THE PROPER definition of patriotism once again brought concerned Slovaks into the streets on the day when parliament was to vote again on the passion-stirring and controversial Patriotism Act which it passed on March 2 – but which was returned by President Ivan Gašparovič just a few weeks later. But the protestors’ passion could not have been bigger than the surprise given to the Slovak National Party (SNS), which had drafted the Patriotism Act, when Prime Minister Robert Fico introduced his own legislative method for engendering patriotic feelings – only a day before the scheduled vote on the SNS legislation.
Parliament gathered on April 27 for the last working session before the June 12 general election to consider several pieces of legislations which were returned unsigned from the president’s office – among them the Patriotism Act authored by SNS leader Ján Slota and his parliamentary deputy leader, Rafael Rafaj, and passed by the ruling coalition parties in early March. When civic activists and students protested in the streets in March against what they called forced patriotism, President Gašparovič returned the law to the parliament with the objection that the law’s effective date, April 1, was not appropriate and that parliament should push back the date to September 1, the start of the next school year.
On April 26 Prime Minister Fico sprung the idea of having a government-proposed alternative to the SNS’s Patriotism Act, whose success in the forthcoming parliamentary vote was uncertain. Fico’s cabinet then supported an amendment to the Act on State Symbols and asked the SNS-nominated education minister, Ján Mikolaj, to present it in parliament.
The government amendment, which passed through parliament with the support of all three coalition parties, requires public-service Slovak Television and Slovak Radio to broadcast the national anthem every evening at around midnight. But unlike Slota’s Patriotism Act, which required schools to play the national anthem at the beginning of every school week, Fico’s amendment requires the anthem to be played only twice per school year, at its start and at its end, plus before the first and last sessions of the state parliament, government meetings, and local and regional parliaments.
The oath of fidelity to the homeland, part of the Patriotism Act, was also omitted from the passed amendment. State symbols – the preamble to the constitution, the national flag and Slovakia’s coat-of-arms – are to be displayed at an appropriate place in every school. Slota and Rafaj wanted them in every classroom.
Obstruction in parliament
The passing of the government-endorsed bill did not go smoothly, however. The SNS opposed Fico’s proposal, with Slota calling it a “disgusting” step taken by the strongest ruling party. The dispute within the ruling coalition then obstructed the morning session of parliament as lawmakers did not approve an agenda for their last session because too few deputies registered for the vote – twice, the SITA newswire reported.
Opposition deputies as well as SNS deputies failed to show up for the agenda vote. MPs from the SNS were livid and stayed away because a vote on the Patriotism Act was listed as the very last item on the proposed parliamentary agenda.
The morning session of parliament was then postponed by the speaker of parliament, but SNS deputies returned in the afternoon and decided to vote for Fico’s version of patriotism legislation.
“You always need to choose the lesser of two evils,” Slota said, as quoted by the Sme daily. “It’s not a victory for the SNS, but a victory for all Slovak patriots.”
Tricky situation resolved
Political analyst Grigorij Mesežnikov sees Fico’s offering of an amendment to the Act on State Symbols as a skilful escape from a tricky situation that emerged after Smer deputies had first supported the Patriotism Act, which subsequently stirred many negative feelings among citizens.
“They simply didn’t want to suffer an absolute loss after the caucus of Smer supported the mockery proposed by the SNS,” Mesežnikov told The Slovak Spectator, adding that in this way Smer wanted to avoid a complete debacle.
Mesežnikov rejected the idea that Smer wanted to “steal” the patriotism-related agenda from SNS.
“They would prefer to forget this whole event as soon as possible,” Mesežnikov said, adding that the amendment which was finally passed is sterile and brings nothing new.
“They [ruling coalition parties] were all caught in a trap which civil society and the spontaneous activities of dissenting people set for them,” Mesežnikov said.
Several kinds of civil society organisations showed their displeasure on the day scheduled for the vote on the amendment to the Act on State Symbols, April 27. A group of students – smaller than the crowd of thousands which had appeared after the Patriotism Act was first passed in March – gathered in front of the parliamentary building, Sme reported.
People in southern Slovakia, largely ethnic Hungarian citizens, had already joined in a protest early that morning. The non-governmental Roundtable of Hungarians Living in Slovakia was supporting the Association of Hungarian Parents in Slovakia, who had organised gatherings in front of their town and village schools before 8:00 to protest against the re-passing of the requirements they objected to in the Patriotism Act.
“We are citizens who value the rule of law, justice, democracy and human rights,” said the statement which was read at the protest gatherings, provided to The Slovak Spectator by Kálmán Petöcz, the Roundtable’s spokesperson. “We reject this formal, two-faced patriotism!”
The two groups also objected to requirements in the prime minister’s amendment and especially denounced the plan to pass it in a fast-tracked parliamentary procedure.
The fact that parliament passed the amendment to the Act on State Symbols in a fast-tracked procedure, which is supposed to be used only in cases of emergency, threats to the country, threats to human rights and similar situations, has been heavily criticised by several political observers, who say that the Fico-led government has used this abbreviated procedure several times in what they say are unjustified cases.
Mesežnikov called it an absolute scandal and a perversion of Slovakia’s legislative procedure.
“It’s disrespectful to the constitutional principles in a country that is a member of the EU and should be able to do better than these archaic forms that offend every self-confident person,” Mesežnikov said, adding that this law reflects a very problematic period in the work of the current parliament. However, he said it is not something that he expects will cause Smer to lose voters’ support.
“It’s now up to the opposition to show that it was wrong,” Mesežnikov said. With respect to the opposition parties, who had previously avoided voting on Slota’s Patriotism Act and were strongly criticised for doing so, he said they again missed an opportunity to show that they are more modern than the current government.
3. May 2010 at 0:00 | Michaela Terenzani