SLOVAK WORD OF THE WEEK

Vlastenectvo

MOST regimes have a talent for taking words with positive meanings and transforming them into something which makes your stomach turn. Just as the Germans had their “Führer”, there was a Slovak “vodca”. That’s why, when Slovaks want to talk about leaders, they usually just say “leader”. “Pionier” is rarely used to describe a pioneer, because for decades, the word was used to describe the Communist Party’s version of boy-scouts, who had to swear their allegiance “to their socialist homeland and the Communist Party” and declare to be “a friend of the Soviet Union”. One other difference between scouting and pioneering: mandatory participation.

MOST regimes have a talent for taking words with positive meanings and transforming them into something which makes your stomach turn. Just as the Germans had their “Führer”, there was a Slovak “vodca”. That’s why, when Slovaks want to talk about leaders, they usually just say “leader”.
“Pionier” is rarely used to describe a pioneer, because for decades, the word was used to describe the Communist Party’s version of boy-scouts, who had to swear their allegiance “to their socialist homeland and the Communist Party” and declare to be “a friend of the Soviet Union”. One other difference between scouting and pioneering: mandatory participation.

In the 1990s Vladimír Mečiar’s wild privatisation meant that “podnikateľ”, entrepreneur, became a synonym for mafioso. Although the word is making a successful comeback, many people still prefer to refer to themselves as “živnostníci” (tradesmen), or simply business-owners.

So which word will be tarnished by the Fico government? Few people will be proud to say they work as a judge, PPP projects will have the credibility of a Ponzi scheme, and asking for directions (smer) will never be the same either. But “vlastenectvo”, patriotism, is taking a particularly hard beating.

It started on the day Fico brought into government extremists from the SNS, who tend to reduce patriotism to anti-Hungarian and anti-Roma slurs. And it ended with the “Patriotism Act”, a piece of legislation proposed by SNS boss Ján Slota, which in its original form obliged the government to “support patriotism in all fields where the state operates”, introduced oaths of loyalty for all state employees, weekly anthem-playing and flags in all classrooms, and patriotism classes in schools. For someone from a different tradition, these proposals may not seem that offensive. But in Slovakia, any state-imposed patriotism evokes memories of the vodca and the pionier.

Public disgust was multiplied by the fact that the law was proposed by someone who is a typical “podnikateľ”, and whose party seems to have a much deeper passion for state money than for the state itself. The coalition first supported the idea, but Fico’s Smer party backed down when it realised the degree of public opposition. And now the PM has pushed through his own version of patriotism legislation – an amendment to the law on state symbols. It is in many ways better than the SNS draft – anthems will be played only at the start and end of the school year, there are no oaths for public servants, or declarations about the universal duty of patriotism-building within the government.

But still, Fico deserves no praise. Firstly, he is breaking all the legislative rules. He introduced the draft on Monday, and it passed parliament on Tuesday. Such speedy approval is allowed in urgent cases. There is no urgency in legislating flags in schools.

Secondly, do ethnic Hungarian children really need to be reminded, daily, that the preamble of the Slovak constitution starts “We, the nation of Slovaks”; and is it necessary to have posters with flags in all classrooms? Many parents, aware of the horrors nationalism has brought to central Europe, think not. And they rightly feel that the government has no role in meddling in how their children feel about their country.

And thirdly, it is Fico who in the first place allowed an insane version of the law to pass parliament with the support of his own MPs. Had the president not vetoed it, the SNS law would already be effective today. So Fico is just saving the country from himself and his allies. Fico’s law poses little real threat to society. But no state-enforced rules can ever produce real patriotism. They can only lead to “vlastenectvo”, as defined by the likes of Fico and Slota.


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