An American in Bratislava: Reflections on Slovakia’s Transition to Democracy in 1990

An interview with KARV Founder and President, Andrew Frank, for Slovak publication Aktuality

Američan, ktorý bol pri našich prvých slobodných voľbách: Komunisti prezliekli kabáty. Nebál som sa ich návratu |

When did you first arrive in Bratislava and what brought you here at the time?

I first arrived in Bratislava in February of 1990 at the age of 25—at the time I was working for Campaigns & Elections magazine. They had hired me to organize a series of seminars on elections in Budapest, Prague and Warsaw. While in Prague I was fortunate enough to meet some people from Občianské Fórum. They mentioned that there is a need for such support in Bratislava, so I traveled there and was able to meet with Juraj Mihalík, Jano Budaj, Fedor Gal, Martin Simecka and others, who all agreed to host a similar seminar at Mozart’s house.

Some weeks later, a team of roughly 25 elections experts, mostly Americans, but some Canadians and an Argentinian, arrived in Bratislava with Campaigns & Elections. I served as the ‘advance man’, which meant I would arrive in locations a few days ahead of the events to help facilitate large events and meetings. I had previously worked on a US Presidential campaign in 1988 and for a governor’s race in 1989, so had some experience in such a role.

What was the reason a young American man would be looking to go to Eastern Europe at such a time?

The Berlin wall story broke in late 1989 and Eastern Europe was opening up. So, following my work on the Governor’s election in New Jersey, instead of continuing on working in state government, I really wanted to do something in Eastern Europe. The world was in the process of major transformation and I felt I had to be where it was all happening. 

I ended up staying in Bratislava well beyond the seminar through the June elections. I believe I was one of few – if not the only – American there at the time. I was living at the home of Anton and Iveta Mrazek for the entire duration. Anton was one of the people who made the TV commercials for VPN as he worked for the TV station. The Mrazek family, including their two daughters, truly welcomed me into their family. It was a very special time in history and for me personally. I had the opportunity to see much of the country, including Sered, where my great-grandfather lived and emigrated to America from in 1908.

You grew up in a developed, democratic country and suddenly you are in the middle of a European country that just overthrew a communist regime. What was your impression of Bratislava when you first arrived?

Bratislava – along with the rest of Central Europe on that trip – was a little out of a fairy tale.  I heard so much about the Iron Curtain and read books about that part of the world when I was younger.  Each of the cities I was able to visit had a unique charm. Bratislava had a beautiful old town, the castle on the hill and then the dull housing complex on the other side of the river. To me, it wasn’t about whether it was a democratic or non-democratic country – it was more that the time was exciting.  A vast majority of the people I met were hungry for change and to learn from me about how democracy works and about America itself. It was both flattering and hugely educational. I had been to almost all fifty states by the time I went to Bratislava and not many people outside of America realize how diverse and different our country is – architecturally, culturally and in terms of demographics. So, it really wasn’t a huge difference to me other than the language.  For me it was another stop on my journey.

Did you have concerns that that it would be dangerous here?

No, I wasn’t concerned. I didn’t even think of it that way. I looked at it more as an opportunity to participate, in some small way, and to be an observer of what was happening. Of course, we didn’t have the internet and cell phones then. So when I took the job, I left very quickly and I said to my parents, “I will call you when I call you.” A few years earlier I went to Los Angeles by myself during the summer of 1984 because I wanted to see the Olympics. I was prone to doing a few things that others wouldn’t do. When I told my friends I was doing this they questioned my sanity. No, I wasn’t worried about any dangers, I was more interested in the experiences I would have.

What about the communists? They were not excluded from public life and even participated in the parliamentary elections. Were you concerned at all that they might return to power?

I wasn’t so worried about the communists returning to power. What I learned during my work in Bratislava particularly is that the communists and people who worked in their government embedded themselves in the various political parties and so they decided to change their coats so to speak. For instance, Vladimír Mečiar. I think there was also so much of a popular uprising in these countries, that even if the communists did take over, or took back pieces of power, they wouldn’t be ultimately able to stop the shift to democracy.

What were the most important lessons to teach the new generation of politicians?

Most of these people were not politicians. If you look at the current Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, he was young post-college activist back in 1990 and he was very different than he is today. So, there was a lot of hope. What we tried to put forward in the seminars were some tools that you could use but also that there were pieces of different democracies that you have to take and learn from. So, for instance in America we have very messy process in terms of electing our leaders with primaries and other confusing facets. You have parliamentary democracies that function differently. You have countries that have many political parties and you have countries that have just few like in the UK and US.

Did you feel that they were interested in the seminars or that they had their own ideas of how democracy should work, how to run in an election, etc.?

The seminars were really well attended. I think there was a general curiosity of who these people were coming over to teach and what they could learn.  I think that some had their own ideas and of course there were questions and some challenges. That is how we all learn – by being challenged. Others had very firm ideas on what they thought the people wanted to hear and that too is important. I think the greatest thing that came out of the elections was the understanding that people had to be for something instead of just against it.

Are activists able to become politicians?

Not all activists become good politicians and not all politicians were good activists. So, I think you have to be a good speaker, persuasive and be somebody who is willing to take risks. Because of that the early leaders of VPN, much like the early leaders in other countries, were young, aspirational and had some charisma. People like Lech Walesa and Václav Havel had more of a moral authority that they were bringing to the table. So these leaders all had something that they were bringing to the table. Others had to understand how to turn their activism and anti-communist rhetoric into action and that was very hard for many people.

Did any natural leaders emerge on the scene at the time? Perhaps Jan Budaj, Peter Zajac or Fedor Gál?

I think all of them had something they brought to the table. Milan Kňažko was an actor and had a certain style for himself—he was able to project. Others were much better working behind the scenes. Fedor Gál is an example of a behind-the-scenes-guy. Jan Budaj was in front of the table. This period of transition was very challenging. There were some forty years of communism, so people were living in a certain way, and then suddenly they had the opportunity to express themselves freely. It’s easy to be against something, but when you were finally able to stand up for something and express freedom of speech, naturally there will be differences in opinion between people.

Was it clear what they stood for?

I think that they knew they wanted change with varying ideas of how to bring new economic infusion, privatization and other ways people could gain a new self-worth. That was key. The question was how to get there and how to get these things done.

Did the fight for power inside VPN surprised you?

As I said before, when you’re against something you can all be against. When you have to figure out what you are for, you’re going to have arguments and disagreements. How you handle that differs. So no, I was not surprised that there were arguments and disagreements because that’s an important component of democracy.

Three years later the country was split. Were you able to detect how the role of nationalism would ultimately shape the country?

I sensed it when we were there. You could see it in some of the conversations that we had. But also, as I said before when I was in Prague the people said you should do the seminars in Bratislava too. Which is unlike Poland. In Warsaw, they didn’t say go to Krakow. I saw some other areas too – not just between the Czechs and Slovaks, but also with the Hungarian minority and the Roma community.  So, I sensed there were some kind of differences that ultimately came out even stronger after the campaign.

What was the most intriguing moment of the election campaign in 1990?

There were so many people involved and participating.  I think there were about 20 people that were leading various parts of the campaign and I think that it was really exciting to see the participation of so many people. And so many young people who would come in and out of the Mozart house. I felt very comfortable – even though I was 25, I was treated as a bit older and wiser. For me the most intriguing aspect of the 1990 elections was both the excitement and bravery of so many young people participating in this democratic process. I went to couple of protests when I was in high school and college and I did campaigns but this was very different because people were putting their lives on the line.

When you finished your mission in Slovakia did you remain in touch with the people you met?

I have been in touch with a few people over the years. But not as close as I would have liked to be. A couple of years after I left, I helped to bring the Mrazek’s older daughter to the United States for a semester of high school. Unfortunately, I have not been back to Bratislava for many, many years but it is a big part of my life and it will always be a special place.