BY NEXT WEEK Slovakia's leaders will probably be rehearsing lists of reasons the country has to celebrate its 10-year anniversary.
Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda will produce some fine-sounding fluff about how Slovaks managed to separate from the Czechs without social strife, how they managed to dismiss the autocratic Mečiar government without irreparable damage, and how, after catching up with their neighbours, they now take their rightful place at the table of united Europe.
Former PM Vladimír Mečiar may croon a few verses from My Way, arguing that the world has learned to respect the Slovaks because of their rugged individualism (another way of describing his own government's more controversial decisions, such as that to scrap a referendum on Nato entry, one of its own foreign policy goals).
President Rudolf Schuster may appreciate the culture of tolerance that survives (the fact that, while communism is 13 years gone, many of his former communist friends still hold important posts, and he himself can get away with claiming to have always been deeply religious, as well as with suing journalists who remark on his vanity).
But the country's current and former leaders, spokesmen for their own reputations, cannot be trusted to give an accurate picture of Slovakia 10 years after independence.
For one thing, what has been achieved in the last decade has more to do with social mood than politics. Slovaks no longer fear waking up to find their leaders have committed a fresh outrage, and public pride in being Slovak has slowly but generally risen, aided by international triumphs such as the gold medal at this year's World Hockey Championships.
For another, success has to be measured not only in what has been achieved, but also in what has been saved from extinction. Despite a mid-1990s government that apparently had at least indirect links to organised crime and that carried out an intimidation campaign against its opponents; despite bare-faced theft of public property, and the wanton destruction of firms employing thousands; despite the arrogance and primitive behaviour of elected officials, a remarkable level of decency has been preserved in society.
Even what has been lost - innocence - has contributed to a stronger national identity, particularly as it has not yet widely given way to cynicism or nihilism. Evidence of this is that few people would now put Slovakia back together with the Czech Republic if they could, and that 70 per cent of people still turned out to vote in this year's general elections, despite claiming they had little faith in politics.
Given these subtly blossoming senses of nationhood, it is somehow cruel that Slovakia will be absorbed to the European Union in May 2004. The event will demand a new sense of national identity be hatched, one perhaps less reliant on comparison with neighbouring countries, which will themselves be joining the same club.
The next 10 years also bring challenges just as stern as those of the past decade. Among them is the danger of a deepening social divide between those who can find a place in the expanded EU (the educated, the young and the multilingual) and those who can't. Migration too may be a major issue, as the Slovak Roma population, so little integrated to this society, may be lured further West in the visa-free future, as may young Slovaks with neither families nor job prospects to keep them at home. The potential destruction of the agriculture sector and a serious price shock after EU entry are also issues that need to be handled carefully.
Many Slovaks may not see any reason to celebrate on December 31, feeling that too much potential has been wasted, too many betrayals experienced and forgotten, too little hope preserved. But these thoughts, while understandable, mustn't be indulged, lest they rob the nation of one of its greatest assets these 10 years past: courage in the face of the unknown, and resilience in the face of hardship.
23. Dec 2002 at 0:00