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GUEST COLUMN

Two types of Slovaks divide country

There is no doubt that the present-day political and social situation in this country is a source of deep frustration and pessimism as Slovakia slides into ever-increasing internal conflict. What is causing this?
The opposition believes that it is a struggle between a better educated, pro-Western, more open and democratic part of society and a less educated, more nationalistic, xenophobic and backward element. However, supporters of the ruling coalition believe that they represent a positive force which stands for Slovakia's interests, and which bravely and quite successfully have protected the country from a number of enemies both at home and abroad.
At the beginning of the century Central Slovakia was the only ethnically homogeneous area in Slovakia, contrasting with the fringes of the country which had relatively mixed populations. This began to change after 1918, when the Central Slovak dialect was gradually introduced as the standard language. Today, virtually everybody in the country can speak the standard language.

There is no doubt that the present-day political and social situation in this country is a source of deep frustration and pessimism as Slovakia slides into ever-increasing internal conflict. What is causing this?

The opposition believes that it is a struggle between a better educated, pro-Western, more open and democratic part of society and a less educated, more nationalistic, xenophobic and backward element. However, supporters of the ruling coalition believe that they represent a positive force which stands for Slovakia's interests, and which bravely and quite successfully have protected the country from a number of enemies both at home and abroad.

At the beginning of the century Central Slovakia was the only ethnically homogeneous area in Slovakia, contrasting with the fringes of the country which had relatively mixed populations. This began to change after 1918, when the Central Slovak dialect was gradually introduced as the standard language. Today, virtually everybody in the country can speak the standard language. The current situation seems rooted in regional Slovak history.

It is surprising, considering how dramatically Slovakia's ethnic, linguistic and cultural maps have changed during this century, how little attention is paid to this effect. The process through which this nation has evolved has resulted in two classes of Slovaks, "primary Slovaks" and "secondary Slovaks." "Primaries" can be characterized as those living or coming from Central Slovakia, whose language was selected as the standard one, who see themselves as the "backbone" of the nation and whose cultural and historical traditions have so far dominated history books written here about Slovakia. "Secondary Slovaks", on the other hand, live or come mostly from the fringes of the country and have, in fact, become Slovaks only in the past seventy years, first formally and then by their adoption of the standard language.

My first visit to Central Slovakia was in 1978. One evening, sitting in a village pub near Martin, I suddenly noticed that everyone around, even those in the latter stages of drunkenness, were speaking - surprise, surprise - absolutely first class Slovak! For an Eastern Slovak, who thought that only dialect was spoken in pubs, that was something new and funny.

During the 1980s, as a glider pilot, I had plenty of opportunities to visit Central and Western Slovakia more frequently. Once, when I landed in Nitra and said where I was from, somebody commented, "Ah, so you've come from East Asia!" At first I did not understand what he meant but later I started to feel that in many ways my perception of Slovakia was quite different from that of Nitra people. I was not Slovak enough, it seemed, and indeed, in the eyes of these people, Slovakia ended somewhere near Poprad. What a surprising and new geographical fact this was.

These two experiences reveal some fundamental differences between Slovaks. A brief analysis of our top politicians' backgrounds, the conflict between our President (a "secondary Slovak") and the Prime Minister (a "primary Slovak") and a glance at the map of voting preferences reveal the divide. It seems that the ruling coalition more or less represents the typical attitudes and aspirations of "primary Slovaks" while the opposition largely represents the views and feelings of "secondary Slovaks".

The ruling and mostly "primary" coalition appears to believe that they are an integral part of the nation with the right and obligation to enforce their will on the "conquered" fringe areas and eliminate the influence of those they call "non-Slovaks" (which does not always only mean Slovakia's ethnic Hungarians, incidentally, but often also "secondary Slovaks").

Feeling that it is under siege by the outside world, the ruling coalition is now resorting to increasingly undemocratic tactics, pushing Slovakia into a situation which may be described as a Cold Civil War. In contrast, the opposition - dominated by "secondary Slovaks", together with other ethnic minorities and a relatively small following of "primary Slovaks" - is trying to realize a different vision of the country, one based on principles of citizenship which would provide for much more inter-ethnic tolerance. This is clearly dictated by their own origins, instincts and experiences.

It will be very difficult to achieve any compromise and thus peace and prosperity in this country in the future, irrespective of who wins the election, without a serious debate about how Slovakia has evolved over the last hundred years and what this means for us today.


Viliam Schichman is the director of English Services teaching, translation and interpreting company in Prešov.

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