>A tale of two Slovakias

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SSEES marks the 20th anniversary of November 1989 with two contrasting Slovak speakers – a nice touch, as the fall of communism in the Czechoslovakia is so often reduced to events in Prague. The Magic Lantern, Václav Havel, speech from the balcony of the Melantrich building, vast crowds packing Wenceslas Square, more crowds crowds jangling their keys in unison at rallies on the Letna plain to ring out the change of regime. Dozens of local transitions get forgotten as does and a fully fledged Tender (or Gentle) Revolution (Nežná revolúcia) in Slovakia. Similar, but different to the Velvet Revolution played out in the neighbouring Czech lands
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The first visitor to SSEES is Fedor Gál, Slovakia sociologist, researcher, opposition activist and (latterly) film-maker and media entrepreneur, who is presenting his new documentary Dobré ráno, Slovensko (Good Morning, Slovakia) which chronicles the last days of the regime, the revolution and first six months of 1990 as the Public Against Violence movement Gál chaired (see photo below) started to be bruisingly pushed aside and internally fracture under the growing pressure from Slovak nationalism, some of it animated by ill concealed anti-semitism. Gál left to live in Prague in 1992, but is still well known enough to drawn an audience of 60-70. Most, as I later discover, are young Slovak and Czech students, though almost none from SSEES curiously enough.

Things get off to a bad start when, after opening remarks, it becomes clear that the English language version of the film won’t play. We can, however, show it in Slovak, which is OK for around 80% of the audience and perhaps a blessing in disguise as the English version is overdubbed, rather undermining its effect, rather than subtitled. The film, however, is powerful and well made and in the Q and A that follows Gál shows himself to be a magnetic and charismatic speaker. If you wondered why he was a revolutionary leader, this would answer your question. The questioners are all young, the question all in Czech or Slovak, self-translated in English. Everyone agrees that communism-nationalism-and-populist social-democracy are all part and parcel of the same illiberal conundrum that plays to the lowest, materialistic and most provincial inclinations of the Slovak and Czech populace and still haunts the region. Why did thy not handle things more smartly? Boli sme blbí, Gál tells his listeners in a line you feel he’s probably used before. But given the revolutionary avalanche of events and the fact he bowed out of politics almost two decades ago, that’s perhaps a more than acceptable answer.

Showing up in the grander circumstances on 17 November itself to give a lecture, Slovak Prime Minister, Robert Fico represents precisely that Other Slovakia (my phrase) that Gál and his listeners so dislike. We had expected a bland speech, but characteristically Fico decided to deal with controversial issues bluntly and head on: not everything under communism had been all bad -welfare standards were higher and teaching in universities ‘more systematic’; there had been privations and bureaucracy – he himself had had to queue through the night to book his honeymoon to Malta; the revolution was not a cause for unbridled celebration as the ‘tribunes of the revolution’ didn’t deliver on promises of fairness and freedom and hacked away a lot of ordinary people’s social certainties in their pursuit of economic and party self-interest (until the arrival of R. Fico and Smer, you understand. Politically, this is some extent a necessary move as in 1989 Fico was a member of Communist Party of Slovakia (having joined in 1987) working at the Institute of State and Law of the Academy of Sciences, although on the other hand some Czech Social Democrats have similar backgrounds as bright young things in the late socialist nomenklatura and don’t feel the need for such a ‘balanced’ assessment of the old regime.

The main achievement of the revolution in this rather interesting Fico-ean interpretation was that it opened up the way for an independent Slovakia and for further economic modernization, although an over dependence on car construction for export would entail an economic strategy based on high public spending in these days of global recession, partly to invest in education.

In the Q & A Fico switched to Slovak, ostensibly for the sake of not being misquoted or misunderstood by the Slovak media in not quite perfect English, but presumably also because he knew he was going to say something worthy of that night’s TV news. There were three questions to which he gave long, unfazed confident answers, perhaps being Robert Fico he could guess what he was going to be asked: the quality of Slovak higher education (admittedly poor, too many universities, too much local pride at stake); what would he do if he were a Slovak Hungarian (cherish and protect his own culture and learn to speak perfect Hugarian); and did he think there was a trade-off between freedom and prosperity (no but golden plated freedom could be a bit costly – Slovak officials weren’t well resourced enough to deal with too many freedom of information requests).

My sympathies were, it must be said, not with Fico, who made a more convincing case for himself on his last visit in UCL in 2006. On the other hand, he has turned out to have played the smarter political game and, as one leading specialist on Slovak politics, reminded me after afterwards it is a sign of progress to have ‘bog standard left-wing politics’ dominating the Slovak political scence not the more paranoid and dangerous nationalism of the Mečiar era – a period oddly absent from Fico’s speech – albeit suffused with a bit of dodgy nomenklatura nostalgia for social cosseting of the normalization era.

The text of the speech doesn’t seem to be on the net yet, but extracts from YouTube can be seen here. Gál’s film (broken down into 14 short episodes) can be seen (in Slovak) here.

Update: A video of the full lecture has now appeared on the UCL-SSEES website here.

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