The murder of journalist Ján Kuciak has shaken Slovakia out of its complacency. Here, big things often happen in years ending in “8”.
Standing on a packed square in Bratislava as people around you jangle their keys and chant the slogans they remember – or that their parents have told them about – it is hard not to make comparisons. These are the symbols the Velvet Revolution.
The movementum of November 1989, led by artists and students, gave birth to Slovakia as we know it today. The Communist regime fell and gave way to the process that led to the 1993 breakup of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, with all its positives and negatives, and then on to 2004, when both countries were reunited once again within the geopolitical union, the EU. Arguably, the ride through the 1990s was bumpier for Slovakia than for its post- Communist neighbours. Some of the events have left scars on the face of the nation: the abduction of the president’s son in 1995, and a political murder in 1996 are the most significant, but not the only ones.
Maybe that was why Slovaks thought they had seen it all, including public protests in 1998 against the authoritarian-leaning government of former boxer Vladimír Mečiar, one of the years ending with an “8” that became a milestone along the long road of Slovakia’s history.
In fact, before 2018 started, we were prepared to mark all those years ending in “8” that made Slovaks the nation they are today. Just one month ago, when we marked the 1948 Communist coup in Czechoslovakia that led to the 40 years of a totalitarian regime, we had no idea that the year we were living now would also prove to be a turbulent one, just as the many eights that have come before.
In the month that has passed since the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak, who was found killed in his home together with his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, on February 25, Slovakia has changed dramatically. The murder of a journalist was an unprecedented event that neither Slovakia nor any of its Central European neighbours has had to deal with in its modern history. It has brought the country to a breaking point. Painful, shaking deeply-held asumptions, the murder will leave a permanent mark on this generation. But it also gives a chance for democracy and the rule of law in Slovakia to come of age.
In the words of František Mikloško, a Catholic dissident under Communism and one of the leading figures of the Velvet Revolution, who addressed the crowd on March 16, at the largest protests in Bratislava since 1989: “The revolution started by the parents has to be finished by their children.”
So what is Slovakia like today? A successful country with a strong economy and steadily improving quality of life? Or a country that, in its 25 years, failed to become open, self-confident, and capable of seeing its own shortcomings critically and constructively? Are we European and cosmopolitan, or are we parochial and petty, scared of anything and anyone other than ourselves?