FIFTY frail Slovak octo-and-nanogenerians, their uniform jackets adorned with shiny medals, sat patiently in the sun on August 29th through speeches and performances (pictured). Seventy years ago, these men and women joined a bloody uprising against the Nazi occupiers. But the event that should have been a celebration of their bravery was hijacked by politics.
Shortly before leaving office in mid-June, the former Slovak president, Ivan Gašparovič, invited his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin to join the ceremony. After all, some 140,000 Red Army troops lost their lives when liberating former Czechoslovakia from the Nazis, said those who defenders the invitation, which was made after Russia annexed Crimea.
Mr Gašparovič left what Slovak media described “a time bomb” to his successor, Andrej Kiska. A day after a pro-Russian separatist leader said that Russian soldiers preferred to spend their holidays fighting in Ukraine, Mr Putin sent his defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, to represent him at the Slovak National Uprising celebration, held at a museum dedicated to the rebellion in the central Slovak city of Banská Bystrica. Mr Shoigu, an army general, kept a low profile: he wore a suit rather than a uniform, in which he is pictured on the ministry’s website.
Out of ten other heads of state invited, only the Czech president, Miloš Zeman, attended the official ceremony. While Western leaders excused themselves, the Polish president, Bronislaw Komorowski, sat it out at an unknown location.
Organisers explained his unexpected absence by “a schedule change” but sources said that he refused to participate as long as both Mr Shoigu and the Russian army’s Alexandrov ensemble were on the premises. (The Ukrainian delegation, consisting of the ambassador to Slovakia and the military attaché, left when the Russians struck the first chords. “Our brothers became our occupiers,” a Ukrainian diplomat said.)
Mr Komorowski joined his Slovak and Czech counterparts for lunch and laid a wreath at the museum after the official ceremony was long over. In yet another bitter pill for the Russian general, Poland barred Mr Shoigu’s plane from entering its airspace, forcing him to return to the Slovak capital until his plane’s flight status was sorted out. The Russian foreign ministry sniped back saying that the incident would not go unanswered.
The commemoration in Banská Bystrica highlighted divisions about the Ukrainian crisis among former Soviet satellites in central Europe. A fierce critic of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, Poland is at odds with cautious Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic whose leaders have questioned effectiveness of the European Union’s sanctions imposed on Russia.
Discord among Slovak leaders became apparent as well. Mr Kiska avoided Mr Shoigu, earning himself criticism from defence minister, Martin Glváč, who kept the Russian general company. In an apparent jab at the pro-Russian prime minister, Robert Fico, the president praised the wartime partisans for rejecting “philosophy that it is always possible to get out of everything on the lee side without casualties.” Mr Fico countered by blasting the EU sanctions as counterproductive.
The celebration took place in a region ruled by a far-right governor who has called the Slovak National Uprising a putsch and the partisans bandits. Seventy years ago, the uprising against the Nazi occupation and the collaborationist Slovak State ended bitterly. After two months of fighting, the rebels retreated to the mountains where several thousand did not make it through the winter.
Nazis and their Slovak helpers killed another 5,000 civilians in retaliation for helping the resistance. Hundred and two villages were reduced to ashes. Yet, voters in the Banská Bystrica region elected Marian Kotleba, known for his admiration of the Nazi puppet state in Slovakia, the region’s governor.
In the hours before the tribute started, journalists saw Mr Kotleba hanging a banner with slogans “Yankees go home!” and “Stop NATO!” from a window of his stately office building located a five-minute walk from the festivities.
But Mr Kotleba was not given a chance to chat about his views on NATO with the Russian general. Stanislav Mičev, the museum director, refused to invite him to the ceremonies.
“What sense does it make to invite a fascist to an anti-fascist event?” he said. The elderly freedom fighters would not have been welcoming to the 37-year-old governor.
“I’d give him a smack, just like our fathers did when we misbehaved,” said František Tlučák, an 86-year-old former partisan who weighed just 45kg when he returned home from a Nazi labour camp in the summer of 1945.