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Bail Out Greece? Many Slovaks Don't Like the Idea

Monday, 3 Oct 2011 | 3:21 AM ET

Anna, a 60-year-old retired chemical factory worker, wakes up every morning at 3 a.m., jumps on her bike and rides for a couple hours to get into Bratislava, where she works as a cleaner for a company in the Slovak capital's historic center.

She has a pension of 240 euros ($319) a month after having worked for 40 years at the chemical factory. She makes another 240 euros monthly in her job as a cleaner.

Antonia Oprita

"Life is good for those with money," she says, with a bitter smile. "Those who have to work are not living so well."

The euro has been a disappointment for Anna, who saw prices rise after its introduction and whose job as a cleaner, after a law passed this year to make the Labor Code more flexible, may be at risk.

The Slovaks were very proud that they made it into the euro zone in 2009, just when the crisis hit Central and Eastern Europe and ahead of many other countries in the former communist bloc.

Ordinary people had a stable currency to rely upon, companies saw their foreign exchange risk eliminated overnight, and politicians were happy that they delivered on their many promises to enter the union.

Now the mood has soured, because Slovakia – the euro zone's second-poorest member after Baltic state Estonia – finds itself in an odd situation: It is being called upon to help bail out much wealthier Greece.

A vote in parliament on the expansion of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) - the fund set up by the euro zone to help distressed members - is likely to take place by mid-October, according to Prime Minister Iveta Radicova. Every euro zone member state is required to ratify the expansion.

But the outcome in Slovakia is uncertain. It depends on Radicova reaching a compromise with a junior member of the coalition now in power, the Freedom and Solidarity party (SaS), which strongly opposes using Slovak money to bail out Greece.

"A postman in Greece has a pension of 1,200 euros [per month] and complains that it's reduced to 1,000, and in Slovakia people have pensions of 280 euros," Gabriela, a 57-year-old fruit and vegetable seller in a market in Bratislava, told CNBC.com.

"I would like to sit in front of a coffee shop and expect other people to pay for my pension," she added.

In the Spotlight

Gabriela worked for 24 years as an accountant for Bratislava Castle, but she was fired and so started to grow fruit and vegetables in her garden.

Taxes on land have increased, and her profits have diminished since the ongoing crisis hit two years ago. She is disappointed by the current government and thinks they "fight too much among themselves."

With only two countries apart from Slovakia left to approve the extension of the EFSF, all eyes in the euro zone are on this nation of around 5 million people, which separated from Czechoslovakia to become an independent state in 1993.

Radicova told CNBC last week that she and Richard Sulik, the anti-EFSF leader of the SaS party, were working on a solution to break the impasse over the vote, under which Slovakia would agree to the fund's extension but would ensure that no Slovak money will go toward bailing out Greece.

The Greek Embassy in Bratislava
Antonia Oprita
The Greek Embassy in Bratislava

The prime minister and Sulik, who is also parliament speaker, could achieve that goal by introducing various conditions to the vote, such as an exemption for their country from taking part in any future bailouts if the countries that benefit have higher pensions or lower unemployment than Slovakia, Juraj Karpis, an analyst with the Institute of Economic and Social Studies in Bratislava, told CNBC.com.

But Karpis, who describes himself as one of the few who spoke against the introduction of the euro in Slovakia before the single currency was adopted, doesn't believe that such a compromise will be reached, as "it sounds too good to be true."

Slovakia spent 10 percent of its gross domestic product to save its banks from collapse more than 10 years ago and has carried out numerous painful reforms in order to be able to join the euro. Now, its contribution to the EFSF would be more than 7 billion euros – another 10 percent of GDP.

Slovakia is poorer than it looks in official statistics, as many of the foreign companies setting up operations there transfer their profits abroad. The cost of the EFSF, calculated on a per-person basis, would be higher than in more developed euro zone members, Karpis explained.

"On a per capita cost, it would mean almost two months' worth of wages in Slovakia, whereas in Germany it means only 0.7 months," he said. "If we were to pay the money, we'd have to increase taxes twice more than Austria."

"If we didn't have the euro, we'd be better off," he added.

Euro Still Loved

Zdenko Stefanides, chief economist at Vub Banka, part of Italian bank Intesa Sanpaolo, thinks Slovaks still love the euro. In 2009, at the height of the crisis, they introduced the single currency and their purchasing power increased, so citizens were happy.

"Companies say benefits outweigh the costs of the euro," Stefanides said in an interview in Bratislava.

Exports make up 80 percent of Slovakia's GDP, he said, and of those, 85 percent go to the euro zone.

The country could have benefited from depreciation in the currency, Stefanides said, but firms want, more than anything, predictability, according to Stefanides.

Car producers make up about half of industrial production in Slovakia and account for around 60 percent of exports, according to Slovak Statistics Office data.

German carmaker Volkswagen has two factories and has taken on an additional 1,500 people to start production on its New Small Family range. France's Peugeot-Citroen and South Korea's Kia also have factories in Slovakia.

""I would like to sit in front of a coffee shop and expect other people to pay for my pension." -Vegetable seller, Bratislava, Gabriela

The country's second-biggest industry is electronics. Samsung has its biggest unit in Europe in Slovakia, with 3,000 employees.

Other big consumer electronics groups present in Slovakia are Foxconn, which manufactures liquid crystal display TVs and has about 3,900 employees in the country, and Panasonic, with two factories and a total of 1,226 employees.

"Even though Slovakia enjoyed rapid growth in the first half of the year - about 3 to 4 percent - it came from abroad," Stefanides said.

The country cannot afford to antagonize Germany, so the government will, eventually, vote for the expansion of the EFSF, no matter how unpopular such a vote is, he said.

"Slovakia is kind of a suburb of Germany, in economic terms," Stefanides said.

But there will be resentment, as the perception is that after all the sacrifices it made to join the euro, the country now has to pay for people who've had it too easy.

"We are hard-working people, we never complain," said Stefanides. "There was never a strike in this country. That's the difference between us and the Greeks."

'Golden Cage' Bratislava

Young Slovaks are optimistic about their future, but even they do not agree with their country's participation in the EFSF and some say that if Slovakia helps Greece, it will never see its money back.

Slovakia PM Calls for Stricter Euro Zone Rules
"Very strict rules for each country based on stability is absolutely necessary because we have a common currency," Iveta Radicova, Prime Minister of Slovakia told CNBC, adding that her country's parliament could vote on the EFSF as early as mid-October. Radicova told Geoff Cutmore a Greek default was "very probable", but the common currency would survive the current turmoil.

"If we give money to Greece they would never give it back, but if we would help Ireland, they would pay," Roman, a 24-year-old chemistry student on a break outside Bratislava University, told CNBC.com.

His colleague Dominika agrees: "If you look at the graphics in newspapers that show debt in each country, Slovakia is close to the bottom. Now Slovakia is asked to give money to Greece but when Slovakia will need money, nobody will give it."

Even with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 40 percent, Slovakia has its own problems to sort out. The four students taking a break outside the university were not from Bratislava but from various towns in the country. They all said life is harder there.

Zuzana, also a chemistry student, said that there are not many job opportunities in her home town of Partizanske, which once flourished as manufacturing area for shoes and textiles.

The average wage in Bratislava is around 1,000 euros per month, but outside it's around 500, while the prices are the same.

"Bratislava is not Slovakia," Karpis said. "This is like a golden cage here."

It will take a lot of investment to raise the living standards in the poorer regions, analysts say.

Another reason for which Slovaks are so adamantly against expanding the EFSF is the fact that, when the country joined the euro zone, many people there believed they had joined a club with strict rules on debt, with a no-bailout clause and with the firm promise that money-printing in order to get out of debt was not an option.

But many members broke the 60 percent of GDP debt limit, there were bailouts, and the European Central Bank, although it is not technically printing money, is buying bonds in the secondary markets.

Nuclear Option 'Too Small'

This happened because the euro debt crisis was communicated as a liquidity crisis, when in fact it is a solvency crisis, Karpis believes. The EFSF was created so that the crisis wouldn't spread and, only one year old, it needs to be boosted, he pointed out.

Eastern Europe - A CNBC Special Report
Eastern Europe - A CNBC Special Report

"Look around now," Karpis said. "The nuclear option is too small."

Leaders in the euro zone are too slow to react to market moves, he said. They are growing aware that a default by Greece is highly likely -- this is why the ECB changed rules on what collateral it accepts when it comes to lending to financial institutions, he added.

"The worst-case scenario for me is that markets react quicker than them," he said, adding that he thought the big players in the markets are already hedged against such a possibility, since they had one and a half years to prepare.

The effects are likely to be similar to those of the Lehman Brothers crisis of 2008, which brought the world economy to the brink of collapse, some analysts say.

For Slovakia, which has already begun to feel the effects of the German slowdown, it would mean another deep recession, and the government would unable to stimulate the economy with tax cuts or other incentives because of the country's deb-to-GDP ratio.

"People here still love the euro, but I think this love will end badly," said Karpis.

- Anca Dragu in Bratislava contributed to this story