Asymmetries in Czech/Slovak relations

Article published on April 22, 2002
community published
Article published on April 22, 2002

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

According to the Czech calendar, the 1st January should be celebrated as a national holiday. At the start of 1993, the Czech Republic was created, or ‘re-established’ to use the correct term, after Czechoslovakia had been divided in two. But almost no-one celebrates this anniversary, which raises questions about cultural and political relations between the Czechs and the Slovaks.
It is not surprising however, as the Czechs are distinctly lukewarm about their public holidays. Most of them simply amount to days off, regardless of the real reason behind it. Moreover, after the New Year celebrations they are all too exhausted to even think about partying any more. Was it then appropriate that the Czech and Slovakian politicians should choose the 1st January as a separation date?

Since the creation of the old Czechoslovakia, the relations between the two ethnic groups have been marked by dissymmetries which have evolved and changed over time, but which remain to this day. Why is this?

Firstly, it is about the sorts of relations between ‘great’ and ‘small’ nations. Before 1993, the Czechs enjoyed a dominant political and cultural role at the expense of the Slovaks, and the decentralisation of the state was making slow progress. At that time there were even Czechs who would try to deny the existence of the Slovakian nation and language. Secondly, the pace of economic development was different in each of the two countries and it took a long time to even out. Consequentially, today Slovaks normally seek work near the Czech border or in Prague or other such places. The number of Slovaks who work or live in the Czech Republic is disproportionately large, given that there are few Czechs in Slovakia, and they are the biggest group of foreign workers. One of the main causes for this is the higher unemployment rate in Slovakia. The same dissymmetries exist amongst students. Agreements between the two countries have made access to university education easier over the past two years, but it is only the Slovakian students who undertake their studies in the Czech Republic, not the other way around.

Even the Slovaks who stayed where they were at the other end of ex-Czechoslovakia are confronted by Czech culture. There is a marked orientation towards this, and it is continuing. In Slovakia, you can watch many different television channels and read books and newspapers…but all in Czech. If you go into a bookshop in Bratislava, the Slovakian capital, you can buy almost any book published in the Czech Republic. Even children are used to reading Harry Potter books in Czech – if there were translations into Slovakian they would not sell very well.

Czechs however, are ignorant concerning Slovakian culture. They admire a few famous actors and musicians but they rarely read in Slovakian. It is not surprising that in 2001 a third of young people expressed difficulties in comprehension of Slovakian, through lack of practise. They can only envy the Slovaks, who widened their cultural outlook by becoming so receptive to another culture. There are a few Czechs who take an interest in Slovakian culture and want to preserve and strengthen cultural links, but they are in a minority. Today it is the Slovaks who are closest to the spirit of ‘Czechoslovakism’, which may seem paradoxical for a people who were accused of nationalism and the destruction of the republic.

The Czechs used to think they were the more open-minded group, but perhaps now a Slovakian cultural colonisation is in order. Maybe that would widen the narrow cultural horizons of the Czechs.