Slovakia’s Pendulum Swing

All the countries of East-Central Europe have experienced collective mood swings since 1989. Political parties have rotated in and out of power. The economic fortunes have oscillated considerably. And the level of social enthusiasm – on a spectrum from malaise to engagement – has also fluctuated a great deal.

Slovakia has been perhaps the most manic-depressive of the countries in the region. There was a surge of popular excitement in 1989 during the Velvet Revolution followed by a second surge around the country’s independence in 1993. But disillusionment followed, along with growing disenchantment with the increasingly authoritarian politics of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. After another upsurge in popular engagement that eventually ousted Meciar, the citizenry has subsided once again into relative quiescence.

“In spite of all classifications and ratings — Slovakia is doing relatively well in international comparative surveys assessing the quality of life — the public mood at home contradicts the favorable findings,” former Slovak ambassador to the United States Martin Butora told me in an interview in Bratislava last February. “What we see in everyday life, in debates in media and on Internet as well as in public opinion surveys, the general public is rather pessimistic or skeptical. The phenomenon that was labeled as blba nalada, a sort of disenchantment or malaise is still widespread.”

This malaise is caused by many things. “Slovakia suffers from an ineffective state bureaucracy, violations of the rule of law, widespread bribery, corruption and clientelism, and problematic judicial conduct,” Butora continued. “A network of public institutions has been put in place, but some of them are not infused with authentically democratic content, and too often they are not occupied by genuine democrats. A worrying challenge for any government has been the situation of Roma and of their co-existence with the majority. If we add to it the fact that political parties and politicians often command little public respect, while many democratic institutions lack sufficient credibility, esteem, and support, we can get a picture of a rather gloomy ‘real capitalism’ which for many people might be so unattractive as the infamous ‘real socialism’ had been some 30-40 years ago.”

At the same time, Butora sees a possible way out of this malaise: “the gradual emergence of new ideas, new leaders, new projects, new, often informal, unregistered initiatives, new ‘civic start-ups,’ some of them also equipped with an entrepreneurial spirit. As if at least some people, mostly young, active, educated, imaginative, have come to the conclusion that it is up to them to achieve a change – often in their neighborhoods, in their communities, in their schools, companies, self-governments.”

So, which way will Slovakia ultimately tip: toward greater democracy and back toward authoritarianism? As Butora pointed out, since 1918, Slovaks have lived half of the time under authoritarianism and half of the time under democracy. “The upcoming months and years will decide in favor of which regime the pendulum that measures the coming decade of Slovakia will swing,” he concludes.

We talked about the role Slovaks played in the Velvet Revolution, the effort to join NATO, and how rock bands can help out at  critical moment in a political uprising.

 

The Interview   

 

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

Yes, of course. This was an event that for us, in Czechoslovakia, was very meaningful because we were horribly ashamed that all the other countries were already ahead of us. Poland had elections. Hungarians had the reburial of Imre Nagy and the rebirth of political parties. Even those East Germans, who were considered to have the toughest conditions, were having big demonstrations. So yes, I remember it very well — because also, just by chance, my son was married one day after.

This event also encouraged people in Czechoslovakia finally to speak out and to have more courage. At that time for us it was clear that the challenge—in Prague and here in Bratislava—was to get some 100,000 people out into the streets. It was not an easy task. There had been a threat  that the authorities might do what they did in Beijing [at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989]. Later on we heard that they were preparing something like that. So  we needed not just small circles of protestors – we needed a non-violent but still very visible, vehement, and strong public action. And that’s what the East Germans showed us.

 

When you heard a week later that things were going on in Prague, were you here in Bratislava on November 17th?

 

Things went forward not only in Prague. I was in Bratislava. I was the co-founder of Public Against Violence here, so I was in the middle of the events.

Here in Bratislava, the day before November 17th, was a gathering of Slovak students, 300 of them, walking hand-in-hand to the ministry of education. This was a test of how the authorities would respond. At that time police didn’t intervene. For those young people, it was an exhilarating event to appear openly and publicly voice their ideas. This time they were calling for a dialogue on school reform and several other issues.

Also at that time, on November 18th,  there were two important, independently organized gatherings of people who were active in what we used to call  “islands of positive deviance” (this is a sociological concept we translated into practice here in Slovakia). There were environmentalists, writers, creative artists, sociologists, and members of what was called the secret church, namely independently acting Christian believers. All these groups were operating at the threshold of legal and illegal, formal and informal. At that time, we felt really strongly that the dialogue should start in public: not just sitting in apartments in closed rooms but out in the streets. One of these meetings took place here in Bratislava, and the other in the Slovak small town of Pukanec, where the dissident writer Ivan Kadlecik was living. Several of the participants of both meetings later became the key figures in the Public Against Violence movement.  At the meeting in Bratislava, as we were discussing what we should do in the next days, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the news about police violence against the students arrived from Prague, including  the news that a student was allegedly shot. We agreed that we would meet on the Slovak National Uprising Square—this big square in Bratislava—with candles. And we would start organizing the public to commemorate the death of that young man.

The next day, on November 19, another  group, mainly creative artists, called a meeting in a big gallery in Bratislava, Umelecka Beseda. They contacted people by telephone, and some 500 people showed up – this was the first meeting that publicly condemned the brutal police attack on demonstrators in Prague. The fact that it could take place reflects the changing situation. About a year before there had been a small revolution in the leadership of that organization of creative artists. Instead of dogmatic conservatives, new, more open  artists were elected to chair this small branch of the union. They had the building, and they had the keys. The environmentalists also had their own organization with several branches. They had a building and infrastructure, and their communication with Prague was very intensive. Some members of the artist community, including a famous actor Milan Kňažko, were there in Prague, and also some students. But there were other forms of communication as well.

Besides a protest declaration prepared by creative artists and signed by those present at the gathering, Milan Kňažko who already returned from Prague read a declaration of members of the theater community who joined their colleagues in Prague. Later in the evening, some of the Bratislava theaters entered the strike. This was quite a shock for many viewers because all of the sudden the actors came on stage and said: “We are not going to do the play, because we are protesting.”

At the end of the gathering in Umelecka Beseda, the participantsagreed that it shouldn’t be only about signing this protest. We should also think about what to do next and how to proceed: that led to the origin of a coordinating committee of the civic association Public Against Violence.   The next day, on November 20, there was another big gathering in Umelecka beseda, and even more people came. Several of us prepared the first declaration of the Public Against Violence, which was a combination of diagnosis and action. It stated that Czechoslovakia is in a deep crisis, our principles have been violated, and so on. The last sentence was, “let us, as citizens, take these matters into our own hands.” This was an electrifying ending to this first proclamation,. I read it in Umelecka Beseda, and Milan Kňažko read it the same evening at a spontaneous demonstration called at Hviezdoslavovo namestie in the center of the city. The police did not intervene.

Several public meetings were held in Bratislava also on November 21, and in the morning of November 22, a group of people in front of the Justicny palace called for the release of dissidents arrested in August 1989. The crowd was briefly addressed by Alexander Dubček who appeared in public after 20 years.

On Wednesday, the first really big demonstration was called on the main large square of the capital, the Slovak National Uprising square. We expected a big crowd, but the reality exceeded all expectations – almost 100,000 people came. And that’s when another  group became vitally important: the musicians. There were a number of alternative music bands, and they had the instruments. It’s not so easy to address tens of thousands of people, it’s not enough to have a megaphone. But the musicians from the popular rock group Tublatanka had amplifiers.

With this first really big public demonstration, organized by the  coordinating committee of Public Against Violence,  something like political dramaturgy was critically needed. Hundreds of people wanted to speak up in the meetings, and it was necessary to  organize the messages so that people of all different strata of society could be represented, and also that the meeting would be active and efficient.

Also, from the very beginning the delegates of the Public Against Violence  were travelling to Prague to coordinate the actions.

 

I want to get your sense of the Mečiar period and your feeling about the return to an authoritarian style of politics. Was that a surprise to you? Or did you have a feeling from the very beginning that this was a possibility for Slovakia?

 

We were fully aware that this possibility exists here. It was connected with how people perceived the current system and what their expectations were. The situation in Slovakia was definitely different from Poland and Hungary, but to certain extent also from the Czech part of the common state. The Czechs perceived the 40 years of communism as a decline in civilization. They had in mind the first Czechoslovak republic under Masaryk, the European statesman, when the country was this island of democracy and economic prosperity. In that pre-Second World War period, there was Hitler, there was Horthy, there was Stalin, and yet here was still Czechoslovakia as a functioning, vivid, vibrant democracy, at least until the Munich Agreement in October 1938, and later the German occupation, and the division of the state.

Slovakia, however, experienced modernization not in the 19th century or early 20th century under capitalist conditions, but during socialism. We had what the East Germans had: the typical socialist industrialization, with an emphasis on heavy industry and the dissolution of all traditional structures such as farming, family structures, and so on. But at the same time, it brought certain progress – even if it has been often achieved  at the expense of things like democracy, freedom of individuals, human rights, and so on. At the end of the 1980s, the expectations here were that something like perestroika would happen. The population desired  a change, but perhaps not for a complete change of the regime. They wanted a better economy, a better working system, less  corruption, more  freedom, people would be allowed to travel, and the newspapers would be at least as free as in the Soviet Union at the time.

In fact, until 1989 you couldn’t compare the official Czechoslovak press to the Soviet press. All the taboos were completely abolished over there, and we were reading the Russian weeklies – Ogonyok, Moskovskie Novosti — like revelations, because they were really writing about everything. There was nothing like that here. There were some attempts. Some people and some editors-in-chief had the courage to test the water— but in general,  the atmosphere in Czechoslovakia under old party leaders like Biľak, Husák and Jakeš was different from that in Gorbachev’s Soviet Union.

Having in mind all of this, we were not surprised that the first effects of transformation led to the abolition of a certain type of heavy industry. If unemployment was rising by 3% in the Czech Republic, it was rising by 10% or 12% or 13% in Slovakia. So, those people and those political movements that won the election in 1990, they would be gradually blamed for all of the troubles connected with transformation. With the rise of those strange coalitions that we call “red-brown” — former communists turned into nationalists — and having also this tradition of the Slovak fascist war state, we were aware that the struggle for the democratic character of the state was far from won. What form it would take was not quite clear, because there were several forces on the ground. But Mečiarism were not such a surprise because we had been actively struggling with it in NGO society, in the academic community, in media, in political society.

 

Do you think anything could have been done differently in those early days or years to prevent the rise of Mečiar and Mečiarism? A different set of economic policies, a different set of political policies?

 

From the historic perspective it’s difficult to say. Perhaps another type of economic policy, perhaps a more gradualist economic path, would have been slightly more favorable, and those forces using this national/social populism wouldn’t have had so many weapons in their hands. But the society as a whole has paid its price because we didn’t have in Czechoslovakia a Solidarity like the Poles had. And in Slovakia, we didn’t have even  something like a Charter 77 in Prague. Yes, we had these activities of Christian people, which were important but they were  cautious in their political demands, they were struggling predominantly for freedom of religion. The adaptation to what was called “Brezhnev-type normalization” went pretty far here in Slovakia. Also, after the Soviet occupation in 1968, the persecutions and purges in Slovakia were not as devastating as in the Czech part of the state. All in all, the society paid the price that it did not resist so much before.

Many people were saying, “My God, you were amateurs in politics!” Okay. If there were pre-formed political parties here, maybe it could have been done better. However, as we see today -  there were political parties in Hungary before the change in 1989, and I’m not that sure that it went perfectly in Hungary.

 

Yes, and now they’re having their form of Mečiarism right now. You were the ambassador to the United States. When you got to Washington, what were your priorities and what were you able to achieve? 

 

The priorities were absolutely clear. Slovakia was an underdog. We were simply excluded from the first round of NATO enlargement, and we were also moved to the second tranche of countries considered as future members of European Union. So, after this term of Mečiar, after the elections, Slovakia got some respect and recognition, especially for a massive civic mobilization, and it was necessary to translate this capital into acts and deeds. In my case, it was those 67 members of the U.S. Senate sitting there and raising their hands for Slovakia’s membership in NATO. I’m simplifying a bit, but the mission was clear: to restore the image of Slovakia as a country seriously on the road to democratic form of government and everything connected with it. Obviously membership in NATO was also relevant for membership in the EU, which was maybe even more important, but they were closely connected.

It was not easy for hundreds of reasons. Originally Slovakia was in the first round of three countries up for NATO membership: when it was still part of Czechoslovakia and even later when it was the Slovak Republic. With Mečiar, however, it went gradually down and down the list. There were some really rude violations, and even the kidnapping of the president’s son, so it was clear that we wouldn’t make it. When this first round was done, there was a lot of hesitation and questions among Western leaders about the second possible round of enlargement. The leadership of the Alliance somehow felt that it really required some time to absorb three new members. It always takes some time for a country to understand the commitments and the duties and everything. The general atmosphere was, “well, let’s wait and see.”

One of the key preparatory decisions was that the Washington summit adopted a resolution that was to a certain extent similar to the Acquis Communautaire of European integration. It was not just open door. There was a process, a mechanism. Ten countries were officially named as possible candidates for NATO membership, and the negotiations with them could start. And if they showed, gradually, step-by-step, that they were prepared in political reforms and military reforms and behavior towards minorities, and so on, then they could start the negotiations. When the Alliance came to the conclusion that the countries were prepared then yes, membership was possible.

In the cases of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, the West had some bad feelings about past conduct. In 1938, the British and French betrayed Czechoslovakia, and then it was repeated after 1945. We had a communist coup d’état in 1948, and the West didn’t respond. There was Hungarian Revolution in 1956—and the West didn’t respond. There was Czechoslovakia 1968—and the West didn’t respond. There was Poland and Solidarity and the declaration of martial law in 1981—and the West didn’t respond.  The people and their leaders in the countries of the former Soviet bloc  simply wanted more freedom and more democracy. Gradually a consensus was emerging that yes, the West has to do something for these countries after the fall of Communism, to find a way to integrate them into Euro-Atlantic political and security structures.

Also in the cases of those three countries, for Poland there was Tadeusz Kosciuszko  and others who fought for American independence. Also there was Walesa and Solidarity. For Hungary there was Lajos Kossuth, who has his bust in the U.S. Congress, and the 1956 revolution. For Czechs, there was T.G.Masaryk and Václav Havel and so on. But in the case of the next group of ten countries – the three Baltic countries, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, Croatia, Macedonia—they were very heterogeneous, and Americans were like “what are these countries?”

So it was also necessary from the very beginning to work together. For us it was an important experience. We agreed from the very beginning that we would not shoot at each other. We would not say, “Listen, those Romanians are not that good with corruption, but we, we are absolutely perfect!” Members of the diplomatic community had to understand that the Americans would not vote for one small country. They would want to combine a certain Wilsonian idealism with something more pragmatic. So we were working together, all of us. We cooperated also with this American Committee for NATO, with both Democrats and Republicans.

When George W. Bush was elected, we agreed that twice a year there would be a big conference organized in each candidate country, which would show the determination, will, and preparedness of those countries. Big celebrities would be invited. It went quite well. Interestingly, one of the persons who helped was Jesse Helms. He created this coalition with Madeleine Albright at the time, so they respected each other, even if he was a very tough conservative. I will never forget this meeting at the American Enterprise Institute, prior to the inauguration of Bush, when Helms said, “I will go after this government if it doesn’t guarantee NATO membership for the Baltic States.” In Western Europe at that time there was a lot of opportunism. They were saying, “Let’s not provoke the Russians” and “Why so many NATO members? Maybe just one.” But Helms said it publicly, clearly, and very vocally. He said it because somehow it was pre-prepared with his staffers. And it was not just his idea. For about a year, several of us and especially Americans were obviously working on it. But it was a deep conviction of Helms that the disastrous consequences of Molotov-Ribbetrop pact must be removed, and he expressed it.

Thus we have been proceeding in a spirit of solidarity. I remember our first visit with Deputy Minister of Defense Richard Armitage. He’d been a military man, and obviously he’d read the materials. But when we arrived in his office, he said, “My God, what’s all this? There are 10 of you. Ahh, that’s a good tactic.” And he cited a military tactic, I cannot recall right now the name of it. “We could resist one of you,” he continued. “But it’s not so easy when you are 10. So we will probably have to do something.

With this and a lot of public diplomacy, we worked to change the image of Slovakia. We invited not only governmental people but also a lot of non-governmental actors—judges, journalists, artists, scientists, NGO leaders, mayors, students, you name it. We told them just one thing: “Just tell the truth. Nothing else. Just tell the truth. Tell them about the situation you inherited in the field in which you’re working. And tell them what you would like to have from the Americans and what you are prepared to offer them in the way of partnership.”

I remember an Austrian diplomat saying, “Listen, why are you organizing public meetings that are so critical. You are talking about women rights, about the Roma,  about this and that. You have nice girls, you have good beer, you have the Tatra Mountains, you should show that. Why it is that every time I’m coming you are showing documentary movies about how horrible it is in your country!”

Well, it’s just that we wanted to show that there were institutions and people who cared, who were aware of the importance of the decision about membership. This was an equally important part of the deal, alongside the political negotiations.

 

When you think back to your worldview in 1990, have you had any significant second thoughts concerning your outlook on political and economic developments?

 

Firstly, I am convinced that creating and preserving a fabric of democracy and an open society is a Joycean “work in progress.” One should never declare “a victory” or “the end of history.” Besides political efforts, besides designing strategies and tactics, a certain mentality is needed, a presence of hope. I recall Václav Havel who understood hope as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t: “It is a dimension of the soul. It’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation.” Hope is not prognostication, he emphasized, it is an orientation of the heart: “It transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.” In this sense, hope is not synonymous with optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of the outcome. This is an extraordinarily strong message in a world that found hope yet lost it time after time – a message that is universal as well as unique, personal and individual.

Secondly, supporters of a democratic Slovakia sometimes describe its development as a story about the transformation of an “ugly duckling” into a beautiful swan. Indeed, the more favorable view envisions Slovakia as a successful country that has suffered many defeats, but managed to pick itself up again, to renew democratic rules and to return on the road to integration into the Euro-Atlantic structures. A battle was fought here over freedom and democracy and over far-reaching societal reform.

Slovakia has experienced an explosion of civic activism. The third sector, as a part of civil society, has created a uniquely rich, diverse and flexible network of forms, organizational schemes, initiatives and ideas, which have moved society forward. It has built up an intellectual foundation for societal reforms, provided a mechanism for control of power, defended the interests of various groups of citizens, offered useful services, joined in resolving environmental, social and health problems and reacted to the needs of communities, towns and regions of Slovakia. Thousands of small organizations, initiatives, clubs and volunteer groups have made unique achievements. Despite a complicated heritage of undemocratic conditions, backwardness and discontinuity, civic actors and volunteers managed to engage and motivate a broader public because they offered understandable, acceptable concepts of freedom, solidarity and activism, which were in line with democratic modernization and which broke down the prevailing ethos of civic helplessness, as well as the tendency toward preferring the promotion of individual interests instead of the public good. They have expanded social capital and improved the quality of life in Slovakia.

However, there are many reasons to see the situation as a glass “half-empty.” Slovakia suffers from an ineffective state bureaucracy, violations of the rule of law, widespread bribery, corruption and clientelism, and problematic judicial conduct. A network of public institutions has been put in place, but some of them are not infused with authentically democratic content, and too often they are not occupied by genuine democrats. A worrying challenge for any government has been the situation of Roma and of their co-existence with the majority. If we add to it the fact that political parties and politicians often command little public respect, while many democratic institutions lack sufficient credibility, esteem, and support, we can get a picture of a rather gloomy “real capitalism” which for many people might be so unattractive as the infamous “real socialism” had been some 30-40 years ago.

Though in crucial moments in recent history (the overthrow of Communist regime in 1989, the elections in 1998), the “critical mass” of active participants in society’s reconstruction was able to mobilize the much-needed majorities to achieve a change; Slovakia is still struggling with the lack of “democratic modernizers.” The challenge is to create an atmosphere in which talents can be nurtured, and to promote institutions that cultivate characters through education and social interaction. The country should do more to offer young people opportunities to find a “higher purpose in life,” in particular in public service.

Interestingly enough, over the past period of less than a century – more precisely from the founding of the first Czechoslovak Republic in the fall of 1918 until now – Slovakia has undergone unusually dramatic development. Six models of state government, three political systems and within them, several regimes have alternately taken hold on its territory. And right now, in the fall of 2013, the ratio of non-democratic to democratic regimes has almost evened out. For approximately one half of this period the inhabitants of Slovakia lived under authoritarian, at times even totalitarian conditions, and spent the other half, by contrast, in times of greater freedom. The upcoming months and years will decide in favor of which regime the pendulum that measures the coming decade of Slovakia will swing.

This leads me to a third remark. On the one hand, in spite of all classifications and ratings — Slovakia is doing relatively well in international comparative surveys assessing the quality of life — the public mood at home contradicts the favorable findings. What we see in everyday life, in debates in media and on Internet as well as in public opinion surveys, the general public is rather pessimistic or skeptical. The phenomenon that was labeled as blba nalada, a sort of disenchantment or malaise is still widespread.

And yet, on the other hand, in the last period we see something new: the gradual emergence of new ideas, new leaders, new projects, new, often informal, unregistered initiatives, new “civic start-ups,” some of them also equipped with an entrepreneurial spirit. As if at least some people, mostly young, active, educated, imaginative, have come to the conclusion that it is up to them to achieve a change – often in their neighborhoods, in their communities, in their schools, companies, self-governments. They cannot expect miracles neither from state, nor from political parties, nor from business area. Thus, like in November 1989, they feel they have “to take matters into their own hands.” We do not know how strong and sustainable these tendencies will be and in how far they will influence the whole social and political landscape of the country – but some of their activities look promising.

 

Bratislava, February 11, 2013 (updated November 2013)

 


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