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Interview

“We weren’t prepared for November 1989.”

Juraj Hipš in conversation with Martin M. Šimečka

27. June 2019
Magazine > Interview > “We weren’t prepared for November 1989.”

“We weren’t ready to take responsibility and enter politics,” says Martin M. Šimečka. One of the leading figures in the Velvet Revolution, he explains why Vladimír Mečiar (the former autocratic Slovakian prime minister who, along with Václav Klaus, negotiated the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia) came to power after the revolution. Why have people today stopped listening to the elites? Must everything collapse before we realise that the populists’ simplified truths don’t work?

You were part of the Velvet Revolution from the very start. Today, though, it is becoming increasingly clear that many people are looking back nostalgically to a time before the events of 1989 . Where do you think the failure lies?

Surveys show that although people feel nostalgia for communism, they don’t want it back. So it’s important to make a distinction. It’s an optimistic mode of remembering. You were young and in love. You were given a new flat, had children, and felt as if your life was going somewhere. I can completely understand that. It has to be said that Slovakia actually did very well and became richer under communism. In spite of the regime, our society continued developing. That wasn’t the case in the Czech Republic or Poland, whose societies were already developed by the time communism arrived. That’s why people in Slovakia feel that they benefited from communism. So I wouldn’t consider it such a tragedy that people are harbouring nostalgic feelings for that time. Of course, the fact that many people no longer believe in democracy is a very different issue – and one that, to a certain degree, suggests that something has failed. This isn’t only happening in Slovakia, though. Just look at what’s happening in the West.

Martin M. Šimečka

Martin Šimečka grew up during the communist regime. His father was a philosopher and prominent dissident.

Martin was prevented from attending university, so he completed an apprenticeship at the company Slovnaft. Until 1989, he worked in a variety of low-skilled jobs, including as a carer, salesman, lifeguard and boiler technician.

After the revolution, he founded the Archa publishing house and later spent three years at the helm of the weekly Domino fórum. Between 1999 and 2006, he was editor-in-chief at the newspaper SME.

He spent two years as editor-in-chief at the weekly Respekt, where he also served as publisher until 2016.

Šimečka currently writes op-ed articles and is the publisher of the newspaper Dennik N. He also lectures at the Socrates Institute

Photo: © Česká televize

Why are people becoming so mistrustful of democracy? It’s as if, after more than 20 years, a deep sense of disappointment is emerging. And it’s not just among people who lived through communism – we’re also seeing it in young people, who are increasingly flirting with the idea of supporting extremist movements.

On the one hand, it’s a problem that affects all of Central Europe, although the situation is more extreme in Poland and Hungary. People there voted for politicians who violate the very fundamental principles of democracy that we agreed upon in 1989. Those who vote for these politicians are driven by disappointment, which largely stems from the corruption that is sadly typical of Central Europe. A deeper problem I see behind this is that the bipolar world – communism on one side, democracy on the other – ceased to exist after 1989.

To borrow the words of Margaret Thatcher, “there is no alternative” to liberal democracy. The system that we have is definitive. But if you tell people that they have no choice, and if the world in which they live is making them unhappy – because of things like corruption and a non-functioning state – then they will start to revolt and will gradually start telling themselves that there must be an alternative. Politicians such as Marian Kotleba (an extreme right-wing Slovakian politician and head of the ĽSNS party) and those like him exploit that. Their alternative is an illiberal democracy and a democracy of the national majority that is built on nationalism, hatred and negativity. The main problem is that liberal democracy has failed to convince people that it intrinsically offers numerous alternatives. People see it as a closed model that they don’t agree with. That’s the deeper motive driving all these trends.

When we held a discussion with students of the Socrates Institute (an educational institute in Slovakia) last year, you openly acknowledged that intellectuals like yourself also failed in 1989 because you weren’t ready to take control and that this meant you paved the way for Mečiar’s rise to power. Where did that mindset come from?

Because of the way things were in Slovakia at the time. We weren’t ready because, under Slovakia’s communist regime, there was basically no dissent in society as a whole. There was a lack of people opposing the regime and showing that they had a strong character, were courageous, and had clear opinions. This only changed shortly before the events in November. So you could say that November came too early that year. We weren’t at all prepared for it. We didn’t realise that, as well as organising a revolution, we were also responsible for driving the creation of a democratic regime. Most people’s reaction was that we’d brought about the revolution because we wanted to be free. Now that we were free, someone else should sort the rest out.

What did you expect would happen?

There was a naive belief that the people who were more suited to politics would come forward and would prevail thanks to natural selection. But it soon became clear that natural selection works the other way around in Slovakia.

“We weren’t capable of thinking beforehand about what responsibility for a society means.”

We weren’t capable of thinking beforehand about what responsibility for a society means. That was our biggest mistake and it’s why we filled our government offices with various former communists in the belief that we would keep them in check. This level of political naivety is only forgivable because we were completely unprepared for political thinking. The second major problem is that we eased off our original convictions and left the economists to continue driving the change in our society. In doing so, we missed our chance to build democratic foundations for our society – and that includes a legal system that would have limited the opportunities for raids during the privatisations. We believed the liberal economists who said that the free market would sort this out, and that natural selection would ensure the best candidates were elected. But it turned out everything works the other way around here. That was another of our failures, and again our naivety was partly to blame.

Did you really believe that you could put Mečiar at the top of the government and then tell him what to do?

Yes, that’s what we thought. He also started out by saying: “I’ll do what you tell me to do.” And we believed him. I didn’t believe it entirely and I also never voted for him to become our head of government. But a lot of other people did vote for him, and when he became prime minister it was clear that things would be very different. From his perspective, though, he was in the right. He told us: “You’re not going to tell me what to do. Why didn’t you go into politics yourselves?” Our naivety seems almost funny today. But back then we really believed that democracy was a self-steering system in which only the best candidates would reach the top and serve the interests of the society that elected them.

“We thought if it works in the West, then it will also work here.”

We thought if it works in the West, then it will also work here. We hadn’t yet realised that our society was based on very different principles. Today we all know that democracy will perish if we don’t defend it against evil every day.

If you knew in November 1989 what you know now, would you have been willing to go into politics?

Yes – and with the probable risk of losing elections. I would definitely have gone into politics with a sense of responsibility and duty. But it was only later that I realised we’d had a responsibility to go into politics.

When I speak to people about going into politics, they often tell me that they’re not suited to a political career. You also say that about yourself.

The way I see it, the meaning of my existence lies in the opportunity to discover new concepts. That’s my greatest passion. Politics isn’t about discovering the new; it’s about convincing other people to support concepts they’re already familiar with. You have to repeat the same thing, tirelessly, again and again, and I find no enjoyment in that at all. It’s backbreaking, tedious work. You need passion and ambition for it, and I lack both. Ideally, you go into politics because you want to change something. That’s another quality I lack. In politics, you also need a very good memory and excellent social skills in order to remember all the faces and names of the people you meet. You definitely also need the ability to think strategically so that you can always make the right move first. Those are all attributes that I don’t have [laughs]. I have a terrible memory for people, I perceive the world differently to others and tactical thinking was never my forte. I’d sink very quickly in politics. And because I’m aware of that, it would make no sense for me to step onto the political stage. No one would vote for me [laughs].

Why was there no culture of dissent among the majority in Slovakia? Why were so few people here openly critical of the regime and fearless of voicing their criticism out loud?

To answer that, we have to look into the past. I’ve already mentioned one of the reasons: people associated communism with a higher standard of living. In the Czech Republic, it was the other way around. People felt a sense of decline because the country – which had been one of the ten most developed countries – slipped down the rankings. Another reason is that Slovaks still have a tribal mentality. After 1989, tens of thousands of people in the Czech Republic lost their jobs – including academics, scientists and journalists. Far fewer people became unemployed in Slovakia because the Slovaks had no plans to completely abolish their national elite. Their intentions were good. Even the communists felt that they couldn’t allow themselves to wipe out 80 percent of their elite. On top of that, everyone came from some village or other and had friends there. People helped each other. The Slovaks also didn’t like Prague very much. When Prague started stipulating quotas – in other words, the number of people who should be thrown out of the party and removed from their positions – the Slovaks were reluctant to comply.

Paradoxically, this had negative consequences. Society as a whole reconciled itself with compromises and the immorality of the system. Everyone adapted to it, and a strong community of resistance, of the kind that existed in the Czech Republic, never developed. This also led to Mečiar becoming prime minister. We didn’t learn to resist pressure from above, and this damaged our national mentality. Compromising, conforming and accepting blatant immorality and lies became part of the national character.

Do you think it was maybe a mistake that the Velvet Revolution was so tolerant of communists and members of the state security, and that many of them were allowed to continue working in important positions after the regime fell?

Compared to Poland and Hungary, Slovakia went the furthest. We had an illustrative law that prohibited state security agents from occupying senior positions in the state administration and government. That was a very big step. However, Slovakia was home to half a million communists and their families. A third of the population had a communist in the family. It’s impossible to shut a third of people out of society, and it would have been wrong to do so. If we had, we’d have created a large group of enemies. Also, many people only became communists for the sake of their careers. They had done quite well and were professional. Removing them would have weakened the structure of our society.

“We weren’t prepared for that November or for democracy.”

Obviously, this was a big moral problem. We had to admit to ourselves that we would continue living with communists and would have to give them a second chance. The way I see it, we didn’t have any choice. The fact that we could have exerted more pressure to achieve greater progress on addressing the crimes committed under communism is obviously another matter. It’s hard to prosecute immorality in retrospect, but with crimes you can. However, we didn’t succeed in doing that. When East and West Germany reunified, East German judges weren’t allowed to continue working and their positions were filled by people from the democratic Germany. We didn’t have a second, democratic Slovakia that could help us fill positions in the judicial system. So we had very practical problems to contend with – we couldn’t do anything about it.

We talk a lot about how the elite failed and how it was their responsibility to assume power after the revolution. Who would you describe as the elite?

That’s a terminological problem. The term “elite” is used simplistically. The contradiction lies in the fact that everything negative – including the election of Donald Trump – is nowadays said to be about opposing the elite. People also call it the establishment. That means we’re talking about journalists, intellectuals, governing politicians and many more. I see the elite as a community of educated people from different professions such as science, journalism and art. This community basically consists of tens of thousands of people. Teachers should also belong to it; they should be holders of the term “elite”. But I’ve got my doubts about this in Slovakia. Broadly speaking, elites are vehicles of change and they influence society. In the past, they were the priests, the teachers and the doctors. These days, the term covers a much wider area. For me, it’s primarily the liberal elite – people who define themselves by their desire for freedom, recognise the universal validity of human rights and take a humanistic approach to life. Other elites also exist. Theoretically, the politician Kotleba also belongs to the elite. That’s obviously dreadful, but he’s a member of parliament. I don’t see him as one of the elite, though.

For most people in society today, the terms “elite” and “intellectual” have negative connotations. “Intellectual” is often construed as an insult. These people are seen as a burden on society. Why is that?

Perhaps one reason is that elites are visible. They appear on the media, and in the West they are seen as people who influence public opinion and who shape it in discussions among themselves. Ordinary citizens aren’t interested in that. They work all day and then watch the news or some kind of panel show on TV in the evening. But basically thinking about society and the world isn’t part of their professional fulfilment because they have no time for it. That was how things were in the past, but the situation has changed now. People have become dissatisfied with the world, with society and with the state, and they obviously blame the elite. In their eyes, the elite should be responsible for making sure that all these things work properly.

Surely social networks also play a role.

Yes, the social network phenomenon has democratised public expressions of opinion. If you use Facebook today, you are equal to everyone, regardless of whether you’re an intellectual or not. You post something and then you’re part of the public debate. People were immediately very impressed when they saw that every opinion had the same value. They realised that if they were a bit more active and worked a little harder, they could attract tens of thousands of followers. They have become increasingly aware that, like the elite, they too can become a voice of the public. The fact that their voices are often foolish and hate-filled, don’t seek the truth, and spread lies is of secondary importance. The important thing is that people have become more confident, are opposing the elites and fighting them by saying: “Go to hell, all of you. We’re calling the shots now. For centuries, we could say nothing. You and the media silenced us. We weren’t allowed to open our mouths. Well, now we’re speaking up!” On the one hand, it’s comical, but it’s also dangerous because this is exactly what led to Donald Trump being elected.

We had a similar phenomenon here in 1989 when the first demonstrations were just beginning. Everyone had been silent during communism, but now hundreds of people started appearing as if from nowhere and storming onto the stage. They were just wide-eyed crackpots who wanted to hang the communists and all that. Our main task was to stop them getting up on stage because they would have encouraged the masses to go out and smash shop windows. Then the police would have stepped in and the massacre would have begun. We were scared of those people and there was an awful lot of them. I see a similar thing happening on Facebook today. It’s exactly the same kind of people as back then. The only difference is that today they are heard because Facebook gives everyone a platform. The very thing that I was scared of during the revolution and that we were able to prevent is now happening throughout society – and not just in Slovakia.

But doesn’t the problem lie with the elite for failing to connect with society and communicate with people?

I don’t think the elite were ever close to the people. It’s not in their nature. I also spend a lot of time thinking about the world, for instance, and it’s really hard work. Quite honestly, I read a lot, I think and then sometimes I write something. I need a lot of time for that because I weigh up every single word that I use. That’s an entirely different form of communication than the kind I’d use if I went to a pub with people and spoke to them there. Sorry, but I don’t have time for that. Of course it would be good if the elite could explain the complexity of the world in simpler terms, but that’s just impossible. The world is actually very complex [laughs].

And then the people who do take on this task are the ones who see the world in simple terms. The world will never function so simplistically, but people believe the statements because they think they understand what’s being said. They’ve never understood the elite, so now they no longer respect them and say that they’ve failed. Yet if there’s one thing that defines the world, it’s the fact that it’s unfathomable. And you definitely can’t explain it in two sentences. Almost no one understands the world today. You can see that when you look at Trump. He thought that he could fix everything. Now he does one stupid thing after another and the entire world is watching him in horror. He was convinced that he’d just do this, forbid that and allow the other, and then everything would run smoothly. However, the reality shows that things are highly complex and that every step we take can have unforeseeable consequences.

The world is complex and difficult to explain. Yet most people want someone to make the world intelligible to them. You say this is impossible. Then along come people like Trump and Kotleba who claim to understand the world in their very own way, and people elect them. It sounds like there’s no solution.

I disagree. I believe that there is a solution, but right now we’re losing. That’s why things are so dangerous at the moment. It’s a bit like medicine. If you’re about to have an operation, you don’t start asking your surgeon about how the human body works because you know that it’s really complicated. You have to believe in the surgeon’s professionalism and allow the operation to take place even if you have no idea what’s actually going to happen to you in theatre. Obviously your surgeon can explain a few of the basics, but you leave everything else – such as all the equipment surrounding you – unquestioned. Your fate lies in the surgeon’s hands and you trust that the surgeon’s intentions are good. People today want to hear how the world works. And then along comes some populist and explains that the world is like this or like that, and the people believe it all. In the worst-case scenario, these populists are elected and lead us all into disaster, with war, chaos and collapse as the likely consequences. This will only stop once people put power back in the hands of those who try to understand the world in the best sense, and who at least don’t pretend that they have an answer for everything. If the people in Banská Bystrica still haven’t realised that Kotleba has done nothing for them, then we’re in dire straits. They’ll understand one day, but by then it will be too late. At the moment, I just can’t see any chance of the elites reversing this trend – not until people realise for themselves that they are on a bad path and start to recoil from their own hatred.

In other words, you’re saying that everything has to collapse before something new and viable can emerge.

No, people can also realise sooner that they don’t want to continue down this path. Right now, they’re delighted to be giving the elite a slap in the face because they blame the elite for their lives and are unhappy with them. It’s debatable whether this is just about slapping the elite or whether people actually want to replace them. A lot of people voted for Trump because they wanted to show that they were angry – not because they really thought he was the right person for the job. And then everyone was surprised when he actually won. This shows that voters can really put someone in power who will cause their society to collapse. The situation in Poland and Hungary, for instance, is alarming because it shows that people are willing to elect politicians who work against their interests. Once those politicians are in power, it’s very hard to get rid of them.

It’s not so easy to find leading figures in Slovakia who are actually willing and able to do the job properly. Where do you think these people went?

These characters are usually formed in times of crisis. Mikuláš Dzurinda, for instance, was not a leader. He was a completely normal guy from the East who was ambitious. Over time, though, he became a kind of leader. A lot of people have leadership in their blood but live in a time that has yet to bring it to the surface. Leaders turn up when there is no other way out. Although we’re talking about an angry society, those who really want to bring down the system are still very much in the minority. Less than 25 percent of the population actually want to see a fundamental change in the system. So the crisis isn’t yet big enough to produce new leaders.

To me, 25 percent sounds like a lot because all the bad things that happened in the past were caused by a silent section of the population.

It is a shocking figure, but it’s not outside the norm. The trend is constant in the Czech Republic. We just weren’t used to these kinds of figures in Slovakia. We defeated Mečiar, who was basically an extremist, and then had almost 20 years of consensus on stability and a fundamental orientation towards the European Union. I think that this is still the case, despite the fact that many of us feel as if things couldn’t get any worse. But they could be worse. This might seem like a dramatic social and political crisis to us, but most people don’t see it like that. If you ask people what they worry about most, chances are they’ll say healthcare and justice. They won’t tell you that they’re losing sleep over the political crisis.

You moved to the Czech Republic a few years ago. A lot of young people are also leaving the country and not coming back. What made you go?

For the simple reason that I quit my job at the newspaper SME and decided to take a year off to think things through. I was prepared to work on a building site somewhere, or something like that. But when the people at the magazine Respekt got wind that I had left, they called me up immediately and said they wanted to have me. I told myself that if they think that I’m the one who can help them, then it’s my duty to accept their offer and help them. I moved because of Respekt, not the Czech Republic.

And why did you come back to Slovakia?

I never thought I would, but then Matúš (Matúš Kostolný, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Dennik N) approached me and asked if I wanted to work for him. That was a practical reason. Physically, I was in Slovakia and commuted to Prague, but my mind was completely with Respekt and I just watched the events in Slovakia from the sidelines or as if I was a passer-by.

I gradually started to feel like the signs of the times were telling me that I could no longer afford to do that. Not because I thought that I would return to Slovakia as its saviour; that wasn’t the reason at all. I grew up in Slovakia at a time when many people were leaving the country, and that emigration weakened our society enormously. I resented people for emigrating. The police actually offered me the option of leaving – they’d have liked to be rid of me [laughs]. But I didn’t want to do that to my friends. And that same feeling came back to me today, an inner sense that things are so bad that I have to come back home.

The magazine Respekt has been bought by Czech oligarch Zdeněk Bakala. The same thing happened with SME, which is owned by the investment group Penta. Didn’t you have a problem with that?

It’s not the same thing. I don’t think you can describe Bakala as an oligarch and I can vouch for the fact that he would never try to influence the magazine’s content in any way. Secondly, unlike Penta, he’s done very little business with the state. He didn’t need the state and its government for his business. It’s also no coincidence that Penta was interested in corrupting politicians: the company needed to do that for its business. So Bakala isn’t an oligarch. In ten years, he never made even the slightest attempt to steer our content. With Penta, it’s clear that the group buys media to gain political influence. It’s just a question of time before that manifests itself at SME. It’s illusory to think that Penta’s presence at SME won’t affect the content. I’d bet my life on that happening.

But people say the same thing about the newspaper Dennik N. Its investor is Anton Zajac, who publicly supports the Progressive Slovakia party.

Again, the comparison doesn’t fit. The editorial board at Dennik N is also the majority shareholder in the newspaper. And here again it’s a question of experience. Wild horses couldn’t persuade Zajac to meddle with the content. His reason for investing in Dennik N was very different to Penta’s reason for buying SME. What’s more, there’s an agreement that says if Zajac ever goes into politics, he has to give up his shares. It might look like a few parallels exist, but the truth is that they are really quite different.

Original in Slovak. First published on 20 March 2017 on Čierna labuť.
Translated from German into English by Jen Metcalf.

This text is protected by copyright: © Juraj Hipš / Čierna labuť. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Young Czechoslovak students make victory sings and light candles 17 November 1989 in support of Vaclav Havel for presidency during protest rally in Albertov quarter in Prague. The banner of right reads: “Liberty”. Czechoslovak students asking for more democracy, demanding the end of Communist rule and free multiparty elections. Photo: © Lubomir Kotek / AFP / picturedesk.com