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Communist sentiments

THE FOURTEENTH anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, which ended decades of oppressive communist rule in the former Czechoslovakia, should not only remind Slovaks of the necessity of dealing with their past; it should also force them to think about one important question: Is it possible that the spirit of the pre-1989, Russia-backed authoritarian regime will ever return? And has this spirit ever completely left this country? That is a valid question, and yet, any definite answer would be hard to give. The latest developments in Russia show that the country is anything but a stable democracy. The situation surrounding the prosecution of Yukos Oil boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky may be difficult to interpret, but it proves that developments in Russia can hardly be anticipated, and Russia's long-term democratic ambitions are far from certain. It has also once again brought attention to the strong role played by former KGB staffers at all levels of the Russian administration - most worryingly at the very top. For now, the country seems to be busy dealing with its internal problems, but its ambitions in the international arena may grow in the future.

THE FOURTEENTH anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, which ended decades of oppressive communist rule in the former Czechoslovakia, should not only remind Slovaks of the necessity of dealing with their past; it should also force them to think about one important question: Is it possible that the spirit of the pre-1989, Russia-backed authoritarian regime will ever return? And has this spirit ever completely left this country? That is a valid question, and yet, any definite answer would be hard to give.

The latest developments in Russia show that the country is anything but a stable democracy. The situation surrounding the prosecution of Yukos Oil boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky may be difficult to interpret, but it proves that developments in Russia can hardly be anticipated, and Russia's long-term democratic ambitions are far from certain.

It has also once again brought attention to the strong role played by former KGB staffers at all levels of the Russian administration - most worryingly at the very top. For now, the country seems to be busy dealing with its internal problems, but its ambitions in the international arena may grow in the future.

The Slovak Intelligence Service (SIS) has already issued some warnings. "The SIS has registered increasing activity among intelligence services from the countries of the former Soviet Union," reads the Report on SIS's Activities for 2002, issued this past May.

Many former top-ranking communists and communist-era secret police (ŠtB) collaborators hold some of the highest offices in Slovakia. In fact, in some ways, their position seems to be improving.

New Economy Minister Pavol Rusko, a former top-level member of the communist youth organisation, is putting former ŠtB people into some interesting places. Ján Bajánek, the new man in charge of the national investment and trade development agency SARIO, is listed as an agent in the Cibulka files, an unofficial but unchallenged on-line archive of former ŠtB members.

Gabriel Fischer, the new head of the supervisory board at the Slovak Electricity works (SE), is also listed as an agent.

Both men have played down their collaboration, claiming they were listed because of the positions they held under communism.

The communist past of President Rudolf Schuster is well known. Eduard Kukan, a Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) member and, according to opinion polls, the best liked presidential candidate, is also listed as a former ŠtB collaborator.

These are just examples. It is clear that if former KGB officers decide to look for contacts in high places in Slovakia, they start off with a decent address book.

As former Defence Minister and vice-chairman of the SDKÚ Ivan Šimko correctly points out, Slovak politics has become (or perhaps more correctly - has always been) more about political interests than fundamental values, such as freedom.

Šimko, who has been in top politics since the fall of communism, must know what he is talking about when he says that this problem runs across the political spectrum, although the man offering a cure seems to be forgetting just how long he had been part of the disease.

Given this situation, it is legitimate to ask how the political representation would react if it found that Russia was able to satisfy more of their personal interests than the West. It is also legitimate to assume that the answer would be very disappointing.

Russian influence in Slovakia was strong under PM Vladimír Mečiar, who was ousted from power in the 1998 parliamentary elections. "We very, very much wish that you win the elections," Boris Yeltsin told Mečiar at their meeting in the Kremlin in June 1998.

The vision of entering the EU and NATO has mobilized voters and put in power those who were able to ensure Slovakia's entry into each organisation. However, if the EU fails to meet the very high expectations of voters and the money-seeking interest groups in control of the country's politics, the consequences could be disastrous.

A combination of disappointment and frustration could lead each to turn to others for a vision of hope. Today, populist leaders such as opposition Smer leader Robert Fico, by far the country's most popular politician, are praising Slovakia's authoritarian communist past.

"I think that before 1989, society was more socially oriented; people had more social rights than now," said Fico last week.

In case the country's accession to the EU worsens the already tense social situation in Slovakia and fails to deal with the problem effectively, Fico may not only praise the authoritarian past, but may start calling for a similar future. It is impossible to say how many others may join.

One can only speculate on further developments in Slovakia's relations with Russia, but the moment the country claims that the battle for its future has been won, will be the moment of its greatest weakness.

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