12/23/2013 11:59 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2014

Slovakia's Pendulum Swing

All the countries of East-Central Europe have experienced collective mood swings since 1989. Political parties have rotated in and out of power. The economic fortunes have oscillated considerably. And the level of social enthusiasm -- on a spectrum from malaise to engagement -- has also fluctuated a great deal.

Slovakia has been perhaps the most manic-depressive of the countries in the region. There was a surge of popular excitement in 1989 during the Velvet Revolution followed by a second surge around the country's independence in 1993. But disillusionment followed, along with growing disenchantment with the increasingly authoritarian politics of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. After another upsurge in popular engagement that eventually ousted Meciar, the citizenry has subsided once again into relative quiescence.

"In spite of all classifications and ratings -- Slovakia is doing relatively well in international comparative surveys assessing the quality of life -- the public mood at home contradicts the favorable findings," former Slovak ambassador to the United States Martin Butora told me in an interview in Bratislava last February. "What we see in everyday life, in debates in media and on Internet as well as in public opinion surveys, the general public is rather pessimistic or skeptical. The phenomenon that was labeled as blba nalada, a sort of disenchantment or malaise is still widespread."

This malaise is caused by many things. "Slovakia suffers from an ineffective state bureaucracy, violations of the rule of law, widespread bribery, corruption and clientelism, and problematic judicial conduct," Butora continued. "A network of public institutions has been put in place, but some of them are not infused with authentically democratic content, and too often they are not occupied by genuine democrats. A worrying challenge for any government has been the situation of Roma and of their co-existence with the majority. If we add to it the fact that political parties and politicians often command little public respect, while many democratic institutions lack sufficient credibility, esteem, and support, we can get a picture of a rather gloomy 'real capitalism' which for many people might be so unattractive as the infamous 'real socialism' had been some 30-40 years ago."

At the same time, Butora sees a possible way out of this malaise: "the gradual emergence of new ideas, new leaders, new projects, new, often informal, unregistered initiatives, new 'civic start-ups,' some of them also equipped with an entrepreneurial spirit. As if at least some people, mostly young, active, educated, imaginative, have come to the conclusion that it is up to them to achieve a change - often in their neighborhoods, in their communities, in their schools, companies, self-governments."

So, which way will Slovakia ultimately tip: toward greater democracy and back toward authoritarianism? As Butora pointed out, since 1918, Slovaks have lived half of the time under authoritarianism and half of the time under democracy. "The upcoming months and years will decide in favor of which regime the pendulum that measures the coming decade of Slovakia will swing," he concludes.

We talked about the role Slovaks played in the Velvet Revolution, the effort to join NATO, and how rock bands can help out at critical moment in a political uprising.

The Interview

I want to get your sense of the Mečiar period and your feeling about the return to an authoritarian style of politics. Was that a surprise to you? Or did you have a feeling from the very beginning that this was a possibility for Slovakia?

We were fully aware that this possibility exists here. It was connected with how people perceived the current system and what their expectations were. The situation in Slovakia was definitely different from Poland and Hungary, but to certain extent also from the Czech part of the common state. The Czechs perceived the 40 years of communism as a decline in civilization. They had in mind the first Czechoslovak republic under Masaryk, the European statesman, when the country was this island of democracy and economic prosperity. In that pre-Second World War period, there was Hitler, there was Horthy, there was Stalin, and yet here was still Czechoslovakia as a functioning, vivid, vibrant democracy, at least until the Munich Agreement in October 1938, and later the German occupation, and the division of the state.

Slovakia, however, experienced modernization not in the 19th century or early 20th century under capitalist conditions, but during socialism. We had what the East Germans had: the typical socialist industrialization, with an emphasis on heavy industry and the dissolution of all traditional structures such as farming, family structures, and so on. But at the same time, it brought certain progress - even if it has been often achieved at the expense of things like democracy, freedom of individuals, human rights, and so on. At the end of the 1980s, the expectations here were that something like perestroika would happen. The population desired a change, but perhaps not for a complete change of the regime. They wanted a better economy, a better working system, less corruption, more freedom, people would be allowed to travel, and the newspapers would be at least as free as in the Soviet Union at the time.

In fact, until 1989 you couldn't compare the official Czechoslovak press to the Soviet press. All the taboos were completely abolished over there, and we were reading the Russian weeklies - Ogonyok, Moskovskie Novosti -- like revelations, because they were really writing about everything. There was nothing like that here. There were some attempts. Some people and some editors-in-chief had the courage to test the water-- but in general, the atmosphere in Czechoslovakia under old party leaders like Biľak, Husák and Jakeš was different from that in Gorbachev's Soviet Union.

Having in mind all of this, we were not surprised that the first effects of transformation led to the abolition of a certain type of heavy industry. If unemployment was rising by 3% in the Czech Republic, it was rising by 10% or 12% or 13% in Slovakia. So, those people and those political movements that won the election in 1990, they would be gradually blamed for all of the troubles connected with transformation. With the rise of those strange coalitions that we call "red-brown" -- former communists turned into nationalists -- and having also this tradition of the Slovak fascist war state, we were aware that the struggle for the democratic character of the state was far from won. What form it would take was not quite clear, because there were several forces on the ground. But Mečiarism were not such a surprise because we had been actively struggling with it in NGO society, in the academic community, in media, in political society.

Do you think anything could have been done differently in those early days or years to prevent the rise of Mečiar and Mečiarism? A different set of economic policies, a different set of political policies?

From the historic perspective it's difficult to say. Perhaps another type of economic policy, perhaps a more gradualist economic path, would have been slightly more favorable, and those forces using this national/social populism wouldn't have had so many weapons in their hands. But the society as a whole has paid its price because we didn't have in Czechoslovakia a Solidarity like the Poles had. And in Slovakia, we didn't have even something like a Charter 77 in Prague. Yes, we had these activities of Christian people, which were important but they were cautious in their political demands, they were struggling predominantly for freedom of religion. The adaptation to what was called "Brezhnev-type normalization" went pretty far here in Slovakia. Also, after the Soviet occupation in 1968, the persecutions and purges in Slovakia were not as devastating as in the Czech part of the state. All in all, the society paid the price that it did not resist so much before.

Many people were saying, "My God, you were amateurs in politics!" Okay. If there were pre-formed political parties here, maybe it could have been done better. However, as we see today - there were political parties in Hungary before the change in 1989, and I'm not that sure that it went perfectly in Hungary.

Yes, and now they're having their form of Mečiarism right now. You were the ambassador to the United States. When you got to Washington, what were your priorities and what were you able to achieve?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.