Martin M. Simecka – media and reform in Slovakia

Martin M. Simecka“For Slovakia, in my view, the biggest historical event is not 1989 but 1998.”

Martin M. Simecka, born in 1957 in Bratislava to a Czech father and a Slovak mother, is a writer and journalist. He was editor in chief of the leading Slovak daily newspaper SME from 1999 to 2006. After a stint in Prague as editor in chief of the Czech weekly RESPEKT from 2006-2008, he moved back to his hometown Bratislava.

Simecka’s childhood and youth were strongly influenced by his father’s life as a dissident and writer. As he recalls in a recent article,

“My father Milan Simecka, who used to know Milan Kundera well, was also a committed communist in the early fifties and a reformed communist in the sixties; the 1968 invasion turned him into a dissident, an influential writer and philosopher. For the last thirty years of his life, before his death in 1990, he devoted his entire intellectual energy to analyzing the system that he had helped create. We spent hundreds, if not thousands of hours discussing the past, and I witnessed the torments of his self-questioning and his search for an answer to the Jasperian question of guilt. I felt fortunate that he gave me a chance to become a dissident too, although he thought it was something he was to be blamed for. The communist regime added me to its list of enemies at the tender age of fourteen, and deprived me of the option of becoming one of its quiet and conformist supporters, despite my initial efforts.” (Martin M. Simecka, “My Father’s Generation”, Salon, 27 November 2008)

Simecka’s first novel, The Year of the Frog, is about a young intellectual from Bratislava, barred in the early 1980s from attending college in because of his father’s political activities. Initially, the book was published in instalments by underground publishing houses. A complete edition was issued after the fall of communism. In 1992 it won the US Pegasus Prize for Literature.

In 1989, Martin Simecka, along with a group of fellow liberal intellectuals, founded “Public against Violence”, the sister movement of the Czech Civic Forum which helped bring down communism in Czechoslovakia.

“We didn’t know the first days what would happen, and we were a little scared of how the system would react … The solution was to play the role of non-violent people: that we just want to discuss, that we are peaceful on the streets and squares … Afterwards it became famous as a new kind of revolution, but I believe that a big reason for this was that the system was still very strong and could still kill.”

Despite all the excitement, the protests, the negotiations, the days with nearly no sleep, the “real shock” for Simecka arrived in December 1989, when he went to Vienna. It was his first time in the West.

“I had no passport. Bratislava is next to the Austrian border and of course I watched Austrian TV in my childhood. We could see the Austrians from Sandberg, from the hill above Bratislava. So, for years and years, when looking to the forbidden land, you could see it, but you had a feeling you would never go there. That was my impression all my life: that I would never actually cross the border and that I would have to live in this country until my death. It was not easy to live with this image. Crossing the border, going west – the first real experience of this was very deep. Not that I was so surprised about the West, I knew about it from TV, but the moment of crossing the border was for me the real moment, emotionally.”

The happy moments were gone earlier than most people imagined. Nationalism started to show its face as Slovakia began to demand a stronger role within the federal state. Having appalled many former allies with his autocratic governing style and nationalist rhetoric, Vladimir Meciar, one of the country’s most popular post-communist politicians, was deposed as Prime Minster in April 1991 by the Presidium of the Slovak Parliament. Meciar then split from “Public against Violence” and went on to win the June 1992 parliamentary elections on a platform combining nationalism and leftist populism. Simecka recalls:

“For the first time I had to admit that maybe there was something wrong with the nation, not the system. It’s a completely different feeling: to blame the system, some abstract system, Leninism, Stalinism, whatever; and to realize that it’s your own people who might be wrong and dangerous. I realized this very soon and it was very depressing. And this depression lasted for a very long time.”

Together with the Czech Prime Minister, Vaclav Klaus, and without consulting the population – both Czechs and Slovaks being against a split – Meciar engineered the break-up of Czechoslovakia. On 1 January 1993, Slovakia and the Czech Republic became independent.

“I knew that our problem would not be an independent state, but democracy. And then it happened. Looking at Slovakia in the early 1990s, it seemed there was almost no hope. Because the majority, the very big majority, was in favour of Mr. Meciar and the national party.”

Meciar tried to promote the idea that Slovakia could be a bridge between West and East. In Simecka’s eyes, this was “a dangerous myth, a terrible idea.”

“We knew that Slovakia’s tradition was passivity. The danger was that we would be just a tool of the [great] powers, mostly a tool of Russia – not a bridge, but an arrow aimed at the heart of Europe. We were pretty scared of this. We were afraid that Slovakia could become a small Serbia in central Europe … I believe these scenarios were not as unreal as it seems now. So we were debating about this, discussing what we could do against it.”

It took until the 1998 elections for the political opposition to win a majority in parliament. Meciar’s fall, says Simecka, was the outcome of the combined efforts of four groups of actors: NGOs; opposition politicians who managed to overcome their difficulties and egos in forging an electoral alliance; artists, intellectuals, and the media; and foreign diplomats who, after some persuading, began saying clearly that something had to change for Slovakia to catch up with the EU enlargement train.

A five party coalition government formed under Mikulas Dzurinda of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH). Despite significant ideological and political differences, the coalition served out its full term. Dzurinda, having founded a new party, the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU), headed another coalition government from 2002 to 2006, overseeing Slovakia’s EU accession on 1 May 2004.

Between 1999 and 2006 Martin Simecka was editor in chief of SME, Slovakia’s second-best selling daily.

“During the 1990s SME was a fighting daily with one goal: “put this guy away!” It was a daily that, even if people did not read it, they put under their arm as a symbol. They bought it just to say, I am for the opposition, I am against Meciar.

When I arrived in 1999, things had become much more complicated. In March 1999, the NATO attacks on Serbia began. As a man who believed in NATO and the US at the time, I naturally supported this … In three months the paper lost 15 thousand of its print run of 65 thousand. People were just so angry at us that we supported the war, a war against Serbs, against Slavs, against our own people.

And I realized at the time that this would be a very difficult task – to make a paper that talks to people, to readers, a paper that explains. You could not do it just through headlines. You have to have debate; you have to explain to people how to read papers and to form their own opinion.”

It took Simecka three years to get the paper back to a circulation of 65,000 copies. It was a time of learning – “for politicians, and for us in the media, how to deal with the country and how to behave, how to be fair.”

“The opposition-turned government started to be very angry at the paper because we criticized them. And even readers became angry … It was quite difficult to explain to readers that we could have a common opinion on basic issues like enlargement, NATO membership, and reforms, but that this did not mean that we would support everything that this government was doing. And we started to criticize corruption very much, which made politicians furious. And people somehow got used to that … But it took years … for so many years they were so angry that we actually helped Meciar by criticizing this government.”

Slovak media were instrumental in getting public opinion on board behind the agenda of reforms and EU accession. For Simecka, covering the EU negotiations was one of the most difficult tasks as an editor.

“The question was: how to cover this story, to put in on the front page as it deserved? The negotiations themselves were so difficult a subject and so boring. There were many paragraphs. You had to explain the complexity of that. It’s impossible for the media. We had to think when and how to interview somebody, or when to write about something very specific. We had to choose interesting stories, and there were not many, I have to say. And there was always that “fog of negotiations”. To overcome it, we needed personalities, we needed stars who were able to explain it and sell it … It is still a big problem: EU issues are too technical, and readers still do not understand how important this agenda is for the country.”

Addressing the problems of Slovakia’s poorer regions, where many people were initially worse off than during communism, was another challenge. SME ran stories about people who were negatively affected by the reforms, who suffered – but they also supported the reforms in commentaries.

“It was quite successful. People trusted SME because we didn’t forget about poor people who lived outside the capital and had nothing to do with the Bratislava elite. And we pushed the government to talk about this inequality.”

However, even with all the problems that Slovakia still faces, there is broad consensus that the country’s 1998 turnaround was crucial. In the last parliamentary elections of 2006, Meciar’s party won less than 9 percent of the vote, by far its worst result ever. As Simecka puts it,

“For Slovakia, in my view, the biggest historical event is not 1989 but 1998. November ’89 didn’t originate in Bratislava; it came from Prague. Yes, it was on the same day, but we know very well that Prague was the engine of those changes. We knew that in Slovakia we wouldn’t be able to do it without Prague.

But 1998 was the only historical event when the Slovaks had to fulfil their own task, their own duty. That’s why I think that Slovakia changed on that very date. It brought some self-confidence, which for this nation was very crucial. [But] Slovaks don’t remember 1998 as the crucial moment that it was. They will see it in the future, in the long run. In contrast to the Poles, Czechs and Hungarians, who had a long and continuous process [of EU integration], here in Slovakia it was a real battle. It was the battle field for the future of central Europe. And the Slovaks did their job. It was absolutely crucial.”

Martin M. Simecka with Karel Schwarzenberg

24 August 2009