WHT 2018/2019 alumna Zuzana Hlavkova delivered a speech at a rally that commemorated 30 years of freedom from the communist rule in Czechoslovakia on 17 November 2019 in Bratislava, Slovakia. The event was a homage to Velvet Revolution, the freedom movement that led Czechoslovakia out of a totalitarian communist regime and into democracy in 1989.
On 17 November 1989, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Czech and Slovak students went into streets to demand democratisation of the regime, eventually leading to its downfall through a wave of mass peaceful protests. The day is traditionally honoured by the Czechs and Slovaks as a celebration of freedom and democracy, as well as a tribute to those who fought for these values.
The event was organised by a grass-roots civic initiative called For a Decent Slovakia, likened by some to the movement organised in 1989, as it led a wave of the biggest civic protests since the Velvet Revolution in 2018. It sprang up in response to the murders of a young investigative journalist and his fiancée in February 2018, who investigated widespread corruption and links between the government and the mafia. For a Decent Slovakia called for greater justice and protection of the rule of law, eventually forcing the government and several top security officials to resign. Other high-profile corruption cases involving powerful oligarchs and top representatives of the judiciary were investigated and prosecuted since, thanks, also, to the enormous public pressure that mobilised the society beginning 2018.
The commemoration event took place at the Freedom Square in Bratislava and drew thousands into the streets.
Zuzana is a former Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs employee who blew the whistle on corruption within the 2016 Slovak EU Council Presidency when none of her concerns were answered internally. She has since become an anti-corruption activist with Transparency International Slovakia where she worked on integrity-building in Slovak civil service. She completed her Master of Public Policy in 2019.
Below is Zuzana’s speech translated from Slovak. You can watch the full length video here.
First of all, let me thank you for the chance to be here with you. I also want to thank the organisers who continue to channel their energy and time into bringing us together here at these civic gatherings.
Exactly three years ago I was finishing the blog and preparing for the press conference that set off the public case of corruption within the Slovak EU Council Presidency. Today, three years after the scandal, I’ve come here from Oxford where I just finished my studies. I’ve learned so much during the past year about economics, philosophy and politics, but one of the most powerful moments I’m carrying with me is from the book The Renewal of Order by the late Czechoslovak dissident Milan Simecka. I got it as a gift from my former colleague from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and friend Pavol Szalai. Simecka talks about the period of normalisation [period after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion to Czechoslovakia that ended the reformist movement of Prague Spring] which established a perfectly inanimate, lifeless order, following the Czechoslovak democratisation efforts in the 1960s.
“The orderly expressed desire of the Czechoslovak people for a more democratic way of life wasn’t crushed by tanks and footmen of fellow communist armies, but by bureaucrats on all levels of the state apparatus, by redundancy decrees, reorganisations in workplace, transfers, hopeless assessments of individual social and political desirability, and other clever means without blood, much clamour, court trials or mass protests… Civilized violence destroyed the courage to think, the ability to criticize and the determination to stand by the known truth.”
Thanks to Simecka’s book I understood one thing: that part of Slovak social consciousness still lives in normalisation. We believe that by expressing a different opinion, by standing out, or simply by calling out discrepancies around us, often obvious and absurd, we will somehow fall into disfavour of the state and thus sign a death warrant – social, economic, professional – upon ourselves, our families and our loved ones.
Despite the fact that for the past 30 years we’ve lived in a free society. Nobody signs our social desirability assessments anymore. Nobody peaks over our shoulders at the polling stations. How come, then, that so many people don’t know what to do with their freedom? Or worse, they don’t even believe they have it?
Many of you might look at me and ask: what on earth did she gain by her freedom? What did she gain by quitting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a few faked public bids? What, in all her freedom, did she gain by publicly speaking out about it? She lost her job, her career, her anonymity, sound sleep, she exposed herself to the pressure of the media, politicians and commentators that flooded the Internet.
Simecka gives a simple answer: a freely made decision to stand by your values and convictions gives you self-respect and the ability to continue living authentically with yourself.
“Today I know that my refusal to adapt in the renewed order was, as in the cases of most other people, driven by a state of mind that the State Security calls stubbornness. It’s rather a desire to keep a good perception of oneself for the rest of one’s life, though.”
How come, then, that so many people don’t know what to do with their freedom? Or worse, they don’t even believe they have it?
The freedom to think and to act according to our conscience gives us much more, though. In my case it was true friendship, relationships with amazing people, knowledge, a new, better job in Transparency International that let me truly help others.
But mostly, it gave me you. This moment, the ability to stand here with you in shared values, in solidarity, as one community, the chance to be part of something much bigger and much better than we are as individuals, on our own.
I understand the fear. And I understand the anger that the consequences of the injustice of others we have to carry on our shoulders. I felt it too. But freedom is also the possibility to rise above that anger, the possibility to overcome fear and be courageous. It is the possibility to be better and not to let the corruption of others drag us into a moral low.
That’s what freedom is for me. And it is worth all the obstacles and difficult decisions.
Enjoy the rest of this festive day!