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Can Slovaks learn to love liberalism?

WHENEVER Slovaks ask Canadians about their traditions, they tend to be baffled by the answer: There aren't any.
Sure, we have hockey and polar bears, but those aren't the same as Slovakia's bryndza and Juraj Jánošík. We have no national folk dress, unless you count jeans, hockey sweaters and baseball caps.

WHENEVER Slovaks ask Canadians about their traditions, they tend to be baffled by the answer: There aren't any.

Sure, we have hockey and polar bears, but those aren't the same as Slovakia's bryndza and Juraj Jánošík. We have no national folk dress, unless you count jeans, hockey sweaters and baseball caps. We have no folk songs, no national dishes, no distinct national language, and no shared ethnic history going back a thousand years.

But while Canadians may not form an ethnic nation in the way that Slovaks do, they have a strong sense of the values their country is based on, such as tolerance, justice and peace. These are not just empty words but are backed up by action, such as in the country's tough gun control laws, the return of huge tracts of land to native peoples, and the global role the Canadian police play in fighting internet child pornography. Without its values, Canada would be merely a set of borders protecting centuries of accumulated wealth and privilege.

For Canadians, Slovakia's national traditions make it an exotic place to live, while its ethnic roots provide an exciting sense of unity that is somewhat lacking in Ottawa. But there's also a flip side: It's unclear, at least to the untutored eye, what values Slovaks really share.

Take tolerance, for example, or the idea that everyone is equal. Equality is enshrined in the constitution, but is it as strongly anchored in people's hearts? Would the murder of Karol Sendrei in a police station seven years ago have caused greater public outrage if he wasn't Roma? And would the beating of Hedviga Malinová last year have been more fairly investigated if she hadn't been Hungarian?

Or take the rule of law. Most people condemn the farcical corruption that accompanied privatisation and that still dogs public procurement. At the same time, many are willing to offer a small bribe if it helps them beat a traffic ticket or get better medical attention.

Even the unwritten laws that rule everyday life, such as waiting in line for your turn to be served, are ignored by people who know or are related to the person doing the serving.

Eighteen years ago, when Slovaks embraced democracy after decades of totalitarian rule, few understood that without broad public support for liberal values like equality and the rule of law, democracy could exist in name only. It has seemed at times since then that liberal doctrines were making headway, such as during the eight years after the September 1998 elections.

But too often, society has reverted to a surly nationalism dished up by autocrats like Vladimír Mečiar and populists like Robert Fico. The public unity it has provided has meant strong election results for illiberal politicians, but it has also hindered the country's evolution towards a mature democracy.

Still, it has been shown that countries with democratic institutions are ultimately more likely to acquire liberal values than those that don't. And when you think about it, Slovaks will probably agree on liberal values long before Canadians learn some national pride. Because values, like the democracy they support, are things we can all acquire and share, while Slovakia's history belongs to the Slovak nation alone.

Slovaks will always have their Janošík - and their November '89 - while Canadians will always be stuck with their polar bears.


Commentary by Tom Nicholson, Sme daily

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