Home is where the money is

SOCIOLOGISTS recently started discussing an interesting but common phenomenon: the rest of Slovakia is envious of Bratislava's success and considers the capital more privileged than other parts of the country.

SOCIOLOGISTS recently started discussing an interesting but common phenomenon: the rest of Slovakia is envious of Bratislava's success and considers the capital more privileged than other parts of the country.

The envy that Slovaks have towards Bratislava does not come as a surprise if one looks at the statistics.

Based on a Eurostat survey, Eastern Slovakia is among the ten poorest regions of the European Union. Meanwhile, Bratislava has reached 120 percent of the European Union average for gross domestic product per capita.

Sociologists say that the concentration of money, power and state institutions make Bratislava a thorn in the side of the country's poorer regions.

Although purchasing power in general is rising in Slovakia, regional disparities are growing. The country's wealthiest area in terms of purchasing power is Bratislava, followed by Považie and Košice.

Purchasing power is the lowest in the Orava region, which is in Southern Central Slovakia, and in remote districts in the east of the country.

Regional enmity towards Bratislava is not a new thing, sociologists say, suggesting that these emotions will ease only once regional differences shrink.

When the Slovak population living outside Bratislava compare the capital with the less developed parts of the country, they tend to see not the heart of the country but a cancerous tumour that strips away the nutrition and life flowing into the country.

Besides, Bratislavans have a habit of taking a belittling attitude toward outsiders living beyond the city's borders.

Negative emotions resulting from internal regional disparities are not something specific to Slovakia, nor are they reserved only for those countries of the former Communist block. Still, Communism's contribution to Central and Eastern Europe does not help the situation in Slovakia.

Part of the problem with regional disparities in Slovakia is the legacy of Communist-era industrialization. The collapse of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (a Soviet bi-lateral trading system between Russia and countries under Communist dominion) robbed Central and Eastern European industries of an international market.

That this was a major blow to a small country like Slovakia, particularly in those regions where industry is heavily concentrated, is an understatement.

A cure is evident, however, at least according to experts: Put more investment into infrastructure to make eastern parts of the country easily accessible to external markets, thus encouraging companies to invest in the area's human capital and cheap labour.

The disadvantages of the East are not solely the geographical distance it poses to Western investors. It is also the lower education level and the lack of skills that typically sell on the labour market.

Students from all over Slovakia study in Bratislava, but they do not go home when they graduate. Instead, they decide to stay where the labour opportunities are: in Western Slovakia.

Regional representatives and non-governmental organizations have been critical of Slovakia's development plans for the years 2007 through 2013. They say it does not put stress on the importance of developing regions where social problems are greatest.

Experts argue that once foreigners show interest in other regions of the country, the living standards will rise and the population will naturally develop a more balanced attitude towards the capital city.

Interestingly, former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar tried several times to move important state institutions to Banska Bystrica between 1994 and 1998 in an effort to weaken Bratislava's stranglehold on politics. However, his intentions were not necessarily altruistic. Bratislava's electorate predominantly opposed the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, Mečiar party. His support came strongest from Banská Bystrica.

Many say that pride in the capital city is still missing.

But Bratislava has tried to re-brand itself as a tourist-friendly destination; eager to show its soul, which has been long oppressed by the socialist architecture that partially deformed the city's physique.

Indeed Bratislava has been working hard to deserve the name "capital".

Meanwhile, there have been certain political efforts to turn Bratislava's administration into that of a city-region.

The city-region concept is a very old phenomenon not limited to Slovakia. Currently there are several hundred city-regions around the world with populations exceeding one million. At least 20 city-regions have populations in excess of 10 million.

These city-regions range from metropolitan agglomerations built around a developed hub such as London or Mexico City, to more polycentric geographic units forming urban networks - Sao Paulo or Ankara, for example.

City-regions tend to expand and develop faster than other regions; thus they best describe the modern concept of "global cities".

The contributions of city-regions, which are symbols of modern life, should not be underestimated; they often function as vital nodes of the global economy and attract the attention of regional policy makers.

However, without balanced strategies, city-regions can become sources of instability, deepening the gap between different parts of the same country.

By Beata Balogová

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