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Swedes thrive in Slovak marketplace

Given the significant number of Swedish business ventures in Slovakia - represented by such major names as Volvo, IKEA, Swedwood and Ericsson - it's somewhat of an anomaly that individual Swedish expats themselves remain inconspicuous within Slovak society.
According to the Swedish Trade Council, only 30 Swedes are registered as residing in Slovakia. But although the Swedish community may be relatively small, it remains a cohesive unit, and for the handful of Swedes that call Slovakia home - as well as the businesses who operate here - a general sense of friendliness with Slovaks defines the experience.
"There is a certain chemistry between Swedish and Slovak people that is very apparent," said Honorary Council General for Sweden and director of the Swedish Trade Council Rubean Kemeny. "It's difficult to explain, but it's there. Swedes and Slovaks just seem to get along."


The bi-monthly gathering of the Swedish community in Slovakia allows the 30 or so expats to get back to their roots.
photo: Courtesy the Swedish Trade Council

Given the significant number of Swedish business ventures in Slovakia - represented by such major names as Volvo, IKEA, Swedwood and Ericsson - it's somewhat of an anomaly that individual Swedish expats themselves remain inconspicuous within Slovak society.

According to the Swedish Trade Council, only 30 Swedes are registered as residing in Slovakia. But although the Swedish community may be relatively small, it remains a cohesive unit, and for the handful of Swedes that call Slovakia home - as well as the businesses who operate here - a general sense of friendliness with Slovaks defines the experience.

"There is a certain chemistry between Swedish and Slovak people that is very apparent," said Honorary Council General for Sweden and director of the Swedish Trade Council Rubean Kemeny. "It's difficult to explain, but it's there. Swedes and Slovaks just seem to get along."

Business directors agreed. One of the largest Swedish players in the Slovak market is telecom giant Ericsson, which directly employs about 100 people in the country. Like other international companies in this country, Ericsson looked to Slovakia as a place to invest due to its central location, solid work force, cheap labour costs and anticipation of future EU membership.

But according to Ericsson Slovakia President Roger Hellqvist, his firm found even more than justthe aforementioned and expected perks of launching operations in Slovakia. Dubbing his overall business experience in Slovakia as positive, Hellqvist said that the culture shock of living in a foreign country had not been a problem for him and his Swedish colleagues.

"In general, Swedish people are used to living abroad and therefore may be able to more easily adapt to the local environment and bring a positive spirit to our daily contacts," he said. "Slovakia is an open-minded society where we like to live and operate."

Kemeny, meanwhile, theorised that he and his compatriots had managed to assimilate into the country easily because Slovaks and Swedes enjoy a special kinship which results in mutual goodwill. The result, he said, was a relationship exceeding the boundaries of mere profits and growth.

This chemistry has also been identified outside the business sector. Anna Karlsson, a teacher of Swedish language and literature at Comenius University, said that the inherent friendliness between the two countries was perhaps based on the fact that both Slovakia and Sweden have socialist roots, albeit Slovakia's was more totalitarian while Sweden's was based on democracy. Regardless, she said, many Slovaks viewed Sweden as an example of how things should be done, which has translated into amicability on a personal level.

"The best part about living here is the experience and the people that I've come to know, and to be in a very intriguing part of Europe," Karlsson said of her 10 months in the country. "I've learned a lot and met some great people, and I think that's the best thing."

Karlsson added that the popularity of her home country was reflected in the interest shown in her lectures - she teaches evening courses three to four times a week (sometimes to students from as far away as Nitra) in addition to her full-time schedule at the university.

The geniality between Swedes and Slovaks has allowed the visiting Swedes to avoid some of the issues that other minority groups often face while living in Slovakia, such as racial discrimination. Instead, Jeanette Sonnergren, marketing assistant for the Swedish Trade Council, said that adjusting to life in Slovakia was simply a matter of becoming accustomed to a different style of living in a still-developing country.

"I think that one of the main issues Swedes face in Slovakia is the small cultural differences," she said. "There aren't any major problems and it's not difficult to live here, but there are little differences and you have to be aware of them, both in private life and in work."

Given all the Swedish businesses - approximately 40 Swedish branch operations currently exist in Slovakia - and the affection between the cultures, the question remains as to why so few Swedish people choose to live for an extended period in Slovakia.

Kemeny explained that the Scandinavian business culture was largely responsible for the low number of Swedes living in Slovakia: "Swedish companies are very quick to bring in local management. This is the Swedish way of doing business - start an operation and then quickly turn it over to the locals."

Outside the business sector, Karlsson said that the relative obscurity of Slovakia also played a part in keeping the Swede expat community small. "First of all, I don't think Swedish people really know a whole lot about Slovakia, and often I have to explain that it used to be a part Czechoslovakia. Because not many people know about Slovakia, that keeps them from coming here."

But for the 30 or so Swedes who do call Slovakia home, a sense of community remains. At the Swedish Trade Council, Sonnergren organises a dinner every second month, where the Swedish contingent gathers to meet over traditional Swedish soup and pancakes. Sonnergren said that the gatherings were quite popular and provided an excellent opportunity for guests to get re-acquainted with their countrymen.

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