July 4, 2009
Neighbor’s Shadow Still Large in Slovakia
By DAN BILEFSKY
BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA — When the Czech Republic unveiled an avowedly satirical artwork to mark the beginning of its European Union presidency last January, neighboring Slovakia was depicted as a giant Hungarian sausage.
It was a stinging humiliation for many Slovaks, who have spent centuries struggling to assert their own sense of nationhood, first as serfs under the Hungarian Kingdom in the 19th century and then as the poorer segment of the former Czechoslovakia.
Slovakia complained until the Czech government apologized. The Slovak artist Martin Sutovec drew a caricature showing the Czechs as beetles wearing socks and sandals. Other critics said it was an insult that Slovakia — the first former Warsaw Pact country to join the euro, in January — was being compared with Hungary, the economic sick man of the region.
The fierce reaction underlined both the insecurities that continue to dog the European project, and the ambivalence of relations between Slovakia and its richer, larger neighbor 16 years after their “velvet divorce” in 1993.
Slovakia, so proud of having finally bested the Czechs in some international league — joining the euro zone first — exuded all the uncertainty that still makes it so hard for Eastern and Western Europe to feel like a joined-up whole.
Even a well-established country like Austria can feel lorded over by far-larger Germany.
After the rocky separation from the Czechs, Slovakia at first languished under the authoritarian rule of Vladimir Meciar. Then it remade itself as a low-tax, investor-friendly haven in Central Europe, becoming the post-Communist darling of the former Soviet bloc.
The decision to join the euro zone was embraced in Slovakia as a canny move that would shelter it during hard economic times. Instead, Slovakia tied with Latvia for suffering the sharpest reversal in the 27-member European Union during the first four months of the year, contracting 11.2 percent after years of strong economic growth.
While the decline was a setback and brought “I told you so” remarks from the Czechs, who have clung to their national currency, the koruna, Slovak officials insist that it is they who will have the last laugh when the global economy improves and their wealthier, haughty neighbors remain isolated.
Martin Barto, vice governor of the National Bank of Slovakia, attributed the recent weakening of the economy to a dramatic fall in exports to Western Europe that had hit the country’s large automobile industry.
A pricing dispute over natural gas between Russia and Ukraine in January also cut Slovak supplies and all but halted industrial output for two weeks. But, Mr. Barto insisted, the stability and political influence afforded by membership in the euro zone will ultimately prove to be a lifeline.
“It was a big psychological boost for this country that we were in the euro ahead of the Czechs and the Hungarians,” he said in an interview. “There was a certain extra satisfaction, because the Czechs have always considered us their weaker and poorer cousins.”
Nevertheless, businesses across Slovakia have looked on with growing alarm in recent months as a small army of Slovaks has gone shopping in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, taking advantage of the relative strength of their newly minted euros to buy things from livestock to cars outside the country.
Roman Guta, a 35-year-old Slovak distributor of dental equipment, lamented that nearly a dozen buses filled with Slovak dentists had recently traveled to nearby Poland, where everything from X-ray machines to dental floss had become cheaper. But he insisted that he would not give up the euro for one simple reason: “For the first time, the Slovaks are ahead of the Czechs in something,” he said. “That is well worth whatever sacrifices.”
The euro already appears to be giving Slovakia an edge in attracting foreign investment. In April, when Volkswagen, the German automaker, was deciding where to invest €310 million, or $436 million, to manufacture a new low-cost family car, Up, for the global market, it chose Slovakia over the Czech Republic. The venture is expected to create 1,500 jobs.
Andreas Tostmann, chief executive of Volkswagen’s Slovakia unit, said the country’s adoption of the euro had helped swing the decision in its favor. “Because it eliminated foreign exchange fluctuation,” he said, “it brings stability and it makes it easier to do business.”
Some observers in the Czech Republic said Slovakia’s embrace of the euro had also given it a political maturity sorely lacking in their own country, whose government recently imploded midway through its E.U. presidency.
“The Slovaks have become a proud nation, and they deserve it, while we Czechs have become the grumps of Europe,” said Tomas Sedlacek, an economic adviser to former President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic. “The Czechs were the model, but the Slovaks have turned this around.”
Slovakia, a country of 5.5 million people — about half the population of the Czech Republic — has come a long way since the 1990s. In that period, Madeleine Albright, then the U.S. secretary of state, called it a “black hole” in the middle of Europe after its domineering prime minister, Mr. Meciar, turned his back on the European Union and NATO.
It made E.U. membership an overriding goal and reached out to investors. Car companies, including Volkswagen, Kia and PSA Peugeot Citroën built sprawling factories, earning Slovakia the reputation as the Detroit of Eastern Europe.
Yet Slovakia’s economic progress has not allowed it fully to shed its rivalry with the Czechs, who typically look west to Germany as a model and seek to distance themselves from Eastern Europe — and by association Slovakia.
Milan Nic, a former Slovak diplomat, said the Slovaks, who had been part of the Hungarian Kingdom, were more like their Hungarian neighbors, whom he described as Roman Catholic, engineered for fun, and romantic.
The Czechs, he said, had lived under Austrian rule and were rational, good administrators and fond of being cynical.
Martin M. Simecka, a leading Slovak intellectual and writer who was editor of SME, Slovakia’s most respected daily newspaper, as well as Respekt, the Czech Republic’s leading political magazine, has spent much of his life working and living between Prague and Bratislava. His Czech-born father, Milan, was a leading Slovak dissident who was imprisoned in Prague under communism and became a key adviser to Mr. Havel before dying suddenly in 1990, a death that removed a crucial bridge between Prague and Bratislava.
The younger Mr. Simecka noted that while the two countries were inextricably linked, sharing a common history and similar but distinct languages, Slovakia all but disappeared when he crossed the border into the culturally assertive Czech Republic.
On the other side of the border, he said, Slovak language and culture were ignored, along with his country’s euros.
Bookshops in Bratislava are dominated by Czech literature, Czech films are shown on Slovak television and the foreign pages of Slovak newspapers brim with news from Prague, Mr. Simecka said, but finding a Slovak language book in a Czech bookstore was nearly impossible, while the Czech media generally accorded Slovakia the same attention as Luxembourg.
The main Czech concession to Slovakia, he mused, was to listen to Slovak pop music.
“Czechs care about themselves and are inward-looking,” he said. “Because Slovakia is so small, most Slovaks look abroad out of necessity.”
Maris Chemelik, 23, a Slovak student studying anthropology in Plsen, Czech Republic, said he had adopted a seamless Czech accent to avoid being recognized as Slovak. “I don’t feel at home in the Czech Republic,” he said. “We were the same country, and I should feel it is my home, but I don’t, because the Czechs never cease to remind me that it is not.”