Czecho-Slovakia, a country divided thirty years ago for nothing

On Saturday January 21st, 2023 I voluntarily headed to Forum Karlín – a concert hall situated right next to “Havel-friendly“ publishing house Economia – both as a journalist and, admittedly, a fan. The victory of ex-general Peter Pavel in the run-off presidential election seemed, according to polls from 5 days ago, all but assured. Yet five days is a long time and no one was quite able to gauge how effective the brutally demagogic campaign of former prime minister Andrej Babiš would prove to be.

On Saturday January 21st, 2023 I voluntarily headed to Forum Karlín – a concert hall situated right next to “Havel-friendly“ publishing house Economia – both as a journalist and, admittedly, a fan.

The victory of ex-general Peter Pavel in the run-off presidential election seemed, according to polls from 5 days ago, all but assured. Yet five days is a long time and no one was quite able to gauge how effective the brutally demagogic campaign of former prime minister Andrej Babiš would prove to be.

A billionaire, an oligarch, the ‘man of the last decade’ walking a fine line between crime and law, even after launching into politics. A man who promised to Czechs that he would govern their state as he would run his business. A business with him as the all-powerful boss at the top. Presidential office was not meant to be the final summit of his political career but a springboard to taking over the entire country.

Taking over in order to create a somewhat “Balcan” model of politics, where nominally there is democracy yet everything of importance is in reality run by one person, as it has been for a few years in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. Babiš, originally from Slovakia-once upon a time a part of Hungarian Empire-is one of his biggest admirers. Orbán’s campaign methods were also brought into Babiš’s camp with the help of Tünde Bartha, a Hungarian Slovak educated in Budapest, and the ex-prime minister chief of staff. If Babiš had won she was to be chief of staff again.

Upon entering the concert hall where Pavel’s campaign headquarters decamped one could sense hope. Election turnout had been at record high and long lines at polling stations in ski towns gave evidence that traditionally “democratic” camps from Prague and other big cities did not give up on voting at their weekend retreats. For many of them Petr Pavel, a rank and file member of Communist Party before November 1989, was not a first choice candidate. Yet two other democratic candidates without such a blemish on their record, and who nevertheless failed to reach the second round of elections, prof. Danuše Nerudová and Senator Pavel Fischer gave him a clear backing, so there was a reason to hope.

As one Slovak lost, another celebrated

In the end it was even more joyful than one dared to hope at the start. After the 2pm chime officially ended the election, first results started flowing in onto a large flat screen. Usually they are from the smallest municipalities and rural election precincts. Traditionally left-leaning, with Babiš assuming extreme left rhetoric, they were expected to be his base. Not this time around. Petr Pavel assumed his lead right away and soon left Babiš behind with fifteen percent ahead. Around 3:30 pm, with 90 percent of precincts in, the lead grew to 18 percent.

Point, set, match. Petr Pavel defeated Andrej Babiš. The general who didn’t wait for the last votes to be counted as they couldn’t change anything by now, entered a cheering hall. “I do not see victorious or defeated voters In our country. What I see is that at these elections what has won is values of character. Values such as truth, honor, respect, and humility. I am convinced these values are shared by the overwhelming majority of us. We need them back at the Prague Castle, in our lives, and in our politics”, said Petr Pavel after his victory. Victory in an election in which a Czech, Petr Pavel, defeated a Slovak, Andrej Babiš.

A nationality card surely could have been played during the campaign. Babiš, significantly less than fluent in Czech, proved to be catastrophically ignorant of elemental Czech history and cultural heritage during “election” meetings with schoolchildren and during TV duels. Apart from an odd billboard here and there by a nondescript NGO and few posts on social networks it was not played, though. Yet it was still, as it were, in the air.

So when the Slovak president Zuzana Čaputová congratulated in person to the winner only a few minutes after the official results were in, any such speculations were elegantly and courageously put to rest. In her short speech she made clear that although Slovak herself, she is not in the Babiš’s camp.”Your victory is victory of hope. Hope that decency and truthfulness do not represent a weakness. I rejoice over the fact that in our region, and Europe itself, there is another head of state thot shares true European values.” Čaputova had come incognito to Prague the night before the election took place. “If I had lost it would have been just a secret trip to Prague” Pavel commented. Later on, he also revealed that the idea came from Slovak staffers in his campaign who had previously worked with Čaputová and helped her clinch victory in 2019.

In the black hole of Europe

On January 21, 2023, I experienced a joy similar to one I felt on September 26, 1998 in Slovak Bratislava. It had been a tough six years for Slovakia then. The prime minister Vladimír Mečiar abused the newly gotten independence to build a mafia state, proverbially called “the black hole of Europe”. The kidnapping of President’s Kovač’s son by members of Slovak Secret Service SIS was just a tip of the iceberg. Slovak TV and radio broadcasters returned to state-bought propaganda as it had done during Communism, and journalists from opposition media were frequently assaulted or had their cars vandalized. Privatization was an open transfer of state-owned businesses to people loyal to Mečiar, and his political party, HZDS, was in control of all key positions in the state, from judiciary to the police. It all came to a head in 1998 once President Kovač’s mandate was concluded in March of that same year. His successor failed to garner enough votes in Parliament and Mečiar became an acting president himself. From this position he declared amnesty for the worst crimes of his premiership, including the aforementioned abduction of the president’s son.

The term “black hole of Europe” did not apply only to politics, but to Slovakia in general

The term “black hole of Europe” did not apply only to politics, but to Slovakia in general. Foreign investment was almost nonexistent, the country was not included in the first wave of NATO enlargements due to lack of democratic principles, and also failed to make the EU candidate’s list. About a hundred thousand Slovaks “emigrated” into the Czech Republic. Some, as one of the leaders of the November revolution Fedor Gál, to escape persecution; many others were simply disgusted by the semi-totalitarian and pseudo-patriotic fervor of Slovakia in those days.

Compared to Prague, brimming with tourists from all over the world, the Slovak capital Bratislava came across as hopelessly grey, and poor. Very little had changed since January 1, 1993 when I witnessed, on the Square of Slovak National Uprising, the celebrations of the creation of an independent Slovakia. “Let’s meet up in a restaurant or a pub in the Old Town” our Slovak correspondent Karol Wolf, who too had his own share of troubles with Mečiar’s people, told me. When I asked him to be more specific, his retort characterized Slovak capital better than anything else. “It doesn’t matter, I’ll find you’. There were only a few pubs and restaurants back then, in a city of half a million.

In the end we spent the election evening in a smoke-filled wine tavern and on a dismal tv set watched tallying of votes. “And that’s that,” Karol proclaimed in one moment and happily popped in a shot of cheap whisky. I was a bit surprised. Vladimír Mečiar won another election that night. His party scooped in the highest number of votes and parliament mandates. Yet the pro-Western Slovak Democratic Coalition led by Mikuláš Dzurinda lost by less than one percent and one parliament seat. The most important fact was that Mečiar would be unable to garner enough support among his allies to form a government, and the wide coalition of his opponents would have an unassailable majority. “So we are back in Europe” was Karol’s closing comment.

Slovakia bettering Czechia

It has been a long slog, however. Back in 2000, when I moved to Bratislava on an assignment, it looked like Slovakia would have a hard time catching up with the rest of Central Europe. It was much better than during Mečiar’s years, as the Czech Republic, led by prime minister Miloš Zeman, rejuvenated the Visegrad group that helped Slovakia speed up in its integration with the rest of Europe. Still, the wide government coalition, which included the post communist party as well, had a very slow start. Then in 2002 there was another election, which was won once again by Mečiar. Mikuláš Dzurinda was able to form a liberal, reformist center-right government and things started changing. There was a flat tax rate, pension and healthcare reform, with Slovakia finally able to join NATO and EU, and began to prepare to join the Eurozone. During those days I was, as a journalist working for Slovak newspaper, conducting an interview with the then-newly elected Czech president Václav Klaus. The same Klaus who in 1992 signed a pact with Mečiar to end Czechoslovakia. I questioned him on the Slovak liberal reforms, and sort of expected him to praise them. “This would never come to pass here” was his off hand comment about Slovak liberal reformist quest, implying that Slovakia was in no position to teach him any lessons on policy.

During the last thirty years I have pondered many times and tried to make sense of Czechoslovakia’s dissolution in 1992.

Back then, and during Mečiar’s years it was clear – it saved us, Czechs, who had Havel at the Prague Castle.

And then Slovakia took a deep breath in and made a giant leap forward. On January 1., 2009 it became a member of the Eurozone and switched to the Euro. Czech economic and cultural lead began to dwindle. Czechs no longer were number one in car manufacturing per capita – that title went to Slovakia. In beer production we are, fortunately, still holding them back. Slovakia also managed to get through the 2008-2010 financial crisis in better shape, also thanks to its membership in the Eurozone.

Politics were still like spring weather. There were good governments and good presidents, and then not so good ones. Politicians changed as well.

There were years when Robert Fico almost seemed to be a quite decent prime minister, especially after his party Smer in 2012 elections clinched a parliament majority, and yet he didn’t follow in Orbán’s footsteps. In 2010 Czech prime minister Petr Nečas also seemed to lead a decent, pro-European and anti corruption government. Yet three years later it all came down with a crash, with a police raid at government headquarters and a story about a secretary who had the prime minister wrapped around her little finger, and charged luxury handbags for access to him.

That was the moment that gave rise to the phenomena named Andrej Babiš. He founded the political movement ANO and with slogans along the lines of “a billionaire doesn’t need to steal” he promised to mete out corruption. In 2013 he almost won an election, in 2017 he finally did so and thus became the first prime minister/oligarch in Central Europe.

In the last ten years when the Czech president Miloš Zeman was often almost unbecomingly pro-China and pro-Russia Slovakia had a very pro-Western philanthropic President Andrej Kiska. In 2019 he was succeeded by the first Slovak woman president – the beautiful, pro-European liberal Zuzana Čaputová.

In 2018 there was a bitter shock, when an anti-corruption journalist Ján Kuciak was murdered, along with his fiancée. Investigation then uncovered a monstrous corrupt web of shady businesses, politicians, judges and the police.The aftermath is not over yet, the current democratic government is not doing well and in September elections the chances are that newly pro-Orbán and pro-Russian Robert Fico will win the office.

The further from the disintegration, the less sense it makes

When one looks closer at the Czech-Slovak cohabitation during the last thirty years there is a discernible, lasting, yet gravitational pull of Czechia, that is still a magnet for many Slovaks – students, medical doctors, managers, and billionaires. The slogan I used to hear around the turn of the millennia that “Who wants to make it must head out to the West, at least to Prague” still holds today. Not so the other way around, even though the chances are one could get a better salary there.

Generally speaking, when one looks closer at how Czechs and Slovaks benefitted from going it alone since 1992 it is hard to come up with a long list. Yes, we do know now we can go alone. The more time has passed since the end of the union the less sense it makes.

Together we are members of EU and NATO, and there we often strike a chord. A newly appointed Czech Ambassador to Slovakia Rudolf Jindrák, whose grandmother heritage points him to German nobility stationed in Slovak Spiš, recently commented over coffee that one should aspire to more than that. We should aspire to be something more than two EU member states who often find themselves in simpatico.To that I add that a new, wiser generation of Czechs and Slovaks may one day ascertain that the disintegration was a nonsense to begin with, and a better way forward may be together in a joint state. A state more united than the EU will be at that time.

Lukáš Palata is a Deník newspaper editor of European affairs.

Luboš Palata

is the European editor of the Czech daily Deník. He was a reporter and commentator at the daily MF DNES and the deputy editor in chief of the Slovak daily Pravda. He studied International Relationships and Political Science at Charles University.

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