“SO, what do people here think about Iraq?” tends to be among the first questions asked by Americans visiting Slovakia.
Though Iraq is not much of an issue in Slovakia, Slovaks do have one very important advantage that may enable them to understand the dynamics of developments there and anticipate future threats better than many Americans - first hand experience with the transformation of a country from an authoritarian regime to an almost-functioning democracy.
There are several reasons why Iraq is not a hotly debated topic. First among them is the prevailing conviction that whatever goes on in Iraq has little influence on everyday life in Slovakia, which never had any strategic interests in the region, and whose military commitment to the entire operation is minimal.
Many acknowledge that developments in Iraq have an influence on the overall security of the Western world, but for the time being the planned healthcare reform, university tuition fees, and the allocation of EU funds seem to have a more direct impact on the ordinary Slovak.
The truth is that many other countries equally distant from Iraq feel passionately about what goes on there, such as Spain, Great Britain, and Germany.
Unlike Slovakia, these countries have a real say in international politics, giving their citizens a sense of responsibility for the future of not only their own country, but also of that of other, more distant parts of the world.
Another factor that dooms the Iraqi issue to irrelevance is the lukewarm approach of the local media. A good example is US President George Bush’s recent plan for Iraq. Out of Slovakia’s three most-read dailies, only Pravda, ranked third, brought the news to the front page.
And even they did so under the title Bush’s record drops, referring to the US president’s sinking popularity. Moreover, Slovak media bring only second-hand reporting from Iraq, relying mainly on sources such as Reuters, the Associated Press, or other Western media. This does not give the direct feel of “being there” and seeing things through a “Slovak eye”.
Even being somewhat disinterested in, and poorly prepared for a substantive debate on Iraq, the lessons learned from the country’s own transformation process might belong among the more valuable contributions to such a discussion.
Lesson one: Hindsight optimism can be very strong. In other words, a nation’s memory of bad experiences is extremely short, while nostalgia has a long life. Just 10 years after the fall of the oppressive regime, as many as 69 percent of Slovaks said that life was worse than under communism, according to a study done by the US government in late 1999. Their view of communism had clearly gotten better over time, as in 1992 only 50 percent voiced that opinion.
It is therefore necessary to constantly remind people of the suffering inflicted upon them by their oppressors. Otherwise, it is easily overshadowed by current problems, even if they are of a lesser intensity.
At the end of 1999, 53 percent of Slovaks felt the communist political regime was better than the government they lived under at the time they were asked, according to the research.
This leads to lesson two: Democracy is not necessarily the primary aim of all people. Other issues, such as security or social well-being can override the principles of freedom or the rule of law, especially in countries where civil liberties have little tradition. Large masses will follow anyone who is able to persuade them of his ability to provide for those needs.
Slovakia had its flirt with dictatorship during the five-year period when Vladimír Mečiar ruled the country. His recipe was simple enough - to come across as a person who is certain of what he is doing, will take care of the problems of the people, and protect their interests against all enemies, real or fictional. The fact that none of those was true was irrelevant. What was important was the illusion, which had been, and still remains, enough for many people to have faith in him.
Lesson three: It’s easy to get rid of a regime, it’s much more difficult to rid its servants of power. Slovakia’s first two presidents - Michal Kováč and Rudolf Schuster - were both communists. So was Ivan Gašparovič, who will step in to replace Schuster in June. Gašparovič’s three main opponents in the fight for the presidency, Schuster, Mečiar, and Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan, were not only communists, but are all suspected of collaboration with the communist-era secret service ŠtB.
This did not seem to be too much of an issue in the elections, simply because the phenomenon of former top communists sitting in top seats is so common. Likewise, it is common to see Mečiar’s former cronies in high offices and even the highest.
Lesson four: Full freedom and democracy almost inevitably bring to life the desire for self-determination of different ethnic groups. Czechoslovakia split just three years after the fall of communism. Many Slovaks continue to be fearful that Hungarians in the south of the country may start calling for autonomy, and many of the Hungarian political elites may indeed have that dream.
The mighty Soviet Union similarly came crushing down after the communist rule was loosened, and the situation of its former republics is far from stable. The troubled fate of the Balkans serves as yet another prime example.
Lesson five: New democracies do not tend to be politically stable. Out of the seven parties that made it to parliament in the 2002 general elections, three did not even exist at the time of the previous elections in 1998, including the Smer party, which is today a clear leader in all popularity polls.
Since the 2002 vote, three of those parties suffered major losses of MPs. In the process, the ruling coalition has managed to lose its majority in parliament and runaway MPs have formed two new parties.
And these are just the most recent developments.
So how is it that Slovakia seems to be on the road to prosperity and democracy is slowly taking roots, despite the fact that the problems were perhaps greater than in neighbouring countries?
It could be because Slovakia has always been a part of the Western world and has shared its history and, as a result, shares its values, even if they are somewhat distorted by the proximity of a different culture.
31. May 2004 at 0:00 | Lukáš Fila