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SLOVAK WORD OF THE WEEK

Jánošík

WHAT do foreigners imagine when they hear the word “Slovakia”? Most of them, nothing. The somewhat better-informed, a vampire-laden frozen tundra without flushing toilets somewhere in war-torn Yugoslavia. And hockey fans, that part of the former Czechoslovakia which now has the worse team.

WHAT do foreigners imagine when they hear the word “Slovakia”? Most of them, nothing. The somewhat better-informed, a vampire-laden frozen tundra without flushing toilets somewhere in war-torn Yugoslavia. And hockey fans, that part of the former Czechoslovakia which now has the worse team.

Even thief-captain Juraj Jánošík, the country’s main folk hero, gets zero name recognition outside the central European region. And it seems unlikely the new film by Agnieszka Holland, the sixth cinematographic take on Jánošík’s tale, which premiered a few days ago, will stir much interest abroad and change his international standing.

The highwayman may be unknown, but his legacy of “taking from the rich and giving to the poor” lives on, as the British bank Barclays learned last week. The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that dozens of Slovaks were arrested in France after taking advantage of a bug in the bank’s computer system which allowed them to withdraw unlimited amounts of cash. In its article, the newspaper didn’t forget to mention that “Slovakian [sic] gangsters have traditionally been at the forefront of the ATM scam technology” and that “Slovakia has a notorious mafia, with members frequently implicated in organized crime scams across the world”. It is comforting to know that Slovaks have finally achieved celebrity status, at least in the criminal world. Jánošík would have been proud.

True, the tradition of robbing has been carefully nourished throughout the years – under communism, when collective ownership meant that nothing really belonged to anyone, the national credo was: “he who does not steal, is robbing his family”. The country proved the lesson had been learned in the 1990s, when “privatisation” of state assets turned into outright looting. Even today, bribery and theft in political office remain part of local folklore. However, few ever thought that the Slovaks’ lust for other people’s money would become part of the country’s international brand.

Even without the Barclays incident its reputation has suffered some serious blows lately – the language law prompted The Economist weekly to run a piece with a Slovak title: Hovorte po slovensky! (Speak Slovak!), the government’s decision to declare Hungary’s President Sólyom persona non grata raised concerns in several countries. And not to mention that when The New York Times wrote a longer piece on Slovakia a few months back, they used a photo of a tired-looking donkey pulling a cart to illustrate it.

A country of backwardly xenophobic thieves: that’s the impression one would have of Slovakia judging by the news it’s been making lately. Getting rid of the image may prove even more difficult than catching Jánošík.


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