine in order to appeal to the Slovak palette.

And I've often wondered why there aren't good Vietnamese restaurants in Bratislava. Vietnamese migrants used to come to communist Czechoslovakia through student exchange programs, and some of them decided to stay. As a result, there is a decent-sized Vietnamese population in Slovakia (and more so in the Czech Republic, in Prague).

But a colleague of mine recently alerted me to this newish place downtown called Papaya, saying it was pretty darn good and much closer to the real thing than what you can usually find around here.

The menu is very basic and short - just the staples (though they have a more extensive dinner menu) - and the service is quasi-cafeteria style: you order your food at a counter, but they bring it out to you when it's ready. The guy who helped us was incredibly helpful and friendly, and he was even trilingual, speaking Vietnamese to his co-workers, Slovak to Terezia, and English to me.

I was slightly bummed to see they didn't have my favorite Vietnamese dish, spicy lemongrass chicken, on the lunch menu, but what they did have was good enough to quickly snap me out of that brief bout of disappointment.

We started with a big bowl of chicken pho, which we shared. To be honest, neither of us are all that well versed in pho, but this was tasty. The broth's flavor packed a pleasing, layered, aromatic punch, enhanced by the fresh herbs and the small slices of hot red peppers, which were like little pockets of fire with each bite. The rice noodles were a good texture. I could have just had this and been happy.

The chicken pho, before dumping some additional herbs into it.

We followed that with a flavorful chick curry dish, which veered toward the sweeter side, with super tender pieces of chicken and perfectly cooked (not soggy) slices of bell pepper and carrots. I could've used more spicy heat, but it was still good, and very similar to other Vietnamese curries that I've had back in the Bay Area.

Terezia ordered a bowl of noodles which came with some perfectly cooked shrimp and these super tender pieces of pork. The flavor of the dish was maybe a little overly reliant on the soy sauce and Sriracha that we poured over it, but it was still tasty.

Everything was quite fresh - very bright, clean flavors. The whole bill came to €16, which is incredibly reasonable. We will be going back, and next time I think I want to try their Vietnamese sandwich and the pho with beef.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Slovakia's 2014 presidential election

Slovaks are electing their new president this year, as current president Ivan Gašparovič's second and final term is about to expire. Slovakia's presidential campaigns are mercifully short, which is especially odd to someone like me from the US, where campaigns drag on for nearly two torturous years. Officially, this year's campaign started on March 1, and on March 15 they will have their first round. If any one candidate nabs over 50% of the vote, he wins, but that rarely, if ever, happens, so they then have a run-off election between the two candidates who won the most votes in the first round.

Just because the campaign doesn't officially begin until a couple weeks before the election doesn't mean that the candidates can't spend any money or time getting their names on the public's radar. A few of the candidates started plastering their pasty mugs on billboards all over the country a year ago. Also, the various polling agencies started conducting their polls many months out. But the campaigning doesn't kick into high gear until a few weeks before the election, which is when they have televised debates and increase their public appearances.

This year there are 14 candidates, but only four of them are considered to be serious contenders.

The most favored to win is Prime Minister Robert Fico. He actually announced his candidacy pretty late in the game in December, well after most of the other players had thrown their hats into the ring. Some suspect that there may have been some hemming and hawing within Robert Fico's Smer party over this given that he is the prime minister. And because he is by far the most familiar and popular face within his party, people are kind of wondering who will be tapped to replace him for a role that holds far more responsibility and authority than the president.

See, in Slovakia the president is really more of a figurehead, a ceremonial position with very limited powers, while the prime minister is, for all intents and purposes, the real head of the government. The president can appoint various state officials and approve or reject appointments made by parliament, and he can sign or veto bills (which parliament can override with a majority vote). But the prime minister has a far more active role in influencing legislation and policy and, hence, the direction of the country. People have speculated that Fico would find the presidency boring and that it would not be surprising if he were to broaden the president's powers. In fact, Fico himself recently said that he would like to see the role of the president grow.

For this reason, it's ideal to have more of a neutral president, or at least someone who isn't necessarily closely allied with whomever has the parliamentary majority (and hence, rules the government), so he can establish more of a balance of power and step in when needed to help resolve disputes that parliament or the government can't work out themselves. But Gašparovič is extremely cozy with Smer, and has rarely ever vetoed their legislation or stood in their way. Some have accused him of being Smer's puppet.

Smer has an absolute parliamentary majority, which has rendered the opposition parties totally impotent. While Gašparovič may as well be a member of Smer because of his close ties, having an actual card-carrying Smer member as president would give Smer complete, unfettered control over the country (Gašparovič has vetoed a law or two of Smer's, or meekly raised the occasional objection, albeit totally in vain). As it stands, there is very little currently that can counter Smer's agenda, and putting Fico in the presidential palace would only exacerbate that.

This is why some suggest that whichever candidate goes up against Fico in the run-off may actually stand a good chance at beating him. In fact, a couple recent polls had independent candidate Andrej Kiska narrowly defeating Fico, while others showed him at least giving Fico a run for his money. Smer and Fico enjoy considerable popularity, but given that nothing has really improved since Smer came to power in 2012 in terms of unemployment, corruption, transparency, standard of living, etc., some Smer supporters may be losing patience, and recent polls seem to back this up.

All of Fico's opponents more or less call for the same things, like ending the rampant corruption in the judiciary, greater government transparency, boosting employment, opposing tax increases, and creating a friendlier business environment, especially with the aim of attracting more foreign investments. But like I mentioned above, the president can only do so much to even attempt to achieve these goals, so while these candidates can make a laundry list of promises, there may not be a helluva lot they can actually do in as long as Smer holds the majority in parliament.

Here's a run down on the candidates who are polling in the top four:

Robert Fico

Fico began his political career in the late 1980s as a loyal member of the communist party. Something about his glum, perpetually unsmiling face and deep-set, dark eyes just screams Soviet-era apparatchik. According to Anna Porter in her book Ghosts of Central Europe, he has referred to the Velvet Revolution as "an ordinary coup", adding that "he appears to be indifferent to the Communists' human rights violations, and rather nostalgic for their control of the press". Though he entered parliament in the early 90s, he really began emerging as a leadership figure in the 2000s, and in 2006 his Smer party won enough seats in the election to rule in a governing coalition with HZDS (Movement for a Democratic Slovakia) and SNS (Slovak National Party) for four years.

But this is where things get tricky. While Smer call themselves social democrats, which would normally put them left-of-centre on the political spectrum, they are "leftists" only in a strictly economic sense; progressives or liberals in a contemporary western sense, they are most decidedly not. On social issues they are consistently conservative. While they're friendly with the trade unions and they eliminated (and increased) the 20% flat tax that the previous centre-right government put in place, Smer has a pretty deplorable human rights record (especially with regard to Roma and Hungarian minorities), until recently they've done virtually nothing to address the corruption and unreliability of the judicial system (Fico is reportedly on very friendly terms with the Supreme Court chairman, who many say is the primary source of this toxic corruption), and they have been at serious loggerheads with the teachers', doctors', and nurses' unions. I could go on...

Anna Porter describes Smer as "a peculiar mix of leftist economics and xenophobic populism".

In their first four years in power, 2006-2010, Smer governed in a ruling coalition with SNS and HZDS, two parties which became notorious for rampant corruption and their fierce nationalism and unapologetically racist sentiments (mostly against Roma and Hungarians). To put it simply, Fico and his Smer party members do not have a single progressive bone in their bodies. 

When Smer returned to power in 2012 they won an outright majority. This time HZDS and SNS failed to clear the 5% threshold needed to win seats in parliament, and Smer didn't need to form a coalition with any other political party. This means that Smer has eased up on the uber-nationalist, anti-Hungarian rhetoric a little bit, but problems with their handling of the Roma only seem to have gotten worse.

Fico's success lies in his ability to have manufactured this populist image that resonates strongly with older generations; people who lived much of their lives under communism and have a strange sort of nostalgia for that time. These people harbor deep fears that the free market will take away their social safety net, and they represent a very traditional segment of the population that is quite socially conservative and devoutly catholic. Importantly, they also get out and vote, and Fico has played right into this. (On a recent TV interview he talked up his intensely catholic upbringing, leading critics to point out the inherent contradiction in his status as a loyal member of the communist party before 1989). He's led them to believe that he's got their backs because he won't let capitalism destroy their lives and leave them out on the street.

He's cultivated this image as a strong, tough-talking leader, and seems to use a lot of folksy, idiomatic expressions when talking to the press, which are often difficult to translate into English. He's not afraid to toss out snarky remarks about the political opposition, and loves to blame or attack the media when some Smer-designed measure or policy gets any pushback.

A friend and former colleague of mine said Fico really doesn't have a clear or easy to pin down ideological agenda or stance. He seems to just do whatever he thinks is required to achieve his objectives. He has often described himself as pragmatic. To many observers, most of his efforts seem geared toward maintaining and strengthening his and Smer's political power.

Andrej Kiska

The first to announce himself as a presidential candidate, Kiska seemingly came from nowhere. He has zero political experience, and he's running as an independent. People seem to like that he has no political baggage and tend to view him as fresh blood that could perhaps breathe new life into a stagnating and partisan system. That's basically how he's touted himself in the campaign.

While for the past several years he's been heavily involved in philanthropic work, prior to that he became a self-made millionaire running a money-lending business. Some accuse him of having been a loan shark who exploited poor people by charging exorbitant interest rates, but I haven't really come across any hard proof of this - at least not in any English language media. He left the loan business to start his charity project, Dobrý Anjel, in 2005, which became quite successful, and largely supports cancer patients who encountered financial difficulty when dealing with their illness. He has made a point of not taking a dime from any political party or interest group, funding his whole campaign from his own pocket.

In terms of his political agenda, he is opposed to Smer, and paints himself as an independent and more viable alternative to the centre-right political opposition, who have been in total disarray since Smer took over the government in their landslide 2012 victory. Like all the candidates, he wants to make serious changes to the judiciary, fight government corruption, boost the rule of law, etc.

People say that Kiska lacks charisma or personality, which could hurt him in debates with Fico, and they also say his lack of political experience could hinder his ability to negotiate with Smer, if he's elected.

According to the Slovak Spectator, he plans to "insist that the government passes laws that would help create new jobs, to promote a competitive Slovakia, to promote health care as a priority, to call for a just social system, to call for a better education system, to call for an end to party nominations to important state offices, to fight against corruption, to promote a well functioning judiciary, to promote a better election system..."

The Slovak Spectator's got an interview with Kiska here.

Milan Kňažko

Kňažko is the oldest and most politically experienced of Fico's potential opponents. Kňažko spent much of his time under communism as a popular actor, and he played a prominent role in the 1989 Velvet Revolution, having been a fierce opponent of the communist regime. He was a founding member of the Public Against Violence (VPN) movement, and after the revolution he landed a gig as an advisor to Czechoslovak president Vaclav Havel.

He co-founded HZDS, which would normally be a pretty dark stain on anyone's CV, but to his credit he left the party in 1993 and quickly distanced himself from the party's leader and prime minister, the uber-controversial Vladimír Mečiar, whom many credit as being chiefly responsible for Slovakia's international isolation and reputation as the "black hole of Europe" in the 1990s. Kňažko served as an independent MP until '98, and as the culture minister from 1998-2002 under the centre-right government of Mikuláš Dzurinda (the government that cleaned up Mečiar's mess and got Slovakia into the EU). He left politics in the early 00s and went back into acting for a few years before serving as general director for the JOJ television network.

While Kňažko has been polling behind Kiska, political analysts still view him as a potential challenger to Fico in the second round.

Unfortunately, I'm having a difficult time trying to find out (at least in any English-language media) what Kňažko actually did during his tenure in politics. What was his legacy? Did he have a hand in crafting (or fighting against) any particular legislation? All I'm really finding is that his efforts were generally aimed at fighting Mečiar.

His main theme is that Smer's single-party majority rule is increasingly coming to resemble life before the revolution in 1989, and he wants to act as a counterweight to their far-reaching influence. His campaign motto is "There is much at stake again". He has said he would refuse to sign any law that increases taxes or "bullies" the self-employed.

You can find a short interview the Slovak Spectator did with him here.

What makes Kňažko stand out, though, and makes me wonder if he is perhaps the least repellent of the bunch, is that he is the only candidate to clearly state that he supports registered domestic partnerships for same-sex couples. Kiska has hinted that he supports this and Procházka (who we'll discuss next) has at least said he's not particularly interested in actively denying this to the LGBT community, but that's it. Of course, it'd be nicer if he'd have come out in support for full-on gay marriage, but in such a deeply conservative, catholic and homophobic country where a majority of the population opposes gay marriage (according to polls), maybe it's more realistic to take things one step at a time.

Kňažko is known for his biting sarcasm and sharp wit, and some observers have claimed that he is the one Fico fears going against the most in the run-off.

Political scientist Eduard Chmelár was quoted as saying that Fico allegedly fears Kňažko more than Kiska, "because his rhetorical abilities combined with a significant volume of sarcasm are giving him higher chances to succeed in a tough verbal fight, which will probably decide everything," as reported  by the Slovak Spectator.

Radoslav Procházka

At 41, Procházka is the youngest of the top contenders. While he's still a bit green politically, he has a strong legal background and is said to be an expert in constitutional law. He was originally from the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), but left last year over disagreements with the party leadership.

Procházka was widely seen as the favorite to run against Fico in the run-off, and I think that had a lot to do with name recognition. Like Kiska, he announced his presidential bid early in the game and his boyish face started appearing on billboards over the summer last year. But in January Kiska started eclipsing Procházka in the polls, and since then, Procházka's chances have seemed less certain.

One of the main criticisms leveled against him from voters is that people think he's too young. Some of his billboards say something along the lines of, "A young president? Why not?" Some of his political colleagues describe him as arrogant and unpredictable. Observers say he's really just using the campaign as a way to gain visibility and advance his political career. My main problem with him is that he tends to be frustratingly vague.

His former party, the KDH, harbors some pretty hardcore religious/social conservatives, and Procházka has said that unlike some in that party, he's more open to discussing taboo topics, like same-sex partnerships. But he still touts his conservative credentials and maintains that he's a regular church-going Christian. And, it should be noted, he publicly supported a massive pro-life/pro-traditional marriage rally that took place in Kosice last September.

He is really the only self-proclaimed conservative among the top four running in the race, and he is polling much higher than the candidate that the established conservative parties put forth - Pavol Hrušovský. Of course all the candidates espouse varying degrees of economic and social conservatism, but Procházka is the only one of the top four with a bonafide conservative political background.

According to the Slovak Spectator, Procházka (a bit like Fico) seems to desire a stronger presidency, which he believes is necessary to counter Smer.

The Spectator added:

He is making several pledges as a sign of how active he would be, including plans to participate in
cabinet sessions at least once a month, evaluate how the government fulfils its programme twice a year and participating in drafting the state budget. One of the biggest steps Procházka promises is to change the top judges at the Constitutional Court.

Strange bedfellows

The other significant rightwing candidate, Pavol Hrušovský from the parliamentary opposition party KDH, has been polling in the top five, but considerably lower than Fico's other three main opponents. His backing among rightwing voters is pretty shaky, and his utter lack of charisma is seen as a major liability. The mere fact that he's from the established centre-right parties may also hurt him, as these parties have been in a total shambles ever since the centre-right coalition was booted after a no-confidence vote in late 2011.

What's odd about the KDH is they recently allied with Smer on a surprise joint agreement whereby Smer promised to support KDH's proposal for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages, and the KDH agreed to support Smer's package of judiciary changes. There was absolutely zero debate within Smer about supporting the KDH's homophobic provision (further proof of Smer's social conservatism), and while the KDH had some reservations about Smer's plans for the judiciary, they were willing to compromise and ink the deal.

The natural question is, doesn't the KDH have anything more pressing to do than deny equal rights to LGBT folks? I mean, given all the problems that plague this country, should discriminating against same-sex couples really be a top priority? But the rightist parties in this country are in serious decline, they're desperate, and I think the KDH is trying to play on the social conservatism/catholicism of most of this country's inhabitants. That would also explain why Smer had no qualms about backing this amendment.

But why is Smer suddenly concerned about the judiciary? For eons, NGOs, foreign chambers of commerce, embassies, opposition politicians, and legal experts have been complaining ceaselessly about the deep, rampant corruption and ineffectiveness of Slovakia's judiciary. And Smer has done absolutely zippo about this until now. Naturally, critics are saying that this is just a politically calculated campaign maneuver, and some believe Smer's proposed measures won't go far enough.

Most people ultimately struggle to see how the KDH could possibly benefit from this.

Hold your nose and vote for the lesser evil

I obviously can't vote, not being a citizen, but Terezia is at a loss as to who to support. Clearly, this is a case of voting for the lesser evil, as none of the candidates are people who either of us could get enthusiastic about.

There's not a chance in hell we could support Fico, Procházka is just too conservative, and there are too many unknowns about Kiska. Kňažko seems to be the least offensive, but again, I just can't find enough information to form a truly informed opinion about him.

The main problem for us is the utter lack of any clear progressive voice. Coming from our liberal-progressive-hippie bubble of the Bay Area, it's downright surreal to live in a country where there is no meaningful progressive movement. Progressive types do exist here, but they represent such a tiny minority, they are so few and far between, that they essentially have no voice and very little power to have much of any influence. Most progressive advocacy work in Slovakia is carried out by a variety of NGOs and civic organizations.

The only liberals in parliament are few in number and had to align with the centre-right parties in opposition to Smer. SaS, the sole liberal party, splintered last year after a falling out among its leadership, and their influence has waned considerably since.

Both Kňažko and Kiska believe in decriminalizing, or at least softening penalties, for drug users. Neither appear to be opposed to registered domestic partnerships for LGBT folks. These are steps in the right direction, indicating the sort of progressive leaning that we can relate to, but it's not enough - I want to know more.

A lot of people will vote for Fico simply because he's familiar and they feel they can trust him (or at least the image he's cultivated) more than the others, for whatever reason. Others will likely hold their nose and vote for Procházka, or shrug their shoulders and vote for Kňažko or Kiska.

Things will really get interesting in the second round. That's when all of the people who oppose Smer/Fico band together in an effort to prevent Fico from winning. And whoever winds up being Fico's opponent will have to figure out how to unite all these disparate people.

I'll be sure to give an update about the first round of the election after March 15.

Monday, March 3, 2014


So, a good friend of mine was recently pestering me to write something about the situation in Ukraine given that it's literally right next door to Slovakia. It's a situation I've been following closely, in part because I've had a long-running fascination with the region, and also because it's happening close by. But I felt like I couldn't add any real meaningful insight that people couldn't already find elsewhere in the western media. Nevertheless, I'll give it a shot.

First of all, I personally would love to see Ukraine extract itself from Russia's/Putin's orbit and come closer to the EU and the West. Ukraine has suffered for far too long as Russia's whipping boy (mass starvation, killing and repression in the 1930s under Stalin, to Chernobyl in the 80s, massive lingering Soviet-style corruption, and the list goes on and on), and many of Ukraine's post-Soviet problems have their roots in the country having spent so much time under Russia's thumb. For starters, Ukraine's government under Yanukovych was as obscenely corrupt as they come - they scored 144 out of 177 on the Transparency International 2013 corruption perception index (with 177 being the most corrupt), making them one of the most corrupt countries in all of Europe. I heard an expert on NPR the other day refer to Ukraine as a "mafia state" - controlled by a handful of oligarchs who have hoarded an unbelievably large percentage of the country's wealth and who came by a lot of their money through blatantly corrupt and unfair practices.

A section of the corruption ranking to show you the kind of company Ukraine is in. 

This is a deeply ingrained culture of corruption that Ukraine very much shares with/inherited from Russia. Poverty, painfully low wages, and unemployment are all rampant - those protesters had a damn good reason for pouring out into the streets and holding their ground until Yanukovych fled. When you have ordinary people who've reached that breaking point, where they are willing to literally give up their lives to better their country, that is a clear indicator that the situation they're living in is a seriously bleak one.

And I feel for the protesters. As the demonstrations unfolded, and as the blood started pouring, I had to admire how well-prepared, organized, resourceful, resilient, and efficient they remained throughout. And I feel for them even more so now when, at the time of writing this, Russia has essentially taken Crimea and doesn't appear interested in giving it back. Ukraine's military is no match for Russia's, so there's little Ukraine can really do about it. There also doesn't appear to be a helluva lot that the EU or the US can do either: they can impose sanctions on Russia, freeze assets, ban Russia from the G8, etc., but if Putin is determined enough to keep Ukraine in his orbit, these things aren't likely to stop him. (Besides, if things get really bad, Russia can always just turn off the gas and make life miserable for about half of Europe). And of course no one wants to go to war with Russia - the results would undoubtedly be catastrophic - so Ukraine may very well be screwed in the end.

Even if Ukraine didn't have to worry about Putin, they'd still have a monumental pile of feces to wade through in order to make a new system work. For starters, as many have mentioned, the protesters were made up of a volatile group of more forward-thinking pro-EU/pro-western types, and totally crazy rightwing extremist/nationalists. They both shared the common goal of removing Yanukovych, but beyond that, they have very different views for the future of their country. Then you have the Russian loyalists, most of whom live in Crimea and the eastern regions, who were, as strange as this sounds, content with the way things were. We have intense, deep ideological divisions in the US, and we somehow manage to clumsily lurch by, so I suppose there is hope that they can at least figure out how to do the same. Of course, if Ukraine were to move toward the EU and receive desperately-needed financial aid, they'd be forced to swallow the austerity pill, which is a truly painful form of medicine, and which many prominent economists say has questionable results at best.

But what do Slovaks make of all this? 

It's difficult to tell, as I find many Slovaks to be fairly apolitical and apathetic. I certainly can't speak for Slovaks, but I do get the sense that they generally sympathize with the protest movement to the extent that, firstly, they do not trust Russia/Putin (and especially older generations draw parallels to 1968, when the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact armies rolled into Czechoslovakia on tanks to quash the modest popular reforms of the Prague Spring), everybody knows how horribly corrupt and impoverished Ukraine is, and no one wants to see a country's police gun down its own citizens - but these are universal things. It's not like Slovaks are rushing over the border to help or send aid. Unless the conflict were to somehow spill into Slovakia's backyard, I don't see most Slovaks losing much sleep over the situation.

You also have to remember that Kiev is almost as far from Bratislava as Paris. Even though Slovakia shares its eastern border with Ukraine, the center of the action feels quite far away. At the height of the protests, there was some activity in Lviv, but that is closer to the Polish border, and even that feels distant because it's so damn difficult to get to from Bratislava. Hell, Ukraine still uses the wider Russian-gauge railroad tracks, which makes it feel even more removed from central and western Europe (and makes traveling into Ukraine by train a real headache, since the train wheels have to be adjusted).

What is the Slovak government's take on Ukraine?

Of course, when the demonstrations were reaching their violent peak, there was much talk by the government about what to do if Ukrainians start pouring over the Slovak border en masse. The government said it was fully prepared to take in a limited number of refugees and it put its border patrol "on alert," but had found no out-of-the-ordinary activity along the border. Nor has there been a spike in Ukrainians applying for Slovak visas. Yanukovych was ousted well before the violence got bad enough to prompt anyone to flee.

Yet, if Putin decides to move his army north of Crimea and deeper into Ukraine, that could very well change things. We'll have to wait and see.

Otherwise, the Slovak government's position during the demonstrations ranged from perfunctorily denouncing the violence, to the foreign minister, Miroslav Lajčák, suggesting sanctions, like freezing the accounts of Yanukovych and others in his government, or banning them from travel. Slovakia is ultimately echoing whatever the EU says it will do or won't do. Poland's foreign minister seemed to have a much more hands-on role in communicating with both the old and new/interim governments as things have developed. Perhaps that makes sense as the border Poland shares with Ukraine is much bigger, and hell, a big chunk of western Ukraine used to belong to Poland until the end of WWII (a smaller chunk of Slovakia went to Ukraine after WWII as well, including the city of Uzhhorod, which is literally just over the border).

The most baffling perspective in Slovakia was offered by the rightwing extremist and Nazi-sympathizing governor of Slovakia's Banska Bystrica region, Marian Kotleba. He was elected last fall over the incumbent governor in a major upset (I'll do a separate post on him soon), and like most rightwing fascists/nationalists, he is vehemently anti-EU. These rightwing nuts think the EU strips countries of their autonomy, that it bleeds them dry and diminishes their culture, and people like Kotleba get a kick out of saying things like "NATO is a terrorist organization." These views are especially crazy given how reliant poor countries like Slovakia are on EU funding. Anyway, the point here is that during the demonstrations, Kotleba wrote a letter to Yanukovych before he was ousted, imploring him to stand his ground and resist the pro-EU "terrorists" who were trying to bring him down. Literally no other elected Slovak official said anything like that in public. Kotleba really is a bat-shit crazy loon operating on the fringe, but his perspective nevertheless had to leave many people bemused, and it's one which I don't believe many Slovaks truly share.

Slovak Prime Minster Robert Fico also offered a strange perspective. In early December, a few weeks after the demonstrations erupted over Yanukovych walking away from a deal with the EU and opting to take a loan from Putin instead, Fico said, "The EU is so in love with itself that it is convinced there is no better alternative to it in the world ... EU membership is not a religious rule for countries and each country can freely decided whether or not it will join." He added that one must look at the offers that are on the table, such as the lowering of gas prices or other projects offered to Ukraine. He later backtracked a bit, saying that the media had distorted his words, explaining that while he regretted that Ukraine backed out of the EU deal, "Ukraine simply decided to go another way and I will not judge them now - it is [their] internal affair."

Kind of a flippant and tone-deaf thing to say, if you ask me. But that's par for the course.

Fico more recently made an interesting statement on Slovak relations with Ukraine, saying that normal relations have never been established.

Slovak Foreign Minster Lajčák clarified this comment, saying that "the political system in Ukraine differs from the standard political systems that we're used to in European Union countries ... It [the system in Ukraine] is marked by lower transparency; in other words - internal political developments aren't as clear as with our other neighbors.”

Fortunately, Slovakia seems to be, along with the rest of the EU and the US, in communication with Ukraine's new interim government and treating it as legitimate. Slovakia has even sent €12,000 in humanitarian aid to Ukraine, mostly in the form of medical supplies. The foreign ministry appears to be stepping up its involvement with Ukraine, along with the foreign ministers of the other Visegard Four countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland), all of whom flew to Kiev on February 28.

However, a group of Slovak foreign policy experts recently said that Slovakia needs to be clearer and more unambiguous in its support for Ukrainian sovereignty and in condemning Russia's military intervention. We'll see if that happens. Apart from some statements made by Slovakia's foreign minister, Fico and his Smer party have seemed a little cautious or tepid in their stance on the issue so far, for the most part.

I think Slovakia sees as its biggest practical concern the disruption that an escalation in the conflict could cause to the flow of gas and other natural resources from Ukraine into Slovakia. It was recently stated that Slovakia has enough gas in its reserves to last four months if the pipeline were cut off.

In conclusion?

At the end of the day, I suspect most Slovaks are probably glad that there is a pretty thick band of countries separating them from Russia. I know I am! Simple geography really allowed the central European countries to re-orient themselves westward away from Russia's tentacles and join the EU. For people like Putin, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major blow, and Russia has done a pretty effective job of keeping its next-door neighbors under its influence, and it hasn't shied away from resorting to all out violence to keep it that way, as we've seen in Chechnya and Georgia. And of course with the exception of the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), which did manage to pull away somewhat, the rest of the former Soviet states are ruled by dictators in sham democracies and have bewildering levels of corruption and rampant poverty.

If things get to the point where Ukrainian refugees do start seeking refuge here, I don't think most Slovaks would mind at all. Besides, Ukraine is statistically one of the countries with the highest number of migrants seeking residence in Slovakia. When I was dealing with my residence at the Foreign Police in Bratislava, I saw an awful lot of people with Ukrainian passports. Things have been so bad in Ukraine that even Slovakia seems to hold better prospects for these people (although for some, Slovakia is just a way to get a foot in the door before they go to other EU countries with more opportunities).

At this point, with Russia doubling down in Crimea, things aren't looking so hot for Ukrainian sovereignty and independence. I just hope the parties involved can come to a peaceful and diplomatic resolution. I wonder if that will mean Ukraine would eventually be split in two? For now we'll have to wait and see.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Trying out a new restaurant for Terezia's birthday

In a city that's not exactly spilling over with good dining options, we try to keep an eye out for anything new that looks promising. We decided to use Terezia's birthday this week as an excuse to check out a place that opened up just last year called Savage Garden. Located in a new building directly on the almost comically neglected and uber-communist Namestie Slobody (Freedom Square), its giant windows look out on the commie-era stainless steel flower fountain, the square's centerpiece.

Savage Garden has a refreshingly international bent. The menu - which had me at a lamb shank entree - was devoid of the usual Slovak slop, containing bistro-ish French and Italian fare that would make this place feel right at home in San Francisco or Berkeley.

For the starter I ordered the roasted marrow bones with parsley pesto and bruschetta. First bite was under-seasoned, but we quickly remedied that with the salt shaker that had been kindly left on the table. The sinfully fatty bone marrow was silky, rich... and when placed on the toast that we'd rubbed with a raw garlic clove, and eaten with a dab of the parsley pesto, it was delicious. (I could've used a little spoon, though, to make it easier to dig all the marrow out).

Terezia's smoked trout with soft potato salad and quail egg was quite nice: very light, fresh, clean flavors. Not life-altering, but really tasty.

The lamb shank was fall-off-the-bone tender, and it had that wonderful, rich, lamb-y flavor, especially those bits that were closest to the bone. It came sitting atop a mountain of pumpkin puree, encircled by a moat of some kind of lamb demi-glaze. The whole dish was fairly simple, a bit rustic. However, like the bone marrow, it arrived under-seasoned, but after a few shakes of salt to make the flavors pop, we were in business. The thing is, I feel like a truly amazing chef should know how to perfectly season his dishes. Some chefs are chronic under-seasoners, but maybe this is just a kink that the kitchen will work out eventually.

I started digging in before remembering to snap a photo, so I had to kind of reassemble it after taking a couple bites - hence it doesn't look quite as nice in this photo as when it was brought to the table!

The gnocchi with wild mushroom sauce that Terezia ordered had the rich, earthy flavor one would expect from such a dish. The gnocchi were super light and airy, and the overall flavor, while not as explosively powerful as a mind-blowing porcini pasta dish that we had at Liviano last summer, was still quite nice. A few of the mushrooms were a bit mushy, though, meaning that they could have been frozen. Still a very enjoyable dish, nevertheless.

Terezia started in on her gnocchi before I snapped this photo as well, so again, it was prettier when it first arrived.

The lava cake oozed its pleasantly rich, warm and velvety chocolate goo, but Terezia and I agreed - the one she makes is a little better. And the "poached sour cherries" that accompanied it really just could've been maraschino cherries from a jar.

The wine: one glass of Slovak red that was a bit bland, and an Italian red that had a cab-like flavor and dryness. Neither were anything worth writing home about.

As Terezia remarked, the chef clearly has some international experience - this isn't food that Slovaks who haven't left the farm are typically inclined toward making. Bratislava really needs more dining options like this.

The vibe here was very casual, laid back. Service was friendly, but definitely a bit on the slow side. We waited a bit longer than usual to get menus, wine, etc. The patrons, most of whom appeared to be the sort of people in their 20s and 30s who buy Apple products, spoke a mixture of Slovak and English.

And the prices were thoroughly reasonable: the whole bill came to about 50 euros before the tip - about half of what a similar dinner at Liviano would cost. Savage Garden perhaps lacks Liviano's immaculate attention to detail and refinement, but it's a nice (and cheaper) alternative, and we'd certainly go back.