French philosopher Albert Camus described Sisyphus, condemned by the Gods to forever roll a stone up a mountain and then see it crash down again, as the absurd hero. "One sees the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing and the foot wedging the clay-covered mass." His depiction is so vivid that you would almost think Camus had some experience of applying for citizenship in Slovakia.
I moved to this country in September 1995, the same month the Mečiar government introduced a new residence application procedure for foreigners. It took four months, and included a full medical examination, complete with AIDS test and stool sample. And so it was that I found myself on a slow train from Žilina, where I was teaching, to a nondescript hospital building somewhere in Vrútky, along with my glass jar and its unusual cargo (in the end, after I found the bloody place, a swab proved sufficient).
Getting married in Slovakia proved to be a new shade of hell. Notarized copies of my birth certificate and other documents had to be sent from England, confirmed as valid by the British embassy, and super-confirmed by some obscure Slovak office. I had to declare that I was "fit to marry a citizen of the Czechoslovak socialist republic. The "socialist" was crossed out. I also had to declare I wasn't marrying for money (!) or to gain citizenship.
Ah, citizenship. I confess, I had thought about it as a matter of respect to my host country, and as a way of getting out of the annual Sk6,000 temporary residence fee, but I needed to live here five years as a permanent resident before I could apply for it. I also had a few doubts, mainly that I might find myself drafted and assigned to a tank on its way to "level Budapest" (this was 1999, a vintage year for rantings by nationalist leader Ján Slota).
I've now just about completed my five year stint, although it was interrupted by a misjudged move to Canada. This week, however, I found out that the government intends to raise the citizenship barrier this summer to eight years of uninterrupted permanent residency, along with a language test and more stringent "moral fitness" criteria.
Fine. Maybe, as Slota said in defending the change, Slovaks in 20 or 50 years will find themselves "running around with turbans on our heads" if the tide of foreigners applying for citizenship isn't brooked (or saying "eh" after every sentence if too many Canadians apply - "Slovensko pre Slovákov, eh?"). Maybe five years really isn't enough time to find out whether a foreigner is morally fit; I'm still waiting for my test. And maybe the line-up for Slovak citizenship is so long, and the prize itself so valuable, that we need to place it beyond reach of the ordinary mortal.
But it's far more likely that morally unfit people who urgently want citizenship will continue to find illegal ways to get it. Instead of erecting new barriers to honest people who want Slovak citizenship, the government should be trying to attract foreign workers to ease the skilled labour shortage in this country. It should also give Slovaks leaving for abroad - including attractive young women - as many reasons as possible to stay at home, such as making it easier for their foreign partners to remain here on an equal footing.
Sisyphus, were he applying for Slovak citizenship, might have the strength to chase his rock down to the valley for another three years. But for those of us who aren't absurd heroes, raising the citizenship bar seems like an unfriendly act for such a hospitable people.
By Tom Nicholson
12. Mar 2007 at 0:00