News | German / European History - Europe - 30 Jahre Transformation in Osteuropa The Paradox of Slovakia’s Post-Communist Transition

The dilemmas and conflicts of the 1990s heavily shaped the path to capitalism in the country



Juraj Marušiak,

Thousands demonstrate in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, during the Gentle Revolution on 27 November 1989.  Photo: picture alliance / CTK | Rychlo Ivan

Although Slovakia was one of the relatively advanced states of the former Eastern Bloc, its political development was marked by several upheavals that were not typical of the other states in the Visegrad Group (the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary). These countries may be defined as cases of relatively conflict-free change.

However, the key characteristics of Slovak development during that period exhibit features similar to or in common with other Central and Eastern European states. According to German political scientist Wolfgang Merkel, they include the transformation of the former one-party regime into a liberal and pluralistic democracy, along with the construction of a market economy as a repeated attempt by the region’s states to overcome their civilizational backwardness compared to the West and escape the European periphery.

Juraj Marušiak works as a senior research fellow at the Institute of Political Science, Slovak Academy of Sciences, Bratislava. His publications include Slovenská literatúra a moc v druhej polovici päťdesiatych rokov (Nakladatelstvi Prius, 2001), (Dez)integračná sila stredoeurópskeho nacionalizmu (Univerzita Komenského, 2015), and Príliš skoré predjarie… Slovenskí študenti v roku 1956 (VEDA, 2020).

Nevertheless, Slovakia differed from the other Visegrad states in that a significant role was also played by the attainment of national statehood as a result of the post-1989 transition. Consequently, Slovakia was compelled to formulate an idea of its place in the world and the region, which was part of a broader process accompanying the breakup of the Soviet sphere of influence and Slovakia’s reorientation towards the West. This change, however, was of a much deeper nature. It represented not only a change in foreign policy orientation, but the sum of institutional and cultural shifts as well as changes in the formal and informal rules that govern political actors in the state. Thus, the changes in Slovakia can be characterized as being of a civilizational nature.

Last but not least, however, the social factor played an important role. It was not just a question of the state’s modernization from an agrarian to an industrial and post-industrial society, but of social cohesion and restructuring. Unlike in the Czech Republic, modernization processes in Slovakia accelerated in the second half of the twentieth century, characterized by a rapid drain of people out of the agricultural sector and rapid industrialization—even if, at least in the 1950s, this represented a continuation of processes beginning in the second half of the 1930s or during World War II. In 1993, 12 percent of the population still worked in agriculture, whereas by 2010 this figure had declined to approximately 3 percent. From a predominantly rural society, Slovakia transformed into a country in which some 54.1 percent of the population now lives in towns.

The Period of “National Understanding” (November 1989–June 1990)

Unlike in the Czech lands, where a strong Communist Party already existed prior to World War II, the Communist Party of Slovakia’s (KSS) power base was by and large created retroactively, after the regime came into being. The new party members came from various social and ideological backgrounds. The Slovak Communist elite was thus characterized by a more pragmatic approach compared to its Czech counterpart. As a result, during the transition in autumn 1989—which in Slovakia is referred to as the Gentle” rather than the Velvet Revolution”, as in the Czech Republic—it was possible to make greater use of elements of negotiated tradition, with former Communist Party functionaries helping to implement the subsequent political reforms. They included Slovak premier Milan Čič (1989–1990)[1] and the chair of the Slovak parliament, Rudolf Schuster (1989–1990).[2]

At least in this case, ex-Communist politicians’ pasts did not stop them from playing a considerable role in Slovak public life. In the first contested parliamentary elections, both Čič and Marian Čalfa, a member of the last few Communist governments who was Czechoslovak federal premier from 1989 to 1992 and a close ally of former dissident and now-President Václav Havel, were among the electoral leaders of the Public Against Violence (VPN) movement. VPN was founded in November 1989 and was the main opponent of the ruling Communists during the revolution.

The initial phase of the political transformation could be said to date from November 1989 until the first parliamentary elections in June 1990. Governments of national understanding were formed on both the federal and national levels, and key laws were passed that allowed for a politically pluralist system (laws governing the activity of political parties, freedom of assembly and association, petition rights, and electoral laws). The new electoral system built on Czechoslovakia’s previous system of proportional representation that had existed until 1948, albeit with a 5-percent electoral threshold designed to prevent the fragmentation of parliament (the threshold was reduced to 3 percent for elections to the Slovak National Council). The process of building democratic institutions continued after the 1990 elections with the creation of a dual system of radio and television broadcasting.

The democratic process opened up by the political revolution in November 1989 included debates on the future character of the Czechoslovak state, which in 1992 ultimately ended in its dissolution. One of the first signs of this was a dispute over whether the new president of Czechoslovakia should be Václav Havel or Alexander Dubček, the icon of the Prague Spring. Dubček, who in 1968 had been first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Part of Czechoslovakia, became an opponent of the normalising regime after 1970.

The second conflict was a dispute over the name of the state, with Slovak politicians pushing for a title that stressed its dualistic character. When they suggested the name “Czecho-Slovakia”, the dispute, accompanied by the first demonstrations for Slovak independence, became known as the “hyphen war”. The compromise, the “Czech and Slovak Federal Republic”, failed to defuse the situation, and soon led to escalating disputes over the bi-national federation’s future.

Slovakia after the First Free Elections

The process of creating new representative assemblies with democratic legitimacy culminated in the parliamentary elections of June 1990, followed by municipal elections in November 1990. On the federal level, a coalition was created between the Czech movement Civic Forum, the VPN, and the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH). On the republic level, the governing coalition consisted of the VPN, the KDH, and the Democratic Party (DS). The parties in opposition were the Slovak National Party (SNS), the old KSS, the Green Party, and the “Coexistence” coalition with the Hungarian Christian Democratic Movement. The prime minister was VPN representative Vladimír Mečiar, who had a major influence on the development of Slovak politics in the 1990s and early 2000s.

In early 1991, the KSS transformed itself into the Democratic Left Party. It declared a social-democratic orientation and support for democratic changes and a social market economy. The newly created assemblies had a mandate of only two years, during which economic reforms were to begin and a new federal constitution along with new constitutions for the national republics were to be drawn up.

The new composition of the Slovak National Council and the Slovak part of the Federal Assembly confirmed that the subjects of political discourse included not only the post-Communist transformation, but also the question of Slovak statehood. A significant part of society expressed dissatisfaction with Slovakia’s existing position in the federation.

A further question was that of Slovak-Hungarian relations. This issue took on an international character, especially after statements by the first freely elected Hungarian prime minister, József Antall, that he felt himself in spirit, the prime minister of 15 million Hungarians”—in other words, including the Hungarian minorities in neighbouring Slovakia, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Ukraine. According to Georg Schöpflin, that meant support for the dual loyalty of ethnic Hungarians abroad: to the state in which they lived, and to Hungary. Over the long term, the policy not only fostered distrust between Czechoslovakia (later Slovakia) and Hungary, but also between the majority parties and the political parties of the Hungarian minority.

Unlike Poland, Hungary, and Lithuania, where the social consequences of the economic transition brought transformed Communist parties to power who declared their allegiance to a social-democratic programme,[3] 1990–1992 brought an increase in nationalist tensions in Slovakia. While the transition-induced recession caused GDP to fall by 11.3 percent in the Czech Republic in 1991 and 14 percent in the first half of 1992, in Slovakia this fall was considerably more drastic: 22 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

There were similar disparities in the distribution of unemployment. In 1991, a total of 57.7 percent of unemployed people in the whole of the Czechoslovak Federation were in Slovakia. In the first half of 1992, unemployed people in the Czech Republic formed 4.1 percent of the economically active population, while in Slovakia this figure was three times as high, at 11.8 percent. The recession mostly affected the large state enterprises. Although it clearly affected Slovakia more, the private sector in the Czech Republic also grew faster.

Under these circumstances, socio-economic conflicts quickly gained a national dimension, all the more so as the reform process took place parallel to discussions over the new state arrangement. This is also the context in which the split of the VPN in spring 1991 occurred, when the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) broke away from it. Led by dismissed prime minister Vladimír Mečiar, its programme focused on pushing Slovakian interests in the federation more assertively. Mečiar’s charisma and national and social populism allowed him to attract both conservative and socially oriented voters, bringing the movement victory in the elections with 37.26 percent of the vote and 74 seats (out of 150) in the Slovak National Council.

The social conflicts and prioritization of the national question meant that questions of de-Communization, which were prevalent in the Czech discourse and included the issue of “lustration”, i.e. banning those who had cooperated with the repressive organs of the former regime from public office, took a back seat in Slovakia.

The First Years of Independence

The negotiations around national and federal political representation in 1990–1992 ended unsuccessfully, as a result of differing ideas concerning the character of the state arrangement. The Slovaks wanted a looser federation, or one based on the principles of a state agreement, while the Czechs wanted a stronger arrangement with a federal centre. After the 1992 elections, the victorious Czech party, the Civic Democratic Party led by Václav Klaus, also proposed replacing the federation with the pre-war model of a unitary state, while the HZDS increasingly talked about a confederal arrangement.

Differing ideas on the course of economic reform and the state arrangement ended in a decision to avoid political stalemate by dividing the federation into two independent states beginning on 1 January 1993. The deciding factor, however, was not the absence of a will to live in a common state, but the inability to reach consensus on its future form. A poll taken in March 1993 by the agency CSA, three months after Slovakia became independent, found that only 29 percent of Slovak respondents would have voted for the division of Czechoslovakia, while 50 percent were opposed. Here, fears of the possible consequences of the division also clearly played a role.

Developments after the creation of an independent Slovak Republic repeatedly posed the question not only of the character of the political regime, but the closely related question of its foreign policy. These lines of conflict pushed all other divisions into the background, including conflicts between Left and Right. Characteristic of the authoritarian tendencies exhibited above all by Vladimír Mečiar’s third government (1994–1998), when the activity of the Slovak Constitutional Court was challenged, were cases of the secret services intervening in internal political disputes. After the abortive referendum on Slovak NATO membership and the direct election of the president in 1997, the Slovak Republic, unlike its Visegrad neighbours, was not invited to begin negotiations for EU and NATO accession.

Social tensions were stoked by opaque privatization measures justified as an attempt to create a domestic capital-creating class, as well as by high levels of investment without a thriving entrepreneurial sphere to support them. On the other hand, a strong civil society, a network of independent media, and the existence of a legislative base from the 1990–1994 period, including the existence of a system of proportional representation in parliament, meant that the attempt to consolidate an authoritarian system prior to 1998 was unsuccessful. It is characteristic that the Democratic Left Party also came out against the threat of international isolation and the destruction of the democratic order. Its post-Communist character was no hindrance to its becoming part of the new coalition that took power in 1998.

No Anticommunism Necessary

Slovakia’s political development before 1998 had a marked influence on its political orientation in later years. Its attempt to go its own way in the sphere of political and economic development ended in failure and led to Slovakia’s isolation from the other Visegrad Group states, and yet those in power were incapable of offering an alternative scenario for the country’s development that could gain the support of voters.

The next government, a broad coalition of right- and left-wing parties headed by Mikuláš Dzurinda (1998–2002), took unpopular measures in the economic sphere. In spite of this, the fear of a return to Mečiarism” meant the right-wing component of the government maintained its dominant position, and in 2002 altered course in the direction of radical neoliberal reforms. Paradoxically, most of them, including the flat tax and pension reform, were also accepted after 2006 by the government of Robert Fico, dominated by the party Direction—Social Democracy, which defended the idea of EU member-states’ tax sovereignty” in a similar way to the parties of the previous governing coalition. The neoliberal economic model in Slovakia thus gained considerable viability

Herein lies a paradox of the Slovak post-Communist transformation, as the level of rejection of the Communist regime in Slovakia is considerably lower than in neighbouring states. Anticommunism did not become a line of conflict in Slovakia during the first two post-regime decades as it did in the Czech Republic or Poland. The conservative KDH, despite its anticommunist rhetoric, was forced to work with the post-Communist Left for pragmatic reasons in its conflict with the government of Vladimír Mečiar. Only later did anticommunism establish itself in the form of the marginal Civic Conservative Party and the neoliberal Freedom and Solidarity, created in 2009.

[1] After leaving the KSS in 1990, Milan Čič was a member of the Public Against Violence movement. After it broke up in 1991, he became a member of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia. Later, from 1992 to 2000, he was the chair of the Slovak Constitutional Court.

[2] Rudolf Schuster went on to serve as the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic’s ambassador to Canada until 1992, and was the mayor of Košice, Slovakia’s second-largest city, from 1994 to 1999. He was the president of the Slovak Republic from 1999 to 2004.

[3] Unlike the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, including its Slovak section, these parties advocated a programme of gradual regime transformation while they were in government.