Kiska at Forum 2000: Politicians play with fire

It really is my honor and privilege to be here with you tonight. It is the 20th anniversary of Forum 2000, and a great personality in Czech and Slovak history, a man who founded Forum 2000, Václav Havel, would have turned 80 this year. Thus it really is my honor to be here with your tonight.

I probably could not have a better preparation for this opening ceremony than having lunch today in Bratislava, with his holiness Dalai Lama. I think that this was the best possible way of preparing for this conference. Dalai Lama was a close friend to Václav Havel, and I believe you will also welcome him here on the Forum on Tuesday.

Dalai Lama is one of the best teachers in my life. He helped me to understand probably one of the most difficult questions, the question of the purpose of my life. Moreover, thanks to Dalai Lama I understood that if you find a purpose in helping, serving society, it is really the best purpose of life.

We have discussed several topics with His Holiness. How to encourage young people to become more active. What to do to inspire them to enter politics. We discussed the situation in the world. His Holiness Dalai Lama likes to say that the world has become smaller, that we are closer to each other.

We also had a discussion about our Europe. Let me approach the situation in our Europe in more depth. It seems too unreal to imagine that anyone with power and influence would not want Europe to be a place of peace, now and forever. Not to imagine Europe as a continent where every citizen and visitor could enjoy high level of prosperity and protection of human rights.

I believe that only a madman would voluntarily give up on these great treasures, brought to us by hundreds years of evolution of Western civil society. Many of us feel deeply worried today  that this unbelievable scenario is taking place right in front of our eyes. Many of us fear that there is a clear and present danger which many of us believed we would not see reincarnated again.

The great danger is the rise of nationalism, extremism and racism taking place in many parts of the world, including our very own countries.  We suddenly feel as if the unpleasant history of Europe started to return. It is possible that our societies just got used to living good and peaceful lives; it is also possible that nothing extraordinary is going on. After all it is often said that every generation has to fight its own battle for future and freedom. Thus it seems to be our turn now.

I honestly believe that with all our resources and our innovative power as well as all the unprecedented ways of knowledge sharing, we are the best equipped generation in history to deal with every imaginable challenge. I happen to be one of those believers who think that it is the truth.

Moreover in the previous decades, as humanity we have managed to cut down poverty by half. Certainly, we are shocked by Daesh, we are shocked by how terrifying Daesh appears to be, however globally people conduct fewer wars and kill each other less frequently than ever before. More men and women have access to healthcare; girls attend schools more than ever in the past. Numbers of volunteers are growing.  Governmental and private donors nowadays can provide huge resources to help the sick, poor and helpless. The scope of generosity and humanity in today’s world is unprecedented in history.

Our very own Europe can be considered as a shining example of successful projects – European Union, Schengen, Eurozone.

Of course we have also faced two crises – financial one and migration one. We are also becoming more and more anxious about virtually every growing pile of troubles lately. However in reality we are doing fine and I believe that there is not a single objective reason why we should not continue doing fine. Certainly it is not all sunshine and rainbows in our part of the world. I can also see signs that I consider to be real threat. The biggest threat above all is the conviction of many politicians that they can play with fire forever, free of any consequences. Now I am talking about using fear and politically fueled animosity, be it criminalization of Muslims who are fleeing their home countries to Europe to save their lives, or the increasingly popular strikes on Brussels, and the EU in general. 

I would like to now talk about the attempts to rewrite the truth about our shared common history, or even to revive the demons of our darks. These attempts are represented by extremism, xenophobia and general suspicion against the liberal democracy. However, I do not believe that most of the politicians that are guilty of playing with fire necessarily have some evil plans in their minds. They do not as they actually believe that they are being politically very smart. They believe that democracy fails to show sympathy, for xenophobic fears of public. Extremists will happily act on this declared political weakness. They think that the democrats are somehow allowed to join the race to the bottom in sharing hoaxes and simplification of all kinds because after all it is better when people follow us and not them – extremists. 

These people believe that everything is manageable, while these dangerous ideas are being spread by democrats with good intentions. However this is just playing with the fire, it is short-sighted and unrealistic gamble that democrats can step on the gas anytime they please, because they think the democrats will not have any problem to hit the brakes anytime they please. Well I consider this absolutely wrong; this is an ill grounded arrogance, unjustified pride of people who feel themselves they can handle dark moods in our societies just like some kind of controlled clinical study. Sometimes it seems that we have even managed to convince ourselves that we are different kind of men, almost a different kind of species than the generations of our parents and grandparents were. I refer to this illusion as the fool’s pride. I consider this illusion to be one of the most dangerous mistakes in politics.

Let me now put the notes away for a bit. Just yesterday I returned from V4 meeting of presidents in Poland. I tried to express my feelings about words to other presidents during our meetings. Words can be very powerful, words can bring joy but they can also harm.  Words can make peace but also the war.  I also tried to explain how dangerous it is not to understand what we can do with our words. During our meetings I demonstrated my opinion about words using Brexit as example. Populists in the United Kingdom have repeatedly referred to Poles, Slovaks, and Czechs as the biggest problem they face. British populists argued that our people should go home as they are allegedly the cause of the problems British public is now facing. These populist words of politicians now have had a very bad backlash. Young Polish people were killed in the UK.

We can thus see violence against people from our part of the world happening in the UK. The reason behind this violence is the words, words expressed by politicians. Thus we have to be afraid of using words against any religion, against any group of people, because after the use of words bad reaction can follow very easily. Even Václav Havel has mentioned one month before the Velvet revolution during his acceptance speech written for German audience that historical horrors can follow from words. Thus ladies and gentlemen, distinguished audience, the second point I wish to highlight to you tonight is the way how even in the hands of democrats the genuine purpose of the right to vote, free elections and referendum is getting weakened and twisted.

Let me use just few examples – I just spoke about the most important public decision taken in Europe recently – Brexit. It is absolutely not in my intention to call into question the free will of British people who have made their decision. However at the same time I dare to say that the proponents of the idea of Brexit, had different outcome in their minds. Many British citizens were fairly shocked about the outcome of their will. I also dare to say that the Dutch voters who blocked the association agreement between the EU and Ukraine in the referendum, had different motives and reasons in their mind while making the decision than the European future for Ukrainian people.

Last but not least, I also dare to say that many voters in my country, in Slovakia, who decided to send the fascists to our parliament in our recent parliamentary elections, did not have any perverse minds to really long for a fascist regime in Slovakia.

However all mentioned outcomes of popular votes happen to have something crucial in common. Elections and referendum campaigns have turned into a festival of negative emotions amplified by modern communication techniques. I consider this highly disturbing how many so-called standard democratic politicians are willing to adopt or even to encourage this irrational emotional trend in public discussions and campaigns. I consider it highly disturbing how many politicians are ready to cheer emotions that are in deep contrast with the spirit of our constitutions. Moreover it is in striking contrast with the foundation and values of our European civilization and to the goals of our peaceful European integration.

My third and final remark concerns the phenomenon of communication bubbles in our societies. At the first sight this phenomenon seems to be of interest only of the social network marketers. However the truth is that it should be in the center of focus of every person concerned about the future of the open democratic society. I would like to use an example from Slovakia now, 30 percent of Slovak citizens believe that vaccination is a conspiracy of pharmaceutical companies. This is all thanks to the social networks. I am not sure where will this go next from here, however I am afraid that this is a situation we should be seriously concerned about. To be clear I used the vaccination example from Slovakia as a case of lie that is spreading these days with the speed of light, on the internet and social networks.

Due to this virtual reality, we have lost perspective and the scope of the variety of the parallel universes our neighbors, friends and relatives live in. We now live in parallel universes which fail to communicate with each other, refuse to understand each other, and step by step we are losing ability to agree with each other on the question of common public interest. All this is  happening at the time when Europe is under a heavy crossfire of information war, war that we observe but yet do not fight back.

Ladies and gentlemen, the challenges and the enemies of free and open democratic societies can have many faces and shapes. While I have avoided talking about the obvious and visibly recognizable threats during my remarks fanatics, terrorists, extremists or autocrats all around the world, they certainly are danger but I am sure it is in our power to defeat them in the end.

Let me now again put my notes away for a moment. After having a discussion with his Holiness today, I realized that we very often have a question in our mind – about what we should do, what is our place in this fight for better world, how to behave. In Slovakia one of the best people whom I had the chance to know, is father Srholec, a Slovak priest who spent many years in prison during totalitarian period.  He always said that we have to stay in line with our values and that people with the same values should stay united. Father Srholec liked to say:  'I don't know what will happen in the future, what will happen tomorrow, but today I know how I would behave.' So, please, we should stay with our values, and we should know now how we would behave in the future.

Thank you.