During 1991 and 1992, I lived almost continuously in Bratislava, which is now the capital of the Slovak Republic. It was then the capital of the Slovak side of the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic, which had its federal capital in Prague. For much of this time, I acted as Economic and Political Adviser to Jan Carnogursky, the Slovak Prime Minister.
It was, perhaps, the most bizarre episode in my life to date. Before 1989, I was a Cold War sceptic - that is, I denied the claims that England had to spend billions every year on weapons and to stand locked in permanent alliances in defiance of all historical experience, on the grounds that the Soviet Union and its empire presented a clear and present danger to the West. I never thought I would find myself called on to serve as a senior officer in the "army of intellectual occupation" established in Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall came down. How I was appointed to this role, and my precise duties within it, are matters that I do not yet think it wise to reveal.
But I can say how much I enjoyed myself in Slovakia. I admit I cut a slightly absurd figure there - my scruffy suits, my insistence on wearing almost useless winter clothes brought over from London, views considered wildly eccentric when expressed in English and still more so in my increasingly fluent Slovak. Then again, when have I not struck others as slightly absurd? And when have I much cared? In any event, I was only one member in a whole cast of charlatans, spies, religious fanatics and ex-Communists on the make. And there was much of the enjoyment - taken out of safe, sober England, and cast into a mass of plots and counter-plots. Most of these came to nothing, and nearly all had ends that were petty almost beyond belief. But some were significant.
Looking back, it now seems obvious that the 1989 revolutions transferred Central Europe from the Soviet to the Western spheres of influence; and that the local versions of liberal democracy that emerged were to be a permanent feature of the region thereafter. In 1991, things appeared far less obvious. A Soviet restoration of some kind was always thought likely - the August 1991 coup in Moscow brought all manner of creatures back into the open in both Prague and Bratislava. At the same time, Yugoslavia was beginning to fall apart. Ethnic tensions that had lain dormant since 1945 were ripping apart what most people had come to regard as a quaint tourist destination. Looking at similar, if less bloody, ethnic tensions in Central Europe - Czech against Slovak, Slovak against Hungarian, all against the Gypsies, and shady Germans everywhere with suitcase loads of money buying God knows what mischief - I and many others could feel the heat beneath the placid surface of things, and seriously wondered how much more pressure was needed before there would be an explosion. When the stakes were thought this high, actions and advice as close to the centre of affairs as I stood took on an importance that I now sometimes blush to remember. Even so, some really were important.
I cannot say that I was a person of great consequence. I was not the only Western adviser in Bratislava, and I was not at all the most active one or the most ambitious for advancement. But I was the most literate, and therefore the most prominent. And some of what I did - a tiny fraction of all my thousands of hours spent thnking and scribbling and talking - did make a difference. No doubt, if I had never gone to Slovakia, the place would look much the same today. But that is only because the important things that I did would have been done by somebody else.
Because I met my wife in Bratislava, and we go there every summer and most Christmasses, I remain aware of events in Slovakia. But the place is different today. My old political friends are out of office and sometimes no longer in the country. The city has changed almost beyond recognition - much cleaner, much brighter, with more and better shops. There is even a Tesco's where Prior used to be. The Bratislava that I first knew and loved has gone and been replaced by the usual mixture of architectural museum and Western consumer culture. That is what I went out to help achieve, and it has undeniably made the Slovaks happier. But it is the old Bratislava that I still visit in my dreams and that brings little stabs of nostalgia when I think about it during the day - the grime, the smell, the darkness and quiet of the streets at three in the morning, the smoke-filled buffets serving tripe soup and neat slivovitz, the street corners populated by extremists all howling at the moon about their sufferings for the people, the spies, the entrappers, the villainous rent boys ready to cut my throat for sixpence; and above all, the combination of frivolity and panic that gripped everyone in the know while Czechoslovakia died first as an idea and then as a country.
And all that made me very happy! What else did I gain from the experience?
Most obviously, I got married, and have stayed married. I never thought that would happen before I arrived in Bratislava. I certainly never expected as I made my first tour of the city that I would one day have relatives there and even be eligible for Slovak citizenship.
Less tangibly, I became both more and less insular in my thinking. I found in Bratislava that many of the concepts I had always taken for granted were not merely unknown but scornfully rejected outside England. For the first time, I realised in more than the abstract sense that the liberal traditions of the English-speaking world were not simply the inevitable results of free markets and freedom of the press, but were part of a unique culture. I saw how things were done in other lands and accepted that my ways were not universal. And this realisation forced me to a general rebalancing of the libertarian and conservative strands in what I believe. I became no less libertarian, but I did become more conservative. I came home ready for the legal and cultural war of the 1990s that has replaced the Cold War.
I must have written a quarter of a million words while in Slovakia. The bulk of this is contained in my encrypted diaries, and will be made availble when I can no longer be sued for libel and when I no longer feel embarrassed to have the often wicked details of what I did in Slovakia known to the world. Some remains confidential, and I prefer not to break confidences even when the events are almost old enough to be history. Much of the rest is only on paper, as my computer records from the period are largely in an obsolete format. But here is a selection of what I wrote and published in 1991-93:
In December 1991, a Slovak journalist called Zuzana Szatmary published a frothing attack on me. She accused me of being a Western imperialist come over to use Slovakia as a laboratory of policies that would never be allowed in England. She was wrong in most respects, but there was enough truth in her attack for me to reply.
Here is a briefing paper I wrote in November 1991 for the Slovak Prime Minister when he was preparing a speech on economic reform. The speech was not well-received.
Here is the English text of a speech that I made to the Slovak Christian Democratic Party in January 1992 about Christianity and free market economics. My claim was that "the laws of the Market are the laws of God". It proved rather strong for a room full of European Christian Democrats. The questions arising took far longer than the speech; and though I won every debating point, I lost the argument. The Christian Democrats never did understand economics, and still do not.
Here is another speech given in January 1992, this one about the folly of price control. This time, I carried the audience with me. perhaps it was because I made my case without shocking their most cherished prejudices.
Early in 1992, I sat down with Nina Jurewicz, one of my colleagues, and drafted an election manifesto for the Christian Democrats. It was rejected out of hand and something was adopted instead that could have been written by an idiot child. Though aimed at the European Christian Democratic mind, and though written in Americanese, more than half of this is mine.
Here are some of the articles that I had published in the English-language Prague Post:
Of Meciar and Machiavelli,
Slovakia and Germany by Sean Gabb, (Published in
The Prague Post, Prague, March 3-10 1992)
Here are some of the articles I wrote for Transdanubia, a liberal magazine published in Vienna:
Czechoslovakia: Bad News for
Britain by Sean Gabb (Published in
Transdanubia, Vienna, March 1992)
Here is an article published in The Catholic Herald in which I discuss the religious significance of the June 1992 elections.
In May1992, I wrote a threat assessment report on Conditions in The Czecho-Slovak Federative Republic. The Following month, I wrote my big Report on the Political Situation in Slovakia as of the 30th June 1992. This contains as much as I could discover - true or false - about the new Government after Meciar won the June elections. Some of the reported allegations are worded rather carefully. The purpose of the report is not to denigrate various politicians - most of them now out of office - but to report the gossip that I picked up in the various cafes and dinner parties that I used then to haunt.
Finally, in August 1993, I wrote this reply to an article that I saw in an American magazine called Commentary. This had accused Slovaks of an exaggerated anti-semitism. I wrote the piece while in Slovakia, and so had no access to the sources that would have made it more scholarly. I do not know if it was ever published. But I think it makes a good reply.