During any visits to my wife’s home country of Slovakia over the past 18 months or so, I’ve been asking about the Slovakian take on Scottish independence. This in itself is flawed. Like any other country, people’s personal experiences are too varied and my sample too small to draw any real conclusions. However, what is a country if not a collection of its people’s stories?
I have, at least, heard contrasting views on things from different members of her family, so hopefully there’s enough in this to make this piece interesting.
The information that I present in here hasn’t been fact-checked. Partly that’s out of (I think, understandable) laziness as I’m on holiday but partly also because I think that in this case what matters is not so much the truth as what the people of a country perceive the truth to be.
I’ve been asked a few times in Scotland about the take of people from the former Czechoslovakia on the Scottish independence question and I also tried (unsuccessfully) to pitch a docu-piece to Radio Scotland about it a year ago. The first thing that’s important to clear up in discussing it would be the differences between the two situations.
The Historical backdrop to Slovak identity
Scotland and England have a history of invasions, counter-invasions and general enmity. This is something that is definitely not the case for Czechs and Slovaks. Instead, they have spent much of their history under the rule of others (most notably the Austro-Hungarian Empire), giving them a sense of kinship; two Slavic peoples under the rule of other groups. In the Austro-Hungarian era, Czechs came under the authority of the Austrians, Slovaks under that of the Hungarians.
If anyone, it is the Hungarians who would come closer to filling the role of the English in the story of the Slovakian people rather than the Czechs. Hungarians ruled the Slovaks and banned the Slovakian language. Even today, there is a large ethnically-Hungarian population in the south of Slovakia… and, more worrying for Slovaks, a right-wing sabre-rattling government in power in Hungary that is keen for chunks of ‘Greater Hungary’ to be returned to it. As well as parts of Slovakia, this would also include swathes of Romania. Hearts fans may remember that their former manager, Csaba Laszlo, was geographically Romanian but ethnically Hungarian.
Rather than a memory of independence being quelled, Czechoslovakia could be remembered as being a period of relative independence for both peoples. No longer under Austro-Hungarian rule, bonded in a Slavic brotherhood, with two similar languages becoming 100% mutually intelligible through shared film, TV, literature and so on. This automatically bilingual nature is something that is still evident in those educated during the Communist era.
I remember watching a TV interview between the Slovak PM and a Czech interviewer and asking my wife which language was being spoken. The Czech was speaking Czech and the Slovak was speaking Slovak, with both sides perfectly happy with the arrangement.
These days, people of the younger Czech generation will still have a large passive grasp of Slovak due to the similarities of the language but that fully bilingual nature has been lost. The larger size of the Czech Republic means that young Slovaks still have a stronger passive understanding of the Czech language than vice versa, due to the greater cultural influences available.
With Scotland and the rest of the UK sharing a majority language, this loss isn’t something that has to be considered. After all, it’s not as if splitting risks losing a proud tradition of Gaels being understood on the streets of London. Or even speakers of dialects like Doric being fully comprehended in the shops of Birmingham.
Even when Czechoslovakia became a communist state, any resentment against authority wouldn’t have found its main focus in anti-Czech sentiment, it would have been found in anti-Soviet sentiment. Though never a part of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia was still one of the Eastern Bloc countries that came under the indirect control of the USSR. Alexander Dubcek, for example, found out that his softened version of communism wasn’t acceptable to Moscow in the 1960s when Soviet tanks hit the streets of Prague and Bratislava to re-assert more hard-line communist power.
The modern context of Slovak statehood
When communism fell across Europe in the late 80s and early 90s, normal people most likely saw it as an opportunity for a free Czechoslovakia, not for a free Czech state and Slovak state. There were two separate parliaments, with a President (Vaclav Havel) acting as the unifying figure for the two.
This is another area in which the situations of Slovakia and Scotland diverge; the people of Slovakia were not given a vote on independence. Instead, independence was carved up between the Czech and Slovak leaders of the time. Independence finally arrived in 1993… though my wife’s family were telling me of anecdotal evidence that separate Czech banknotes were being printed up as early as 1991, before the notion of splitting the Czechoslovakia had even been mooted to the people.
Whatever people in Scotland want to take from the example of Czechoslovakia, the most important factor is that in Scotland we have been given a choice. One of the points most frequently raised by the Yes campaign is allowing people in Scotland to feel fully enfranchised and engaged. The decision in Slovakia was simply another example of a decision being made for people by a political elite. Carrying on a tradition born in the Austro-Hungarian era and carried on through communist times.
Currency is another controversial issue and is one that caused problems in the initial post-independence era for Slovakia. The Czechoslovakian Koruna was effectively split, with the establishment of two separate currencies – the Czech Koruna and Slovak Koruna. Unfortunately for the Slovaks, the relative weakness of their economy compared to that of the Czechs meant that the Slovak Koruna was valued lower than the Czech Koruna. Effectively, prices would have been higher in Slovakia than the Czech Republic (They were two distinct currencies though).
The changeover was managed by people being able to swap currency in banks or shops taking in the old Czechoslovakian currency and giving back change in the new currency. Eventually (start of 2008, I think) the Slovaks opted to become members of the Euro zone. The Euro’s woes of recent years mean that’s not a decision you’ll find great enthusiasm for in Slovakia.
The current mood in Slovakia
It’s in the Czech authorities handling of the split of Czechoslovakia that you’ll find the greatest division in attitudes across Slovakia (by my own meager studies). Whether it’s backed up by facts or not, the notion exists that the Czech authorities had begun planning for the split in advance and that industries traditionally located in the Slovakian part of Czechoslovakia began to be moved to the Czech part, further strengthening the economy of that area and weakening the future Slovakia. Some Slovaks regard this as a sign that they were always an afterthought for the Czech leaders so independence has been a positive, while others regard the economic inequality at the time of the split and since as being evidence that the position of the Slovak people was stronger as part of a union with Czechoslovakia.
My wife’s relatives quoted to me a few days the starkly contrasting current figures of 6% unemployment in the Czech Republic and 14% in Slovakia. Again, I haven’t checked these figures. I’ve no reason to dispute them but what matters to me is that they are how people perceive and experience their situation.
You can make another case for Slovakia’s experience being different from that of the UK. This isn’t just a case of one side wanting to break away from the other, politicians of both countries were involved in bringing about the split. It’s tempting to assume that it came down to politicians’ ambitions meaning that they wanted to lead one country, not half a country.
Many Slovakians have probably yet to reach a situation where they feel fully served by and engaged by their own politicians. At least in Scotland the debate over independence has fully engaged a nation and allowed them to question, support or oppose plans, models and individuals alike. Engineering the split of Czechs and Slovaks without going to the people didn’t allow the population to engage with either the process or the arguments for or against.
The Slovak attitude towards Scottish independence
In general, the attitude that I’ve encountered towards Scottish independence is a negative one. As I’ve pointed out, however, this is far from a scientific level of survey and the context of the two nations’ experiences is hugely different. Whatever happens in Scotland, it will be a process that the Scottish people have chosen. In Slovakia, it was just another decision imposed upon them by a ruling elite.
Also, Slovakia has been hugely impacted by the global financial crisis, the Euro zone’s particular woes and is now being affected by the Russia/Ukraine situation impacting gas supplies/prices and employment – something I touched upon in my last piece. Slovakian self-confidence had already been ground down by hundreds of years of authoritarian rule and the current situation does not help. Whether Scots feel that we have been adequately represented or not over the centuries, I would argue that our experience has been less traumatic than that of the Slovak people –
Habsburg rule was followed by a brief between-the-wars flourish, then a Slovak puppet-state of the Nazis existed during WWII, then a reunited Czechoslovakia was effectively held at Soviet gunpoint before another brief moment of freedom saw a split being engineered in smoke-filled rooms.
Whatever the result in Scotland’s referendum, we’ve already won something that Slovakia didn’t. The independence to decide on independence.