Slovaks protest as their freedoms are whittled away fear freedoms are u nder threat

New anti-subversion law confirms fears of drift towards totalitarianism, writes Adrian Bridge

Bratislava- Fr Marian Dragun squinted in the sun and delivered his damning verdict on life in Slovakia, just over three years after it struck out on its own as an independent country.

"As a priest under Communism, I know what tools can be used to prevent people speaking the truth. I saw them applied then, and I see them again now."

He quickly qualified his statement. Had this been 1988, we would not have been having this conversation in broad daylight, in the middle of one of Bratislava's busiest squares.

We were not talking of true totalitarianism. The country still enjoys free elections and an independent judiciary. Although the television and radio are all pro-government, most newspapers are firmly in the hands of the opposition.

But like many Slovaks, Fr Dragun still felt uneasy. "We are freer than we were under the Communists, but there are worrying signals. In the Church we are again coming under pressure to be obedient."

The Catholic Church is not alone in feeling a chill wind in Slovakia since the return to power in late 1994 of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, the populist former boxer who led the country's split with the Czech Republic in 1993.

Concerned over what it sees as a trend towards intolerant authoritarianism, the Church last week publicly protested against a new anti-subversion law which, in its wording, echoes the legislation passed by the Communists in 1948.

The law, ratified by a stormy session in parliament last Tuesday, was denounced by opposition politicians, journalists and the country's large ethnic Hungarian minority, who see it as a threat to the freedoms of speech and assembly.

Under the law, which is to be challenged in the constitutional court, jail terms may be imposed on Slovaks found guilty of "disseminating false information abroad damaging to the interests of the republic", or organising public rallies judged to be "subversive".

With no clear definition of the "interests of the republic" or subversion, critics say the law may lead to political trials, or at least to a new atmosphere of fear and self-censorship.

The government says the new law is in line with Western norms and insists it will not be used on political opponents.

But even if the anti-subversion law is not actually enforced, its passage was a classic example of Mr Meciar's blunderbuss approach to politics and of the country's tendency to shoot itself in the foot.

Last Tuesday ought to have been a day of celebration. After a year of stalling, Slovak MPs finally ratified a landmark treaty of reconciliation with neighbouring Hungary, seen as an essential step in both countries' attempts to join the European Union and Nato.

Instead of basking in rare international praise, however, the government once again found itself on the defensive, afterpassing a law which raised new questions about Slovakia's democratic credentials and its suitability for early membership of the EU and Nato.

Western diplomats in Bratislava are confused. Late last year, officials from the EU and the United States took the unusual step of issuing diplomatic notes, publicly voicing concern about human rights and democracy in Slovakia.

At the time, Mr Meciar, who heads the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, was waging a vicious campaign to oust his main rival, President Michal Kovac, and was even suspected of involvement in the bizarre kidnapping of one of the President's sons.

The diplomatic protests followed sharp criticism of the way in which, on his return to power, Mr Meciar took control of state broadcasting, privatisation and the intelligence service.

They confirmed a growing perception that Slovakia was no longer seen as belonging alongside the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary in the "first division" of Central European countries seeking to enter Nato and EU.

The aim of the protests was to prod Slovakia back into the democratic fold: given its location in the heart of Central Europe it was not in Western interests to alienate it, or force it into the embrace of Moscow, which seeks to revive old ties in the region.

The government, stung by the protests, blamed them on the "enemy within" and on "traitors" who had besmirched the good name of the country for their own political advantage.

But after toyingwith the idea of looking east for allies, it re-affirmed a desire to join the Western camp, opened up a more extensive dialogue with its would-be future partners and took some of the venom out of the attacks on Mr Kovac.

Given that stance, the passage of the anti-subversion law - part of a package of controversial new measures instigated by Mr Meciar's far-right Slovak National Party coalition partners - comes as a puzzling and disturbing new development.

After only three years of independence, most Slovaks admit that while their economy shows signs of recovery, their political culture is in its infancy and that, in their eagerness to assert their national identity after centuries of domination by Hungarians and then Czechs, mistakes are being made.

Last month, Mr Meciar appealed to the West not to judge his country too harshly, arguing that out of a mixture of "ignorance, stupidity and spite", Slovakia sometimes sends out what appear like negative signals.

In Bratislava, few seem to dwell on their country's leaders and the questions of where Slovakia is heading.

But one passer-by was enigmatic. "Democracy? Of course I think we live in a democracy. But to think that and to live here are two very different things."

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
i100
Sport
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
boxing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments