ONE OF THE reasons that people sometimes gather in squares and listen to inflamed speeches is the search for some kind of catharsis that might at least momentarily free them of frustrations with politicians, the decisions they make, or even sometimes their frustrations with regimes. In rare historical circumstances, rallies grow into revolutions, but even if they do not, they can have a therapeutic effect - both on the people on the streets as well as on politicians. As people channel their frustration through the crowd and give vent to their anger or wishes in verbal form, so politicians can identify the potentially explosive topics which drive those people to take action.
There are also rallies of celebration, when people actually make an attempt to commemorate revolutions and try to relive something of the revolutionary atmosphere; an ambition that is often doomed to failure.
Anniversaries of the Velvet Revolution, which brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime back in 1989, have frequently faced the question of what is the most dignified way to celebrate such a date without turning it into one of those artificially created holidays when people hear unconvincing speeches notorious for repeating political clichés, inserting different names and perhaps different kinds of political blame.
Journalists, as November 17 approaches, occasionally survey young people, high school students, and ask them what they know about the Velvet Revolution.
The response is sometimes: not much. Some of them had not even been born when their predecessors gathered on the streets in the November fog and rained down on the regime a call for change: a call so strong that it washed away an era that many had feared would last for many more decades.
But the better they understand the nature of the previous regime and the way it changed and how long it took to bring about such a change, then the better the political choices they will make when they come to cast their first votes. They might better understand where some of the political forces in Slovakia germinated and why it is dangerous to vote into power anyone incapable of tolerance towards different opinions or nationalities, values and cultures. They will then better understand why freedom isn’t so sweet when they have plenty but don’t even know that someone is taking huge chunks of that freedom away.
They might then understand that there is no clear-cut line dividing the old and new regimes, even if, at the time, the difference was briefly obscured by the blinding light of revolution, the deafening sound of falling walls and iron curtains, preventing people from really seeing how much would survive of the previous order.
How will the new generation be able to identify the remains of the old, oppressive regime masquerading as something new, if they are not reminded of its elements, forms, masks and disguises?
That should probably be the task and the challenge of these anniversaries. Very few of the commemorations have yet lived up to this challenge.
Sometimes small political parties organise rallies on November 17 in the hope that reminiscences alone will lure people back to the squares and might get them an audience at a discount price.
But the fact that they have an audience and can meet and talk freely is in fact a way of celebrating what November 17 stands for.
Slovakia has apparently matured and arrived at the place where the crowd during those cold November 1989 nights wanted it to be.
From November 17 2008, Slovaks can travel to the United States without visas and from January 1, 2009 they will be able to pay using euros for their flight ticket to any destination they chose, for any book they want to read or any music they want to hear.
They are citizens of the European Union, citizens with the frustrations of a small nation, but still fully-fledged citizens who need show no passport when travelling to other EU member states.
If such an anniversary is good for something it is for reminding people that it does not take much to lose one’s freedoms and be deprived of one’s rights – indeed one might hardly notice, since governments have grown more sophisticated in their propaganda and the methods they use to take more than they are entitled to.
Politicians who incite tension among ethnic groups, whose corrupt and arrogant behaviour matches the conduct of many communists in their heyday, politicians who in moments of weakness or even strength make racist statements, a lack of public debate about crucial issues that affect the whole of society: none of these was on the wish-list of the 1989 revolutionaries.
Slovakia still has politicians who represent the strange transition between the country’s past and its present, representing a kind of political oxymoron: the ‘totalitarian democrats’.
Slovakia's ruling coalition again includes former prime minister Vladimír Mečiar, who in the mid-nineties rewarded political loyalty by installing cronies, even though they lacked expertise and competence, to leading economic posts in the government.
Yet these people, who are the source of the much of the melancholy and bitterness of the Velvet generation, should not be a reason to file away the memory of those days into a dark corner of the memory.
On the contrary: people must be reminded of the ideals they deeply believed in then, no matter what the sceptics and advocates of ‘letting bygones be bygones’ policies now say.
24. Nov 2008 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová