UNLIKE English, Slovak has different words for a cousin of the male or female gender – bratranec and sesternica. And there’s good reason too – the country is so small and intertwined and knowing people in the right places is so important that mastering a detailed vocabulary describing all the different shades of family relations is vital for personal success.
Although the wife of the fired director of the Slovak Land Fund (SPF), Miroslav Mihalík, is not Prime Minister Robert Fico’s sesternica, as the Sme daily initially claimed, they are relatives. Both refuse to specify the exact nature of their relationship, as do other family members, so it may take the media some time to find the precise link, but given the fact that Fico’s bratranec also works at the fund as a lawyer, it is hard not to see a certain pattern.
Fico has two reasons to be nervous about the news tying his family to the SPF – first, it is getting ever harder to believe that he did not know about what was going on at the fund, and second, it shows that he is not immune to nepotism. Fico has so far managed to convince voters he has nothing to do with the many corruption scandals of his administration, but in this case it may prove a little more difficult.
However, you can find interesting family ties wherever you look in Slovakia. The son of former prime minister and communist-era dissident Ján Čarnogurský is married to the daughter of a former agent of the communist secret service who persecuted Čarnogurský. “Since the times of Romeo and Juliet, this is nothing unusual,” quipped Čarnogurský when asked about the relationship with his “svat” (yes, Slovak does have a special name for the relationship between the two fathers-in-law. In fact, it even has different words for what the wife and husband should call their respective fathers-in-law: “svokor” and “tesť”).
The main opposition parties both have a vice chairwoman called “Žitňanská”. The father-in-law of Jana Žitňanská from KDH is the second husband of Lucia Žitňanská of SDKÚ. The husband of former SDKÚ vice chairwoman, current head of the Free Forum political party, and 2009 presidential candidate Zuzana Martináková for years worked as the communications director of president Ivan Gašparovič, against whom Martináková ran.
Even those who are not family often know each other from other places. At last week’s 50th anniversary celebrations of Gymnázium Jura Hronca, a Bratislava high school, you could see the outgoing head of the Slovak National Bank, Ivan Šramko, the head of Comenius University, František Gahér, the publisher of The Slovak Spectator and Sme, Alexej Fulmek, as well as both senior and junior Čarnogurský. Other alumni include Finance Minister Ján Počiatek, the exiting boss of Bratislava Region, Vladimír Bajan and former secret service boss Ivan Lexa. One could go on and on.
This helps explain several important things about Slovakia – why it’s impossible to ever fully eradicate corruption, cronyism and nepotism, why ideological or commercial battles are rarely lasting and extreme, and why political and business alliances are often difficult to understand. In a country of five million people almost anyone you meet, investigate, or do business with is very likely a distant bratranec or sesternica.