IS IT time for Slovakia to take stock of its communist past?
photo: Malá Encyklopédia Slovenska, SAV 1987
If these men (and they are largely men) ever commanded wider respect it was shortly after November 1989, when the freezing city squares were packed with exuberant crowds ready to believe anything that didn't have the smell of communism. Now, however, they are clearly out of step with a society not interested in remembering Slovakia's four decades of communism.
For many people, these aging dissidents are simply on a false trail. Why should it matter that former communists have top jobs in society today, they ask. What was the country supposed to do with 500,000 communists in 1989, if not to absorb them into its democratic future?
It's a powerful argument, especially in tandem with the insinuation that people who see the issue of former communists as a moral question are either simplistic, or grew up in a Western country.
But Westerners who spend any time on the topic may also notice something that Slovaks have become oblivious to - that in not having widely understood, discussed or dealt with the communist past, society has become cynical, and impatient of its dissident Cassandras.
Thirteen years after the communist era ended, Slovak secondary schools still don't teach students about the communist era, far less about what came after (the history curriculum ends in 1948, the year the communists took over). Part of the reason is that historians have produced little of importance about late communism and early democracy; another, that schools ministers until 2002 were themselves former communists.
And yet, at the same time, many people say the country suffered under communism, that they were forced to lie and collaborate, and that much of value was destroyed in people.
Knowing the truth about what happened, then, and debating it on a broad level, would give release to some of the anger people must feel, if indeed they suffered. It would restore a sense of justice, which is as much about society's need to see it done as about the interests of the victims. It would encourage debate about what values the country does stand for, having finally rejected communism in all its forms.
Knowing the truth would also go a long way to exposing how Slovak society works. Just as many former communists used contacts and insider knowledge to create soft landings after 1989, so the crony system is behind Slovakia's continuing problem with corruption, and explains why there are still no really firm lines between legal and illegal business, shady and ethical politics.
Knowing who did what under communism, and where they are today, might also explain some of the more controversial decisions by Slovak judges over the years (ie twice releasing former secret service boss Ivan Lexa from pre-trial custody). It would, in a word, answer some of the gravest questions the West has about the wisdom of admitting Slovakia to Nato, and questions Slovaks themselves may have about why life has taken so long to improve since 1989.
But for any of this to happen, the faucets of knowledge have to be opened. Ministers such as Pavol Kanis, for instance (Defence 1998-2001) have to stop claiming in government web site resumes that they were involved in "social research" during communism, and start admitting they worked with the Marxist-Leninist Institute of the Communist Party's central committee. The current secret service has to turn over the files of its predecessor to the Office of National Memory next year as planned, without losing any on the way. Historians have to do basic research on the period, beginning with who served at the top of the party and its economic organs.
What people do with this knowledge, of course, is up to them, and we probably can't expect more than a wry "Na Slovensku je to tak" ("That's the way it is in Slovakia") from most citizens. But a decade after independence, the country is in dire need of knowing what happened and why, and especially who profited from the changes the 'revolution' ushered in. Even if society doesn't acknowledge the need itself.