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Unconvinced by Democracy: Czechs Nostalgic for Communist Past, Slovaks Even More So – Balkan Insight

The Czech Republic’s legislative election in October finally put an end to the presence of the Czech Communist Party in the Chamber of Deputies, 32 years after the fall of the totalitarian regime that ruled the former Czechoslovakia. Even though the communist party in Slovakia has fared much less well since 1989’s Velvet Revolution, which is marked by a national holiday in both nations on November 17, surveys appear to show that people there tend to regard the communist regime with more nostalgia than the Czechs.
While 58 per cent of Czechs consider the current regime to be a better system than they lived under before the Velvet Revolution, that proportion is only 45 per cent in Slovakia, according to a poll conducted by the Czech and Slovak polling agencies STEM and Focus in cooperation with Czech and Slovak sociologists. The survey was conducted for the Coca-Cola company in spring 2021 on 811 people in Czechia and 805 people in Slovakia.
“The evaluation of the previous regime as better is the result of a comparison with the present, which can be a source of dissatisfaction for some, so much so that they come to believe life was better under the previous regime,” said Bohumil Búzik, a sociologist at the Slovak Academy of Sciences.
Experts agree that much of this has to do with nostalgia among the elderly, who tend to remember the good things about the past and forget the bad things. But it also stems from a lack of historical knowledge among young people who were born into democracy and never experienced the totalitarian regime first hand.
Moreover, the experience of democracy for those who suffered from the post-1989 economic transformation has so far been a disappointment, while both Czech and Slovak societies felt the drawbacks of the early stages of democracy, with all its attendant lack of political fairness and justice.
In the Czech Republic, the tradition of democracy was historically much stronger, allowing citizens there to compare post-World War II socialism with interwar Czechoslovak Republic, when “almost everything was better for the Czechs,” Búzik noted.
Under communism, Czech society declined politically and stagnated economically, which was not necessarily the case in Slovakia, where industry experienced a boom after the Communists took over in 1948. As a result, current Czech retirees’ memories of communism are markedly different than those of retirees in Slovakia, Búzik said.
The STEM/Focus survey also showed that the trend in the appraisal of the Czechoslovak communist regime by citizens of the Czech Republic and Slovakia is on different trajectories.
In the Czech Republic, the share of those who consider the current regime to be better has decreased from a clear majority of support in 1991 (71 per cent) to slightly more than half (58 per cent). The share of those who consider the current regime to be worse than the communist regime has risen to 25 per cent versus 15 per cent in 1991.
In Slovakia, while there has been some improvement in citizens’ view of democracy, it is not unequivocal and the population is now polarised, with 45 per cent believing the current regime is better and 40 per cent believing it is worse. Also, the attitudes of Slovaks have hardened: the proportion who believe the current system is much better has grown to 18 per cent, while the proportion who believe it’s much worse is now 24 per cent.
“Slovakia is worse off, considering the rate of those who evaluate the current regime as worse than the past,” Búzik said. “Despite that, spreading nostalgia for the past regime did not translate into voting for the Communist Party, as was the case in the Czech Republic, where the party was represented in the parliament until very recently.”
Tomáš Kostelecký, a sociologist at the Czech Academy of Sciences, believes social circumstances account for the views of those who evaluate the past regime as better.
People whose relative social status is lower today than under the previous regime understandably have a tendency to evaluate the latter more positively. These tend to be machine operators, coal miners, steel workers and others who enjoyed advantages related to their allegiance (and importance) to the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.
“Among them are also ‘normal working people’ who enjoyed quite great security of social status and predictability in their life careers, who lost that security and predictability after 1989,” Kostelecký noted, adding that some people faced unemployment or distrainment after the revolution.
Búzik said that people who are at a pension age now were in their 20s in the 1970s and 1980s. Then they were starting families, and the memories of that time are those of youth, family, stable prices of goods, and relatively easy opportunities to obtain an apartment or a loan. “It was a time of good living for them,” Búzik noted. “Life was not as rushed and stressful.”
Back then, they were aware of the drawbacks of living under a totalitarian regime. Now they are pensioners in poor health and with low incomes, they see their children and grandchildren working two jobs to ensure a decent standard of living and getting into debt to be able to buy a flat, and the past seems better in comparison, Búzik explained.
“And because we tend to forget bad things, their nostalgia makes them see the past regime better than the current one,” he said. “We can assume that the absence of democracy in the regime they were born into did not bother them that much and they were not interested in it that much – possibly politics and the state of democracy is not at the centre of their interest even today.”
The younger generation is less nostalgic, but is also not completely immune to the distorted positive view of the communist regime.
“The question is whether, in the case of people who grew up or were even born after 1989, such views are the result of a generational transfer of positive narratives or a new generation of admirers for authoritarian socialism who do not measure its benefits but their sympathy for some of its sides, or their attitude is the result of a critical perception of the current regime,” said Oľga Gyárfášová, a sociologist for the non-governmental Institute for Public Affairs think tank, who currently works as an advisor to the Slovak president.
The current way that pupils and students in Slovakia are educated is also problematic, thinks František Neupauer, a historian who represents Nenápadní Hrdinovia (Inconspicuous Heroes), an NGO which has been working to educate secondary-school students about the totalitarian regime for 13 years. Within their projects, students do archival research and meet people who had first-hand experience of the terrors of the communist regime.
“For most students [in Slovakia], history teaching ends with information about the year 1945 or 1968,” he said. This applies to students of grammar schools; at vocational or technical schools, history teaching is even more paltry.
Neupauer said that people in the Czech Republic receive a richer variety of information through the media, film and culture. As an example, he cites how documentaries about the communist secret police are only starting to be shown in Slovakia, while in the Czech Republic these first aired back in 2009.
An extremely important element for support of democracy is the feeling that the democratic system is in principle more just and fairer. “Among people where this feeling is absent, either for reasons such as personal bad experience or under the influence of the media, information and pseudo-information from the internet, support for democracy decreases,” Kostelecký noted.
The STEM and Focus survey compared what values were most problematic to people in 1991 and 2021. They learned that while 30 years ago the lack of freedom was considered a major problem, people did not view the question of justice in the state and the opportunities they had in life as a problem they should worry about too much. Nowadays, the opposite is true. “Freedom and opportunities are perceived very favourably today, while justice is perceived the most critically among the watched values,” Gyárfášová said.
She added that people in Slovakia are more critical of their justice system than people in the Czech Republic: 52 per cent of Slovak respondents view justice in their country unfavourably, compared with only 38 per cent in Czechia.
“Anyway, in both societies there is a feeling of insufficient justice – people perceive that there are equal and more equal people; there are ‘our people’ who are untouchable and then there are ‘ordinary people’,” the sociologist added.
She explained that this feeling deepened in Slovakia after journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová were murdered in February 2018 and the investigation of this case revealed massive political corruption in the system. The fallout from this continues to this day.
“Democracy is justice. Unless justice is fulfilled to the satisfaction of citizens, we cannot expect the support democracy and trust in the rule of law,” she said.

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