Goodbye to Eastern European melancholy?

WHAT is the source of Eastern European melancholy? Is it the constant pressure on Eastern Europeans to reconfigure their national identities every time real or imaginary boundaries change, regimes fall, or governments come and go?

WHAT is the source of Eastern European melancholy? Is it the constant pressure on Eastern Europeans to reconfigure their national identities every time real or imaginary boundaries change, regimes fall, or governments come and go?

Will this melancholy still resonate in future generations? Will the children who are being born now understand this sentiment once they grow up in a united Europe? Will there be any need to understand?

Slovakia celebrated the second year of its European Union membership on May 1, 2006. It showed neither signs of melancholy nor much excitement, which might be an indication that the Slovaks understand their membership in the EU as a "solved" issue that no longer requires any strong involvement from them.

With each year added to Slovakia's record as EU member, the "celebration" of entering the EU will lose appeal, apart from becoming a chance for the political representation to dust off their past merits. Besides, post-communist nations are rather cautious with festivities and "celebrations" because they remember the times when flags and flowers, happy faces, and pompous slogans were an order given by the only party.

Perhaps a decade of EU membership will give enough reason to contemplate and measure the pros and cons of membership and also will give a better perspective on what has been achieved and what has been lost.

Apart from the lack of jolly masses taking the streets on EU entry-day, Slovaks are indeed happy with becoming Europeans.

A recent Eurostat survey showed that Slovaks are indeed the most satisfied with their membership in the European Union among the new EU members with 54 percent saying that the membership is a "good thing."

Sociologist Pavol Haulík, however, told The Slovak Spectator that the attitude of the Slovaks might not be based on the fact that they gained more from membership than their neighbours did. He suggests that perhaps it is because they are less aware of the restrictions or the problems connected with the membership.

The two demons that the Slovaks feared the most, unemployment and massive price increases, have not wreaked havoc.

Mikuláš Dzurinda's government thinks that Slovaks have a good reason to feel satisfied with their membership because the country's economy has been doing well, lifting Slovakia onto the list of the GDP champions of the region.

Unfortunately, the further one travels eastwards from Bratislava less people might genuinely trust the government's numbers on their rising living standard.

It would be unfair to the Dzurinda administration to say that it has done nothing to bridge the gap separating the western parts of Slovakia from the underfed East. However, that gap makes Slovakia seem as if it has pushed its head through the EU window while its belly and feet remain outside of the European house.

The government produced new rules for providing state stimuli to foreign investors in a way that should inspire investments into regions with high unemployment. However, it will take time until people start feeling the actual impact and gain that EU feeling, which is still more associated in Slovakia with a wealthier life rather than gaining a new identity.

According to Haulík, EU membership interested Slovaks while they were outside the union and while they felt they had to jump on the train.

"The reason was that the Slovak citizen compared the situation of Slovakia with its neighbours and perceived the country's fallback in the accession talks as an unjust handicap. After Slovakia caught up, the interest in the EU dropped in Slovakia," says Haulík.

It is hard to say whether Slovaks would actually show more interest in the union were there some threat of it being dismantled.

However, getting the desired gift and not knowing what to do with it and how to actually use it is not a Slovak specialty, and large groups of people are caught in this dilemma all around Europe.

Well, some obviously have figured it out because, based on the official estimates of the government, 170,000 Slovak citizens currently work in the entire European Union with less than 71,000 working in non-Eastern European EU countries.

While some estimates say that 400,000 Slovaks actually work in EU countries, Slovak Labour Minister Iveta Radičová calls this a myth.

Understandably, concerns over companies moving further east after exhausting the local potential and fears of losing jobs are probably the strongest EU feeling in the west. In contrast, hope for more investments and new jobs is getting stronger as one is moving eastwards.

Slovak officials proudly reported to the press that Slovakia handled the integration exemplarily.

"Administrative barriers have been removed, the level of economic freedom has increased and the country has become more secure for its citizens as well as investors," said Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration Pál Csáky.

Now Slovaks must learn how to use this space and freedom because as long as they do not, they will not know whether it is for real or it is only one of those May Day slogans about the "proletariat of the world" uniting.

Beata Balogová

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