The former leaders of the Velvet Revolution, which set Slovakia on the path to democracy, are ready to pass the torch to a younger generation. But do young Slovaks want it?
A few months before Vaclav Havel asked the actress Magdalena Vasaryova to become Slovakia’s ambassador to Austria, she was on tour in rural Slovakia. It was 1989, and change was afoot. From the stage, Vasaryova sensed something “radically” different about the audience. “People were laughing more freely, especially women,” Vasaryova recalled in a phone interview recently. “They wanted to hear in our sentences something different, something new, something with political connotations.”
It was only a few months later, in November of the same year, that people’s desire for change spilled over into a mass uprising known as the Velvet Revolution, which led to the end of communism in what was then Czechoslovakia. Last month, Vasaryova was again travelling in Slovakia and elsewhere in central Europe, not as an actress this time but to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and to inspire people to invest themselves anew in the country’s young democracy. “It is important,” she said, “to tell stories, to stir emotions.”
She is hardly alone in exhorting young people to take up the call. As one former student leader of the November 1989 revolution, Flilip Vagac, bellowed from the centre of Bratislava’s Freedom Square: “We’re standing here today to pass the baton to the current generation.” And at the Slovak National Theatre, Slovak president Zuzana Caputova said in a nationally televised speech: “Democracy is an opportunity, not a guarantee of success. It is up to us to make use of this opportunity thirty years later.”
But young people may not be listening.
Surveys consistently show that, although young Slovaks are happier with the changes that have occurred since the end of communism than their parents’ generation, they are also more apathetic. Only 10.4% of Slovaks aged 18-24 voted in this May’s European parliament elections, a quarter of the EU average and second-to-last out of all of the European Union’s 28 member nations.
Many young people are also flocking to extremist, far-right groups, some of which disavow the Velvet Revolution and the end of communism. This week a poll commissioned by the Youth Council of Slovakia found that 19% of people aged 18-29 would vote for the far-right party led by Marian Kotleba called People’s Party-Our Slovakia (LSNS). This swelling support puts LSNS ahead of every other Slovak party in the poll. Kotleba’s nationalist and pro-Russia sympathies have long appealed to older Slovaks who endured the disruption that followed the collapse of communism, but his support among young people shows that not even a generation of democracy guarantees buy-in.
For a country that was recently hailed in the international press as a “ray of hope” amid a rising tide of populism, following the late March election of the pro-EU lawyer Zuzana Caputova as president, this could come as a surprise. But outside the capital, Bratislava, it hasn’t been hard to spot.
A pair of researchers, Zuzana Palovic and Gabriela Bereghazyova, recently traveled throughout Slovakia to speak with young people about the Velvet Revolution and the legacy of communism. They found that young men, in particular, connected with far-right figures like Kotleba. Kotleba’s jobs-oriented message spoke to the reality around them, where low-skilled employment that has sustained families for decades no longer provides the job security it once did, while his anti-Western stance is popular with young people who, as elsewhere in central and eastern Europe, feel let down by capitalism.
Palovic and Bereghazyova said that young people’s lack of political engagement and sympathy for hard-right policies could well be linked to the unfinished work of understanding not just what changes Slovakia has experienced since the Velvet Revolution but also the “trauma” that preceded it.
“We talk about it as apathy and nihilism and passive civil society and what I’m actually seeing is depression,” said Palovic at a book launch last week. “And what is depression? It’s unprocessed trauma.”
Vasaryova, for one, isn’t worried that Slovakia’s readiness to throw itself into democracy has waned. “It’s normal,” she said, for young people not to fixate on the political upheavals of their parents’ generation. She recalled how she knew little about the watershed protests of her own parents’ generation — the 1968 Prague Spring revolution — when she became a leader of the Velvet Revolution.
Vasaryova and others suggest that the February 2018 murder of a journalist named Jan Kuciak by a local businessman marked a turning point. “Our country experienced some kind of an awakening when many of us realized that democracy here is threatened,” said a young Slovak living in Bratislava, Veronika Bersova, in an interview.
Caputova’s election a year later seemed to confirm that narrative. But, as others have pointed out, the election was marred by low turnout and was hardly the referendum on populism that it was portrayed to be, since no far-right candidates advanced to the final round. The contest may have been more accurately termed an outsider-versus-establishment contest.
The next big election will be in February, and it may well serve as a truer bellwether to sample the sympathies of young voters, even if turnout remains low. The aging leaders of the Velvet Revolution will doubtless be watching.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.