English-speaking academics study Slovakia

THE DIVISION of Czechoslovakia nearly two decades ago into Slovakia and the Czech Republic has contributed to the publication of an increasing number of original English language academic books by authors that focus on Slovakia.

THE DIVISION of Czechoslovakia nearly two decades ago into Slovakia and the Czech Republic has contributed to the publication of an increasing number of original English language academic books by authors that focus on Slovakia.

Such books were published before 1993, but much less often, and sometimes they were marked by political tendencies that reflected the outlooks of their authors, either émigrés or the offspring of émigrés. Books about Czechoslovakia inevitably spent a great deal more pages discussing Czech affairs than Slovak ones.

The realities of the publishing marketplace still limit the publication of such books. Books written for an audience interested only in Slovakia simply will not sell enough copies. They must appeal to a larger audience. When authors do that, they help spread knowledge and information about Slovakia and its people.

Some of the books treat Slovakia in connection or comparison with other countries. This approach facilitates publication, increases knowledge about Slovakia, and helps identify the specifics of Slovakia and Slovaks.

These books treat contemporary politics, history, the environment and Slovak immigrants to the United States.

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In “Elected Affinities: Democracy & Party Competition in Slovakia & the Czech Republic” (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press) political scientist Kevin Deegan-Krause follows the differing paths of development in the two countries.

“The Czech Republic and Slovakia developed sharply contrasting patterns of political division, despite considerable similarity in most other realms,” the author, who is president of the Slovak Studies Association and a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, writes. “Slovakia not only experienced pervasive divisions over the role of nationalism and the value of democracy but veered between extremes on these issues in such a way as to put the country’s democratic institutions at risk.”

Deegan-Krause examines institutions, voter attitudes, issue divides and questions of accountability.

In his final chapter, cleverly called “Slovakia is Everywhere,” he demonstrates how the framework he uses can be applied to study political parties and governments in other post-communist countries as well as in other newly-developed democracies to help examine the relative roles and relationships of nationalism, economic reform and political accountability.

The author first developed an interest in things Czech and Slovak when he taught English in Plzeň in 1990-91, but he prefers to speak in Slovak rather than Czech.

“Czechs were amused by a Westerner choosing to speak Slovak, and Slovaks were pleased that a non-Slovak would care about their language and culture,” he said in describing the research that led to this book.

“As a result, I had extremely good experiences with people from all parties, even those most likely to be critical of the West. HZDS and SNS were particularly hospitable and I spent long periods of time in their central offices and in as many regional and local offices as I could find in an attempt to understand their position as well as I possibly could.”

Deegan-Krause’s fellow political scientists have been impressed with his work.

“The book presents a novel conceptual scheme built upon a wealth of informational building blocks, with a remarkably complete picture of Czech and especially Slovak politics in the 1990s,” observed Prof. Carol Skalnik Leff of the University of Illinois, a long-time specialist on Czech and Slovak politics.

“Deegan-Krause has produced a book that is rich in detail while solidly anchored to important theoretical concerns,” notes Prof. Sharon Wolchik of George Washington University.

Deegan-Krause continues to monitor Slovak politics in his blog at www.pozorblog.com.

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Slovakia and Croatia, two countries whose political paths in the 20h century were similar, provide the comparison for Sharon Fisher , an economist, in “Political Change in Post-Communist Slovakia and Croatia: From Nationalist to Europeanist” (New York: Palgrave Macmillan).

Both countries started the last century as parts of Hungary, experienced the interwar period as part of multi-national states, spent World War II as nominally independent states, returned to multi-national states after the war, and emerged as newly-independent states in the turmoil that accompanied the fall of communism.

Fisher in her book argues that nationalists and Europeanists competed in these two countries (what political scientist Jacques Rupnik calls “two laggards of the democratic transition”) for dominance, with national movements emerging first. She is particularly interested in whether international actors can influence the course of political change in democratising states.

“This book demonstrates that by assisting in shoring up opposition unity and building civil society, international actors can help remove authoritarian governments and put countries on the path toward liberal democracy,” she says.

Fisher looks at the way in which national movements mobilised populations and then tried to maintain their positions by creating national symbols and rewriting history, and in the policies they employed in economy and culture.

“The economy and culture are the two areas in which the contrast between nationalist rhetoric and actual practice was most apparent, where leaders appeared more concerned with the personal gain of party representatives than with fulfilling their promise of promoting the national interest,” she argues.

The author makes particularly interesting use of two weekly tabloid magazines, Plus 7 Dní in Slovakia and Globus in Croatia. They had wide popular appeal and were enthusiastic in digging up new scandals.

Slovakia, without the baggage of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, successfully gained admission to the European Union in 2004. Croatia is hoping for admission next year.

Fisher, who had previously been a researcher at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was Slovak analyst at the Open Media Research Institute in Prague when she decided to do this study. She spent a year doing fieldwork in Bratislava and Zagreb, and then lived a year in Brussels while writing.

During her research she interviewed more than a hundred representatives of political parties, government ministries, NGOs, the media, academe and cultural organisations.

Fisher is now a senior economist with IHS Global Insight's Country Intelligence Group in Washington, D.C., where she focuses mainly on central Europe and the Balkans. In that role, she conducts economic and political analysis, risk assessment, and forecasting, while also working on the development of a new labour cost-analyser product.

“Fisher shows a keen assessment of the relative power of domestic and international factors in this comprehensive, first-rate study,” said Ron Linden, a veteran political scientist and eastern Europe expert at the University of Pittsburgh, a centre of Slovak study and research.

“Sharon Fisher captures the essence of the revolutionary transformation,” adds Janusz Bugajski of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Owen V. Johnson teaches journalism and history at Indiana University where he does research on the past and present of the Slovak mass media.

More reviews will be published in future issues.

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