Posted on 15.06.2011 in People's Voices

Magda Vášáryova

“Slovakia People in the West walked holding themselves straight, talked with self-confidence, and were open. I believe that we – in the East – still have a lot to learn to become that self-confident and that free in expressing our opinions. I think that the fear we lived under in the days of autocratic regimes is still deeply embedded in us.”

Graduate of Comenius University, Sociology Department, in Bratislava (Slovakia). She was a founder and the first Director of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association. She held the posts of the Ambassador of Czechoslovakia to Austria (from 1989 to 1992) and of Slovakia to Poland (from 2000 to 2005).

Can you tell us something about your travels abroad prior to 1989? Did you ever want to emigrate?

Magda Vasaryova

Magda Vasaryova, photo by Bratislavski kraj, Flickr

Yes, I did, several times. I was close to emigrating in 1968. A film studio in Rome was even making the necessary arrangements for us in Italy back then. Unfortunately, my parents could not get a passport, because of something my uncle did. He was studying at the Sorbonne and refused to come back to Czechoslovakia when he was ordered to do so after the events of 1948, with others like him. He was prosecuted in absentia.

So I knew that if I were to flee to the West without my parents they would have problems and I would not be able to see them again. Such situations were quite common in Czechoslovakia. Children were not allowed to travel even to attend their parent’s funeral. I chose not to emigrate in the end because I wanted to stay close to my parents. I became very sick when I was 12 so the doctors recommended a stay by the sea. Therefore, we were to go to Bulgaria but on the eve of our departure someone sent two telegrams to the authorities informing them that our trip would be contrary to  the interests of Czechoslovakia.

Thus, we were not allowed to go. It was then that I, a girl from a small Slovak town, realised that there were borders between countries and they were closed to me. We heard later that it was one of my teachers who was responsible for the ban on our trip. She claimed in her letters to the authorities that my uncle would meet us in Bulgaria and take me away with him to the West. I used to greet her politely, whenever we met until the day she died. I still don’t know what possessed her to write such absurdities, or whether she was paid for doing so. I grew up in a family, which used to hide forbidden books under coal. I was always prone to reading foreign newspapers. Thus, I quickly learned a few foreign languages.

I learned Serbo-Croatian because Yugoslavia was more liberal than Czechoslovakia back then. This gave me an opportunity to read books in a language that was banned in my country. When I visited Yugoslavia my friends were swimming in the sea and I was reading books – from Pasternak to Gombrowicz. I was not interested in shopping there at all. I wanted to find out what freedom of speech and free access to information meant in practice. Even Poland was more open than Czechoslovakia during the seventies. So I learned Polish too. I used to frequent the Polish Institute and read Polish newspapers. I nearly went abroad towards the end of the sixties but did not. Then, my passport was revoked in 1973 and I was unable to get it back until the beginning of the eighties. I resigned myself then to the idea that I would not be able to travel at all, until the end of my life.

And then a miracle occurred. I was suddenly able to go to the US in connection with the film, ‘Sophie´s Choice”. After an hour of interrogation by an Immigration Officer at one of the New York airports, I knew what it was like to be a second-class person from a second-class country. I get shivers even today, whenever and wherever I witness such a situation. Therefore, I really appreciate the Schengen Zone. Immigration Officers no longer have power over me. People of my generation, people like me, never stop wondering at this miracle: that we are living in a Europe without internal frontiers now. I remember the debates whether to the Schengen Zone ought to be created or not. There were many who were opposed – as always in European politics. And such opposition still remains. Recently, Austrian newspapers reported that the majority of Austrians would like to see the border with Slovakia re-established.

Was this attitude prevalent in Austria even during the nineties, when the borders between the East and the West opened?

Yes, it was. When I was the Czechoslovakian Ambassador to Austria, all the Austrian villages along the border with Czechoslovakia held referenda about whether to reopen or rebuild the roads, lines, and bridges that had been closed or destroyed during the Cold War. It was in June 1990. The overwhelming majority said “No”. The so-called “Swiss factor” played an important role here. Generally, people want to hold on to that which they already know, which they are used to, and reject a priori everything unknown, or new to them. For example, once they get used to the neighbours living on the other side of barbed wire they are afraid to see that changed. The Swiss factor may be particularly dangerous if the policy followed is based on hatred towards neighbours. Currently, Austria is the fourth wealthiest Member State of the EU. That would not be so if Europe had remained divided as it was during the Cold War. Thus it surprises me that even today one can build one’s political capital around the fear of foreigners – note, for example, Jörg Haider`s success and the growing popularity of his followers. Such sentiments are not common only to Austrians though. Slovakia is still a somewhat closed country too. One can easily see that in the decidedly small number of Slovak citizenships granted to foreigners. Thousands may soon knock on our doors but I am afraid that our citizens would not be able to get accustomed to a life with people who were born abroad. I still consider our accession to the EU in 2004 a miracle though. It has been a huge success. We had been dreaming of something like that for generations. Now, we have a responsibility towards those who remain outside the EU, like citizens of the Western Balkan states, or of the Ukraine.

Do you find some similarities between the attitude Slovakia has taken towards the Ukraine and Austria has taken towards Slovakia since 1989?

I am disappointed that currently our foreign policy – or whatever remains of it after 2006 – is again characterised by a rough stance towards our Eastern neighbour. Slovak foreign policy is once again informed by the seeming importance of Russia. It appears that we are repeating the mistake Vladimir Mečiar [the Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic between 1994 and 1998] made, stressing the importance of Russia because of its geographic proximity to our territory. If we create a new Iron Curtain or “wall’ between Slovakia and the Ukraine we will forfeit the development of Eastern Slovakia. This could somewhat resemble the situation a part of Austria behind the Morava River was in for 40 years during the Cold War. This area used to be called “Toten Winckel” – a blind spot. The road and railway system were not up to par so there were no conditions for trade. The situation was becoming worse and worse, and people on both sides stopped trusting each other. They stopped meeting each other, helping one another, and became distrustful of each other. I think that we have to do our best – in cooperation with Hungary and Poland – to ensure that the border with the Ukraine will became as open as possible. Today, it is hard to imagine the Ukraine becoming another EU Member State. But that does not mean that we must spare ourselves to building close and friendly relations between us. Friendship and trust among the countries could be easily built by the adoption of a liberal visa policy or other similar measures. If a country wants to prosper it has to offer its inhabitants hope and encourage the youth to stay. It has to create a suitable environment at home, as well as build and maintain appropriate relations with its neighbours.

Going back to your own travels, what were your first impressions of the West? What are your memories of your first visit there?

I went to Belgrade, first. I was fourteen then. For us Czechs or Slovaks, Yugoslavia was in the West back then. I was amazed at the availability of foreign products there. Shops were offering various goods that are the norm for us nowadays, such as Coca-Cola, Nescafe, etc. But I had my first encounter with the “true” West only when I went to Austria in 1968. I had been able to watch Austrian television programmes at home before that so I knew a bit about what to expect. Watching Austrian news programmes, I was also familiar with the workings of democracy there.

So you had a chance to observe Western democracy at work, so to speak. Were you aware of the difference between the two systems of the economy and law?

I used to watch Hohes Haus, the news programme of ORF television, reporting on goings-on in the Austrian Parliament. I think that I had quite a realistic worldview. Therefore, I never bought into the propaganda about how fantastic our communist society was. The difference between them and us was visible to me at first sight. People in the West walked holding themselves straight, talked with self-confidence, and were open. I believe that we – in the East – still have a lot to learn to become that self-confident and that free in expressing our opinions. I think that the fear we lived under in the days of autocratic regimes is still deeply embedded in us.