Ten Years On, Slovaks Say, “This Is Our Home.”

Protester in Bratislava, Slovakia
A man demonstrates outside government headquarters in Bratislava, Slovakia, Feb. 3, 2003 (Photo: Anton Fric/AFP).

The bronze lion sitting on a 15-meter pedestal in the center of Bratislava, symbolizing the formation of the [Czech-Slovak] common state in 1918, gazes nostalgically in the direction of Prague. The handful of proponents of Czech-Slovak unity who place flowers at the statue’s feet every Oct. 28 [the date Czechoslovakia’s independence was proclaimed] diminishes every year. In a nearby park in Rusovce, someone has pried out the copper letters from a monument commemorating the 1918 common state’s 74th anniversary. The deserted, crooked stone is not easy to find under a layer of snow and ice. 

Ten years after the collapse of the federation, the polls are unanimous—only 25 percent of Slovakia’s citizens admit to feelings of nostalgia for Czechoslovakia. Only seven of 26 high-school students remember the separation. One-third of Slovaks between the ages of 17 and 24 do not speak Czech. “We live in our own country,” say the youth on Bratislava’s streets. “This is our home.”

The words of politicians leave little to the imagination. “We’ve made mistakes. We received penalty slips from the European Union and NATO. We learned a difficult lesson in democracy. But we didn’t waste these past 10 years,” maintains President Rudolf Schuster. “For our 10-year anniversary we received an invitation into the E.U. and NATO. Slovakia is back in united Europe,” adds the prime minister, Mikulas Dzurinda. 

“No one asked my opinion. When the federal TV transmitter was turned off at midnight, back in 1993, I just stayed on this side of the border,” says the director of Bratislava’s health clinic. “I stood on the balcony and looked at the city lit up by fireworks. The young people were drunk with freedom. The elderly were nodding in agreement, saying, ‘Finally, the Czechs won’t use us anymore. We’ll be on our own. Under the federation we always played second fiddle.’ ” This sobering understanding came fast.

The director, a graying gentleman, tightens his grip on his cane. In his modestly furnished apartment, a small lamp illuminates rows of books. “I believed [former Prime Minister Vladimir] Meciar,” he says quietly. “I even believed we would be the next Switzerland. Right now I’m awaiting retirement. I am 63 years old, I’m a doctor. I make 18,000 crowns (US$455). A friend of mine in Olomunec, across the border, earns almost twice as much. We studied together in Prague. I’m as good as she is. No, I don’t envy her. I just ask: Why was I cheated?”

“In the separation of the two countries, I see several political phenomena. First, it happened without the consent of the two nations, without a referendum,” states Slovak historian Dusan Kovac. “Second, Slovakia faced three incredibly difficult tasks: It had to establish its own state structures, initiate the democratization process, and make the transition from state economy to free-market economy. In the meantime, using nationalist ideology, the post-communists came into power and blocked the reform process. This all took place while our neighbors pushed toward economic transformation. We faced international isolation. We were the black sheep of Central Europe. No other country in the region had to face authoritarianism in the wake of overthrowing communism. In other former communist countries, politicians of Meciar’s ilk landed in the trash.”

Alzbeta Sopuskova, a historian at Comenius University in Bratislava, believes that the Slovak intelligentsia weren’t prepared for such sudden changes. “They were disoriented, fearful, doubting their own strength. Look at our political scene. Ten years later there is still no clear demarcation between the left and right wings.” Sopuskova points out the aggravated conflict with the Hungarian minority that took place after the formation of the Slovak state. In a country of  5.5 million people there were half a million Hungarians.

“The situation could have been mitigated,” believes Sopuskova, “but Meciar, diverting the nation’s attention away from economic troubles, took the nationalist approach, and the Slovak-Hungarian past wasn’t rosy to begin with. At the time of Slovakia’s inception, the foundation of its statehood included deceit as a political method, theft in place of privatization, and inter-party division of power instead of decentralization. The country hasn’t settled these problems to this day.”

In a small brewery in Brezov, 20 kilometers from the Czech border, charcoal drawings on the walls are covered with dust. The waiter swipes a rag over the table and serves beer.

“I don’t want a return to the federation; I want a decent life. We haven’t been burdened with repatriations, national institutions didn’t collapse, we have not had to repay foreign debts,” says a 40-year-old teacher from Brezov whom I’m interviewing at the brewery. “We’re near the border; many of the locals here commute to the Czech Republic for work. It’s not a secret. Why does a Slovak have to save for two years to buy a new Skoda while it’s 15 months for a Czech? Why does he have to work eight weeks for a washing machine when it’s five for a Czech? Or, let us convert this ‘divorce’ into beer units. Here we go: A Slovak’s salary will buy 1,666 beers, a Czech’s 3,151,” he maintains.

Kovac is not surprised by the fact that the quality of life in Slovakia is inferior to that of the Czech Republic. “In no other country in Central Europe was the economy as usurped as ours. Meciar and his post-communists aimed for a separation in order to freely pilfer the national wealth. People have been cheated. The federation was a complex democratic mechanism with a great degree of control. It wasn’t possible for this mechanism to tolerate the privatization benefiting the nomenklatura, or elite bureaucrats, introduced in Slovakia in 1993. The separation was necessary for some in order to extort the national wealth without restraint,” explains the historian.

Marian Lesko, the political commentator for the daily newspaper SME, expands on the country’s problems: “We are forgetting that all of the problems with our health care and education systems...stem from the first five years of our independence, from the fact that privatization funds ended up in private pockets, not the state budget.

“Only 10 years after the inception of the state, the Slovak economy dropped to the productivity level of 1989. Throughout this period it has not come any closer to the [average] level of the European Union. On the contrary, it has become further removed from it. A realistic salary in the budget sector is one-fifth lower than in 1989, and it falls to the level of the early 1970s. People know that life in the Czech Republic is easier and they ask, ‘Why?’ ” says Lesko.

“Let’s not exaggerate, it’s not so bad,” says an indignant Karol Morvay of the Institute of Slovak and Global Economy. “Four-fifths of Slovakia exports to the Union. We didn’t have hyperinflation. We didn’t experience a serious fiscal crisis. Prime Minister Dzurinda’s government is striving to diminish the effect of political decisions on the economy. The bank sector is being privatized, which will result in the authorities’ loss of control over the granting of credit.”

When I ask about the benefits of the federation’s separation, Kovac pauses for a long moment, then answers, “It’s a complex question. The people have undergone a trial. Slovakia was in a situation where it couldn’t receive any outside help. The most recent parliamentary elections, in 2002, were important. People had to denounce ‘Meciarism’ on their own and accept responsibility for their country. In 1992, 37 percent of Slovaks voted for Meciar; in 2002 that number fell to 19 percent. We’ve matured. That’s very important.”