"WHERE do you come from?"
This simple question has always had immense power to evoke a certain feeling in people who come from the former Soviet bloc, a feeling that may never be experienced by people born in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom or even China, India or Japan.
Over the past decade, people from Slovenia, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Lithuania or Estonia, instead of just saying the name of their homeland, have often begun to answer this question by giving a wider geographical definition of the place in question. They may also have introduced the name of a famous hockey player or a notorious autocratic ruler to help "the identification process".
It's not that these people were ashamed of their origins, because these small and young states often have deeper historical roots than New Jersey or Ontario. It was simply the natural frustration of countries that have been on the world map for ages, invisibly trying to survive under the hammer and sickle.
Certainly, the situation has dramatically changed since the 1990s, when academics, students, teachers and journalists had to answer the "where are you from" question with various explanatory notes and justifications.
Despite their relative obscurity, many of these countries have achieved impressive economic and reform results. Slovakia, for example, had the fastest growing economy in the European Union in the fourth quarter of 2005.
But this change can also be attributed to the fact that Slovakia is now part of the European Union, and that Slovaks are proud of their EU membership, at least in their responses to a recent Eurobarometer poll.
Although the poll was carried out between October 10 and November 5, in the aftermath of the negative referenda on the European Constitution in France and the Netherlands and difficult discussions on the EU budget, Slovaks said they trusted EU institutions and were hopeful about the union in general.
In the poll, 53 percent of Slovak respondents said the EU evoked a feeling of hope in them, while 26 percent picked the word "trust" in relation to the EU.
Sociologist Zuzana Kusá told the SME daily that the European Union is a "distant positive hero" for many Slovaks, partly as a result of years of political unanimity on the desirability of entering the union.
Small nations, too, often have their Timbuktu myths about distant lands. After the Velvet Revolution, many Slovaks became unduly critical of the United States, precisely because of the unrealistic expectations and images they had formed of the country.
Prior to Slovakia's entering the EU, analysts warned that failed unrealistic hopes might seriously affect the population's perception of the Union.
However, the recent poll showed that this "EU feeling" is truly strong in Slovaks. They were not put off, for example, by the "welcome" that some Western tabloid press prepared for the newcomers, playing on the frustrations of their jobless readers and warning that cheap Eastern European labour would flood their markets.
The survey also showed that fear of unemployment dominates concerns in most EU members, both old and new, although to a lesser extent than in 2003.
Politicians can hardly overlook this finding when reviewing their labour market policies in May 2006, when the older EU members are expected to say whether they will line up with Sweden, Ireland and Great Britain, countries that opened their labour markets immediately after EU enlargement.
Advocates of the free movement of labour say there is no real reason for the old members to keep their markets locked, since the inflow of labour from new EU members is limited and does not present a serious threat to the EU labour market.
According to Slovak officials, workers from the new EU countries play only a complementary role, and only occupy jobs that have been vacant for a long time.
Certainly, for many Slovaks, the free movement of labour is more a psychological aid that makes them feel like an equal member of the EU than something that could dramatically change their lives. Human resources experts keep emphasizing that it is unlikely that Slovaks will migrate en masse to western countries.
However, it is also clear that Slovakia must find a cure for its high unemployment rate to disperse fears that the country would reduce it by helping its jobless find work somewhere else in the EU. Slovakia has yet to make convincing efforts in this area.
Post-communist countries have not fully healed the scars left by the previous regime, and nor have they fully broken out of their isolation from the rest of the developed world. But sociologists agree that Slovaks now have a much healthier perception of themselves in the world, and the success that the nation has achieved, both economically, democratically, and in sports has helped increase their confidence.
The Eurobarometer survey also showed that Slovaks, in their identification with the EU, do not tend to renounce their own identities, which is probably one of the most positive messages for a country whose citizens have historically found it difficult to explain to foreigners where they come from.
By Beata Balogová
20. Feb 2006 at 0:00