Jefra Benavir, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official who covers central Europe, didn't mince words last week when contacted by a Slovak Spectator reporter. "Pardon me for getting personal," she said, "but what the hell are you people doing up there?"
The event which had prompted such candour from Benavir was not The Slovak Spectator's fifth anniversary, but the decision of the Žilina City Council on February 17 to commemorate the leader of Slovakia's World War II fascist state, Jozef Tiso, by mounting an official plaque on the wall of a town nunnery. Many Slovaks gave the same bewildered response when they heard of the Tiso plaque - just what the hell is going on in Žilina, and how can we put a stop to it?
The first question, on the face of it, is the easier to answer. Ján Slota, the former leader of the Slovak National Party who was ousted last summer for repeatedly appearing drunk in public, remains mayor of Žilina and uses the town council as an outlet for his repulsive 'ideology'. The council is dominated (39 out of 45 councillors) by members of the far-right National Party and the Mečiar-led Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, so one might imagine that ideas like honouring a war criminal responsible for deporting 70,000 Jews to their deaths seldom meet determined opposition.
The Žilina region is also well-known as a hotbed of Slovak nationalism, and claims by Slota that Jozef Tiso was actually a hero who 'saved' 19,000 Slovak Jews (by not sending every last Jew in the country to the gas chambers) have widespread public sympathy.
What is not so easy to understand, however, is why the Catholic Church, which normally lays claim to the higher moral ground, has remained silent over the Žilina City Council's plans to honour Tiso. Why, for example, is a Catholic convent allowing such an offensive plaque to be mounted on its walls? Why has the Catholic Church not condemned the decision? One would think that the church, having been criticized in the past for not speaking out more strongly against the holocaust, would have a vested interest in setting the record straight the second time around. The fact that Tiso was a Catholic priest makes people wonder if the church can possibly be balking at disowning a sheep from its own flock.
Even less easy to comprehend is why Slovak society is not in more of an uproar over the matter (the apathy of the public was brought into sharp relief by the massive demonstrations against nationalist Jörg Haider that rocked Vienna last weekend). The standard explanation here is that Slovaks are torn between pride for Tiso and his 'independent' (Nazi-puppet) World War II state, and disgust at what happened to Nazi enemies in wartime Slovakia. Faced with such a dilemma, the reasoning goes, the average citizen shrugs his shoulders and orders another round of borovička.
Given the confusion over what is going on in Žilina and around Slovakia, one might expect little agreement on how the plan to honour Tiso can be killed. A Tiso memorial already exists in northern Slovakia's Bytča, and legal experts doubt that the courts or police can prevent Žilina from carrying out the planned March 14 ceremony.
As for what can be done in the wider sense to battle ugly displays of nationalism and anti-semitism in Slovakia, the key surely lies with public officials. Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda should have gone live on national television the day the decision was announced, to remind citizens that no warped sense of national pride should stop us from condemning a criminal like Tiso. Instead, Dzurinda and his colleagues were slow to respond and reluctant to speak out, and as journalist Ján Strasser wrote in the weekly paper Domino Fórum, will probably all be back playing pick-up soccer against their Slovak National Party counterparts next summer. No Slovak politician will refuse to visit Žilina until the Tiso plaque is removed, nor will Ján Slota likely find it difficult to remain in public life. What, indeed, is going on in Slovakia?
As The Slovak Spectator looks back at five years of covering Slovak news, the theme of racial intolerance seems to reappear on a regular basis. It was five years ago that skinheads attacked a 17 year-old Roma named Mário Goral in the town of Žiar nad Hronom and burned him to death; it was last month that a gang of youths with shaved heads attacked an African student, calling him a 'black pig', and only last week that skinheads with swastika tattoos beat up a pair of Japanese tourists in broad daylight. Slovakia may have taken great strides economically and politically over the last five years, but as the decision of the Žilina City Council shows, public opinion on race issues has not matured at the same pace. It would help a great deal if the shapers of social values - the church, legal and academic professionals - snapped out of their trance and denounced Slota, Tiso and the decision of the Žilina City Council for the repulsive values they represent.
28. Feb 2000 at 0:00