The challenge of Slovak nationalism

Wednesday, July 10, 1991

By Peter Annear

It is not only in Yugoslavia that the crumbling of Eastern European Stalinism has reopened national dissatisfactions and disputes. For most of this year, Czechoslovak politics has been coloured by the question of Slovak nationalism. PETER ANNEAR reports from Prague and Bratislava in the first of a series.

The eastern republic of Slovakia includes one-third of the Czechoslovak federal republic's land area and 5 million of its 15 million people. With its own language, culture and history, Slovakia is one piece — along with Bohemia, Moravia, parts of Silesia, and (before the war) Ruthenia — of the Czechoslovak jigsaw assembled by US President Wilson in 1918 upon the division of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

There is a feeling, especially outside Czechoslovakia, that popular demands for Slovak national rights run parallel with the anti-socialist sentiments that have surfaced in the separatist Soviet republics lying not so far away across the Slovakia-USSR border. However, three points should be kept in mind:

  • Political sentiment in Slovakia is generally to the left of opinion in the Czech republic. While in Prague it is fashionable only to be right-wing, in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, it is often more socially acceptable to be described as left-wing.

  • While demands for Slovak equality are grounded in widespread public concern about economic and political discrimination against Slovakia, extreme nationalists calling for an independent Slovak state are a small minority on the far right of Slovak politics.

  • The political events connected to this question are by and large channeled through the newly established parliamentary system rather than through mass action, though the threat of a public outbreak lurks in the background.

Sacked premier

The year's events in Slovakia have been dominated by the political character and activities of the sacked Slovakian premier Vladimir Meciar, who in April lost out in a parliamentary battle with forces politically closer to Prague. Meciar had played the nationalist card to win support against his opponents in the political differentiation following last June's elections.

Meciar was a leader of the Communist youth prior to 1968 and was

expelled from the party after the defeated Prague Spring. He was, like Alexander Dubcek, one of a group of expelled reform Communists who re-emerged during the events of 1989, after which he led the government established by the popular Public Against Violence (VPN) movement, the Slovak sister to Civic Forum. Together the two groups won 170 of the 300 federal parliamentary seats.

One of the many ironies of Czechoslovak politics is that the politicians who remained in the Communist Party until the collapse of the government in 1989 and continue to hold key government posts, like federal Prime Minister Marian Calfa and economics minister Vladimir Dlouhy, are consider acceptable by the Prague monetarist right wing. But those associated with the so-called Obroda group of 1968 reform Communists, expelled from the party 20 years ago, are treated with suspicion.

This is not because the 1968 reformers now seek to return to any sort of socialism. But the shadow of 1968 reform socialism, which takes the form of a more cautious liberal-Keynesian reintroduction of capitalist structures, is virtually the only alternative to the current government's monetarist program with any chance of being implemented.

In effect, Meciar was sacked by his own VPN in April for being too popular. In a May 30 opinion poll carried out by the Institute for the Research of Public Opinion, 82% of respondents were against the recall of Meciar and his replacement by Jan Carnogursky, a Christian Democrat. Two-thirds of Slovaks wanted an early election, before the next federal and republican contests scheduled for June 1992, to resolve the issue.

Tensions with Prague

Meciar is a colourful figure who, like Russia's Boris Yeltsin, inspires as much hatred as affection, especially outside Slovakia. In the Czech republic, where his name is often treated with contempt, 55% agreed with Meciar's recall. His opponents have spread mendacious gossip that he is dangerously popular and a potential Hitler.

"If you went to some Slovakian pub, the common person would tell you that Prague removed Meciar. I personally support Meciar, but I must say he does not always think about his formulations." At the parliamentary federal assembly building in Prague, I spoke with Slovak MP Ivan Laluha, a member of the now-dissolved Obroda group and an expert on Slovak political history.

There are three broad political tendencies in Slovakia: separatists who seek absolute authority for an independent Slovak state; the centralist supporters of Prague; and those in the political centre, who are represented by Meciar and who reject both separatism and centralism, said Laluha.

"Meciar gained a lot of popularity and support for his position, and people were afraid that if the separatist tendency gained more support then Meciar would be led by its popularity and influenced by the separatist leaders. They were also afraid that in international policy Meciar might move towards closer and broader collaboration with the east European countries."

As premier, Meciar headed a Slovakian government delegation to the USSR, where he signed trade contracts that were later criticised as being outside his competence or the competence of the Slovakian government. "So, we are just waiting for the period when we will have the market, because the market is more democratic than are the politicians themselves", Laluha said sardonically.

Left and right

"The VPN voluntarily handed power to the Christian Democrats with one condition — that they would help to remove Meciar. This political differentiation has caused a split in the VPN into two political currents: the original VPN, which has the money and all of the functionaries but does not have membership, and ZDS [Meciar's For Democratic Slovakia], which does not have functionaries but has many supporters across Slovakia."

The ZDS occupies "the political footprint of the original VPN", said Laluha, while the VPN has moved right. Opinion polls in April just prior to the formation of the ZDS indicated electoral support for the VPN was 4.3% while the ZDS topped with 28.5%. After Meciar's sacking, support for the Slovak government fell from 69% in April to 22% in May, according to the Institute of Public Opinion.

"Once they moved right and we stayed in the centre, it seemed to them that we were on the left." The "classical left", however, is represented by Social Democracy, which is now going through an embryonic redevelopment that includes the emergence of the Party of the Democratic Left (SDL) from the former Communist Party, which is "quite dynamic in comparison to Bohemia, where the Communists are more orthodox and dogmatic".

SDL chairperson Peter Weiss, who spoke to Green Left in Bratislava, agreed. "The claim that by his own personality and the positions he holds Meciar by himself could create nationalist sentiments is very simplistic. The problem is that Czech and federal policy [of Civic Forum] went so far to the right in contradiction with electoral promises that Meciar's policy looks too left to the circle around the president [Vaclav Havel]."

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