Martin Bútora, former Slovak ambassador to the United States, delivered the 13th Annual Czech and Slovak Freedom Lecture on November 16, 2012. He was introduced by Wilson Center Executive Vice President and COO Michael Van Dusen. A capacity audience filled the Woodrow Wilson Center auditorium to hear his thoughts on “20 Years of Independence: Reflections on Freedom and Democracy”.
Ambassador Bútora began by describing the dramatic developments in Slovakia since 1918. He believes that future historians will “probably evaluate Slovakia’s last two decades favorably.” Despite difficulties, particularly “authoritarian temptations”, Slovaks have learned to be responsible for their own fate and not blame others.
Regarding recent developments, he noted that both Slovakia and the Czech Republic are doing rather well according to various economic indices. Nevertheless the public in both countries “is rather pessimistic and skeptical.” A certain “malaise” is still widespread. There is still corruption and inefficient government bureaucracy.
The most problematic area is the judiciary. Bútora cited the recent case of former President Kováč being ordered to apologize to the former chief of the intelligence service and to pay a large fine. Less than one-third of the population has no confidence in the judiciary system, according to a July 2012 study.
The ambassador then described the mindset of many Slovaks today. He described a picture of certain so-called “real capitalism” which is as unattractive as the infamous pre-1989 “real socialism” has been. It is not a regime but rather a metaphor for certain codes of behavior: if one wishes to get ahead, one must accept that corruption and clientelism are simply a part of the new order and adapt to it. Also, Most Slovaks appreciate their increased freedoms, but only a third thought that honest work would lead to success. “More freedom doesn’t automatically mean more satisfaction.”
Bútora spoke of the challenges to the current government, a one-party government that is a first in Slovak history. “The good news is: it doesn’t include the bad guys. It is a pro-European cabinet. Slovakia evidently wants to be a part of a more integrated Europe.” However, political opposition is weak and fragmented and has not been able to make its policies part of government policy. The ruling party has done as it wished in some areas: e.g., the president has blocked the elected prosecutor general from filling his job.
A major ongoing challenge is to deal with living conditions for Roma and their relationship with the majority population. Their employment rate is deplorable, education opportunities very limited, and life expectancy is a shocking 15 years less than for other Slovaks.
Regarding the economy, Slovakia’s industrial area is growing, unlike the rest of the E.U. The auto industry is doing very well. He regretted that U.S. Steel is considering leaving because they not only provided many jobs but also showed corporate responsibility in the community and initiated a Roma employment project.
Ambassador Bútora concluded his talk by declaring “…one thing is indisputable: the United States and Europe (and the Slovak Republic as part of Europe) have very similar challenges and to discuss them more regularly on the highest possible level in an imaginative way might bring benefits for both sides.”
At the conclusion of the lecture, Friends of Slovakia Chairman Joe Senko and Founding Chairman Ambassador Ted Russell presented Ambassador B[tora with the FOS Medal of Honor. American Friends of the Czech Republic President Tom Dine presented the speaker with a Certificate of Appreciation.