Don't worry, Slovakia, you'll do well

British Ambassador Nigel Baker goes back to 1993 and greets the newborn Slovakia from the future.

Nigel BakerNigel Baker (Source: Sme - Marko Erd)

Dear Slovak citizen of 1993,

Congratulations! You have achieved independence. I know not all of you are pleased, and that a lot of you still cannot quite believe that the Czecho-Slovakia (with or without hyphen) in which you have spent all or most of your life no longer exists. But from the hindsight of 2023 I can tell you that the process of separation was a success. Although you have lost Prague as capital city, your beautiful Bratislava has been transformed from the rather grey city I moved to in 1993. Its historical heritage has been restored and new modern architecture has replaced some of the more neglected corners. And while it must feel strange having an international border dividing you from friends and family, in 2023 it’s almost invisible. The divorce will continue to be peaceful. Thirty years on, Slovakia and the Czech Republic (the new name in English is Czechia, but I can’t bring myself to use it) remain the best of friends.

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Indeed, in some things, you could say they are closer than ever. There are probably more Slovak students at Masaryk University in Brno than ever before, Czechs are still the largest group of foreigners enjoying the High Tatras, and both states appreciate their common pre-1993 history. November 17, marking the Velvet Revolution, is a national holiday in both countries. Czech TV, music and film stars still appear on Slovak television without subtitles (though Czech kids today have problems understanding Slovak). It’s also true to say that none of the catastrophic scenarios some people were predicting for Slovakia as an independent state have come to pass. Would you believe me if I told you that thirty years on Slovakia has a more stable currency and a bigger car industry (you even build Land Rovers), or that your ice hockey team has just won an Olympic bronze?

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Yes, there have been a few bumps in the road. Let’s just say that Vladimír Mečiar’s time as prime minister was problematic. There was even a period when Slovakia was known as “the black hole of Europe”. And later, in 2018, there were scenes reminiscent of 1989 as the public came out onto the streets to protest against the murder of a young investigative journalist and his fiancée. But you made it through, because when it really mattered you stood up for freedom and democracy.

Politics in 2023 is pretty fragmented. None of the political parties in parliament in 1993 is there thirty years on. The only member of the Slovak National Council of 1993 who is still an MP today is the young SDĽ deputy Robert Fico. Yet despite everything, and some recent alarms, your fledgling national and democratic institutions have held together. The younger generation is stepping up. Many of you and your children travel, live and study abroad. The Slovak passport ranks among the top ten most accepted passports in the world.

I won’t name names, but your president of 2023 is currently a law student at Comenius University, and her (yes, it’s a woman) current prime minister is just 17. Slovakia in 2023 is a full member of NATO and the European Union. No one does compulsory military service. You are secure from Russian aggression. Thirty years on you are, collectively, more prosperous than ever before.

Is there anything that hasn’t changed? Well, the D1 highway still hasn’t been completed (you’re almost there). Your relationship with Hungary remains a bit scratchy. Sadly, thirty years of independence has done little for minority groups in the country, and racism towards your fellow nationals of Roma origin – many of whom continue to live in marginal settlements without adequate services – remains a reality. That really needs fixing. On the positive side, traditional Slovak culture appears to be enjoying a modest renaissance. And, on the whole, Slovakia is still one of the safest countries in which to live in Europe.

I got married since I was here in 1993. To a Slovak. So despite my diplomatic status, I’m not entirely objective. If I was being critical, I would urge you to work harder on political transparency, keep an eye on who benefits from privatisation and how, and be careful to ensure that your new-found wealth is better distributed across the whole country. Oh, and please invest more in your education and health systems. But since I can’t turn back the clock, I will simply say that things are never as bad as they seem, and if you work at it, and don’t take your prosperity and democracy for granted, you can be reasonably confident in Slovakia’s future. There’s plenty still to do, but if I can say the same in 2053 I’ll be happy.

Nigel Baker served in Bratislava after the Czecho-Slovak breakup in 1993. In 2020, he came back as the British Ambassador to Slovakia.

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