PUBLIC holidays often allow politicians to wrap their political campaign messages with some softer message, but none has the irresistible charm of November 17, the day when 22 years ago the communist regime was brought to its knees by public demonstrations and peaceful civic resistance. The nearing elections and the fact that every day until March is now, effectively, a day for electioneering, promises more political grandstanding and more speeches on the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.
The slogan “1989: We wanted to belong to Europe. How will we decide today?” appears on a new Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) billboard, along with another slogan: “Values which last”. The message will immediately click with those who closely followed the debate over Slovakia’s ratification of the changes to the eurozone bailout fund. One of the arguments used by the SDKÚ was that Slovakia should vote ‘yes’ to the changes to demonstrate a sense of responsibility towards its European partners.
Of course, its then coalition partner Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), which opposed the bailout scheme and brought down the Radičová government in the process, has responded with its own ‘velvet’ billboard, declaring. “1989: We fought for our freedom. Why should we allow it to be taken away?”
Again, anyone familiar with the type of arguments used during the bailout debate will understand that none of these billboards are there to commemorate what should be for Slovakia a day marking society’s victory over the communist regime, but rather a gimmick to damage a political partner.
The billboard campaign shows that the major clash will not be just between the right-wing and Robert Fico, who declares himself to be a social democrat – though even a cursory examination of his policy programme (such as it is) and his record in office rather undermines that claim – but also between the right-wing parties, especially the SDKÚ and SaS.
Presumably the SDKÚ and SaS will not be the only parties to reach for the velvet mantle, though this might only serve to remind voters that if they thought that the government of Radičová could be the best that had been elected since 1989, then their hopes have not lasted very long. Many of them will perhaps commemorate November 17 with the question: do nations deserve the governments they elect? Hasn’t the nation grown to deserve a more stable grouping with somewhat more responsibility for the country?
Regardless of the sense of disillusionment at the fate of the government, November 17 still provides a scene for campaigning since on that day politicians across the political spectrum, except those of the extreme left, promptly identify themselves as children of the “big generation” of the revolution and try to take credit for the change, even if they did not personally contribute to it.
Naturally, not all politicians are fired by the same memories as the former dissidents who were jailed before 1989 for their beliefs, and thus have a somewhat more reserved attitude towards November 17. Robert Fico, for example, a former member of the Party of the Democratic Left, the reformed successor of the Slovak Communist Party, has frequently downplayed the significance of this particular historical change and in 2009 was criticised for his lukewarm attitude, as prime minister, towards the 20th anniversary of the revolution.
But aside from the campaigning, the political speeches, the wreaths, the handshakes and the revolutionary songs, November 17 always reminds people how long or how short 22 years can feel. It will remind them that students in their early twenties no longer understand what it actually meant to be a student wearing the bluish shirt and red scarf, the uniform of the Communist Party Pioneers youth organisation, membership of which was a more-or-less biological part of growing up in communist Czechoslovakia and singing songs about the ‘indestructible’ bond with the Soviet Union.
Those who were born just after World War II and grew up as lifelong Pioneers lived a substantial part of their lives under an oppressive regime by the time the revolution came. After the revolution came difficult times: along with freedom of choice came wrenching change – and if they lost their job as part of the widespread closure of moribund industries, such freedom was little consolation.
Perhaps, for their sake, the country deserves a government which lives up to all those promises made on that day, that week when the communist regime fell.
14. Nov 2011 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová