At first glance, Bratislava might not seem like the most glamorous place for the presidents of the United States and Russia to meet. From the stolid castle where the talks will take place on Thursday, the most striking view is south, across the Danube, to a housing project where apartment blocks stands one behind the other until their rooftops meet the horizon under a brown winter sun.
But no city in Europe better reflects President George W. Bush’s faith in the providential hand of liberty in human affairs. Prague can boast of its golden domes and philosopher kings; Budapest and Warsaw are home to roaring business and vigorous debate. But in the honeycombs of Bratislava’s Communist-era apartments, and now its leafy hillsides and delightful downtown as well, one finds people who have fought for freedom, again and again, when the future itself seemed set in concrete.
The dissident movement in the Slovak half of Communist Czechoslovakia included secular liberals, Jews, environmentalists, and reformed apparatchiks, but its most powerful current flowed underground through the unofficial Catholic Church. A 1988 demonstration in Bratislava on behalf of religious freedom was the first intimation of the “Velvet Revolution” of the following year.
Led by dissident lawyer Jan Carnogursky, the underground church held secret study groups in theology, law, and philosophy and clandestine services with priests whom the official church had banned. Every Easter this hidden city would gather in numbers large enough to overwhelm the secret police; in hundreds of thousands its members would march to the holy shrines of Levoca, in Eastern Slovakia, where for a few hours they could congregate on hilltops, freely and in peace.
Jan Carnogursky would be too modest to mention the sacrifices, such as frequent imprisonment, that he made on this movement’s behalf. But we ought to remember the evenings when the Carnogurskys waited desperately for smuggled shipment of medicines that a vicious regime had denied their son.
In his dissident days, the robotics expert Jan Langoš wore his hair and beard long enough to look like Christ, if not exactly like your typical Central European Christian. Under the old regime Langoš would wait until his coworkers had gone home, then scroll seven pages of onion sheet and carbon paper into a typewriter and pound out pages of a samizdat translation of Orwell’s 1984. Later, as one of free Czechoslovakia’s first interior ministers, Langoš drove hard to roust secret-police agents from the government. His determination earned him wrath of The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, journals that accused him of conducting a witch-hunt. It also won him the admiration of millions who knew that there were real witches to hunt.
Unfortunately, such anti-Communist reforms were linked to the break-up of Czechoslovakia. Communists desperate to avoid change seized on Slovak nationalism in hopes of salvaging half a state for themselves. Slovakia’s reformers, then, have been doubly brave–once in the face of an outside oppressor, then again in debate with fellow citizens.
In the grip of a nationalist fever, Slovaks came to accuse bold economic reformers of serving only the interests of resented Czechs. Corrupt nationalists, of course, merely wanted to take from their fellow Slovaks factories that they could not honestly buy. The man who stood against them, their first privatization minister, Ivan Mikloš, is now celebrated as the architect of Slovakia’s stunning 5.3-percent economic growth, the fastest rate in Europe. As Forbes magazine has noted, Mikloš gave Slovakia the world’s flattest tax–19 percent across income, sales, and corporate earnings. But Mikloš had the courage of his convictions back when they won him nothing but hatred and threats.
The clumsy nationalists who misruled Slovakia from 1992 to 1998 extended the era of principled dissent beyond the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and thus provided a testing ground for an entire generation of Slovaks now coming fully into their own. Although the thuggish Slovak premier Vladimir Meciar was no Stalin, it took courage to voice your opinions at a time when Slovakia’s secret police were extorting businesses, threatening journalists and even kidnapping the adult children of political opponents.
As a lecturer in philosophy of religion in Bratislava in the early 1990s I got to know this generation especially well. As students they drank slivovitz and debated how their beliefs fit their new freedoms; as adults they have won back the liberties their country nearly let slip.
Last Sunday’s New York Times featured a short commentary by Slovak journalist Stefan Hrib encouraging Bush to stick to his guns. Hrib knows whereof he speaks; as a Radio Free Europe correspondent he was once beaten by an angry mob of Meciar supporters.
Another friend has enjoyed great success in advertising and banking but has always taken time to promote good causes for free. An example of her pro bono work? A campaign against vacationing in Cuba. “Don’t visit the hotel,” the ads warn, “with a prison in the basement.”
In most ways these younger Slovaks are ordinary Europeans. They plan vacations to Thailand, breeze though Hugo Boss catalogues online and surf German cable TV. But they appreciate their liberties more deeply even than the rest of Central Europe does now. Together with Slovakia’s older dissidents they form an audience that will appreciate President Bush’s every word.
–Chandler Rosenberger teaches international relations at Boston University.