Na zdravie, Mr. Minister

On a chilly weekday evening in November, something extraordinary happened - Slovak Culture Minister Milan Kňažko shared a few drinks in a theatre pub with his Czech counterpart, Pavel Dostál.
Kňažko and Dostál are both former actors and know each other well, so the simple fact of their hoisting a few pints was not exceptional. But the sight of the top two Czech and Slovak cultural officials deep in conversation and flushed with excitement was unusual, to say the least.
For the past four years, the Slovak Minister of Culture has been Ivan Hudec, a man with as much feeling for art as Tony the Pony. Hudec discouraged the creative and promoted the artless; intimidated the dissident and rewarded the servile. In four years he succeeded in putting culture at the service of politics, and in banishing those artists who refused to sing for their suppers.

On a chilly weekday evening in November, something extraordinary happened - Slovak Culture Minister Milan Kňažko shared a few drinks in a theatre pub with his Czech counterpart, Pavel Dostál.

Kňažko and Dostál are both former actors and know each other well, so the simple fact of their hoisting a few pints was not exceptional. But the sight of the top two Czech and Slovak cultural officials deep in conversation and flushed with excitement was unusual, to say the least.

For the past four years, the Slovak Minister of Culture has been Ivan Hudec, a man with as much feeling for art as Tony the Pony. Hudec discouraged the creative and promoted the artless; intimidated the dissident and rewarded the servile. In four years he succeeded in putting culture at the service of politics, and in banishing those artists who refused to sing for their suppers.

Hudec was the one who deprived all Slovak theatres, galleries, museums and other cultural institutions of the power to direct their own legal and business affairs, putting them instead under state administrators nominated by Hudec himself and loyal to the HZDS party of then-Premier Vladimír Mečiar.

Hudec was also the one who threw away tens of millions of Slovak crowns on tasteless pseudo-artistic projects. Examples include laughably amateurish film and TV productions (Like Wild Geese, Count Pribina) and grossly extravagant contracts with pro-regime theatre directors (such as the worthy Dušan Jarjabek, now a HZDS deputy, who was supposed to be paid 500,000 Sk ($13,000) if recalled before 2002 from his position as director of Nová Scéna theatre in Bratislava).

Hudec's last act in office was to order 30 bronze busts of HZDS deputies and cabinet members, worthless gewgaws for which the Ministry paid over 4.5 million Sk ($128,000).

As Kňažko ordered the rounds on that November night, however, the Czech and Slovak actors drinking with him could sense that culture in Slovakia is once again in the hands of talented, apolitical people who seek to express a subtle national consciousness rather than establish a political beachhead in the minds of citizens.

Kňažko is the man, after all, who has promised to use Hudec's busts to "decorate" the corridors and rooms of the Culture Ministry. He has promised that state administration offices for culture will be abolished and that legal power will be returned to cultural institutions in a massive effort to decentralise the cultural sector.

Dostál, for his part, seemed happy to be once again among Slovaks who truly respect their national culture. Dostál actually visited Slovakia a few weeks ago, but claimed his visit was unofficial to avoid having to meet Hudec. Hudec had been furious and called Dostál's actions "a scandal," but with a glass of wine in his hand, Dostál was inclined to laugh. "I'm not going make any excuses. I just couldn't have acted in any other way then," he said.

As the evening wound to a close, all faces were flushed with alcohol and cracked with grins. Kňažko, fired with inspiration, grabbed the hand of any who happened to be standing near and pumped away as if trying to draw water from a well. He was not alone in his enthusiasm for the rebirth of Slovak culture.

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