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WHEREVER YOU LOOK IN SLOVAKIA 13 YEARS AFTER THE VELVET REVOLUTION, FORMER COMMUNISTS ARE POLITICKING, WORSHIPPING AND DOING BUSINESS

Communists lose ideology war but win decade of Slovak peace

WHO Burns for Truth was the hymn chosen to end the November meeting of the Political Prisoners' Association. The bold melody was supported with difficulty by the singers, mostly old men in frayed collars and dated suits, as if the quest for truth regarding Slovakia's communist past had itself proven long, hard and unrewarding.
"Many of these people feel betrayed," said the association's president, Ladislav Pittner, as the singers left the meeting room. "[Communist persecution] was a painful experience for us, and the worst is that the people who caused us this pain today have enormous wealth and are still laughing in our faces."
Laughing or not, former communists and secret service agents do hold vast political and economic power in modern Slovakia, even 13 years after the revolution that ostensibly toppled the communist regime. The power nexus they form has been blamed for holding back political and economic change, and perhaps more damagingly, has prevented Slovak society from coming to terms morally with the country's communist past.


PRESIDENT Rudolf Schuster now and in 1986 (inset) as a Communist Party central committee member.
photo: TASR, inset: Malá Encyklopédia Slovenska, SAV 1987

WHO Burns for Truth was the hymn chosen to end the November meeting of the Political Prisoners' Association. The bold melody was supported with difficulty by the singers, mostly old men in frayed collars and dated suits, as if the quest for truth regarding Slovakia's communist past had itself proven long, hard and unrewarding.

"Many of these people feel betrayed," said the association's president, Ladislav Pittner, as the singers left the meeting room. "[Communist persecution] was a painful experience for us, and the worst is that the people who caused us this pain today have enormous wealth and are still laughing in our faces."

Laughing or not, former communists and secret service agents do hold vast political and economic power in modern Slovakia, even 13 years after the revolution that ostensibly toppled the communist regime. The power nexus they form has been blamed for holding back political and economic change, and perhaps more damagingly, has prevented Slovak society from coming to terms morally with the country's communist past.

"It's a very complicated issue because there is not a single political party, including the [anti-communist] Christian Democrats, that does not contain former ŠtB [communist secret service] agents," said Pittner. "Here lie the roots of our problems with corruption and the difficulty of our transition from communism to democracy. It's something that will require generations to change."



THE FIRST Slovak prime minster after November 1989, Milan Čič, now and before (inset) as a former communist justice minister.
photo: TASR, inset: Malá Encyklopédia Slovenska, SAV 1987

Returned, or never wholly departed?

The triumphant return this fall of the Communist Party to the Slovak parliament for the first time since Slovakia's independence in 1993 took many Western observers by surprise, as if a long-dormant political force had suddenly sprung to life in the September 2002 elections.

The truth is, however, that former communists have dominated Slovak society for the past decade. A November 21 photo of three Slovak leaders applauding an invitation to join Nato, for instance, features Foreign Minister (and former Communist Party member) Eduard Kukan and President (and former Communist Party central committee member) Rudolf Schuster flanking PM Mikuláš Dzurinda - the only leader in Slovakia's independent history who was never a communist.

Or take the parliamentary opposition, whose three parties are led by former communists Vladimír Mečiar and Robert Fico and current communist Jozef Ševc.

Look again at some of the country's reputed richest men, and you'll find names such as former communists Jozef Majský, Vladimír Lexa and Andrej Babiš.

A cursory search for top members of the SZM, the communist youth group, yields influential names such as former Markíza TV boss Pavol Rusko, advertising and marketing mogul Ján Kasper and former steel industry executive Ján Smerek.


CURRENT Communist Party leader Jozef Ševc.

Former communists are in fact so ubiquitous in the top strata of Slovak life that they have become almost invisible for many, while remaining a gross eyesore for others. What they have never been, however, is the subject of serious social debate.

How did it happen?

As surprising as the events of November 1989 may have seemed to the rest of the world, there is little doubt that the more agile members of the secret service and the Czechoslovak Communist Party had seen the end coming and done their best to prepare for it.

While the conservative old wing at the top of the communist party and secret service were barred from public life after 1989, many less prominent officials managed overnight to assume the guise of democrats and capitalists.

"The ŠtB and KGB apparently found out how talks had gone between Bush and Gorbachev on Malta [their December 2-3, 1989, summit marked the end of the Cold War - ed. note], and today we know they were prepared for 'alternative solutions'. People in the secret services, as well as others, had large sums of money at their disposal, which they used to become the first businessmen in Czechoslovakia and the first motors of what today we know as organised crime," said Pittner, who served as Slovak interior minister from 1998-2001.

"The revolution was led by a group of upper-middle-level communist political and party functionaries and economic managers of state firms," added Ján Langoš, a former MP with the right-wing Democratic Party and now advisor to Justice Minister Daniel Lipšic.

"They were largely opportunists, with the Moscow-driven communist ideology having been replaced after 1968 by pragmatism and purely economic power. That group had been preparing during Gorbachev's rule to take economic power in the state, and that's exactly what happened."

On top of their apparent preparedness for the revolution, the opportunists in the Communist Party elected to negotiate with the dissidents who opposed them rather than set state troops on crowds of demonstrators. In so doing, they struck a bargain for a strong, if unobtrusive, hold on power.

Marián Gula, head of the Office for the Investigation of Communist Crimes, described how the anti-communist 'revolutionaries' had even welcomed the continued presence of communist officials in the government.

"When I was involved with the Christian Democrats in 1990 and we were asking ourselves how the changes would pan out, there was the general feeling that someone had to stick around from the old order, because the state had to keep functioning," he said.

Those who remained numbered in their thousands, however. Political scientist Ľuboš Kubin, in his book The Role of the Political Elite in Regime Change in Slovakia (2002), notes that of the top 10 candidates fielded by the Public Against Violence (VPN) party for the first post-communist elections in June 1990, nine were former communists. The VPN, meanwhile, was seen by the public as a platform for former dissidents, and won the elections in Slovakia with 29.4 per cent.

Similarly, the first Slovak prime minister after November 1989 was Milan Čič, a former communist justice minister. The first Czechoslovak prime minister following the revolution was Slovak Marián Čalfa, who had served as minister without portfolio in the last communist government.

The communist opportunists, according to Langoš, soon grouped themselves around the dynamic Slovak leader Vladimír Mečiar, elected prime minister in June 1990, who himself had been kicked out of the Communist Party in 1970 for sympathising with Alexander Dubček's socialist reforms.

The key moment came when the second Mečiar government (1992-1994) refused to observe the terms of the 'Lustration Law', a 1992 measure that in the Czech Republic had helped screen many former top communists and secret police out of state offices.

"The HZDS [Mečiar's party] was not interested in seeing it applied in Slovakia, and maintained their defiance of the terms of the law until its period of effectiveness ran out [in 1996]," remembered Pittner.

At the same time, many former communists through the system of crony-privatisation practised by the third Mečiar government (1994-1998) managed to solidify their economic power during the 1990s and Slovakia's first decade of independence, according to Kubín.

Where are they now?

Among those who seemed to profit the most were former members of the communist-era economic ministries and planning commissions, whose job it had been to set production targets for state companies, and who were thus in the best position to know what firms were worth privatising.

Vladimír Lexa is perhaps the best-known example of this type of figure, a Communist Party member from 1956 who later served as secretary to the Slovak industry minister and head of the planning commission.

Following the revolution, Lexa Sr went on to serve as deputy PM in Czechoslovakia's first post-communist government led by Milan Čič, before retiring from politics. In 1991 Lexa joined the Harvard investment group with businessman Juraj Široký, who had served in the Czechoslovak embassy in the US during communism.

As Široký told the business weekly Trend, "Vladimír Lexa knew people and had contacts at all the ministries... he gave us tips and set up meetings at which we could present our offers."

Cooperation between Lexa and Harvard continued until at least 1996, during which time Vladimír Lexa went into business on his own. His son Ivan became deputy privatisation minister, and later head of the government office and head of the secret service. Lexa Sr purchased the formerly state-owned mill and bakery chain Považské mlyny a pekárne, where he does business until this day. His name figures in 29 other companies in the Slovak business register.

The Harvard group at the moment controls three large firms: chemicals giant Chemolak Smolenice (where Lexa Sr served as director from 1976-1980), plastics maker Plastika Nitra and Perex Bratislava, publisher of the Pravda daily, the former mouthpiece of the Slovak Communist Party. For a brief time Harvard also held paper manufacturer JCP Štúrovo, which it later sold to the Swedish AssiDomän.

Another Mečiar-era beneficiary of privatisation, Karol Martinka, was the son of the 1963-1968 head of national economic planning (also named Karol Martinka), and the 1972-1985 Slovak deputy PM. Martinka Sr was also a central committee member for 13 years before his death in 1985.

Karol Jr, under the 1994-1998 Mečiar government, led the Devín Banka financial house, called "the Trojan Horse of Russian interests in Slovakia" by a former secret service official, and was behind the scandalous privatisation of the Piešťany spa, which was later overturned. His name appears in 12 firms in the Slovak business register; he remains in Austria, hiding from a warrant for his arrest for fraud.

Not that all former communists who got rich in post-revolution Slovakia were allied with Mečiar's HZDS party, of course. Ľudovít Černák, who served briefly as Economy Minister from 1998-1999 in the first Mikuláš Dzurinda government before being dismissed for corruption, went on to own a stake in Sitno Holding, which recently sold the Kovohuty Krompachy copper works to an Austrian buyer. Černák joined the Communist Party in 1987, and was the director of the ZSNP aluminium works.

Nor were all associated with cronyism and corruption. The list of bygone communists, in the end, is endless and generally neutral, ranging from former party members Soňa Szomolanyi and Vladimír Krivý, who now comment on current events as respected independent analysts, to former minister Marián Čalfa, who lives in a luxury district of Prague, runs a successful commercial law practice, and refuses to give interviews to the media.

But almost all former prominent communists, like Milan Čič, who from 1993-1999 also served as chief justice of the country's top court, are tired of being asked about their pasts. At a public debate last year between Čič and Ľubo Roman, two candidates for the post of head of the Bratislava regional parliament, the former communist Justice Minister blew his stack when asked about his view of the regime.

"I knew you couldn't leave that question out," he said to the moderator. "Have we come here to make cadre judgements? I was alive then, and you were either small or not born yet... Leave me alone, it's my private matter, I'm not going to tell you whether I believed in God or not, I suffered then as well... Please, just don't bother me with all that."

The moral cost

In their desire to forget the past and move on, former communists have the sympathy of many of their compatriots.

On the one hand, the role former communists continue to play in society is widely regarded as unsurprising, given that the party in 1989 numbered half a million members in Slovakia, or almost 10 per cent of the population, and held all the top political, academic, economic and cultural posts.

"The Communist Party at the time, even though it was selective, had a huge membership, 500,000 people in Slovakia alone," said Pittner. "When you add to that family members, you have a power that the VPN could not have radically challenged, partly because the VPN's ranks themselves were permeated by communists, and partly because our society did not wish to embark on a more substantial form of revolution in which the accounts of the past would be settled in blood."

It is also seen as natural that former communists were not hounded out of public life to the extent they were in the Czech Republic, since communism in Slovakia was less harsh, with less repression of dissidents, than in the Czech part of the federation.

"From 1970 on we really saw no political murders in Slovakia, there were no really gross crimes, and life was economically quite pleasant," said political scientist Kubín over a coffee in Bratislava recently.

But while the 'Velvet Revolution' may have avoided bloodshed in 1989, many now believe the pain was only deferred, and that four decades of communism have scarred Slovak society in ways the victims themselves have yet to comprehend.

For people like Langoš, Pittner and Gula, who have built democratic careers on fighting the legacy of communism, the continued power wielded by former communists has had a crucial impact on the country's moral fabric.

"People from the West with no experience of communism can't even begin to understand what we experienced," said Langoš. "The communist regime affected three generations, and subjugated the greater part of society to the point that people started to feel better off in the absence of freedom.

"Coming to terms with this is a very serious moral issue. For society itself, the issue is one of admitting to ourselves how we lived, realising that we were not free, and that the life we lived had little worth. It means realising that we ourselves, through our submissiveness and obedience, supported a regime that prevented us from achieving our goals and reaching our potential.

"Admitting such things is very difficult, even for people who were not in the Communist Party."

In their reluctance to explore the past, Langoš said, Slovaks had instead made a fetish of 'political stability' since 1993, of avoiding conflicts even with controversial leaders such as Mečiar because they felt the country was not strong enough to survive democracy's rougher elements.

"We avoided the conflicts that a revolution naturally entails. Our political leaders had the same mentality as the nation, that of slaves who weren't able to find the confidence they needed to overthrow their masters, and non-communists negotiated with communists rather than challenging them.

"The revolution was one of words rather than acts, and was basically a deal reached with the communists."

Acknowledging the terms of this 'deal', Langoš added, was now essential if the Slovak nation was to mature, and if Slovak democracy was to be strengthened.

For Pittner, who spent three years in jail for treason as a teenager, naming and shaming former top communists and secret agents is also a matter of elementary justice for the regime's victims.

"My father was sentenced to 15 years in jail but died after serving nine. I had five younger siblings when they jailed my father and me, and my mother was left to raise them alone. She had no job, and when they sent my father to prison the communists stopped his pension as well."

Gula, on the other hand, sees the issue as restoring to society the belief that morals matter, and that they should be preferred as a yardstick of fitness for public office.

"In Slovakia in the early 1990s there was a fight between morality and professional credentials, and unfortunately the credentials won," he said. "You never hear in Slovakia of people getting posts because they have strong character or morals, but because they have professional qualifications.

"Take the police and the secret service, which need the trust of citizens to function properly. I won't approach the police for help here unless it's an extreme case. I don't know what it's like elsewhere, but I knew the people in the police before 1989; I remember how arrogantly they behaved, and now when I go back to bureaucratic offices I see the same approach."

As if nothing had happened

Achieving such moral and national renewal, all agreed, is a matter of exposing the truth, something they feel may soon be at hand.

Langoš several months ago coaxed a bill through parliament few believed would ever be passed - a law giving the public access to the archives of the ŠtB secret police. Once the Office for the Memory of the Nation begins administering the files next April, he says, Slovaks will finally learn the truth about who abetted repression during the communist regime.

Gula, meanwhile, collaborated on The ŠtB in Slovakia During the Normalisation Period, a book published this year, which details the operations and staff of the secret service in the run-up to the revolution.

But apart from these efforts, the silence from Slovak historians is deafening. No deeper history of the communist regime exists, far less an account of what has become of its leading exponents in democratic Slovakia. No lists have been prepared even of central committee members, far less youth organisation leaders or planning commission staff. People looking for such information are advised to try the back issues of communist-era newspapers in university archives.

The reason behind such academic failure, says Kubín, is that many Slovak historians are themselves former communists or collaborators with the regime.

"There is not a great enthusiasm among historians for opening up these topics. It's their personal problem," said Kubín.

Jozef Jablonický, former head of political science at the Slovak Academy of Sciences, was even more direct.

"Slovak historians [during communism] behaved in a cowardly and conformist manner," he said. "Today, the experts on the anti-communism uprising are all former communists. Communism has contaminated us to such an extent that we don't even realise it. And [historians] write on, as if nothing happened.

"Mind you, until society itself reflects on the past, I won't expect historians to."

The First DecadeA10-part series on Slovakia's independence

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