Throughout its history, the Slovak Republic has been overshadowed and sometimes dominated by a succession of foreign powers, including Hungary, Germany, the Soviet Union and, most recently, the Czech Republic. The separation of Czechoslovakia into its constituent parts – the Czech and Slovak Republics – on 1 January 1993 was one of the rare occasions in history that two nations have accomplished this peacefully. It also marked the emergence of an independent and sovereign Slovak nation for the first time. The Republic’s essentially Slavic identity dates back to the fifth and sixth centuries AD when Slav peoples settled in the middle Danube region. There, they were effectively on the front line in confronting several attempted invasions by peoples from Central Asia. The ninth century was a relatively peaceful period, which saw the conversion of the Slav population to Christianity (and consequent alliance with Rome) and the establishment of the first Slav empire under King Ratislav and then King Svätopluk. The latter’s death in 894 was quickly followed by the first of a series of incursions by marauding, nomadic Magyar tribes.
Over the course of the 10th century, these tribes gradually settled in the region and created an embryonic Hungarian state which adopted many of the systems and structures of its predecessor. Slovakia’s mineral deposits made it the richest part of the Hungarian empire and the region prospered, especially during the 13th and 14th centuries. This period came to an end after the Hungarians suffered a major military defeat in 1526 at the Battle of Mohacs at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, who promptly dismembered the empire. Slovakia, however, was able to resist the Ottoman occupation and allied itself with the Austrian Hapsburg monarchy. Between 1526 and 1784, the Slovak capital Bratislava (known to the Hapsburgs as Pressburg) was nominated capital of the ‘Kingdom of Hungary’ and over a dozen Hapsburg monarchs were crowned in the city.
Throughout this period, until the final expulsion of the Ottoman Turks from Central Europe in 1786, Slovakia was once again on the front line of the struggle between rival empires. But the Slovaks were still under the effective control of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The first nationalist movements – which have since become a recurring feature of Slovak history – had started to emerge in the late 18th century and continued to grow during the 19th century. One of the most potent of these was led by Ludovit Stur and Andrej Hlinka (whose name was adopted by the Slovak World War II fascist movement, the Hlinka Guard). The Slovak struggle for independence from Austria and Hungary suffered a setback in 1867 when Austria agreed to give the Hungarians free rein within its territories, and a period of Magyarization of the region followed. This period, in particular, is the cause of deep-seated anti-Magyar feeling in Slovakia which persists in some quarters today. With the end of World War I and the Austro-Hungarian Empire came the birth of Czechoslovakia, founded by Tomas Masaryk, the country’s first President, aided by Milan Rastislav Štefánik, and an age of prosperity that lasted until 1938 and the advent of Nazism.
A dark period followed, in which the country was effectively under German control. In 1948, the Slovaks voted for a democratic government which was aborted when Slovakia was grouped together with its Czech neighbors after the Yalta agreement between the world’s superpowers. Another defining moment took place in 1968 when Alexander Dubcek (then leader of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia) introduced the policy known as ‘socialism with a human face’ that ended with the Prague Spring and the crushing of the reformist movement by the Soviet army. The period of ‘normalization’ under democratic socialism finally gave way to democratic reforms in November 1989.
This led to the appointment of Václav Havel as President while the country set about introducing a pluralistic political system and a market economy. While appreciating the new opportunities offered by the post-Soviet order, the Slovaks were worried – mainly for economic reasons – about the crash liberalization program planned by Havel and his finance minister, Václav Klaus. After two years of negotiations (following the first democratic elections of June 1990) between the two republican governments, the population voted for the ‘sovereignty association’ platform proposed by the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (Hnutie za Demokratice Slovensko, HZDS) led by Vladimir Meciar. The HZDS was by now the dominant force in Slovak politics: in the second national election, held in June 1992 specifically over the issue of separation, the HZDS polled 37 per cent nationally and gained the lion’s share in the Slovak region. On 1 January, 1993, the two nations parted amicably.
The following month, the former speaker of the Czechoslovak parliament, Michal Kovac, was chosen by the country’s new parliament, the National Council (Narodna Rada), to take over the post of President. The party leader, Meciar, continued as Prime Minister at the head of an HZDS-dominated government. From then until the expiry of President Kovac’s term of office in March 1998, Slovak politics were dominated by the feud between these two dominant political figures.
Meciar was much lauded at the time as the principal architect of Slovakian nationhood. However, he was not a natural democrat, and his use of state agencies to suppress opponents and blatant tolerance of organized crime provoked strong international criticism. Nor was Meciar enthusiastic about the economic reforms which were equally essential to any EU aspiration. The struggle between Meciar and Kovac, a pro-European, pro-NATO liberal, reached extraordinary levels, but came to an end when Meciar was outmaneuvered for control of both the presidency (which was won by Rudolf Schuster) and the national assembly. He tried to stage a comeback at the parliamentary election held in 2002 but narrowly failed. Mikulas Dzurinda continued as Prime Minister at the head of a center-right coalition set up specifically to keep the HZDS, which is still the country’s largest political party, from power. Under Schuster and Dzurinda, Slovakia made up for lost time, embarking on an economic reform program and accelerating membership negotiations with the EU. By 2004, along with nine other countries, including most of its immediate neighbors, Slovakia joined the EU. The Republic also hopes to join NATO within a few years.
However, sporadic signs of political trouble have sometimes threatened to blight the success of Slovakia's integration into the EU, general economic growth and increase in tourism. Slovakia recently witnessed a dramatic Presidential clash between the controversial Meciar and Ivan Gasparovic - for whom, Meciar was one a boss - only two weeks before Slovakia joined the EU, in late-April. Meciar, the hardline nationalist, was defeated, and this was heralded as a victory for Slovakia's re-emergence on the global stage. However, some have claimed that votes were cast against Meciar rather than for Gasparovic; Slovakian despondency reflected at an all-time low voter turnout. It waits to be seen whether President Gasparovic will move Slovakia forward, or whether he will revert to the policies of Meciar that he once backed.
The Slovak Republic ratified its first national constitution in September 1992, having agreed to all of the existing treaties and obligations of the former republic. Under its terms, executive power lies with the Prime Minister and ministers, the first being appointed by the President, who in turn is selected by the National Council. This is the country’s supreme legislative body, which has 150 seats and is directly elected for a four-year term. The President is elected for a five-year term.
Of all the Soviet bloc economies, the former Czechoslovakia experienced the highest degree of state control. In the late-1960s, after the Prague Spring, the Soviet-backed government revamped the economy to build up heavy industry at the expense of traditional strengths in light and craft-based industries, such as textiles, clothing, glass and ceramics. After the division of Czechoslovakia in 1993, the newly independent Slovak government found these heavy industries to be something of a millstone, but they continue to play a central role in the economy. In a few cases, they have benefited from foreign investment. The other major economic problem was a dearth of natural resources: the most important of these, especially oil, were formerly available cheaply from the ex-Soviet Union but now had to be bought at market rates. The agricultural sector – almost all of which is now privately owned – produces wheat and grains, sugar beet, vegetables and livestock. However, its relative economic contribution (5 per cent of GDP, 8 per cent of the workforce) is not substantial. The bulk of the industrial economy has been transferred to the private sector, including the key areas of machinery and chemical industries, textiles, leather, shoes, glass, electronics, nuclear energy and car manufacturing. Slovak economic policy-makers chose a different path of development from their Czech neighbors, opting for a more gradual transition and retaining certain ‘strategic’ industries (notably the armaments industry) under state control. An estimated 85 per cent of the economy is now in private hands.
After the initial transition shock, the economy performed fairly well in the mid- and late 1990s, but then went into recession. Growth stagnated while the budget deficit, external debt and unemployment climbed to uncomfortably high levels. Since 2002, however, the situation has been brought under control. Growth has now resumed at between 4 and 5 per cent. Unemployment remains stubbornly high at 17.8 per cent; inflation in 2003 was 8.8 per cent.
Current Slovak economic policy is focused on turning the 15 per cent or so of the economy still controlled by the state over to private ownership, and reforming the republic’s still rigid employment code. Both measures are integral to the Slovak Republic’s forthcoming accession to the European Union. After signing an association agreement with the EU in October 1993, the country had fulfilled the membership criteria for the EU by the end of 2002. Along with nine other countries (including seven others from East and Central Europe), the Slovak Republic joined on May 1 2004, a decision endorsed by popular referendum during 2003.
Almost two-thirds of Slovak trade is now with the EU’s 15 existing members. Otherwise, there remain important links with the other members of the Visegrad Group of central European states (Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary – all of whom also joined the EU), as well as the Russian Federation and Ukraine.