In the 1980s my wife and I used to climb the Sandberg Hill near Bratislava.
The hill was formed by hardened sand from the bottom of a sea that used to
be here 160 million years ago, and even today the slightest prod at the
steep slope will reveal a sea shell from the Tertiary. But Sandberg’s charm
consisted in something else: on the other side of the River Danube flowing
at the foot of the hill was Austria, separated from us by barbed wire and an
extensive array of soldiers with submachine guns. The view of Austria from
the Sandberg Hill was most beautiful on summer evenings when the sun went
down exactly behind the Austrian horizon - in the West, in Europe.
At first sight you couldn’t detect many differences between the realm of
freedom in Austria and our communist-ruled domain. Both sides of the river
were lined by the same alluvial forest, only the walls of the castle visible
in the distance were unusually clean compared to the dirty walls and peeling
plaster we were used to in our country.
There was something romantic about our Sandberg expeditions. I was thirty
years old, imprisoned in a country that refused to give me a passport, and
being so close to an Austria I could almost touch imbued me with a strange
sense of the absurdity of time and space into which I was born. I was quite
sure I would come to stare at this mysterious piece of land, this beginning
of Europe, until the day I died without ever setting foot on the other side.
For in those days I was convinced that history in my world had come to an
end, that the future was just a tedious repetition of the present and that,
if there was a world where history was in motion, it was in the West.
Then along came 1989 and, paradoxically, Francis Fukuyama announced the end of
history just as it was beginning for us, the inhabitants of the communist
block. More than twenty years have passed since then. My wife and I can now
walk through the alluvial forest along the Danube all the way to Austria
without crossing a state border, and we now look at the Sandberg Hill from
the other side of the river and go swimming in places that once seemed to be
on another planet.
I have since visited nearly every country in the European Union and now spend
more time reading European newspapers than Slovak ones. Eight years from now
I’ll be able to say I have spent the first half of my life outside Europe
and the second within it. And this is precisely what sometimes makes me
anxious: will Europe in eight years’ time be what it is today?
What bothers me about the passionate debate about Europe -- about the
differences between the North and the South or the West and the East, about
who should repay what debts, whether limiting state sovereignty will turn
nations against the idea of a common Europe, how many speeds there are in
the EU and whether there is any point in saving the euro -- is that two
fundamental issues seem to have disappeared from this debate. The first one
concerns the fact that the EU is a political project whose main purpose was
to prevent another war. I know that the opponents of stronger integration
will say this is no longer relevant, there is no risk of war as nobody wants
one. However, and this is where the other issue comes in, most Europeans,
especially in the West, have forgotten that not only has history come to an
end but that it can sometimes hurtle ahead at tremendous speed, sweeping
away things that that seemed immutable only yesterday. That is why critics
of European integration proliferate: most of them regard the European Union
as a foe so strong and entrenched that they can’t imagine their griping
could possibly ceriously jeopardize the European project. But they are
profoundly mistaken. The EU is a frail construct with a brief history,
briefer than the average human life.
I have recently read Gillian Tett’s brilliant book Fool’s Gold about the young
bankers at JP Morgan who were the first to invent and introduce financial
derivatives. Their bank has weathered the financial crisis fairly well,
mainly thanks to one of these young financial analysts, Bill Winters, who
realized early enough that the increasingly toxic derivates might topple the
entire financial system, and warned his bank not to use them recklessly.
Why was Winters, of all people, able to ponder the risks with a head clearer
than many others? Because in the 1980s and 1990s he had lived in Croatia
where he witnessed the collapse of a system. He had experienced at first
hand that what seems eternal today can be poisoned by toxic ideas and perish
tomorrow, and he realized that this applied to states and financial markets
alike. Many Europeans have forgotten this experience and I believe it is no
coincidence that the Slovaks are among the greatest supporters of the EU
project. It is not only because the EU gives this small country on its
periphery, bordering Ukraine, a sense of security, something that in the
course of Slovak history has been the exception rather than the rule. A more
compelling reason for sympathizing with the EU is the fear that it might
fall apart. For unlike most nations to their west, the Slovaks haven’t yet
forgotten how quickly and without warning systems that seem eternal can fall
apart. This is how the communist system disintegrated in 1989 and this is
how Czechoslovakia fell apart in 1992.
I experienced both disintegrations very intensely - the fall of communism made
me happy, while the split of Czechoslovakia depressed me as sombre proof of
the negative energy that can be unleashed by separatist forces if they start
attacking the system where it is most vulnerable. In Czechoslovakia’s case
it was the unbalanced federation, with Czechs complaining they had to pay
for the Slovaks and the Slovaks accusing the Czechs of ruling them from
Prague. Once both nations started trading accusations in the media the
process of disintegration became unstoppable. I don’t like saying so but in
the present-day discussion, in which accusations are heard across Europe of
one country having to pay for another and one state being ruled by another,
I hear an exact echo of what I witnessed before Czechoslovakia fell apart in
In those days many Slovaks and Czechs regarded the demise of their common
state as merely disposing of ballast that was slowing down their pursuit of
more momentous visions, such as democracy, capitalism and membership of the
European Union. Central European countries started competing as to who would
be first in carrying out privatization and reforms in line with the World
Bank script and to meet the Copenhagen criteria for democracy and the rule
of law. This task was to be carried out by the new political elites while
the inhabitants got on with improving their own lot.
In Slovakia, this new class came to be symbolized by two-time Prime Minister
Mikuláš Dzurinda. The diminutive, lively man, a marathon runner with eyes
sunk deeply in his face, set himself the ambitious goal of transforming his
country into a modern, Western-style state.
He has succeeded, to a degree. These days many parts of Slovakia look just
like Austria at first sight: most houses have been replastered and most of
the population has replaced old windows with new, plastic ones. I find this
baffling because the Slovaks still earn only a third of what their
neighbours do in Austria while the prices in the two countries are identical.
All the indications were that it was just a matter of time before history
would indeed come to an end in a common European bed. But then 2008
happened, plunging the Slovaks into three crises at the same time. As for
the first, economic crisis, they seem to be coping with it better than many
Western nations, since they had not yet got used to real European affluence.
And besides, Slovaks are genetically equipped for survival. A friend of
mine keeps horses in the country and when I visit him we often ride through
beautiful wild mountains where bears and wolves are king. For centuries
people living in these mountains have been breeding sheep and cows and
cultivating the wilderness. Over the past twenty years many of them moved to
the cities leaving their village houses to fall into disrepair and leaving
meadows to be reclaimed by new forests. When we went riding last year,
however, we met young people who had started to repair their parents’ houses
and we saw cows in the meadows again. „There’s a crisis,“ a young man hoeing
his potato field high above the village told me while three cows grazed in a
More serious than the economic crisis is the second one, which I would call
the crisis of understanding the essence of global capitalism. Compared to
the communist regime, whose collapse was primarily brought about by its own
ideological dementia and economic incompetence, the idea of capitalism was
reminiscent of a beautiful rich bride whom everyone wanted to marry. But she
has turned out to be a gambler losing in a casino huge amounts of money that
wasn’t hers to spend. In addition, we have all found ourselves in a maze of
huge debt of whose existence we had no idea whatsoever. It is a harsh
paradox many of us are still reluctant to accept: the communist regime used
to claim that money was a fiction it would eventually abolish, while
capitalism insisted it was the free movement of real money that would bring
us the freedom we had been denied under communism.
However, it is the third crisis that is the most profound: the crisis of
realizing we have become not only the victim of a utopia of global
capitalism but also of our homegrown, Slovak utopia of democracy.
The roots of this go back to the 1989 social contract between the population
and the newly-emerging political class, which envisaged that the people
would work patiently and endure tough reforms, in the faith that the
political class would introduce Western-style democratic capitalism. The
social contract seemed to have remained in force for many years, in spite of
many disappointments and the frustration about the long time it was taking.
And in spite of the occasional protest the people always acknowledged that
their politicians were the people they themselves had elected in good faith.
In 2000 opinion polls were showing that the majority of people believed that
democratic capitalism was preferable to communism and by 2006 over 70
percent of the population expressed their satisfaction with the development
and state of the country. Economic growth was steady, unemployement was at a
record low and Slovakia had earned the sobriquet 'the Tiger of Central
But then came the global crisis and local tax increases, and decline began to
loom. People suddenly realized it was their common money that was
dramatically leaking out of the state budget through a mysterious hole. And
that’s when they discovered corruption. And although the media had long been
awash with stories of wealthy politicians with 20,000-euro watches and
yachts anchored in marinas on the Adriatic coast, it was only now that
people realized quite how much the cancer of corruption had corroded the
entire democratic system and how far its tentacles reached.
Early this year, for the first time since 1989, Slovak streets saw rallies
with people protesting against an entire political class who have stolen
their state in cahoots with businessmen. The crisis engendered by the
realization that politicians had violated the social contract of mutual
trust made with the citizens in 1989, is the worst crisis of all.
This has come to the fore in the recent general election on 10 March. People’s
wrath has turned against the symbol of the political class, the marathon
runner with sunken eyes, Mikuláš Dzurinda. The two-time prime minister, who
ushered Slovakia into the European Union and wanted to go down in national
history as a symbol of the country’s modernization and affluence, has
instead turned into the symbol of rottenness, corruption and lies. His party
only just scraped into parliament and absolute victory has gone to Robert
Fico, a politician who, instead of affluence, promises the people basic
social certainties, who pronounces the word capitalism with contempt and
refers to bankers with visible disgust. Robert Fico embodies Slovaks’
disappointment with democratic capitalism.
However, that alone wouldn’t have assured him of victory. One of the key
reasons for his success is his undisguised attachment to the European
project and loyalty to the EU. And while the Slovaks are disgusted by
corruption and disappointed by capitalism and, to a certain extent, also by
democracy, they haven’t gone off the idea of Europe. On the contrary, faith
in European institutions consistently scores higher in opinion polls than
faith in Slovakia’s own government or parliament.
This is not a coincidence. This nation of five million on the periphery of
Europe is very much aware of the fragile luck that has allowed it to become
part of Europe. It knows that its key historical role consists in not
lagging behind and staying with the mainstream. This is the fate of the
province, of which the Slovaks are quite aware and I salute their realism.
Europe is a political project for the preservation of peace which - until now
- has also been exceptionally succesful in economic terms, thanks to
abstract concepts such as „the free movement of people and capital“. I
realize this every time my wife and I cross the Austrian border near the
Danube, marked by a single red-capped stone, arrive in the Austrian town of
Hainburg and use our Slovak euros to pay for a meal in a wonderful
restaurant on the river bank. And this is also when I realize that since the
fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 I haven’t been back to the Sandberg Hill.