Celebrating the right to complain

THE VELVET Revolution of 1989 will continue to fascinate historians and puzzle sociologists. Many have even hoped that the peaceful civil disobedience demonstrated by Czechs and Slovaks, which finally stubbed out the Communist regime, could serve as a democratic revolutionary model for other civil groups struggling for freedom within totalitarian regimes.

Since then, there have been many efforts to get people into the streets and demonstrate disobedience. There have been trade unionists, politicians, media people, workers, actors, and failed political leaders, all hoping to move the masses with one issue or another and repeat the miracle of 1989.

No mass protest in Slovakia has ever had the power similar to that of November 1989, when the euphoria of togetherness turned apathetic Slovaks and Czechs into concerned brothers and sisters. Many recall these times as moments when they felt history as something alive and kicking. They felt that their very heartbeats were setting the pace of events, and that these were the days that their descendents would one day march to in the drum roll of history.

However, sociologists claim that after the fall of Communism, the same people who protested peacefully yet vehemently in November 1989 in public squares across the country have become passive and that only very few events can drag Slovaks out of their apathy.

Compared to the Velvet Revolution, perhaps every expression of public protest will appear weak. But it is not because there remain few urgent issues to protest against. There is the growing aggression of neo-Nazi groups, for example. There are unfulfilled political promises, with white-collar criminals escaping justice for nearly a decade.

But maybe after 16 years of democratization, sociologists should be judging Slovakia harshly for not using effectively other more sophisticated mechanisms of public advocacy rather than judging its citizens as apathetic because they have not taken to the streets to demonstrate disobedience.

Sociologist Pavol Haulík suggests that Slovaks are unwilling to take to the streets and protest because they prefer to seek individual solutions. It is not in their nature to revolt and demonstrate.

Naturally, state holidays cannot restore or repeat the power of original events. They are not intended to have a spontaneous nature but rather to commemorate something in the path. Ironically, some people compare modern celebrations to the times when the Communist regime ordered its comrades to celebrate. In these cases, citizens had to memorize slogans and wave their red flags - all still a very lively image in many minds, to be sure.

A certain melancholic nostalgia for the past naturally exists, even in those who do not want Communism to return. Indeed, even many left-oriented people would not want to call their friends "comrades" or swear loyalty to the "only existing party".

The nostalgia is a generational issue. Many associate their youth, physical strength and optimism with the past, and the Communist regime goes right along with it.

There are at least two generations who can easily recall Communist-era brand names and the look and taste of these products, deeply ingrained into our hearts and minds since there was such a limited number of them. Even today, the mention of these products brings not only a smile to people's faces but also evokes bittersweet childhood memories.

For obvious psychological reasons, people simply cannot accept that they lived half of their lives under an evil regime and in spiritual darkness. It is natural that many of them will preserve certain positive reminiscences for the past, mostly for a past that never existed - not really.

More dangerous are certain instincts and values that endured because they were a means for survival - an openness towards corruption or tricking the system.

Some of the icons of the Velvet Revolution have turned into notorious figures on the modern political stage, with a rich history of membership in different political parties. Certainly, the numbers of people who are claiming to have been movers and shakers of the revolutionary spirit are increasingly growing every year.

The new generation, kids aged 17 and under, have no real idea of what the Communist regime was like. They often have a better grasp on far distant historical events than what happened in their parents' or grandparents' lives simply because historians have had longer to analyze and synthesize the data and come up with a clear, relatively unbiased view.

Foreigners who wish to learn about Slovakia's past often complain that there is a lack of objective source material available. The latter half of Slovakia's 20th century is especially a minefield of mixed emotions.

Sociologists argue that Slovakia's past is all too fresh. Many of the figures that shaped its modern history are still alive. Perhaps historians, fearful to touch the 20th century in Slovakia for fear of treading on toes, must wait for distance before plunging into the period.

As far as a general characteristic of Slovak nature, public opinion polls tend to confirm a certain natural scepticism.

Only one-fifth of Slovaks think that their lives have improved since 1989, while more than 40 percent believe that their living standards have deteriorated.

The biggest difference, that few seem to mention, is that everyone can openly say what they think. The older generation can publicly deride the Dzurinda government for its failures. They do not have to whisper their complaints in hidden underground places, fearing the ever-present ear of the Communist secret police.

Unfortunately, there are citizens that simply do not yet feel the impact of the often-publicized economic success of the country. This remains a challenge for the country's leaders. But the fact remains that today, if times are economically tough, all Slovaks have the right to openly tell the truth.

By Beata Balogová

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