Slovakia: The End to a Confused Sense of Direction?

Article excerpt

Until 1993, when the second Slovak Republic came into existence, Slovaks faced not just a question of survival but also one of identity. It was not that they did not know who they were, or that they did not understand their history, but rather that the rest of the world knew precious little about them.(f.1) They had inhabited states that challenged their existence as a nation. When the century began, they lived in Hungary, their land was called Felvidek (Upper Hungary), and their population was subjected to an assimilation process known as Magyarization. Less than two decades later, in 1918, as a result of the Great War and the breakup of Austria-Hungary, they became part of a new state called Czecho-Slovakia. The spelling with the hyphen is important because it recognized their national existence. However, within two years the hyphen had disappeared,(f.2) and most citizens of the country were identified as Czechs. (Czechoslovaks was also used but far less often than the abbreviated form.) For many Slovaks, this was a subtle way of denying their nationhood. Thus, for the better part of the 20th century, they felt that they were still engaged in a struggle for survival and national identity.

The situation of the Slovaks today is very different from what it was when the century began: they no longer share a state and a name with another nation; they have full self-government; the Slovak flag flies at United Nations headquarters in New York and elsewhere around the world; and the Slovak national anthem resounds when the country's athletes win international sports events. Independence, it would appear, solved the problems of the past. But the challenges of post-communism also left the country with a confused sense of direction both in domestic politics and in foreign policy. A change of government in September 1998 indicates that this situation may finally be in the process of being resolved.

The historical legacy

Their history makes it very clear that the Slovaks have always belonged to Western European civilization, contributed to its development, and have taken part in the various intellectual and artistic movements that define its culture. Until the Second World War, they did not belong to that half of Europe defined as eastern Europe,(f.3) although they were always in contact with it. Inclusion in the Soviet bloc in 1948 was imposed upon them; they did not choose it. Since the fall of communism, they have again sought identity with Europe, and T-shirts sold today in Bratislava describe Slovakia as 'the centre of Europe.' From a cultural and economic point of view, one can also say that Slovaks live at the crossroads of central Europe.(f.4)

Its geographic location and the size of its population(f.5) explain why, until recently, Slovakia needed allies in its search for political solutions that would give it self-government and ensure its development. Although surrounded by many neighbours -- Poles to the north, Ukrainians and Russians to the east, Hungarians and Austrians to the south, and Czechs to the west -- Slovaks had only two options: to find a protector or to link up with another nation in a common state. The first option was proposed in the nineteenth century when it seemed that there was no other way to extricate the nation from Budapest's policy of Magyarization. Ludovit Stur,(f.6) a Slovak political leader during the revolutionary years of 1848-9, advocated panslavism and Russian intervention after it became clear that Slovak objectives could not be achieved in Hungary, at that time part of the Habsburg Empire. Until 1918, many Slovak political leaders in the central Slovak town of Turciansky Svaty Martin (Martin today) advocated a pro-Russian policy. However, what was never a viable option (Russian interest in the Slovaks was virtually non-existent) disappeared from Slovak politics with the creation of Czecho-Slovakia. It reappeared briefly during the Second World War when Slovak communists proposed that Slovakia be incorporated in the Soviet Union as a Soviet Socialist Republic. …