Thirty years ago, I was watching TV and I saw water cannons used against people calmly holding candles in their hands. I remember faces covered in blood and people being dragged by the secret police to their vans. The next day, this brutal assault on a peaceful assembly drove thousands of people to the streets. I felt the enormous energy and the determination of people to change what we lived in.
We lived in fear. Fear to freely express oneself when it was not in line with the communist ideology. Fear that anytime someone comes and changes your life for worse. Fear to trust your neighbours, colleagues or even friends. The time, when the state was not a guarantor of our rights but a symbol of oppression.
I remember it was before Christmas, when I crossed the border and came to the nearest Austrian town Hainburg, less than 20 kilometres far from our capital. The town was covered in snow, but it all looked brighter, nicer, and cleaner compared to Bratislava. This was my first visit to the democratic West. The one that for years, we could only see from distance, from behind the barbed wire. We could see it but could not really imagine what it felt like.
It has been three decades, but the memories remain. We shall never forget and shall never let anyone steal the freedom and democracy from us again. Because we know the price of losing it.
Today, I stand here proudly as a President of a free, sovereign and democratic country. It has been 30 years of learning freedom and building democracy, respect for rule of law and for each other. Those years have been anything but easy. But it was the only way to get us where we are today.
None of this would be possible without the help of many of you. Without dedicated professionals who answered when they heard the calls for freedom in our part of the world.
Today, I want to thank you for your courage, motivation and determination to help. For believing in us before we believed in ourselves. That you laid foundation of our civil society. That you soon understood that democracy is not a copy and paste model that can be imposed, but that we had to learn it. To keep the ownership, to build it with our own hands. To make our own mistakes. Thank you for not giving up on us when we stumbled.
The Mečiar´s era showed how fragile a young democracy can be. But it also helped build a strong and mature civil society. It showed that when people are silent, decisions of the few can kidnap the whole state. We got the last–minute wake-up call. It was painful and sobering to be told we could not join NATO together with our neighbours. To be named the black hole of Europe. Today we understand that it was a message of honesty and a signal that you cared.
We made it. Fifteen years ago, we became members of EU and NATO. And we started to think that our struggle was over. To take freedom, democracy and our Trans-Atlantic bond for granted instead of cultivating it. As if it all was just a one-off project.
As a consequence, the number of those who feel to be left aside, has been growing. People feel politicians and democracy have failed them and their voices remain unheard. This is precisely what the authoritarians and populists wait for eagerly.
Now we know that democracy cannot be put on an autopilot. Without our engagement, without invisible, everyday work to defend our values, democracy erodes.
I want to mention two things I am particularly concerned about. First, polarisation and divisions that are being spread across our societies and nations. And second, to talk about trust, the invisible silver lining that holds our societies, our nations and Trans-Atlantic community together.
Polarisation and divisions
In Europe, we will soon commemorate the 30th anniversary of fall of the Berlin Wall. A symbol of unification, freedom and democracy, of a new start, determination to build trust and cooperate. The European Union is a symbol of everything we had been missing under the totalitarian regime. Our successes stem from our ability to overcome divisions.
I am worried when I look at our societies. Polarization has grown. Some voices portray liberal values as a threat to our society. The rights of minorities to threaten our core values. Decency is seen as weakness. National pride and patriotism are being built on hatred, isolation and homophobia. Populism is presented as a way of being true to citizens’ wishes.
All of this only leads to new divisions. Between the good and the bad, between national, European or Trans-Atlantic, between “us” and “them”. None of this helps our societies to be better or more resilient. Divisions only make us weaker.
I am worried when I hear that we need to put our national interests before the common ones. To build walls instead of more cooperation, new barriers instead of reducing them. In contrary, our people want us to build new bridges, not walls. We learned that the best way to be patriotic lies not in national egoism, but in cooperation. This is what you taught us to do and to expect from others. The EU, the Europeans, we are not rivals to America, no matter what some politicians say. We are the most natural and closest Allies and partners the US has in the free world. There is only one way we can fail: if we further deepen the divisions and polarisation that is already eroding the democratic world.
To address the divisions, we need to trust each other. We are going to face difficult times as conflicts around us – armed or trade wars – get worse. We need responsible governments with strong legitimacy. Legitimacy based on the trust from their own people. Political leaders that refrain from populism and have their egos under control. Hope that justice exists for everyone and it is worth playing by the rules and to keep the word. Among our people and among nations.
Our future rests on our ability to repair trust. To stay true to our values and observing the rules. That means no compromise when it comes to the rule of law, when justice is under attack or when rules become victim of authoritarian ambitions. This is when we cannot remain silent. Just as you did not stay silent when our democracy struggled under Mečiar.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
To paraphrase the Washington Post motto: democracy dies in silence. We need to speak out and defend it. Last year has shown that people of Slovakia refuse to be silent. They will not tolerate corruption. They want rule of law, decency and respect. Not polarization, not divisions, not confrontation. This fills me with hope that we will stand up to the same values in our region and in our relations over the Atlantic – those of liberal democracy, freedom, respect for each other, empathy and a will to do things together again. Our successes are a shared story of a genuine will and empathy on both banks of the Atlantic.