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SLOVAK Letter

Dear Petra,

I think you will agree with me that the relationship between the Czechs and the Slovaks is truly special. Out of all the neighbors we have, the Czechs are the closest. This is so because of the proximity of Czech and Slovak languages, but also because of the historical ties and the way in which our two nations are interconnected. A slight ‘but' might follow though. I have heard a story from a Czech friend of mine who told me that her 11 year old cousin came to Slovakia for a visit and had to speak English, because he had serious difficulties understanding Slovak. Why is this so? Why don't Czech people read Slovak books just as Slovaks read Czech ones? Why don't people listen to Slovak as much in the Czech Republic?

Although the relationship between the Czechs and the Slovaks as a whole is very good, there are instances which underline the apparent asymmetry of the relationship. Therefore, Slovaks sometimes still wrestle with feelings of inferiority and perceived Czech arrogance.
Some people may not know this, but Czech and Slovak languages are very similar, yet not identical. However, when Slovaks travel around the Czech Republic, they have no problem communicating in their mother tongue. Many Czech books are used every day by thousands of Slovaks, especially university students. In fact, the number of Slovak university students studying at Czech universities is constantly rising (while in 2002 there were around 7.5 thousand Slovak students studying at Czech universities, in two years this number almost doubled to well over 12 200 students). It is the young Czech and Slovak people like you and me who meet on a regular basis: usually, even those who do not study in the Czech Republic have Czech friends or acquaintances whom they meet through various clubs or other activities. The proximity of Czech people and Czech language is furthermore established through popular Czech TV channels and movies. Young and old alike enjoy excellent Czech movies like Pelíšky, Kolja or Želary in many of which Slovak actors also take part. Additionally, many Hollywood movies that Slovaks watch are dubbed into Czech. It is especially because of the media that not even the youngest generation of Slovaks has problems understanding the Czech language.

What about the Czechs though? Are they just as close to the Slovak people and culture or is it as the Slovaks sometimes perceive it, in that Czechs don't read many Slovak books, don't watch much Slovak TV and the youngest generation has even problems understanding Slovak? Why is the perception of the Slovak and Czech roles so asymmetric?

ANNA MICHALKOVA

Anna received her bachelor's degree from Comenius University in Bratislava, majoring in European studies. She is currently a master's student at Uppsala University in Sweden. She studies Politics and International Relations with a specialization in Eurasian Studies. She won the first prize in the 2004 Slovak EUSTORY history competition.

In order to answer these questions, it might be good to examine some history. Both the Czech and Slovak nations were part of Austria-Hungary and after World War I they managed to establish the first Czechoslovakia. As the Czech part had always been more industrialized, being under Austrian jurisdiction before, it was only natural that the Czechs had a more developed economy and that they were also able to provide more intellectuals who would come to Slovak schools and help the Slovak regions. However, it might be somewhere there that the Slovaks started to feel as something lesser, as the little, less capable brothers of the Czechs. As the relationship developed, this became more obvious. Slovaks began to feel that the Czechs and the Czech part of the republic were being privileged; as if the Slovaks were put in second place. For all instances, let me mention the so called ‘hyphen war' in which the Slovaks insisted on calling the republic Czecho-Slovakia or Czecho-Slovak Federative Republic instead of Czechoslovakia, thus emphasizing the same position of Slovaks and their uniqueness as a nation. In other words, the Czechs were in this sense perceived as the arrogant ones who thought of Slovaks as something lesser and of the Slovak region as good only for its mountains.

It may be argued by some that this was among the primary reasons why the two split. Yet if you asked around in Slovakia, people would tell you that even though they might have had these kinds of feelings to a certain degree, had there been a referendum, the majority of Slovaks would never have agreed with the split. It remains a fact that it was the political decision of the two prime ministers at the time - Mečiar and Klaus, who did not ask for people's consent. This creates a favorable feeling that the people have always got along well, which I dare say would be supported by the majority of Slovaks if they were asked. Furthermore, as Slovakia and the Czech Republic are in the EU, the differences that there might have been are more readily disregarded. The eager cooperation is even exemplified by the political leaders who come to support their counterparts at political rallies and often are reported saying that now that both countries are in the EU, it is almost as if they had never split.

Although there might still be instances when Slovaks get outraged at the perceived Czech arrogance, thus creating a friendly rivalry (it suffices to say: ice hockey games, and every single Slovak and Czech knows what I am talking about), I have not heard of many events if any at all, in which there has been an open anti-Czech hostility. Yes, we may argue about whose hockey team is better, but to me, it really is more like two siblings arguing about who got a better toy... even if one of them wins, and the other feels offended, they are still family. Therefore, "Czech arrogance" is not detrimental to the relationship. I don't think that young people care about it too much, nor do I think that they should.


CZECH Answer

Dear Anna,

I agree with you about the separation of Czechoslovakia. Similar to Slovaks, more than half of Czechs were against the split of Czechoslovakia at the time. It has been more than 15 years since our countries split, and ever since there have been concerns expressed on both sides that younger generations of Czechs and Slovaks would grow apart and lose the special connection that once existed between the two "brothers" as we used to call ourselves. Nonetheless, Czechs also think that from today 's perspective it was a good decision, especially the younger generation who do not remember original Czechoslovakia. Also, more and more Czechs feel that relations with Slovaks at present are much the same as they were before the split. Some Czechs claim that the separation helped to "clean the air" and contributed to the fact that 15 years later we feel more and more sympathy towards each other.

Like in Slovakia, Czechs also often blame former Prime Ministers Klaus and Mečiar for the split. However, it should be pointed out at that time the political representation in both countries differed in their opinions on economical and political concepts (such as different opinions on the market economy and privatization; Slovaks also preferred confederation over federation, or other form of co-existence of the two countries proposed by Czechs). In other words, we wanted to have one state but we could not agree on how it should be governed for the future. It may be argued that Czechs simply wanted to continue in "what has worked before," while Slovaks wanted to live in one state with Czechs, and to be independent at the same time.

As you said, this has its roots in history. Czechs and Slovaks united in 1918 because they felt threatened by German and Hungarian minorities in their territory, and they would not be able to succeed in creating a state separately. The first Czechoslovakian president promoted the idea of "Czechoslovakism" where Czechs and Slovaks were considered as two branches of one nation. Slovakian efforts to gain autonomy were thus accepted quite coldly by Czechs from the very beginning. Slovaks felt oppressed while Czechs did not consider them a separate nation. One commentator at the time describes the differing feelings quite precisely - the western part of the country was inhabited by 10 million Czechoslovaks while the eastern part by 5 million Slovaks.

PETRA NOVOTNA

Petra is a 2nd year Ph.D. student in international private law at Masaryk University, Brno. Currently, she is obtaining her LLM in European Legal Studies at College of Europe, Bruges. Petra won the Czech EUSTORY history competition in 2001, with a work about the totalitarian regime (1948-1989) in former Czechoslovakia

It is true that today more and more young Czechs have difficulties with understanding the Slovak language. We need to ask whether this has anything to do with how Czechs feel about Slovaks. I would suggest that the Slovaks have been more motivated to interact with Czechs than vice versa. Also, it may be due to other reasons than simple nostalgia and love of culture. Let 's take a look at your example of higher education
You are absolutely right about Slovak students at Czech universities. Many of my classmates are from Slovakia, and for many of my peers including me, academics is the only place where we meet Slovaks. There was a time, and for some there still is, when Slovak students were considered occupying "our" places. On the other hand, incoming Slovak students are often more dedicated in their study, and many Czech teachers would opt for a class of motivated Slovaks over less motivated Czechs. Being EU citizens, there is no doubt that Czech and Slovak students are even more encouraged to choose the place of their studies according to their preferences and the quality of education offered. In this regard, the situation between Czech and Slovak Republics can be compared to Germany and Austria, or France and Belgium. It remains a challenge for Slovakia to offer a competitive and quality university education in order to attract more Czech students to study there. Indeed, some argue that Slovakia faces an "emigration of brains." Many Slovaks remain in the Czech Republic after their graduation becoming Czechoslovaks in a way. Having studied law in Czech for example, they often do not know how to express the proper terminology in their mother tongue.

I do not think it is necessarily a sign of arrogance if young Czechs have difficulties with Slovak language. Nevertheless, it is a pity to throw away the special link we once enjoyed, and let us become the neighbors like any other. There seem to be many complicated reasons for the asymmetry you talk about. The question is not whether we can, but whether we desire to overcome it. Clearly, we have to step out of the vicious cycle where the Czech media argues they cannot broadcast in Slovak because young Czechs would not understand, while Czechs argue that they forget Slovak because they lack opportunity to stay in touch with the language via media.
As you expressed, I am also persuaded that the rivalry between the two countries does not go beyond friendly teasing. Besides cooperation in other fields I am aware of some school and TV projects which bring Slovaks and Czechs and their languages together again. I am sure that none of us wants Czechs and Slovaks to speak English to each other. That is something I only do in this letter - for the sake of being understood by the rest of Europe.

<table class="profileBox_right">\ <tbody>\ <tr>\ <td>\ <p><strong>This initiative is supported by:</strong></p>\ <p><a href="http://www.eustory.eu"><img class="smallimageright" style="border: 0px none; float: right;" src="UserFiles/File/ABOUT_US/PARTNERS/eustory.gif" width="120" height="68" /></a><span style="line-height: 20px; -webkit-border-horizontal-spacing: 0px; -webkit-border-vertical-spacing: 0px; font-size: 12px;"> </span></p>\ </td>\ </tr>\ </tbody>\ </table>S přátelskými pozdravy,

Petra

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