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EDITORIAL

The twilight of the census

COUNTING the population is probably one of the oldest administrative pastimes of those in power: Roman king Servius Tullius inscribed the word “census” in the history books when he counted his people to keep track of those fit for army service and to estimate the economic strength of the population.

COUNTING the population is probably one of the oldest administrative pastimes of those in power: Roman king Servius Tullius inscribed the word “census” in the history books when he counted his people to keep track of those fit for army service and to estimate the economic strength of the population.

Questions have been listed, tables designed and “census takers” trained so that the state in Slovakia can now get its new numbers. Given recent technological progress, one would think that the time when census takers roam the country armed with tables and questionnaires was over. But it seems that the twilight of the census has yet to arrive.

Observers suggests that perhaps Slovakia will this year experience its last old-fashioned census, since in ten years the state should finally be able to find a way to use the data it collects through other institutions, for instance the social insurer, health insurers and the cadastre.

However, there are some groups in society who anxiously await the census results, because the numbers they reveal can determine state policies which directly affect them. These groups are the national minorities.

The census has been causing particular concern for representatives of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia. While the 2001 census counted over 520,000 Hungarians living in Slovakia, experts expect that this number could drop by as many as 60,000 in 2011.

Studying the psychology of those who no longer wish to be identified as a minority or no longer want to have their children counted as Hungarians could fill hundreds of pages of sociological studies, but the numbers will have a much deeper impact on the life of the minorities than some individuals might realise. These numbers often determine the rights and financing of minorities in ethnically-mixed areas, and also where minorities are able to use their mother tongue in official contexts.

The approaching census has made the planned changes to the Act on the Use of Languages of Ethnic Minorities even more crucial, with the government passing an amendment which would reduce the threshold required for minorities to be allowed to use their native language in official contacts from the current 20 percent to 15 percent. Béla Bugár’s Most-Hid party had originally hoped to achieve a 10 percent threshold but then settled for a compromise.

While the majority population often does not understand all the fuss around minority languages, with those fired by nationalism parroting that perhaps minorities in Slovakia have excessive rights, people who identify with a certain minority often fear the loss of their language.

It is not always about a fear of being banned from using it; sometimes the concern is that in fact they are not inspired to use it anywhere else but in their living rooms and kitchens.

Why is language so crucial for minorities? Whenever ethnic groups give up their language their culture rapidly metamorphoses into fragile, dusty museum pieces, such as collections of old folk songs which after just a couple of decades are simply no longer understood.

While it might seem that it is a “victory” for the majority nation when the number of those who identify with a national minority in the census drops, the truth is that the nation as a whole loses something irreplaceable as it witnesses the disappearance of a cultural group which is unique in its very essence and enriches the majority. The culture of ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia, their language use, their songs and fairytales are different in many respects from those in Hungary. Its slow decline should raise questions in the majority population as well.

Of course there is always natural assimilation, especially in a globalising world, and when a mixed family fills out census questionnaires it is likely that they will identify with the majority nation. What is important though, behind the cold statistics, is that whatever option people choose, they make their choice based on how they feel or where they see themselves in society, and not based on their projection of where they should appear as numbers. Otherwise the census will turn out to be nothing but an orgy of numbers, one that will nonetheless still impact real people’s lives.


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