What Can Slovakia Teach Us about Scottish Independence?

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.

Bridge across the Danube between Slovakian Sturovo and Hungarian Esztergom.

Bridge across the Danube between Slovakian Sturovo and Hungarian Esztergom.

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.

A country of approx 5.3m people, known for its natural beauty and love of a drink. From that caption, you can choose whether this a photograph of Scotland or Slovakia!

A country of approx 5.3m people, known for it’s natural beauty and love of a drink. From that caption, you can choose whether this a photograph of Scotland or Slovakia!

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.

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Slovakia and the New Cold War

The frontline of Vladimir Putin’s political maneuverings in relation to Ukraine may be a lot closer to home than many of us realise. Being married to a Slovakian woman, I’m one of the fairly small grouping of people from the British Isles who have been educated to use the term “Central Europe” rather than “Eastern Europe” when referring to people from Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and, indeed, Poland.

Eastern Europe being used to describe these countries is a hangover from the binary politics of the Cold War era, rather than an accurate geographical reflection of the continent. Five other European countries, for example, border Slovakia. This hardly renders it a nation existing on the peripheries.
While Russia’s current actions in relation to Ukraine and Putin’s previous actions in Georgia have raised fears in former Soviet states like Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and former Soviet satellite states such as Poland alike, the reality is that Russia’s military might is not even required to exert a stranglehold over much of Europe.

I’m typing this while visiting my in-laws in Slovakia. They live in a beautiful village of around 2,000 people. There is a castle, a river running through the village and the forested foothills of the Mala Fatra mountain range complete the image of an enchanted settlement existing in splendid isolation. The problem is – this is 2014; nowhere exists in splendid isolation.

Even in such a beautiful part of Slovakia, the shadow of Russia vs Ukraine is being felt.

Even in such a beautiful part of Slovakia, the shadow of Russia vs Ukraine is being felt.

TV, newspapers and the Internet bring news of the latest political or economic tribulations and, more crucially, gas-powered boilers keep homes that face harsh winters cosy. The source of that gas? Russia. So far, Vladimir Putin’s backlash against EU sanctions over Ukraine has seen the wealthier countries of Germany and Austria hit by a 40% squeeze on the gas making it through the Russian pipelines. Economically weaker Slovakia, to date, has only been hit by a less punitive 10% squeeze.

This is the perfect move by Russia. Only this 10% cut is required to have a genuine and hard-felt effect upon energy prices in the country, while the smaller cut can also be spun as a symbol of relative goodwill born of Slavic brotherhood. The memory of Soviet forces on the streets of both Prague and Bratislava crushing demonstrations during the days of the former Czechoslovakia means the latter aspect is unlikely to be taken at face value.

I’ve already established that Slovakia is not geographically isolated… and nor is it politically isolated. This nation of around 5.3m people (roughly the same as that of Scotland) is a member of the EU, the Eurozone and NATO. In theory, it has a whole gang of big brothers who should be able to stand up to the playground bully on its behalf. In European terms, the issue is that the playground bully is bigger than the brothers. In NATO terms, the issue is that may be possible to stand up to the bully… but at the cost of destroying the playground.

In the old days, what you need to defend yourself was a castle. These days? Who knows.

In the old days, what you need to defend yourself was a castle. These days? Who knows.

The fighting analogy only goes so far though, because, as I’ve said, Vladimir Putin doesn’t need to roll tanks back into the streets of the former Czechoslovakia to make a point or to bring a country to heel. He just needs to turn off the taps. You don’t have to subject your own army to a freezing Central European winter to win… when you can subject the people you’re trying to exert influence over to it instead.

That’s only to mention imports from Russia, not exports to Russia. A nearby car manufacturing plant and its sub-contractor are the key local employers but around 100 people have already been laid off due to a combination of the sanctions imposed against Russia and the tit-for-tat nature of Russia’s reaction.

There is precious little support for Putin or his actions in this part of the world but there is genuine fear of them. The problem is that negotiations and stances will be led by Western Europe and America…while the people suffering in the front line will be the populations of Central and Eastern Europe.

As someone from Western Europe it can be sobering to visit museums or exhibitions telling the story of Central and Eastern Europe during WWII. We have a fairly clear picture of events. The Nazis were bad… but we defeated them and everybody lived happily ever after. A fuller picture would be that the Nazis were bad, we teamed up with Stalin to defeat them, he engineered things to leave the Soviets occupying or influencing half of Europe and lived out his days to a (probably) natural end, by which point he’d killed more people than Hitler.

The history of Central and Eastern Europe is that of being trapped between the power of Western Europe and Russia. They’re always the afterthought, always the negotiating pawn. If being married to a woman from a former Communist country has taught me anything (She would say it seems to have taught me nothing, I would say it’s taught me many things; for the sake of this example I’m going to say it’s taught me one thing.) it’s that you judge strength by the situation of the weakest, not that of the strongest.

When the Iron Curtain crumbled, the people of Central and Eastern Europe were sold a dream of Western life. Democracy would solve all and any issues would be dealt with by the protective powers of the countries attached to the lucrative open market. If that is to be the reality, it’s time to start protecting the vulnerable. Don’t sit back and imagine that Ukraine is a distant situation that doesn’t affect or that the countries it borders are pawns that can be used for our own moral negotiation.

World War II was a horrific chapter in world history. Let’s not make it retrospectively worse by failing to learn from it.

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