Like in Vancouver

Last week the sun finally came out in Slovakia following two months of winter, snow and transport disruption. Spring is in the air. And with it the most successful Olympic Games in the era of independence (as we like to say in Slovakia). However, a deep scepticism has not disappeared. And why should it?

The vanishing snow has revealed dirty ground. Dog excrement, cigarette butts, rubbish thrown out onto the lawns straight from the windows of Bratislava housing estates (inhabited by the upper middle classes), all communicate the message that euros in the wallets and border-opening European citizenry are just like the snow which, though causing some problems, mercifully covers the dirt that is part of this country as integral as the double cross on three hills in its coat of arms.

The spring sun shines on a chronically sick country. Its judges serve the political powers that be rather than justice; its policemen insert real explosives into the luggage of unsuspecting travellers as part of a drill; its ministers and civil servants publicize tenders for state commissions in such a way that only those they are targeting can find out about them. One such tender was announced on an inconspicuous notice board in a corridor of the environment ministry inaccessible to the public, engendering the term notice board tender. When the affair became public Prime Minister Fico dismissed the minister and replaced him with the man who was in charge of the notice board tender.

The parliamentary election scheduled for June could augur some spring hope. Instead it is resulting in headaches and nerves. After all, the dirt in Slovakia’’s public life can be, to a large extent, credited to the current coalition and unless a different team takes over after the election Slovakia can brace itself for hard times. So far all the signs are that Robert Fico will win an easy victory and will be able to choose coalition partners that will suit him best at that moment. However, not all need be lost. If the increasingly weakening [Vladimir Mečiar’’s] Movement for a Democratic Slovakia does not make it into parliament and if, on the other hand, the five per cent threshold is crossed by the new, ambitious Freedom and Solidarity Party (SaS), the two Hungarian parties (the old Hungarian Coalition Party led by Pál Csáky and the new Slovak-Hungarian Party Most-Híd [The Bridge] led by Béla Bugár), if the consolidated KDH (the Christian Democratic Party) continues growing stronger and if the former prime minister of SDKÚ is not fatally weakened by accounting scandals publicly revealed by Robert Fico at the most convenient time.… To sum up, should all this come to pass, the permanently furious prime minister who memorably does not recall what he was doing in November 1989, yet has kept up the tradition of celebrating International Women’s Day in communist style (complete with drunken male politicians telling salacious jokes) might be forced out of office.

It may well end up just like with our ice hockey players. Before the Olympics we all thought they did not stand a chance in hell (they are old, plagued by injuries, etc.) yet we all secretly hoped they might surprise us after all. After the defeat by the Czechs it was clear our chances were nil. After the victory over the Russians everything changed – we were up to it after all! And after getting into the quarterfinals we suddenly became a nation of optimists. A medal, perhaps even gold, was in sight! Eventually the Slovak ice-hockey team came back without a medal and we don’’t know if it really was the historic success hailed by the media or a tragedy (the retiring Pálffy, Handzuš and Chára represent the last of the great generation of Slovak ice hockey).

We feel it in our bones that Slovak politics will develop according to the Vancouver scenario: after fearing the worst, yet hoping against hope we shall publicly celebrate the outcome while not being able to disguise our disappointment.

Slovakia’’s greatest joy is Anastázia Kuzminová, who secured the first gold medal for our country, following it up with a silver two days later. Nastya is a great biathlonist, a nice, modest girl; only a few years ago she wore the Russian team’’s colours. A day after she returned from Vancouver on a presidential aircraft the Slovak parliament adopted the patriotism law. The law requires every school in the country to start the week by playing the national anthem (it may be played via the school radio), and each classroom to display a portrait of the president, the country’’s coat of arms, flag and the preamble to the constitution. The lightning [of the anthem’’s first line] will illuminate the start of every match organized by the national sports association and of every meeting of every local council and regional parliament. The law comes into force on April 1 and it’’s no April fool’’s joke.

The sun is shining and the grass gets greener each day. It’’s spring, we don’’t need fire, the poet Ivan Štrpka writes. In June (three days before the election) Bob Dylan will play his first concert in Slovakia. We’re nervous, fearing the worst and hoping against hope. Spring is coming.

Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article appeared in Orientace, a supplement to the daily Lidové noviny.