Central Europeans reflect on life before the fall of the Berlin Wall
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Ján Orlovský

We are the generation of students screaming for freedom in November 1989

Slovak Republic, 2019
Slovak English

Ján Orlovský, Director Open Society Foundation Slovakia

The assassination of the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his girlfriend Martina Kušnírová in February 2018 sent such a huge shock through Slovak society. I am 53, the Prime Minister at the time Robert Fico is about three years my senior. We are the generation of students who were screaming for freedom in November of 1989. So, it feels like my generation, who promised “never more” and  “end of Socialism”, actually allowed our children to die because of what they do.   

After the killings, there were 25,000 people demonstrating in the square right away. There were demonstrations all over the country and with this we were saying no we are not Russia, we are not Ukraine. The fact that there was no violence during any of the demonstrations, no burning, no fighting, no breaking of windows, no destruction of property was remarkable, for when you look at demonstrations in France, or the U.K., wherever, people end up in a bloody fight. Here, at the end of each demonstration there would be the Slovak anthem sang together and a speaker would thank everyone for coming, ask people to go home in peace. Ten minutes later the square was empty and people were in bars discussing how the country is going to proceed. So for me, it was a profound feeling of hope, that we can handle this as long as the prosecution and police and judicial systems find enough strength to fight back their internal decay. 

  Protest after the killing of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová, Bratislava, March 2018. Photo: Jakub Gavlak  

When Prime Minister Fico tried to blame George Soros for paying the demonstrators to come to the meetings, we showed that there was no connection, neither financial nor organizational. When the organizers later asked the public for money to support the demonstrations, in two weeks´ time they received 85,000 euros, all mostly in small 5 – 10 euro donations. It was not George Soros, it was us, the Slovak people who came out for their country. After Jan’s murder, OSF Slovakia as the organizer of the annual Journalist Award, established a Fund for Investigative Journalism. We called on companies and individuals to contribute and we were able to collect around 100,000 euros for investigative journalism grants so far.  

In the thirty years since the Velvet Revolution, Slovakia has gone through many positive, developmental changes. Yet, many people from the older generations feel like they have been betrayed. My mother is 76 and even though she was very much against the regime at the time, now she sometimes feels like it was better before. She is a doctor and feels that all the healthcare reforms have lost the sight of a patient and become more about making money. 

In communist times people could complain to the Communist party about their boss and the party would take it seriously. The ordinary person felt that at work he or she was protected in one way or another by the system. Now, many people feel like the system is so diversified and fragmented that they don't have anyone to go to with their problems. They feel that there is no safety net. Maybe even some younger people are feeling this way. For example someone who was a miner or a steelworker during Socialism was making three times the money that my mother did. Now it is my mother who is making three times as much. Before the working class were better off than the intellectuals and today it is the other way around and the working class feels betrayed by this.    

Generally, I have hope and feel optimistic about the future. In the Foundation, we work with many kids and they are getting well organized about the climate change and other issues. And I see it in my own kids as well, they are thinking about their impact on the planet. They are the next generation to change the world by developing different approaches to how we manage society and the environment. When I look back at local elections in 2016, from Bratislava all the way to Košice, progressive mayors and city councils were elected. Also, the current President, Zuzana Čaputová was elected without any fraud, or backstabbing. People reacted to the truth and the sincerity of her campaign and it was very refreshing to see. So yes, this gives me some hope.  

Photo courtesy of Ján Orlovský

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