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Austrian expats wince at Slovak image

Nuclear power stations, gypsies and crime - this trio of sensational news topics shapes the average impression Austrian citizens have of life east of Vienna. For those Austrians who live and work in the 'uncharted territory' beyond the Slovak border, however, the stereotype is as painful as it is wrong.
"Everyone who lives here regrets that other Austrians don't know anything about the country," said Walter Persché, the cultural attaché at the Austrian Embassy in Bratislava. "Some Austrians don't even know that Slovakia is an independent state, and confuse Slovaks with Czechs."
"Fear of the east remains in Austria," agreed Michaela Burgstaller, a teacher at the Austrian Institute in the Slovak capital.


Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel (right), who visited Bratislava October 10, also had nuclear stations on his mind.
photo: TASR

Nuclear power stations, gypsies and crime - this trio of sensational news topics shapes the average impression Austrian citizens have of life east of Vienna. For those Austrians who live and work in the 'uncharted territory' beyond the Slovak border, however, the stereotype is as painful as it is wrong.

"Everyone who lives here regrets that other Austrians don't know anything about the country," said Walter Persché, the cultural attaché at the Austrian Embassy in Bratislava. "Some Austrians don't even know that Slovakia is an independent state, and confuse Slovaks with Czechs."

"Fear of the east remains in Austria," agreed Michaela Burgstaller, a teacher at the Austrian Institute in the Slovak capital. "People go cross-border shopping to the Czech Republic, know everything there is to know about Italy, but know virtually nothing about Slovakia. TV shows only the negative side, like Mochovce [a nuclear power station in central Slovakia which has been heavily criticised by anti-nuclear Austria - ed. note] and gypsies and so on."

For all the ignorance that remains of their eastern neighbour, however, Austrians have been among the heaviest investors in Slovakia since the latter's independence in 1993, holding second position from 1993 to mid-2000 with 19.8 billion Slovak crowns invested (20.3% of total FDI, second only to Germany).

And while the Austrian community here has been mainly an itinerant one, with teachers and business people returning to nearby Vienna by night or by weekend, the number of long-term Austrian residents of Slovakia has grown, according to embassy estimates, to around 40 - enough to warrant an October 10 gathering at Bratislava's Leberfinger Restaurant, at which some members of the tiny community met for the first time.

"Austrians don't tend to support each other in Slovakia, partly because we live so close to Vienna," said Peter Feith, managing partner of the Slovak branch of tax and business advisory firm Ernst & Young. "We're not as close as the French or Dutch, for example. There are four Austrian banks in Slovakia, and not one of them is my client."

Another reason the Austrian community in Slovakia might not be so tight, Feith speculated, was that Austrians tended to assimilate relatively easily into Slovak society, for reasons both cultural and historical.

"I feel particularly comfortable here with the warm way people behave, perhaps even more so than in Austria," said Feith, who has been here five years and recently became an accredited Slovak auditor after sitting an eight hour exam in Slovak.

"My theory about why Austrians assimilate well here is that it has something to do with the importance rivers have had as connections in history, and the fact we are linked by the Morava River. When you think about it, Slovaks, Moravians and Austrians get along very well, while Germans and Czechs, who are linked by their own river [the Vltava, which flows through Prague - ed. note], are rather different."

History has also played a role in shaping Austria's investment presence in Slovakia, according to community members. Apart from the financial sector, which has attracted major Austrian investment through the likes of Tatra Banka, Ľudová banka and Bank Austria Creditanstalt (BA/CA), the real estate, food and beverage and small and medium enterprise sectors have proven the most attractive for Austrian FDI and its niche-seeking businessmen.

The logic behind this pattern, according to Feith, lay in the fact that Slovakia had once been a province of the old Austro-Hungarian empire. Even today, he said, some Austrians regarded Slovakia as their own backyard, and simply felt more comfortable diving into real estate or a small business venture than they would somewhere like Ukraine or Russia.

A similar explanation was given by Regina Ovesny-Straka, chairman of BA/CA, who said the fact that Slovakia was a neighbouring country had been a key factor in making Austria the largest foreign investor in the Slovak bank sector. "From the cultural point of view, we were one country many years ago, so we tend to understand each other better," she said.

"This has its negative side as well," said cultural attaché Persché, laughing as he explained: "There is a certain bureaucratic complexity in Slovakia that was perhaps learned during the old Austrian empire and then perfected under communism. Whatever the case, we Austrians understand these kinds of difficulties."

"I'm not sure how much history has to do with it, but Austrians certainly feel more comfortable here than perhaps people coming from other countries," agreed embassy first secretary Johannes Eigner.

Gunther Maderna is one Austrian small investor who rates the 'comfort level' with his new environment as one of his main reasons for remaining in Slovakia. Owner of the bakery products firm Viedenská pekáreň, situated in western Slovakia's Modra, Maderna has invested 40 million Slovak crowns ($800,000) in this country since arriving in 1990.

"I knew the region so well I saw the decision to invest as almost a duty," he said. "The fact that we have a common tradition, common customs was also an important part of my decision."

But like many of his compatriots, Maderna lives only part of the week in Slovakia, and normally spends his weekends in Vienna. He says he doesn't often meet other Austrians here, and didn't attend the Leberfinger gathering because he was ill.

"There are some Austrians who are really interested in what is going on in Slovakia, who identify with the Slavic world and with the Slavic soul," said first secretary Eigner. "As for the rest of the country [Austria], I would say there is a certain level of disinterest. It's as if we feel proximity to a neighbour we don't know too well."

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