Fedor Gál, one of the founders of the Public Against Violence (VPN) movement in 1989, chaired the party and served in the Czechoslovak Federal Parliament in 1990. Shortly after the 1990 elections he came into public conflict with the ambitious Slovak Interior Minister, Vladimír Mečiar, and rapidly became the most unpopular politician in Slovakia.
Gál, who was repeatedly verbally attacked by nationalist groups for his Jewish roots, moved to Prague in 1991 to start a small publishing company with his son. He now also owns a small cafeteria and a bookshop in the centre of Prague.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What, for you, was the most important moment in the 10-year history of democratic changes in Slovakia?
Fedor Gál (FG):The first free elections and cancellation of the fourth article in the Constitution [which secured the leading political role of the Communist Party] are certainly among the most important changes we experienced. Then there was the political programme of the Public Against Violence movement [the first democratic political grouping in Slovakia in 1989], which had twelve points, related to freedom of speech, religion, right to information, democratic elections, and so on. Most of these have been fulfilled, and today are not valid as political theses. But then they were important, too.
I would also mention the 1993 division of Czechoslovakia. Surprisingly, no politician at that time asked ordinary people what they wanted, and no referendum was held on such a serious issue, even though many referendums have since then been held on much less important topics.
I think the 1998 elections were also an important signal that there was a will for change after so many years of Mečiar, but the result of elections by itself doesn't mean a stable and standard political scene.
TSS: Do you think that the personality of former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar and the policies his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia pursued slowed down the process of democratization in Slovakia? What kind of a leader was he from your own experience?
FG: A leader is always a symbol of the values he represents. [Current Czech President] Václav Havel is a symbol of such values as human rights and freedom. [Czech ex-Prime Minister and current opposition leader] Václav Klaus has become a symbol of the lust for power. Mečiar has always directly addressed the masses with populist statements, simple language and great charisma. That's how he convinced so many voters to keep faith with him.
Since I first met Mečiar [in 1990], he has always preferred face-to-face negotiations and ignored open parliamentary discussions. He learned many facts about people's pasts from the [former Czechoslovak secret police] ŠtB documents, and he used these facts as ammunition and as blackmail in negotiations with individual politicians. Shortly after communism ended, politics became very sensitive, and if politicians didn't want to sacrifice their careers they had to work hand in hand with Mečiar. It took almost ten years for Slovak people to understand who Mečiar was and how fatal his impact had been on the country's democratic development.
TSS: What's the biggest handicap in Slovakia's progress towards democracy?
FG: Many people still have problems understanding that the state is no longer responsible for their lives, for what they do and how much money they make for a living. It's normal that they don't want to lose privileges they enjoyed under socialism, such as the right to work, to free education and health care, but a modern society cannot function on these principles without all people in all positions at all levels - from street sweepers to the presidential office - taking personal responsibility for the development of the nation.