SECESSION is an on-going project designed to re-shape and re-think the European space and project on the basis of translation, migration and hybridization.
1989 – 2014: 25 Years After
I was thirteen when the Velvet Revolution started in November 1989 in what was then Czechoslovakia. Soon after, I learned to hate nationalism. After the so-called Velvet Separation in 1993, the smaller, less developed and weaker part of Czechoslovakia – Slovakia, that is – had an authoritarian and reactionary government under Vladimír Mečiar, who pursued backward-looking economic policies. Slovakia was the underdog of Europe, underestimated by the European Union and by its neighbour states. Slovakia was where I lived.
Today Slovakia scores higher then the Czech Republic in almost every economic indicator. Since its independence, it has enjoyed one of the fastest growth rates in the EU, with keen interest from foreign investors attracted by low tax rates and a strong recovery from the global financial and economic crisis. Slovakia has also become an active member of the European Union and NATO and was the first country in the region to adopt the Euro. It is safe to say that the Slovak story was a success story.
But in the recent European elections, only 13 percent of Slovaks went to vote. Populist anti-EU parties did very well. Half a year ago, neo-Nazi politician Marian Kotleba won the election in the Middle Slovakian region of Banska Bystrica. He had no billboards and no TV ads, just a Facebook community fervently following his Anti-Roma hate agenda.
Not only that. In May 2014, the Slovak Parliament changed the constitutional definition of marriage to apply exclusively to unions of men and women. The leftist populist Social Democrats joined with the Christian conservatives to define marriage as a legally regulated community of a woman and a man. The EU remained silent.
The drive for this change came last December, when a Slovak conference of Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter describing same-sex marriage as “sodomy” and gender equality as part of “the culture of death.”
A fundamentalist Christian group called the Alliance for the Family is collecting signatures all around the country to organise a referendum to ban abortion and allow parents to withdraw their children from sex-education classes. These initiatives get enthusiastic support from the Catholic church and many political parties. Supporters spread propaganda, trying to show that gays are threatening the Slovak family. Yet it is the current crisis of capitalism that is truly destroying Slovak social safety nets. The declining quality of education, a bad public healthcare system, unemployment (up to 30 percent), very low pensions and low salaries for teachers and nurses… these are all doing much more damage to the family than the LGBT community is!
Politicians are not able to solve these problems, so they misuse democracy and support a conservative backlash with anti-minority policy decisions. This tradition is a long one. The Slovak pro-Nazi regime during the Second World War was Catholic.
So-called mafia capitalism and extreme corruption changed the way people understand politics. Slovakia remains a deeply divided country. Most people do not believe in democracy or civic society, but in conspiracy theories and myths. Parties both left and right lack any real program, not to mention a vision. They serve the oligarchs and support nepotism. Family clans of party bosses get jobs, positions, and contracts. Most cultural institutions were never reformed and remain socialistic.
Since the rise of Slovak Marian Kotleba and Hungarian Jobbik, the poor regions of Central Europe have increasingly been resembling the dystopian scenarios of the totalitarian past, realising the worst nightmares of the 20th century. From the highly-developed areas of Western Slovakia it takes three hours to drive to the new Roma slums and ghettos of extreme poverty. Racism is spreading like the plague, as fast as modern social networks.
What is to be done?
As a writer and citizen, I support education reform, the only true hope Slovakia has left. I try to inspire young people to read and write, to think critically and to understand the media. Last week I helped to open a library in Šarišské Michaľany, in a school heavily criticised for segregating Roma kids. I believe that the writers and intellectuals of Central Europe have a special responsibility. Let us not forget that writers glorified the modern state and that their nationalist odes may be found in all the schoolbooks of Europe. In Prague and Bratislava in 1948, most writers and artists raised their hands and danced in the streets to welcome the arrival of Stalinism. Read Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and you will see what I mean.
Slovakia needs to develop a sense of historical responsibility, an awareness of the other. In places like Košice there are hip start-ups, trendy art galleries and popular night-clubs with international bands and deejays. But in the same small urban space, there are also post-socialist city ghettos. A new Berlin wall is being built to separate these two worlds.
There are many fascinating projects and initiatives all around the country in areas like technology, culture, and environmental and social issues, but most of them remain ignored by the state. One example is the restoration of the Jewish synagogue in Žilina to create an open public space for activities in the arts and humanities. This is a very expensive project covered by public contributions and the work of volunteers. I strongly recommend going to see it and helping out.
More and more, the people themselves are showing that they can govern much better than the government.
When I was thirteen, everybody claimed I belonged to the happiest generation that ever lived in Central Europe. Today it is clear that I belong to a generation dealing with some of the most difficult and complex challenges a civilisation could ever have to face. We earned freedom, but at the same time we earned a nearly dysfunctional, rotten state lorded over by godfathers who apply their own rule of law.
History helps those who help themselves.
June 2014, Bratislava