Slovak “Freedom” and Second Chances

16 Sep 2014


It is a battle of the heads and the hearts. The two referendum campaigns have fought on both of these fronts for over 2 years. The debate has brought out the best and the worst in Scottish politics and it looks like the result truly will come down to the wire. Heads and hearts – both of which were sadly absent 21 years ago when another country I loved was being carved up.

As I have previously said, I am wary of using (Czecho)Slovakia in the debate over Scotland’s future, with the exception of the context of a currency union, where the ill-fated project illustrates the dangers for both Scotland and the rest of the UK. However, a recently-aired morning radio programme about Slovak independence raised my blood pressure to sufficiently high levels to make me revisit the topic. The radio was not the first time assumptions about public attitudes in Slovakia and the Czech Republic to the dissolution of their predecessor were aired – and yet again they were flat out wrong.

The statements I am referring to fall into two camps: firstly, the “good-for-them-for-winning-their-freedom” kind and the “they-never-once-looked-back” kind. Both are inaccurate and, for me as a Slovak, it is frustrating to see them uttered by respectable commentators, journalists as well as elected representatives. My personal opinions and experiences, of course, may well be marginal, so don’t take my word for it – look at opinion polls conducted throughout the last two decades.

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: just because the dissolution of Czechoslovakia was peaceful does not mean it was democratic. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Contrary to the caller who the other day adamantly tried to persuade me that there definitely was a referendum, dissolution was expediently chosen after federal government negotiations broke down following the June 1992 elections. None of the parties standing for election had independence explicitly in their manifesto, apart from the usual suspect – the Slovak National Party – which polled a meagre 8% of the vote in Slovakia. No political party had a mandate for a referendum, let alone the breakup of a country.

The absence of a referendum was and remains a thorn in the side of the population across both successor states. Every single poll in the last 21 years has been consistent; on average around 70% of respondents across both countries believe a referendum should have been held, even in polls that show a shift in attitudes to dissolution itself.

The reason for not holding a referendum was quite simple: it would most certainly have failed in both parts of the country. Polls conducted around 1992/1993 had support for dissolution at around a third, with up to two thirds opposed. In fairness, support briefly breached 40% towards the end of 1992 in Slovakia, but by March 1993 (a couple of months after dissolution) it was back down to 29%.

So much for the “winning-their-freedom” argument. Czechs and Slovaks won our freedom in November 1989 and the events of 1992/1993 were a shameful example of an undemocratic elite stich-up, almost like an unsavoury hangover from the communist totalitarian era. However, have we ever looked back?

Here opinion polls are quite clear too. Even today, both Czechs and Slovaks still have strong emotional ties to Czechoslovakia. 10 years after the split a majority in both countries believed it was a mistake. It wasn’t until 2006 that a Czech opinion poll showed support for the decision made. Remarkably, a 2007 poll in Slovakia even showed a majority in favour of reunification, which is quite different from expressing regret at the split. It took almost 20 years since dissolution for an opinion poll in 2012 to show a majority of Slovaks in favour of independence.

Now, apart from the usual caveats, opinion polls on attitudes are of course very different to actual real-life politics. When a political party in Slovakia adopted reunification as its official policy it polled a staggering 1% in 1994. Reunification has simply not been on the political agenda in either of the countries. This underlines one thing: we have always been realists. No matter how emotionally painful the split was, we recognised the finality of that decision. “Why cry over spilt milk?” as the old idiom goes. No amount of “if only”’ or “could have been” will reverse the decision. Let’s make the best of it.

To be fair, we did do well. Slovakia had to go through 4 years of semi-authoritarian rule that just about left us stranded and isolated amongst pro-European neighbours. However, we recovered and came back from the brink to some of the best macroeconomic figures in the region. For those who think this was a result of independence (and unfortunately there’s been a fair few) let me be very clear: it was a radical free market reform agenda that did the trick – rapid privatisation, banking reform, labour market liberalisation and significant tax simplification. I read the Scottish Government’s White Paper in great detail several times, but I still must have missed any of these.

So we did do well, perhaps even better than expected.  And yet I can’t help but think of the 1st January 1993, shortly after midnight, when my whole family was standing in front of the TV, listening for the first time to one, not two national anthems. There were tears rolling down our faces, as they were rolling down the faces of our Czech friends and neighbours standing next to us, listening to the national anthem of a foreign country.

I was a young boy, but I remember it well. It was a sombre moment. We were standing there helplessly, thinking about how we got that far. Not even a century prior to that moment we decided to build a country together, uniting in strength whilst reeling from the bloodiest conflict the world had ever seen. Some twenty years later World War Two tore us apart, but we found our way back together. In 1968 we together watched in disbelief as Soviet tanks rolled into our country to crush any hope for change. Two decades later, only a few years before that sombre moment, we were marching in the tens of thousands in Bratislava and Prague, clutching candles, jangling our keys, singing and chanting and walking towards a democratic future.

This is where my personal emotional ties start to intertwine with the United Kingdom. For all the talk of 1979 and Thatcher and Tories, the United Kingdom being instrumental in Eastern European liberation is almost never mentioned. The Berlin Wall would certainly not have fallen (so soon?) without the United States and the United Kingdom stubbornly standing up for their values. The people of Scotland should be proud, for Europe and the world would not be the same today. I know I would not be the same today.

I will let my guard down and allow this piece to descend into a bit of pathos. I loved Czechoslovakia, just as much as I love the United Kingdom. I spent the first third of my life in one and the latest third of my life in the other. And I love Scotland, just as much as I love Slovakia. I can comfortably call them both home. All four have a special place in my heart and all four are now a part of me.

I suppose I could try and pick one, but I don’t have to. I choose to define myself by who I am and not by who I am not. I choose to remember the things that unite us not those that divide us. And I choose to relish the chance to save one country I love, being denied that choice the first time round. I can only hope the people of Scotland grasp that chance too.