Why we didn't want the breakup of Czechoslovakia

Images from the history of the Sme daily: After the 1992 elections.

Mečiar and his supporters in the 1990s.Mečiar and his supporters in the 1990s.(Source: Sme)

Alexej Fulmek is the CEO of the Petit Press publishing house. In 1993, he co-founded the Sme daily along with its first editor-in-chief, Karol Ježík. He has been part of the story of the daily, and the history of Slovakia, ever since. This extract is from his memoir One Flew Over the Newsprint published in the Slovak original in December 2018.

Talks between the winners of the 1992 parliamentary elections, Vladimír Mečiar in Slovakia and Václav Klaus in the Czech Republic, hit a dead end. Mečiar’s requirements were directed at a confederation, something the Czech representation was not willing to accept. Dividing Czechoslovakia into two independent republics was the only way out of this situation for both sides. Even though it was decided in talks, in a civilised and peaceful way, with no victims or wars, the basic democratic right of all citizens of Czechoslovakia remained trampled – the right to a referendum in which everyone would have their say about what country they wanted to live in and whether Czechoslovakia was to be divided.

Mečiar and his movement had a very bad media image in the Czech media too. They considered Mečiar the only reason for the breakup of the common state. Foreign media often depicted Mečiar as the former amateur boxer, suggesting he was not that trustworthy. His ambitions linked to the founding of an independent Slovakia were compared with the radical nationalist tendencies of part of the Slovak political scene. Mečiar reacted to his losses in the media with attempts to put together his own team of loyal journalists.

We feared chaos

The organisation For the True Image of Slovakia gathered journalists who unambiguously supported the breakup of the federation. They were often critical against Smena. They labelled our journalists federalists, pro-western traitors, and anti-Slovak elements. By that time, Mečiar’s propagandist machinery was working at full speed. Slovak prime ministers have been badmouthing journalists practically up to this day.

To better understand Smena’s negative attitude towards the issue of Slovak statehood, one needs to consider the situation the Slovak society was in. Most of all, there were real concerns that Slovakia would not cope with the breakup of the federation and its economy would fall into chaos. Mečiar’s autocratic and populist ways were known to the public by then, from several political cases. Mečiar was no standard, western-type politician. Remaining part of the Czechoslovak federation was a guarantee for the Smena daily and part of Slovak society (I am convinced a referendum on the breakup of the federation would have proved that this “part” was, in fact, the majority of society) that the democratic development of Slovakia would not be halted by Mečiar’s autocratic tendencies.

Enemies

Naturally, Smena with its critical stance became the lasting enemy of Mečiar’s movement. During the federation, Mečiar limited his attacks against the daily to verbal form, and Smena was quick to return his “favours”. The daily criticised Mečiar for not telling the truth and for twisting events and reality whatever way suited him best at that moment. They reproached him that his politics had no vision and that he was only driven by a thirst for power.

Smena started criticising Mečiar when he still had the general support of almost all the media that were not quick enough to recognise the danger for the country if led by a potential autocrat.

What Mečiar was like

Many were enchanted by his decisiveness and determinedness. The right man at the right place. But if you analysed Mečiar’s speeches, you found that they were just a stream of empty phrases without any deeper meaning. He was fast, self-confident, and fluent in delivering his speeches, and that was enough to captivate people.

Formally, Mečiar and his movement proclaimed their pro-western orientation and democratic values, but his steps contradicted these proclamations and led the Smena daily to a reasonable fear that the country might start looking to the East, to Russia, politically.

After the elections, Smena was published with a black frame, to mourn the federation. And we suspected it was not going to go unpunished. Before long, Mečiar’s post-election revenge hit the daily.

The Slovak Spectator will publish more extracts from Fulmek's memoir in the coming weeks.

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