WHEN Slovakia first participated at the Winter Olympics in 1994 no one would have guessed that the country’s first gold will first be won by someone called Anastasia. Jana, Zuzana, Mária, Anna, Eva, Martina, or Beáta perhaps. But foreign-sounding Anastasia? In a country, which unlike America, Britain, France, or Germany is unaccustomed to welcoming almost any immigrants, the historic feat of Russian-born Anastasia Kuzmina provides two opportunities.
First, it can spark a wave of pride. More important than the fact that Slovakia finally has gold from the Winter Olympics is the feeling that a successful person can voluntarily choose Slovakia as his or her new home. For decades, the trend has been just the opposite – since the late 19th century Slovakia experienced several waves of mass emigration. Whether it was famine, fascism, Russian tanks, or just the prospect of better employment, the forces driving talent out of the country have always been strong and remain so. And other than the thousands of Czechs that came after World War I and the creation of Czechoslovakia to occupy high posts in government, education, and culture, there has been no significant influx of people from abroad.
Kuzmina is a symbol of how times are changing. Slovakia, with its NATO and EU membership and relative stability, is becoming an interesting destination, if not for people from France or Germany, than certainly for Ukrainians or Russians. True, the recent news of an alleged Serbian mafia boss receiving Slovak citizenship shows that not all new-comers are a contribution. But in the future, Slovakia is likely to become the dreamed-of home of more and more doctors, engineers, skilled workers, and athletes.
The second contribution of Kuzmina’s victory, besides the justified feeling of patriotism, could be the realization of what foreigners can bring, and thus an improvement in the way Slovakia treats them. In 2008 the Interior Ministry received 909 requests for asylum. It granted asylum to 22 people. In the first 11 months of 2009 the figure was only 14. How many asylum-seekers received citizenship last year? None. And citizenship is a problem even for regular immigrants. Applicants are now required to have permanent residence for a period of eight years, compared to five years in the US. There is no rational argument for this. If five years are not enough for local security forces to find out that someone is an internationally-sought criminal, three more are unlikely to help. But they do make the procedure more complicated.
Perhaps no social improvements will come out of the Olympic triumphs. But one change is nearly certain – get ready to hear the name Anastasia at Slovak playgrounds.
22. Feb 2010 at 0:00 | Lukáš Fila