New generation of protesters links Slovakia with 1989 spirit

Velvet Revolution anniversary finds Slovaks demanding change after journalist’s murder

People attend the protest For a Decent Slovakia on the first anniversary of the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova. Photograph: Vladimir Simicek/AFP via Getty

People attend the protest For a Decent Slovakia on the first anniversary of the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova. Photograph: Vladimir Simicek/AFP via Getty

 

Fifty-five years separate Martin Butora and Karolina Farska, but both see this weekend’s anniversary of the 1989 Velvet Revolution as a time to celebrate three decades of freedom while calling for the renewal of Slovakia’s tainted democracy.

When Farska was born in 1999, 10 years had already passed since Butora had helped organise rallies in Bratislava as part of a vast wave of anti-communist protests across Czechoslovakia, and six years had gone by since the now capitalist Czech Republic and Slovakia had amicably parted ways in the “Velvet Divorce”.

Yet young Slovaks like Farska have found inspiration in the legacy of Butora’s generation, since taking to the streets last year to express outrage at the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his girlfriend, Martina Kusnirova.

Tens of thousands of people joined Slovakia’s biggest protests since the Velvet Revolution to demand the capture of the killers and the resignation of a government that they accused of corruption and having ties to organised crime – links that Kuciak had been investigating before being shot dead beside Kušnírová in February 2018.

Populist prime minister Robert Fico and his allies tried to ride out the storm, but a deepening political crisis and pressure from the streets – led by a movement Farska co-founded called For a Decent Slovakia – ultimately forced him to step down along with his powerful interior minister and the national police chief.

Karolina Farska, co-founder of the For a Decent Slovakia movement
Karolina Farska, co-founder of the For a Decent Slovakia movement

“When I talk to people like Martin Butora, they all say that they could feel what they felt in 1989. It was the same spirit. The most important thing was the people’s need and urgency to make something happen,” Farska says.

“Of course, 1989 was different, in that it brought about a total change of the regime. Back then they couldn’t legally go out to protest in the streets and there was no social media, so I can’t imagine how hard it was to organise,” she adds.

“But I think the ideas and ideals that brought people out 30 years ago were there again in 2018 – people chose to fight for the kind of country they want to live in.”

Striking parallels

For Butora (75), who co-founded the Bratislava-based Public Against Violence protest movement in 1989 and served as Slovakia’s ambassador to the United States a decade later, the parallels are also striking.

“There is a clear connection based on common shared values,” he says.

“Young organisers from this initiative invited to the stage representatives of Public Against Violence. Along with artists, journalists and NGO representatives – and, at previous rallies, teachers, nurses, scientists and farmers – they made their case against the corruption and cynicism of the powers that be and demanded a decent and fair society.”

For a Decent Slovakia uses social media to spread the word about protests, but 30 years ago Butora and friends had to rely on word of mouth to gather people to Bratislava’s large Umelecka Beseda gallery to discuss news of a vicious police crackdown against student protesters in Prague on November 17th, 1989.

Public Against Violence was formed at the meeting, and Slovaks started planning their own rallies to support the growing demonstrations in Prague.

“Already in the first declaration of Public Against Violence it was not only stated that Czechoslovakia is in a deep crisis but also that it is necessary to act – as it was said in the last sentence: ‘Let us, as citizens, take our issues into our own hands,’ ” Butora recalls.

“This was an electrifying ending. I read it in Umelecka Beseda, and in the evening it was read at a spontaneous demonstration in the centre of the city. Actors in theatres as well as students joined their colleagues in Prague and entered the strike.”

Martin Butora, co-founder of the Public Against Violence civic movement in Slovakia during the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Photograph courtesy of Martin Butora
Martin Butora, co-founder of the Public Against Violence civic movement in Slovakia during the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Photograph courtesy of Martin Butora

As strike action and protests spread across Czechoslovakia, so the numbers taking part and the links between regional activists grew, setting the stage for a general strike on November 27th that brought the country to a halt for two hours and convinced the communists that their time was up. The Velvet Revolution – or Gentle Revolution, as many Slovaks call it – had won. 

“In other words,” Butora says, “in 10 days everything had changed, one era had ended, we almost had not slept at all, but a chance for free elections and a more dignified life had been opened.”

Prague parliament

A transitional parliament in Prague was sworn in on December 28th and voted unanimously the next day for a new president of Czechoslovakia: dissident dramatist Vaclav Havel, who had been jailed by the communists and banned from staging his plays.

“Vaclav Havel was both a unique leader and a unique human being,” says Butora, who was the new president’s adviser on human rights in 1990-1992.

“I knew his writing before 1989, and besides his plays, I was impressed by his understanding of hope as a state of mind, not a state of the world, as he used to say. In this sense, hope for him was not synonymous with optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of the outcome,” Butora explains of a man who served as president for 14 years and died in 2011.

“He has been a moral anchor and an intellectual mirror both in bad times as well as in happy moments ... It is impossible to express how much we will miss him, particularly today, as the western world is once again in crisis.”

Slovakia is still staggering through its own political crisis, and though Fico has stepped down, he still leads the ruling Smer party and is suspected of pulling the current government’s strings from behind the scenes.

Police have charged four people over the murders of Kuciak and Kusnirova: powerful businessman Martin Kocner and two others have pleaded not guilty and the fourth suspect has admitted to the shooting.

Prosecutors say they gained access to tens of thousands of messages sent between Kocner and “representatives of state bodies and the justice system” during their investigation, and near-daily revelations continue to claim high-profile victims: last week Martin Glvac, the deputy speaker of parliament and senior member of Smer, resigned over his contacts with the businessman.

“The country feels like it’s now in a kind of purgatory where everything has to come out,” says Farska.

“We want this weekend to be a remembrance of the anniversary of the fall of communism, of when people went out and fought for their liberty,” she says.

“But it should also be a reminder that we need to put a lot of things right now. And if we don’t keep defending our values and our democracy, then it could all collapse.”

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