“The good old days”
Slovakia and its difficult journey from East to West
Languages: Slovak as official language, other languages: Czech, Hungarian, Rusyn
Population: approx. 5 Million
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Surveys in Eastern and Central Europe show that many people in the post-communist countries feel a pronounced nostalgia for socialism. The dark sides of the dictatorship are pushed into the background or even trivialised. Many people long for „the good old days“. But was everything better in the past? We talk about that with primary school teacher Silvia Gemzová, who represents a generation that grew up under a socialist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia and now lives in the independent democratic Slovakia.
Slovakia became an independent state on 1 January 1993 connected with many challenges such as unemployment, corruption, the „wild“ nineties and, in recent years, the increasing emigration of young people abroad, followed a difficult path from east to west. The path was not only marked by economic and political changes; an entire generation had to suddenly rethink and identify themselves with values that they did not know before.
„Slovakia has been disoriented for a long time. There is a radical rhetoric in politics, a high level of populism, many lies. On top of that, there is an arrogant political style. The gap between poor and rich is widening, the risk of poverty for children has even increased; regional differences are also growing. In this problematic situation, the murder of a journalist happened, more and more corruption scandals come to light, and people go out into the streets with a clear statement: Enough is enough! It is finally enough“.1
People go out into the streets with a clear statement: Enough is enough! It is finally enough!
These are the words of Iveta Radičová, who was Prime Minister of Slovakia for two years. A woman without scandals, who was seen as a bearer of hope, but who could not assert herself in the problematic political situation in Slovakia. On 25 February 2018, the double murder of the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová shook Slovakia and surprisingly triggered a government crisis. It led to the biggest protest marches since the Velvet Revolution in 1989, demanding a „decent Slovakia“ and new elections.
Apart from the murder itself, the political crisis was triggered by Kuciak’s investigative work, which revealed the close ties of the Italian mafia to the highest government circles. This was the culmination of the systematic intertwining of controversial politicians, businessmen, the police, and a weak rule of law. The protests following the murder of Ján Kuciak and his fiancée showed an enormous distrust of the government, the police, and the public prosecutor’s office, which are actually responsible for solving the crime. The murder resulted in more people taking to the streets than at any time since 1993. The protests were not only aimed at uncovering the double murder but also represented the hope that Slovakia would finally change for the better.
Change of government during the Corona crisis
On 21 March 2020, a photo went around the world that may one day be found in Slovak history books. A photo showing the new government with facemasks and gloves at their swearing-in ceremony. And the photo clearly shows that instead of fighting the corruption, the corona crisis is now the top priority.
The murder of the investigative journalist who reported on the corruption had influenced the outcome of the elections. The winner was the party OLANO (Ordinary People and Independent Personalities), which won the elections mainly by its strong focus on the fight against corruption. The left-wing populist SMER party, which has ruled with a two-year break since 2006, is now in opposition. The new head of government, Igor Matovic, had probably never imagined that he would fight not against corruption but against the global pandemic in the first months of his term. Slovakia managed the first wave of the pandemic very well – mainly thanks to immediate compulsory masks and strict corona rules.
In the summer, however, the rules were relaxed and even the clubs were allowed to open. Therefore, the second wave, which hit Slovakia hard, was no surprise. In response to the second wave, the government introduced mass antigen testing, which allowed more than 3.5 million Slovak citizens to be tested within two weekends. Time will show whether the mass testing had an impact. Currently (16.11.2020) a total of 526 deaths have been reported in Slovakia.2
The year 1968 still represents an important event in the history of both Czech and Slovak people. The Prague Spring is so important because it was the first government-led attempt for peaceful reform in Czechoslovakia. In fact, the Prague Spring can be considered the forerunner of the Russian Perestroika. The Soviet Union was in crisis in the 1960s, and the reforms of the Prague Spring were intended to overcome them.3 But is the combination of communism and democracy, communism with a human face, even possible? We will never know the answer. On 21 August 1968, the military intervention of the five Warsaw Pact states of the Soviet Union put a violent end to the Czechoslovak attempt of reform. Occupied Czechoslovakia became the European country with the strongest political repression. The symbol and main representative of the Prague Spring, the Slovak politician Alexander Dubček, was deprived of power and the period of „normalization“ began.4 The ruling Communist Party organized trials reminiscent of the monster trials based on the Soviet model in the 1950s. The purpose of the trials was to intimidate the citizens in order to discipline them. More than 400,000 Czechoslovaks fled into exile.5
Nostalgia for the former East refers to the feeling of lost security and the simplicity of life of the former regime. Nostalgia expresses itself, for example, in a mourning for the „good old days“, when everything was supposedly much more simple and better than in the present. The vivid memory of a comparatively quiet and predictable life is very different from the capitalist rampant growth that the transition after 1989 had brought with it. Just a simple look into photographs in the family albums was enough to awaken memories and a feeling of nostalgia and to realize that life in a former socialist regime was not as terrible as displayed by the West. Especially the people who had experienced the old regime are nostalgic. A psychological fact is that you idealize the things that were in the past. The uncertainty about the future, the lack of familiar structures, and the new challenges to which the old rules no longer apply contribute to dissatisfaction with the present and democracy.
Statistics show that the older generation, in particular, yearns for the socialist regime and Czechoslovakia. According to New Europe Barometer survey data from 2001 and 2004, 29 percent of Czech citizens over 50* answered „yes“ to the question of whether a return to the communist system was desirable. In 2004 the figure was still 22 percent. By comparison, the approval rate among 18 to 29-year-old is eight and six percent respectively, and among 30 to 49-year-old twelve and nine percent. We can also say: With the increasing age of the interviewees, the probability of support for a return to the communist system increases. What is the reason?6 We will now discuss this topic with Silvia Gemzová.
The Velvet Revolution began as a student demonstration. After ten days of peaceful protests, the Communist Party (KSC) gave in. The party leader Miloš Jakeš resigned on 24 November 1989 and the new balance of power was negotiated between the opposition „Civic Forum“ and the communist government. The deputies of the communist assembly, who until then had always been accustomed to unquestioningly approve anything, elected the leading figure of the anti-socialist movement, the Czech Václav Havel, as President of Czechoslovakia. The symbol of the Prague Spring, the Slovak Alexander Dubček, was elected as President of the National Assembly.7 On 1st January 1993 Czechoslovakia split into the Czech and Slovak Republic. The dissolution of Czechoslovakia was one of the processes of the division of multi-ethnic federal states in Eastern and Central Europe which took place after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Communist dictatorship in Europe. It is important to note, however, that unlike other countries, this development did not reflect the will of the citizens.8
Interview Silvia Gemzová
We live in a democracy, enjoy the desired freedom. The young generation knows war only from the news. Economically we are doing better than ever before. Nevertheless, some Slovaks are longing for socialism. How do you explain that to yourself?
Gemzová: I think people do not miss communism, but their youth. Of course, there was something good about that time – people were less envious because everyone had the same thing. You had security. Today, you have freedom, but if you don’t have the opportunity to use that freedom, you are wishing to have the old certainties back.
Let us go back to the time of the Velvet Revolution. Where were you? What were you hoping for? What did you feel when the Iron Curtain was suddenly gone?
Gemzová: I remember it like it was yesterday. I was 20 years old and a student. I and my classmates were rattling with our keys and had very big dreams and hopes. We thought that within two or three years the situation would be like in the West. But then came the disillusionment.
Does this mean that your hopes were not fulfilled?
Gemzová: Yes, many of us remained very disappointed. Especially during the „dark“ 90s, life was very difficult. Every day murders happened which remain unexplained to this day. Mafia, blackmailing, people did not even want to turn on the news anymore. Under Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, Slovakia became a „black hole“ in the middle of Europe. Unemployment was high, wages were low. People had not any security and were afraid. I think the main problem was that although communism was officially gone, the people in power were the same as before. There was suddenly a transition from autocracy to democracy. But nobody knew how to govern a state. Nobody except those who did it recently. How do you write minutes? How do you make international calls? That’s how the old communists came back to power. Officially we had democracy, but the political culture remained the same. As George Orwell wrote, „All animals are equal, but some are more equal“. And so the politicians did what they wanted because they knew they don´t have to justify themselves. And the people capitulated. Until February 2018. It is really very sad that only the murder of two young people, who had their whole lives ahead of them, opened people’s eyes.
How would you explain the fact that mainly young people vote for the extreme right-wing party LSNS (Slovak People’s Party) and in general that Europe is moving to the right?
Gemzová: It is a paradox. LSNS is elected mainly by young people, for a simple reason – they have never lived in a totalitarian system. They don’t know how precious freedom is and take many things for granted. On the other hand, LSNS has enough supporters from the older generation. They are the so-called frustrated voters who have completely lost trust in established parties. And when somebody comes along and promises that we will leave the EU and we will not live under the „dictatorship of Brussels“, which sounds very ironic here, they just fuel the nostalgia for a totalitarian system that will solve the problems. In my opinion, however, such parties will always remain in opposition. They have no solutions, only an aggressive vocabulary. I also have the feeling that the right-wing radicals are taking advantage of the freedom of speech and the corona pandemic to spread various conspiracy theories. That would not have been possible under communism.
After twelve years, there was a change of government – the previous opposition is now in power. The change came in March when the pandemic broke out in Slovakia and the government found itself in an unenviable situation. How do you assess their first year and the handling of the pandemic?
Gemzová: I don’t think anyone would want to be in their place right now. It doesn’t matter what they do, there will always be some group dissatisfied. I think that the government has done a good job so far and I particularly appreciate the fact that, despite Corona, they are also fighting corruption. Every day we hear in the news that someone from the judiciary has been arrested. I have been hoping for a long time that the political culture in Slovakia will finally change and that we will finally come closer to the West. Better later than never.
- Deutschlandfunk (2018): Ansichten einer Anständigen. Retrieved from: https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/getroffene-slowakei-5-5-ansichten-eineranstaendigen.
Last accessed on 14.09.2020.
- Ministry of Investments, Regional Development and Informatization of the Slovak Republic (2020): Koronavírus a Slovensko.Všetky dôležité a aktuálne informácie o ochorení COVID−19 a o opatreniach, ktoré Slovensko prijíma v boji proti nemu. Retrieved from: https://korona.gov.sk . Last accessed on 30.11.2020.
- Gehring, Hubert/ Paul, Mathias (2010): „Zurück in die Vergangenheit? Die Rolle der kommunistischen Partei in Tschechien“. Retrieved from: https://www.kas.de/de/web/auslandsinformationen/artikel/detail/-/content/zurueck-in-die-vergangenheit Last accessed on 29.11.2020.
- Pauer, Jan (1993): „Prag 1968. Einmarsch des Warschauer Paktes.“, Edition Temmen, Bremen.
- Hofbauer, Hannes/ Noack, David (2012): „Slowakei. Der mühsame Weg nach Westen.“, Promedia, Wien .
- Bartošek, Karel (1999): „Střední a jihovýchodní Evropa (Zentral- und Südoseuropa).“ in: Stéphane Courtois: „Černá kniha komunismu (Das Schwarzbuch des Kommunismus)“, Prag.
- Vodička, Karel (1996): „Politisches System Tschechiens“, Münster.
- SOÚ, Sociologický ústav AV ČR
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