Small nations should speak out even if giants do not listen

SMALL nations that have survived the vagaries of history and carved their names firmly on the world map, have rarely done so through buffoonish laws ordering their citizens to listen to national anthems or fix their sights on national symbols at the dictate of state power.

SMALL nations that have survived the vagaries of history and carved their names firmly on the world map, have rarely done so through buffoonish laws ordering their citizens to listen to national anthems or fix their sights on national symbols at the dictate of state power.

Actually, laws and orders to be patriotic are the last things that bring true respect and national pride.

Now the government of Robert Fico has missed an opportune time during the recent visit of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to make many Slovaks feel better about part of their history when it seemingly failed to push firmly for a Russian apology – and if not a clear apology at least some sign of remorse – for the Soviet Army’s 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Since it was partly history which brought Medvedev to Slovakia, as he came to commemorate the fight against fascism and the liberation of Slovakia by the Red Army, and the next day he made history in Prague by signing a landmark treaty with the United States on reducing nuclear missiles, it wasn’t as though a little public discourse about this region’s more recent history would have come out of the blue or been inappropriate.

The Russian and Slovak heads of state did sign a joint declaration, a kind of shared view about the past, which seems always to also define the present.

Yet this joint excursion back through past times somehow skipped the 20-year-long occupation of Czechoslovakia by Soviet soldiers after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion.

Apologies for historical misdeeds do have at least symbolic significance. They never project weakness; to the contrary, they show a healthy self-confidence by a nation, be it small or mammoth.

If there is an effort to understand and overcome the chill of the Cold War as many nations struggle to revamp their images of being either just a dwarf cautiously nodding to the giant or being the mammoth carrying the heavy baggage of the Soviet past, then critical reflection and, even public apologies, are inescapable.

In an interview with the Sme daily, Russian historian Alexej Smorcikov suggested that Russia does not like to look critically at its own history.

He was explaining why the Poles have been waiting in vain for an apology from Russia for the Katyn Forest massacre when Soviet secret police killed about 22,000 Polish military officers and others.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was visiting the memorial for those victims with his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk at just about the same time as Medvedev was visiting Slovakia.

Apologies do help to restore the self-esteem of nations, especially when those nations are small and have certain frustrations. And regardless what nationalists on both sides of the borders of, for example, Hungary and Slovakia might say small nations in this region do have frustrations when looking back at their histories of trying to balance between the often counter-posed interests of superpowers.

How vigorously did Slovak authorities push for having the 20-year aftermath of August 21, 1968 included in the joint declaration? It’s hard to say. Nevertheless, at least openly declaring to the Slovak public that there had been such an effort would make a difference.

Not so much for Russia, because Slovakia is hardly on the top of that country’s foreign policy interest lists. But for the many Slovaks who suffered through those years of occupation, certainly so.

Prime Minister Fico can now put a photograph of himself with US President Barack Obama on the wall of his office, as he was one of the eleven prime ministers Obama invited to Prague to share his dinner table. Along with that photograph, Fico also has a satisfied Russian guest.

Nations are mature when they care just as much about the integrity of the values they pursue as their territorial integrity.

Far too often in Slovakia raising critical voices about violations of human rights or deviations from democratic principles has been left up to protesters in front of the Presidential Palace who actually feel quite lucky if the police have not chased them home.

Some might say that voices of small nations are far too feeble to make a difference or to be really heard, but even if the giants don’t listen, the people of those small nations will hear that firm voice of righteousness and it will make a huge difference for them.

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