Dr. Pavol Demes delivered the annual Czech and Slovak Freedom lecture on November 14 at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC. Dr. Demes, a leading exponent of Slovakia’s civil society and his nation’s entry into the EU and NATO, presented a fascinating “photo essay” documenting Slovakia’s journey over the last 25 years and the US-Slovak ties that bind.
2014 is the celebratory year for four important anniversaries. The first is the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I after which Czechoslovakia gained independence, thanks to the efforts of T.G. Masaryk, M.R. Stefanik and Woodrow Wilson. The second is the 70th anniversary of the Slovak National Uprising against the Nazis, and the third, the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution ending Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Finally, the newest milestone: the 10th anniversary of Slovakia’s entry into NATO and the European Union.
Since 1918, many factors have helped link the US with Slovakia including the examples set by noted Slovak Americans. Slovak citizen Sgt. Michael Strank, killed in action on Iwo Jima along with two other members of the six man unit he led to raise the large US flag on Mt. Suribachi, is represented on the Iwo Jima Memorial near Arlington Cemetery. Sgt. Strank was posthumously awarded US citizenship in a ceremony held at that memorial. Another famous American of Slovak heritage that Dr. Demes cited is the astronaut, Eugene Cernan, who brought back the moon rock on display in the National Air & Space Museum.
Dr. Demes recognized the contributions to Slovakia’s progression towards democracy by Slovak dissidents and political prisoners, such as Silvester Krcmery and Vladimir Jukl, who led a religious underground movement and set the stage for the 1988 candlelight demonstration on Easter Friday that was brutally dispersed by the regime with water cannons. Krcmery answered his tormentors at his 1954 trial with the response, “You have the power, but we have the truth.”
Describing the outbreak of the Velvet Revolution, Dr. Demes emphasized that dissenting students and intellectuals in Slovakia were dedicated to the principle of non-violence and democratic decision making. Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel articulated the meaning of the Velvet Revolution in his February 1990 speech to the US Congress.
Dr. Demes praised the reaction of US civil society to the Velvet Revolution and mentioned the contributions of various Americans: Ann Gardner and her Education for Democracy effort, Wendy Luers and her Foundation for a Civil Society and George Soros and his Open Society movement. He noted the celebratory reopening of the US Consulate in Slovakia in 1991 in the presence of former Consul Claiborne Pell who had been consul in 1948 during the communist takeover. This became the US Embassy after the peaceful separation of the Czechs and Slovaks in January 1993.
Dr. Demes described how Slovak civil society had gradually strengthened during the early years of Slovak independence through its vigorous sparring with the authoritarian Meciar government. In January 1994, the Visegrad 4 leaders of Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary met with President Clinton in Prague and were offered a path towards eventual NATO membership. President Clinton subsequently met on several occasions with Slovak President Kovac, but not with Prime Minister Meciar.
Support for Slovakia’s democratic progress was offered through visits by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and then-first lady Hillary Clinton. A successful get out the vote effort in 1998 led to the election of Prime Minister Dzurinda and Slovakia’s move towards a successful market oriented democracy. Dzurinda’s extraordinary gesture of running in the NYC marathon in tribute to the victims of 9/11 was a sign of strong bonds between our two countries. The 2005 visit of President George Bush to Bratislava, which included a meeting with President Putin, recognized Slovakia’s role as a strong member of the EU and NATO. President Obama’s meetings with Prime Minister Fico in 2013 and 2014 emphasized the strategic partnership between the US and Slovakia based on shared democratic values.
Dr. Demes concluded his memorable presentation by recalling the election of President Kiska in March 2014 and his tour of the US bringing young Slovak hi tech entrepreneurs, thereby hoping to move Slovakia from “iron to silicon.” He emphasized that Slovakia’s civil society has been characterized by the ability to “sit down and talk” in order to resolve the most complicated issues. He said he was grateful to live in Slovakia, which in spite of its ups and downs is a good member of the European family and will remain a friend, partner and ally of the United States.