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Romanian expats finally returning to native Slovak soil

Slovakia and Romania have several things in common: both countries are experiencing post-communist economic and political growing pains, both voted out populists in favour of Western-oriented coalitions (Romania in 1996, Slovakia in 1998), and both have a history of being under the thumb of one foreign dynasty after another.
"Our nations had the same goal [for many years]," said Romanian President Emil Constantinescu in an address in Bratislava on June 6. "Each of us wanted to claim our identities from a state occupied by Hungarians."
Years of subjugation under the Austro-Hungarain Empire have given the nations a symbolic bond, while a policy of one of its monarchs, Maria Theresa, established a direct link: nearly 200 years ago the Austrian queen promised Slovaks arable land, religious freedom and a five-year tax holiday in the western corner of Romania. Tens of thousands took advantage of the opportunity.

Slovakia and Romania have several things in common: both countries are experiencing post-communist economic and political growing pains, both voted out populists in favour of Western-oriented coalitions (Romania in 1996, Slovakia in 1998), and both have a history of being under the thumb of one foreign dynasty after another.

"Our nations had the same goal [for many years]," said Romanian President Emil Constantinescu in an address in Bratislava on June 6. "Each of us wanted to claim our identities from a state occupied by Hungarians."

Years of subjugation under the Austro-Hungarain Empire have given the nations a symbolic bond, while a policy of one of its monarchs, Maria Theresa, established a direct link: nearly 200 years ago the Austrian queen promised Slovaks arable land, religious freedom and a five-year tax holiday in the western corner of Romania. Tens of thousands took advantage of the opportunity.

Since 1990, when communism fell in Romania a year after doing so in Slovakia, descendants of the original Slovak settlers began returning home. Today, they account for the overwhelming majority of Romanian expats in Slovakia.

"There are about 15,000 Romanians currently living in Slovakia, about 90% of whom are Romanian Slovaks," said Marius Savuica, second secretary at the Romanian Embassy in Bratislava. "The remaining 10% come for many reasons, the most common of which is marriage."

Ethnic Slovaks in Romania - today estimated at between 20,000 and 25,000 - live in two small regions on the western and north-western borders. Slovak language and customs have survived intact through the centuries thanks in large part to Romanian tolerance. Ethnic Slovaks have traditionally run their own schools with curricula in the Slovak language.

After the 1989 Velvet Revolution, the Slovak Ministry of Education offered Romanians the opportunity to study in Slovakia. Jarom'r Novák, a 31 year-old journalist for the Slovak daily paper Hospodársky denn'k, was one of the first Romanian-Slovak students to matriculate.

"While I studied in Bratislava I began working for several newspapers. Eventually I met my girlfriend and settled in," said Novák, who has been in Slovakia for 10 years. "Since I knew the language, it was not hard for me to get adjusted. I think now I have two homes."

Novák, who helps compile a list of Romanian Slovaks living in Slovakia, says that while many have come to study, even more arrive to work, especially Slovaks from the town of Blhor, one of Romania's poorest and least developed regions. "It is interesting that Slovaks originally emigrated to Romania for bread, and now they are returning to Slovakia for the same thing."

According to Novák, getting a green card for Romanian Slovaks is not difficult: the only requirements are a birth certificate proving Slovak ethnicity, a diploma from a Slovak school in Romania, and a clean criminal record. The larger problem, he says, comes later. For those who want to stay permanently, Slovakia doesn't permit dual citizenship with Romania. "I would like to become a Slovak citizen but I don't want to give up my Romanian citizenship to do so."

"As you can see, this is another example of how Romania is more democratically advanced than Slovakia," said Savuica with a wry grin. Romania permits unlimited citizenship and has no restrictions with respect to country. Savuica says that while 15,000 Romanians live in Slovakia, because of this policy only 3,000 have retained their citizenship.

Bad rap

Fitting in is little problem for ethnic Slovaks, but other Romanians in Slovakia say they regularly face prejudice based on incorrect or exaggerated notions. Marius Dragomir, a 24 year-old Romanian student who studies at the Centre for Independent Journalism in Bratislava, says that he is regularly harassed without cause at borders.

"As a Romanian I have felt humiliated many times," Dragomir said. "In March I was travelling to Prague and the Czech border guard wanted to make sure I had enough money. After I showed her that I did, she said I needed to have an invitation from the police. I had to get off [the train]."

He continued: "Then, when I tried to go back to Bratislava I was detained by the Slovak police, who didn't want to let me in their country even though I explained I was a student there. I asked them, 'Does this mean I have to spend the rest of my life in Kúty [the Slovak border town], or will my embassy send a helicopter?'"

While the Romanian embassy said they were unaware of such problems, the Romanian community blames such harassment on what they say is the increasing number of Roma from Romania that stay illegally in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Government officials, for their part, said that Roma, as well as all Romanian citizens, are permitted to travel in Slovakia and the Czech Republic for up to 30 days.

Exaggerated notions of the different standards of living between Slovakia and Romania are another source of irritation for Romanians in Slovakia, who are often faced with what they feel are ridiculous questions about their country's level of development. Although most of them agree there are more opportunities here than at home, few view Slovakia as a comparative land of milk and honey.

"Romanians who are interested in immigrating for a better life are not interested in Slovakia, or in the former eastern bloc in general; they are interested in Italy, and France and the United States," said Savuica. "Slovakia and Romania are on the same path, it's just that Slovakia is a little ahead economically."

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