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EDITORIAL

November 17: Love it or hate it, that's democracy

Central and eastern Europe have been swarming this month with journalists doing lugubrious 'retrospectives' of the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the sudden disappearance of communist regimes. CNN came through in mid-October, on its way down from the Baltic coast to the Adriatic Sea. The ever penny-wise BBC has done hundreds of telephone interviews with former east-bloc citizens. But one wonders, after the miles of footage are edited and the reels of tape condensed, if anyone has any idea of the true significance of November, 1999.
Even the people who should know something don't seem to be telling. Slovak Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda's statement during a speech he delivered last week at Georgetown University in Washington was a prime example. The communist regime was about hate, he said, rather than love. A-ha.


photo: Ján Lörincz

Central and eastern Europe have been swarming this month with journalists doing lugubrious 'retrospectives' of the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the sudden disappearance of communist regimes. CNN came through in mid-October, on its way down from the Baltic coast to the Adriatic Sea. The ever penny-wise BBC has done hundreds of telephone interviews with former east-bloc citizens. But one wonders, after the miles of footage are edited and the reels of tape condensed, if anyone has any idea of the true significance of November, 1999.

Even the people who should know something don't seem to be telling. Slovak Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda's statement during a speech he delivered last week at Georgetown University in Washington was a prime example. The communist regime was about hate, he said, rather than love. A-ha.

The Slovak Spectator doesn't claim to have any special insights on the tenth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. But the phrase 'learned helplessness,' which has long been used by academics to describe the political, economic and social apathy produced by communism, is as good a starting point as any.

Under communism, with its monolithic culture, command economy and top-down politics, citizens were expected to leave all important decisions on public affairs to the state. People were encouraged to place the interests of the collective ahead of their individual desires and ambitions. Independent thinkers were punished, while those who marched in step were left to their own devices. In such an environment, people learned to be helpless.

The morning after revolutions swept across the region in 1989, people woke up to the fact that henceforth, they would have to help themselves. Jobs had to be found and kept, food and shelter had to be purchased at real-world prices, politicians had to dream up popular policies, artists had to attract paying audiences, and crime, drugs and social turmoil had to be fought tooth and nail.

If you look at the former east-bloc countries which seem furthest ahead on many fronts - the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary - you notice that these are precisely the countries where economic and market reforms occured the earliest. The shock thearpy taught the citizens of these countries to take responsibility for their lives and choices, and they are the happier and more prosperous for it today.

But in Slovakia, six years of authoritarian government under Mečiar retarded the process of 'unlearning' helplessness. People were given little idea of what was going on in politics and the economy, beyond the propaganda speeches of the government, while independent-minded academics, journalists, politicians, cultural figures and even municipal governments were repressed in various ways (budget cuts, harassment, secret service surveillance and so on). Almost as if communism had never ended.

That's perhaps why, in a recent poll conducted by the Institute for Public Policy (IVO), 41% of Slovaks said that the revolution had had little or no meaning. What these citizens were saying was not just that the economy is bad and politicians not a whit better - they were saying that "We Slovaks haven't changed, and we still feel as helpless to deal with our economic and social problems as we did 10 years ago."

Does anyone need any proof that Slovaks have yet to throw off the communist heritage of "learned helplessness"?

There are two women in the Slovak cabinet (10% of total members) and 20 in parliament (13.7%). Women earn between 80 and 90% of the money that similarly qualified men make for the same work. Women are increasingly subject to violent attacks at home. And yet, few women seem to grasp that this is not the way things have to be. Having learned to be helpless, they are content to leave the problem to the country's overwhelmingly male legislators and executive branch officials.

People complain about the economic austerity measures taken by the government, but refuse to see any connection between the current hard times and the spendthrift ways of the previous Mečiar government. After all, who was it who elected the man to power three times this past decade?

Small business people complain of a poor business environment, but are not willing to study the market and fill one of the many retail and service industry niches that exist (like making a decent pair of socks, for example). Artists complain they are starving, but aren't willing to write, draw or perform what people want to read, see or hear.

There are, however, a few signs that helplessness is being unlearned in Slovakia. Last year's elections, with their 85% turnout, were the most important indicator that something is afoot. The ten people whose profiles appear in this newspaper are also proof that talented, ambitious Slovaks are charting new territory in all walks of life.

But for most of the country, this year's anniversary of the Velvet Revolution will be cause for far more gloom than celebration. Many people are finding out only now that democracy, what ever else it may mean, is not about love or hate but self-reliance.

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