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Reviving Slovak Civil Society

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In horror movies, just when you think the villains have been dispatched, they often make one last reappearance at the end to threaten the hero and shock the audience. It is a reminder to avoid complacency. Even as you file out of the theater, you have a sneaking suspicion that there will be a sequel, and the villain will rise once again.

This was, roughly, the scenario in Slovakia in the 1990s.

Although much of the focus of the world's attention in 1989 was on Prague and Vaclav Havel, the civic movement Public Against Violence played an equally important role in ensuring that the revolution in Czechoslovakia was "velvet." Key figures in this civic movement went on to key positions in the new Czechoslovak government. One of those people was Vladimir Meciar.

Meciar, in his youth, had been a member of the Communist Party. Like so many other reform-minded Communists, he was expelled from the Party after 1968. Much later, after a career in law, he joined the Public Against Violence in 1989 and then entered the new Czechoslovak government as a minister of interior and environment. With Vaclav Klaus on the Czech side, he presided over the dissolution of Czechoslovakia and became the first Slovak prime minister in 1993.

Some time in the 1990s, however, Meciar began his drift toward autocracy. And that's when Slovak civil society was shaken from its complacency to mobilize against this new threat.

"In the first years of the Meciar government, it really became clear to everyone, not only to the inner circle, that this guy is thinking about a different type of democracy," Rasto Kuzel of MEMO 98 told me in his office in Bratislava in February. "It was good for Slovak NGOs and for the Slovak civil society that we had to again unite and fight for these principles. We had to very actively demonstrate that we didn't want this type of democracy and that we wanted Slovakia to be back on the right track."

MEMO 98 was formed to monitor the media in Slovakia at a time when the Meciar government was doing whatever it could to control TV, radio, and print. Along with other civil society organizations, MEMO 98 played a critical role in mobilizing Slovaks to oust Meciar through the ballot box and marginalize him from politics altogether.

Kuzel and MEMO 98 have continued their work. "Since 1993, we've had 17 or 18 directors of Slovak TV," he continued. "That's probably a world record. It also gives you an idea of how much public TV is still a tool that politicians try to use. This is something that MEMO has been working on in about 47 countries around the world. We've been sharing our experience from 1998. Politicians will always try to use the media, and it's the obligation of the media to be independent and autonomous enough to resist this pressure."

We talked about how MEMO 98, like other Slovak civil society organizations, has exported its experience. It's one of the lesser-known developments in East-Central Europe after 1989: how activists have travelled the world to work with their counterparts on the building blocks of democracy, including MEMO 98's expertise in the realm of media.

The Interview

When did you first sense that things might not work out so well with this transition in Slovakia?

I have to admit that I was not so much surprised that there were some problems. Maybe I was a little bit more sober with the expectations at the initial stage, although of course everything was very new for everyone at that stage. The danger that came in the form of Meciarism was different than simply the hangover that comes the day after a party. Yes, you see a lot of the ideas that you are fighting for not materialize. But this was a different, very dangerous form that really forced us to become very active again. And thanks to that activism, we are sitting in this office, because that was when our organization MEMO 98 was really born. But that was also the product of 1989: that we had people who maybe did not have such great ideas, or maybe the implementation of those ideas went in a different direction than what were hoping for.

Was there a particular speech that Meciar made? Or was there something you saw that kind of made you realize that this was a threat to democracy and Slovakia?

The question of the fate of Czechoslovakia preceded this period of Meciarism. And that's a difficult subject for me, to be honest with you. On one hand, I really believed that there were a lot of good things that we had learned from the Czechs, and there was definitely some nostalgia for the common state. At the same time, I really didn't see how it could work out, even though there are many people even nowadays who say that if there had been a referendum on this question, it would have never passed.

But here I believe that sometimes politicians should take the responsibility, though I'm not blaming the politicians who actually made this decision. Meciar was there, basically on our side. But of course I was not personally involved in these negotiations -- I could only read what was then written or said in the media. But there were people already at that stage indicating the potential dangers represented by Meciar. I was a student in the United States then, so it was very difficult to follow what was happening. But even in a small interview I did for a university newspaper, I indicated that this was probably the best thing that could have been done at that time: to split the country and prove that we can build democracy ourselves.

There are always good sides and bad sides. In the first years of the Meciar government, it really became clear to everyone, not only to the inner circle, that this guy is thinking about a different type of democracy. It was good for Slovak NGOs and for the Slovak civil society that we had to again unite and fight for these principles. We had to very actively demonstrate that we didn't want this type of democracy and that we wanted Slovakia to be back on the right track.

Before you went to the United States, in the initial demonstrations in 1989, do you remember anybody saying, "Ahh, this is our opportunity to have our own state!"

Oh yes! There were still many people who remembered the first ever independent Slovak state, which unfortunately, in my view, was more fascist than independent. Of course we can have lots of discussion about this first state. On the other hand, the idea was quite appealing -- to prove that such a small nation of five and a half million could actually have its own state. I really never had any doubts that Slovaks could do this.

For me, it was always a comparison. The overall decision was a lesser-of-two-evils type of decision. If there had been an opportunity to stay together but to have a normal relationship, I would probably have chosen that. But it was clear that that was impossible, particularly since it was very clear that the preparations were done by the "older brother" as well. I mean, now it's not a secret that there were plans by the Czech side for two separate states. I'm not blaming their side, because of course as a politician you have to be pragmatic at the end of the day. And the pragmatic decision was that it was not possible for Czechoslovakia to keep together under those circumstances.

Describe to me the emergence of MEMO 98 and your involvement in that.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.