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.
Do you remember where you were when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Everyone was really expecting that these things would happen in Germany, that it was only a matter of time. As a student, I was very much interested in what was happening. But to be able to tell you where exactly I was, I don’t remember that particular day.
It still sticks in my mind in terms of its symbolism. It meant a lot for people living in Bratislava, for it was basically the same way we were dismantling the Iron Curtain. People actually went there to collect a piece of this Berlin Wall, because it really symbolized the previous regime. And we looked at the fall of the Berlin Wall perhaps in a wider perspective as the collapse of communism for the whole Eastern bloc.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you first heard about the events in Prague a week after the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Yes, this is still very active in my memory, because I was a first-year student at the university. I was actually on sick leave a few weeks before this. As I was returning to university, I heard about the events in Prague. Four of us in our class thought that we should try and do something. Obviously there were student leaders and other philosophical faculty who were already organizing some meetings, so we participated in these meetings. Immediately afterwards, there were a couple of smaller-scale demonstrations. First, we went to demonstrate for the release of [lawyer and dissident] Jan Carnogursky, who had been arrested. We didn’t know what to expect. At that stage it was very unclear what was happening. Then there was another smaller-scale meeting of students and others at Hviezdoslavovo square. They were similar to the type that happened in Bratislava one year before the events in Prague: the candlelight demonstration organized by a particular Catholic organization. Frantisek Miklosko was involved, as well as Carnogursky, and it was suppressed by the police. We didn’t at that stage really know what would happen to this smaller demonstration in 1989. At the same time the feeling was growing, particularly among students, that we were ready to do something.
I don’t remember really hesitating a moment at that stage. Actually, I was more afraid of my teacher, because we had an important test that we were supposed to pass that Monday, and I basically skipped that. Now I’m trying to remember if I skipped class for revolutionary purposes or to avoid that particular test! But no, in terms of actual fear, I think most of us really wanted to really take an active part. We had student leaders who immediately after what happened in Prague organized the rest of us.
Ever since, I’ve been working in many other places, overseeing a lot of these revolutions, particularly the Orange revolution in Ukraine where I spent almost five months.
After the earlier demonstration organized by the Catholics in 1988, had there been any kind of activity organized among students, even on a very small scale?
I can’t tell you really, because I was just a first-year student, so I have to admit that I was relatively new. But certainly a lot had been going on, particularly among writers and members of the Catholic Church. You could read between the lines in some articles, particularly in some literary magazines such as Literarny Tyzdennik, where you could really see that this revolution was coming. Not that there could be any direct calls, but it was mainly done let’s say in an artistic way. In addition, people were also writing articles and distributing them underground. So it’s not possible to say that nothing was happening but maybe not to the same extent as in the Czech Republic where they had Charter 77. At the same time the Slovak intelligentsia was really very active in this field. And people were clearly watching what was happening in the neighboring countries. The main question for everyone was when.
When you went to university and before these events happened, what did you think your future would be?
There was some kind of symbolism in all this, because my father Dušan Kužel was a writer who was active during the Prague Spring. When I was young I was reading an explanation of the Prague Spring in an unofficial language because my father still had everything from that period in our cellar. This caused me a small problem in high school when we discussed these events, and I publicly said in class that I also heard another version, not the official one. So, I was very interested in all this, and it was mainly to follow up on my father’s message.
So what did I expect? I basically expected that this regime could not last much more.
I remember, as first-year students, we had to take this funny class, which was the history of the Communist Party. We had a very pleasant teacher. She’d just finished university and was very enthusiastic about teaching us. Of course what me and my colleague thought about this class undermined her enthusiasm, because I told her immediately that it was impossible to talk about democracy in a one-party system. My colleague went even further and said, “We are just wasting our time here.” Of course she didn’t like this very much. Anyway, I really expected that it was impossible that this would continue the way it was. It was really just a matter of time.
What happened in high school when you raised your hand and said you heard a different version?
I think I was lucky to some extent. Our teacher was also our tutor, and she somehow silenced me in a calm way, which was good because the director of our high school was a well-known Communist follower. If I ever had to confront him with these ideas I wouldn’t have had a chance to continue. At that stage—I must have been 15 or 16—I was probably not such a rebel to actually confront the system.
But obviously enough had changed between that class and your first year at university where you and your friends felt comfortable saying what you did.
When I was still in high school we did not see the light at the end of the tunnel. In high school, it was more what I recollected from reading in the cellar and saying that I’d heard or read a different version. I wanted to keep the discussion at the technical level at that stage, but at the same time I did not believe that the Communist Party would be able to establish democracy within itself. But what my classmate said was definitely more rebellious. The teacher took a notice and actually in a way threatened us: that she would arrange direct talks with the person who actually wrote those texts that we were studying and who had obviously more power at the university.
When things changed, what did you immediately think in terms of your own life? Did you feel like your life was going to make a radical shift as a result of the changes?
When we started these demonstrations, my private life was the last thing I thought of. I really felt like this was something that we were waiting for. Trying to look at it from my very personal perspective: I felt very happy that this change had finally come and I was able to participate personally. There was a sad story in all this. My father, whom I mentioned to you, was unfortunately not able to see this change. He passed away in 1985. But certainly from that perspective, I felt that maybe I was able to carry forward these very brave thoughts that he had in 1968.
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.
It’s been 15 years now since our organization was founded. The main reason was that Meciar was really manipulating the media, particularly the public television. It basically was not public at that stage but instead was clearly a tool in the hands of the ruling party. Everyone knew this, but no one was ever able to produce some compelling evidence. That was the main impetus. Then the National Democratic Institute of the United States came to Slovakia and had two focuses around the elections. One was to help set up a domestic election observation group, and the second one was to help in setting up a media monitoring project. Media monitoring was a very underdeveloped field at that stage. NDI did a few projects in certain countries, particularly in Latin America. But there wasn’t much of this.
My particular involvement in this was also rather funny. I was on sick leave, and when I came back I was basically searching for a job. I used to work for the U.S. Embassy, and then I did a year of head-hunting. At that stage, I got acquainted with NDI. Against all odds, because I had a very different offer from the commercial sector, I chose to work with them, and they hired me. Basically, my brain and my heart said different things. But I very much wanted to be involved in those projects, so I chose to work with NDI. I never regretted that decision, because it was the beginning of something that still continues nowadays. Even though there was clearly NDI backing, the project itself was really the work of Slovaks who were not very happy with what the media fed them.
The best thing was that we initially could not promise any money to those involved in media monitoring. The motivation was really more to do something about these elections. We recruited mainly students for this job. With the great help of NDI, we were able to produce some amazing reports. This was one of the projects that was really in the center of the media attention. Imagine my colleagues presenting these results at press conferences with some 50 people in the room, and all the major media being interested in this because it was the first time they had such a project in Slovakia. In this way I think the project was very successful. It was a very efficient way to reveal these manipulations by producing very concrete evidence.
I’ll ask you a couple more questions about that. But I talked to a lot of people in countries where there’s a “brain drain,” where a lot of young people left in part because it was hard to get a job and/or the political situation was unclear. Was that the situation here in Slovakia as well in the 1990s? Was it a difficult decision for you to return from the United States?
That’s a very good question, because I really was amazed with my experience in the United States. Thanks to the help of particularly my tutor in the States, I was able to stay a bit longer. I found work on campus and also was able to see the other side of the country, which was a very good experience because at that stage I had rather naive visions of the United States. Traveling on Greyhound buses I was able to see the other reality. But even though I had the chance to stay, I never hesitated a moment to return. But it’s true that when I returned I was very keen to continue traveling. Perhaps it was just some degree of realism but I wanted to finish school, which was also something that my mother wanted to see. Then, even before finishing, I was offered an interesting job at the U.S. embassy, which was my main motivation to stay.
But certainly I felt this brain drain, particularly after Meciar came to power. It was very visible even in my own circumstances, because I worked for the U.S. embassy and the relationship with the United States became more difficult, with fewer official visitors coming to Slovakia. Maybe that really motivated me to take an active part in making sure that we didn’t go in the wrong direction and that we would try to put the country back on the right track.
I’m curious about the profile of the United States. I imagine that America had a pretty high profile immediately after 1989. Did this change during the Meciar period? Did some people argue that the United States was manipulating things? Was that a widespread popular sentiment? Or was that only a minority of people who believed that?
I will start from a personal perspective, since I was working very closely with Americans, first at the embassy and then with NDI. I never had any suspicions of any sort of games. To the contrary, we felt very proud. And we felt very proud even when we were called agents of the CIA, and we were laughing, to be honest with you.
Of course Meciar’s nationalism was one obvious way to achieve political goals: by creating this vision of an external enemy and labeling the United States as an outside force interested in taking over Slovakia. This worked rather well with the Meciar electorate and the Slovak National Party electorate. So yes, there were such people and maybe they were even in the majority. Of course, their support is now close to zero. But you will still find some old people who still believe that this is the way things run in our world. Obviously, we could have a very long discussion about things that happened, especially after the Bush era. This maybe changed a bit the thinking also around the intelligentsia. Still, notwithstanding all these developments, I still mostly believe in the principles that the United States basically tries to promote.
In terms of MEMO 98’s media monitoring, would you say that you were able to begin the transformation of Slovak media before the fall of Meciar, or did it require the fall of Meciar before you could actually transform, or de-Meciarize, the media?
I would say that certainly we began the transformation from the state-controlled media, the type we remember from the Communist era. Of course there are differences between that type of media and what we had during the Meciar period. We already had independent media, which was really doing a good job in confronting Meciar’s policies. They provided this watchdog type of coverage, and they faced consequences. This was not present during the Communist era when no one dared to openly confront the regime. We had perhaps a few writers able to write in between the lines. We had maybe some samizdat, some underground literature, but nothing was really published. So of course there were differences.
As for the real transition in terms of regulations for both public media and the private media sector, the breaking point came when Meciar lost power in 1998. It’s still a very tough, ongoing process. There are still things that really should be changed.
Can you give me an example?
Public TV. Since 1993, we’ve had 17 or 18 directors of Slovak TV. 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.
Now there are clear benchmarks, and I don’t think there’s a possibility of returning to the Meciar-type of manipulation. Media literacy has even grown a little bit, though this is an area where we still have a lot of work to do. We never were taught in schools how to consume media content. We were taught literature. We were taught many things in our schools but there was no media literacy course. That’s why people cannot tell the difference between a tabloid type of article and an investigative piece of reporting. They don’t know to what extent they should appreciate the role of journalists. To a great extent this is because some politicians manage to label journalists as barking dogs who are only interested in revealing your private life, who are hunting for sensationalism, and who receive a lot of money for this. They don’t paint a picture of an important democratic institution that oversees power.
In the United States we have a concern about the growing concentration of media. Is that a problem here as well?
Yes, to a certain extent. The best period for Slovak media in this modern age was when the majority of our media was owned by foreign companies. Of course they are mainly profit-oriented and care less about domestic politics. And my organization was very much involved when we had a Berlusconi type of situation in Slovakia, when one of the previous owners of the most popular TV station also founded a political party. So he was very much using the TV, and MEMO basically highlighted this through our monitoring reports.
We see this happening today as well, with Slovak owners trying to cook things a bit behind the scenes. Of course, they have some impact on the editorial policies. That’s why we still try to do monitoring projects during elections. From 1998, we did continuous, everyday monitoring of the media here in Slovakia, but we stopped this in 2004. Nowadays it’s more focused on specific areas, and we’re more active during the elections. But I wish that we could still do it on an ongoing basis. It would be good for the self-reflection of the media industry.
As you pointed out, Meciar’s party has near zero influence, and it doesn’t have any representation in parliament.
Their electorate is dying, basically.
Do you think that Meciarism has survived in any important ways?
Absolutely. Of course, I don’t want to paint a naive vision of politicians who are always following the rules of game. But I’ll make another personal observation here. I’m often now traveling to other countries, and we work a lot in the former Soviet Union countries where the situation with human rights and freedoms is extremely difficult. And it’s such a great feeling that I can always come back home and I don’t have to fear saying what I really think. People forget this very quickly. They tend to see only the negatives of the system.
But sometimes I ask myself, “Do I still have some Communism in myself?” I told you a little bit of my personal story and the fact that this ideology never had any strong roots in my family. But honestly, I remember the way we were raised in schools and the different morals that we were getting from our schooling. This definitely had some impact on me. I really see it nowadays. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why it’s still so difficult to push for better politicians. Generally this is a crisis of political elites — not only in Slovakia but on a much wider scale. Of course now there’s a big discussion about the political system in general: whether there are sufficient safeguards to prevent politicians from getting their way and to limit the impact of money on politics. So this is a very relevant discussion.
Returning to your question, I still think that we have politicians who to some extent follow, well, I wouldn’t say the same type of approaches that Meciar did. That’s clearly impossible. By now, the system is more resistant, especially after we joined the EU. The benchmarks are clearly drawn. Even politicians like the incumbent prime minister is simply not able to go beyond certain limits. That said, if you ask me to name a politician who still has some of these aspects, I would say: the incumbent prime minister, Robert Fico, and particularly his first government. It was one of the biggest enemies of free press.
Can you give me an example from the current government of media manipulation or something that your organization had really fought against?
The way they dealt with public TV. The fact that they appointed a former anchor of Communist-era television to be the director. The way they appointed their own people to the various media regulatory organs. They also drafted a press law that would have provided penalties for the content in newspapers.
Did that press law go through?
Thanks to the involvement of the international community, particularly the freedom of the media representative of the OSCE, the worst parts of the law were struck down. But then there still was a rather wide interpretation of the right of reply. If it were implemented in the way it was suggested, it would have meant that politicians would have the ability to flood newspapers with their responses, and so that was also not the best thing.
More dangerous were the lawsuits. The civil code really penalized the media. I think that politicians or judges got from the media in one year 500,000 euros. For a very small media market that really had a big impact. At the same time, this has started to change. Even though the judiciary is certainly one of the remaining areas where a real reform is needed, some judges finally started to understand the overriding public interest served by journalism. But at the same time politicians are still very closely linked with TV directors, with TV managers. When you mentioned the tendency in the United States of the big conglomerates influencing editorial policies, we are there already as well. Maybe it’s not such blatant political manipulation as it was before, but certainly you feel the elements of it.
Are there a lot of independent bloggers here in Bratislava or Slovakia that feel that they have a public mission to fill in the media gaps?
Here we are still lagging behind. I know that you have quite a developed network of bloggers in the United States that really give you some alternative information. We used to have some very good projects here. The Slovak Press Watch was a very useful blog: revealing cases of plagiarism that resulted in journalists losing their jobs. It was a very efficient tool to make journalists a bit more responsible. There are some efforts now to follow this particular blog. But as far as I know, they’ve not been as successful as this example. To some extent we still lack this self-reflection in the industry. The professional organizations are still not really doing the job since the journalists’ community is divided.
But I believe in the power of the Internet, even though it also brought some negative tendencies to journalism, such as the rush to be the first without double-checking the sources. Often you end up with very unreliable information that then circulates all around. At the same time the barrier between the journalists and the audience has been getting thinner. Now people can provide very concrete feedback. Before journalists were maybe not so interested in the feedback. But now they are forced to look at it. For the end user, by getting the feedback to articles, you get closer to truth. Of course you have to filter out some of the content that is just critical and at times even offensive. But if you have a genuine audience interested in providing genuine feedback, you learn a lot and you get closer to knowing the truth.
When did you as an organization and when did you personally realize that you had something to share with other countries?
We started in 1998 when we had the first trip to Belarus. It was quite shocking to see the situation there.
Did you go officially as an NGO or as journalists? It was not easy to get into Belarus.
True. But maybe at that stage it was not as difficult. IREX Pro Media had an office in Belarus. So it was thanks to the Slovak Pro Media office here in Slovakia that this trip was arranged. At that point it was more a sharing of our experience than doing a training or similar type of activity in Belarus. A real breakthrough in these cross-border activities was when OSCE approached us for the first time to work in Ukraine for an election observation mission. Apart from the initial know-how and the great help we got from the United States and the National Endowment for Democracy in launching this organization, the ability to have enough time to set up media monitoring operations in other countries, particularly for elections, was thanks to the OSCE/ODIHR. There we learned more about the media situation in other countries, , how to efficiently analyze the data with as few words as possible, and to make use of as many colorful charts as possible in order to make it readable for wider audiences. Sometimes we get lost in the details.
Thanks to all this cooperation, we’ve had an opportunity to work in many many countries. And this year we hope to put our feet on the last continent where we haven’t really worked intensively, which is Latin America. We would like to do a pilot project in Peru. It’s been a fascinating 15 years of travelling and meeting new people and hopefully sharing some of our experiences.
Has there been any interest/support from the Slovak government?
Yes. We realized very early on that it is also in our interest to be in good relations with the Slovak government in terms of our cross-border activities as we often have common goals. Of course, you can imagine that this relationship has been developing. In 1998, we were on the other side, so to say, actually fighting with the government. But then what was also important for us was that we maintained the same approach after Meciar lost power and the first Dzurinda government was established. Because of course there were some people, including from NGOs, who actually joined the government. We’ve seen this trend in many other countries, including Serbia, with the Otpor movement when they turned into a political party. This was not, to put it mildly, very successful, although some of the leaders have been successful, because they are currently in the administration and they are still doing a good job. The same thing happened with some NGOs in Ukraine.
I still believe in the power of the Slovak third sector. I still believe that we have really great NGOs who are able to share this transition experience. Which I think makes us really good in this field. I think the government realized this. It also helped that former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright thanked our minister of foreign affairs for the Slovak NGOs’ involvement in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia prior to the fall of Milosevic.. So, this is very good for the government, for Slovakia in general. If this is something that we do well, where we can show that Slovaks really do have some knowledge to share, why not coordinate with the government?
When you have done these trainings abroad, is there one personal experience that jumps out as having the most profound impact on you, where you felt like you really could share in an important way your experience so that it could have an impact on another country?
I’ll talk about two countries that are very close to my heart now. When I look at this great period of 15 years, Burma jumps out as a shining example. Not only did I fall in love with this country, but the sort of hardship that these people still have to go through, and the way how they learned to deal with this, is just amazing to me. We started our activities in Burma in 2010, in the aftermath of the change in U.S. policy. The policy of engagement of the Obama administration resulted from their elections, or whatever you want to call them. They were neither fair nor free, but still they were part of the national reconciliation process. I was never inside Burma, so all the activities we did took place on the outside.
From outside here in Slovakia, or from Thailand?
From Thailand. We established our offices in Mae Sot. Working with political prisoners and with student activists from the previous revolutions in 2007 and 1988 really taught me a huge lesson. We could spend hours discussing Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal story, but you can find a piece of her ability to cope with the system inside most of the people that we worked with. We spent 10 days in Mae Sot, in a rented house, doing training barefooted to follow the traditions. Eating with these people and spending hours in discussions resulted in feeling that it wasn’t me who was trying to share some experiences with them in media monitoring, but it was me who learned a big lesson about many things from them. That’s what made it a little bit different from other experiences.
In terms of the effectiveness of our input, of course it varies. I generally believe that media monitoring is a very effective tool for documenting manipulations and establishing different levels of involvement with the media. We are not just criticizing for the sake of criticism. It is really the ability to engage journalists and the public in a dialogue and to discuss the results. In this sense, I’d highlight our activities in Georgia, where we had the luxury of enough time and also, fortunately, enough resources, thanks to UNDP Georgia. Media monitoring has been one of the important tools in changing the media scene there. I do believe that this had some impact on the very last elections. In a week, I’ll be doing another training in Kobuleti in Georgia, basically doing some “lessons learned” activities, plus some more trainings. So, this indicates that Georgia is also a country very close to my heart.
For the book I wrote on this region in 1992, the chapter on Czechoslovakia—it was published before the breakup—focused on foreign policy. I wanted to look at the impact of Havel’s “moral foreign policy.” As you know, the decision to shut down arms production for export disproportionately affected the Slovak economy. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the spirit of a moral foreign policy has become very important here in Slovakia. I was wondering if people make the connection to Havel’s approach or the spirit of 1989 in general?
I think that we still have a long way to go in terms of introducing real moral values into our foreign policy. This is perhaps something that could be still further developed with the current administration, as there have been some unfortunate examples from the past, particularly with the prime minister, of doing otherwise, of following more commercial interests than basic principles and values of the type that the former Czech president Havel professed.
Returning to this period that you mentioned, I also have to say that in a way I was lucky. When I worked for the U.S. embassy, I was actually working with the military attaché, so I had a chance to visit most of these factories. Very honestly speaking, I was also very critical when this change happened, because it really happened overnight. It was perhaps not really well prepared, and a lot of people lost jobs as a result. So one has to also remember this part of the decision.
Now I think I have grown up a little bit in the meantime. When you ask me about my feelings about Havel today, I think it was a big loss for both Slovakia and the Czech Republic when he passed away. Certainly he’s one of the few politicians that people will always remember — for his great ideas and for his ability to introduce exactly this moral element into his policies, and for not being afraid to show it. This is unique, and again it’s something that our Slovak foreign policy should try to introduce more.
Of course I’m also not naive. We are a very small country. We can’t have a very active foreign policy and completely forget about our strategic necessities. At the same time—and I say this because I’m an NGO person—I really wish we could be much more principled. Our policy toward Belarus is getting more principled. But there are still many other areas, including Russia, where I think the whole world should be more principled.
When you look back to the positions you had in the 1990s, has anything changed in your perspective on the world? Have you had any second thoughts about some of the things that you were firmly convinced about in the 1990s but that you’ve since changed your mind about?
I’m certainly extremely thankful for the ability to still do what I like to do. I never ever regretted this decision to start this activity. I’m thankful that we never had to go commercial and that we more or less successfully try to share it with our colleagues in other places. I learned how to appreciate the basics that we have. We can say what we want to say. The freedoms that we have are something that people don’t have in many places.
I’m also grateful for the fact that I never had to face a serious dilemma up to now about what is more important: my personal life, my family, or my values. This was a huge dilemma for many of our fathers. I’m often asking myself this question, because I’m also a very family-oriented person and so family means a lot for me. But what would be my reaction in those circumstances? That’s why I’ve learned not to criticize people for what they did. There are still many many people who criticize cooperation with the secret police and all these things, but one has to look at each story separately as there were many forms of pressure and many different reasons why people cooperated. But I learned really not to judge people, because I don’t think I’m in a position to judge. And if we can still continue making some change, I would be very happy with that.
I also ask people three quantitative questions, just to get a comparative sense across countries. When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed in Slovakia since then until today, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being least satisfied and 10 being most satisfied?
I would say probably 8.
And now your own personal life: over that same period of time, same spectrum, 1 least satisfied, 10 most satisfied?
That’s a good one. Especially I like the way you put it now, in correlation with the previous question. I know that you expect only one number, but it’s of course very difficult. But I will say 8 as well.
And then when you look into the near future, and what will happen here in Slovakia in the next two or three years, how would evaluate the prospects on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
In general I’m a natural born optimist. I really believe that despite all these negative things that there is still some kind of progress. I tend to believe in the good qualities in human beings. But of course when you look at the situation nowadays, you will see that people are very pessimistic, and there is this malaise. So for that reason I would probably put it at 7.
Bratislava, February 11, 2013