ANNIVERSARIES of significant events have as large a potential to divide as to unify. This is especially true about Slovakia and the fall of the Communist regime back in 1989. If anyone expected the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution to be any different, at least within the fractious discourse of Slovak politics in 2009, one would have been terribly wrong.
Understandably, there will always be a group of people who had no objections to the Communist regime and believed that workers – under the protective hand of the one and only political party – were firmly paving the road to true communism, the ideal state of life-long jobs, happy young pioneers and humming companies which had no need to actually produce anything saleable to remain afloat. Maybe they still believe that if the anti-Communist revolution had not taken place, the country would already have taken huge leaps closer to that utopia. And they have every right to nourish those dreams; they are entitled to their reminiscences. For some, freedom and the challenge of making personal choices presented an endless void – full of pitfalls and uncertainties – especially if the fall of the past regime caught them in their fifties or older.
But it is truly sad when politicians who have taken full advantage of the political change begin to artificially nourish these utopian reminiscences among this segment of the population just to get a few more votes.
The ruling coalition parties and those in opposition have been torn over how to commemorate properly the day when democracy arrived in the former Czechoslovakia. The conflict flows not only from the natural dynamics between the opposition and the ruling coalition parties but also from the interpretation they each might attach to some of those historical events from 1989.
Prime Minister Robert Fico, a former member of the Party of the Democratic Left, the reformed successor of the Slovak Communist Party, will naturally not be ignited by the same memories as are former dissidents who were jailed under the Communist regime for their beliefs and opinions. He has had, and will most likely always have a somewhat reserved attitude towards the events of 1989.
But the greatness of politicians should be revealed in their ability to fairly mark historical events – even those that they might personally find hard to identify with – since for a huge part of the population November 17 is the day when freedom came to Slovakia 20 years ago. But sadly, not many politicians from the ruling coalition demonstrated greatness – or even quiet dignity – during this past week.
The speaker of parliament, Pavol Paška, got furious, for example, about the fact that some prominent leaders of the Velvet Revolution did not quite like the prospect of having to listen to five-minute speeches by former prominent Communist Party members on the day of the 20th anniversary. It is not that Peter Weiss, Rudolf Schuster and Milan Čič should be denied the chance to talk about the Velvet Revolution or anything else for that matter. But one cannot escape the question: weren’t there people more suited and more appropriate to address the official government event on that holiday honouring the Fight for Freedom and Democracy?
It also is true that celebrations of historic events always get the colour, smell and taste of politicians who are in power. And so do words like loyalty and patriotism. The Slovak National Party (SNS), the political grouping which should never have gotten even close to a government office, let alone been placed in charge of three ministries, if we had followed the true ideals of the Velvet Revolution, is now planning a rather a bizarre gift to the nation: more patriotism in the SNS-style.
SNS boss Ján Slota and his party compatriot Rafael Rafaj have submitted a bill which, for example, would make it mandatory for every citizen to take a formal oath pledging loyalty to the Slovak Republic before getting their first ID card. The same loyalty oath would be taken by mayors, deputies or state servants while they placed two fingers on the Slovak Constitution. Rafaj said that the authors have taken inspiration from the United States, where Americans talk less about patriotism but take more action, according to the Sme daily.
Thankfully, there are many Slovak citizens who will just reject the Slota-Rafaj version of patriotism even without needing to know the full details of their bill and, thankfully, there are just as many citizens who would choose not to be called patriotic if the twisted values that the SNS stands for are what should define one’s attitudes towards the nation.
Because it is Slovakia’s great strength that, save for a deluded few, love of country does not mean hatred of others. Slovaks have embraced freedom and pluralism more successfully than even the most optimistic revolutionaries might have expected in 1989. In doing so, they have impressed and inspired others, including many in the West. It is easy to lose sight of this in the disillusioning grind of day-to-day events, but now, twenty years on, is as good a time as any to pause and reflect.