Wed, Jul 08, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Czech shadow hovers over Slovakia

Relations between Slovakia and its richer, larger neighbor remain ambivalent 16 years after their ‘velvet divorce’ in 1993

By Dan Bilefsky  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BRATISLAVA

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

When the Czech Republic unveiled an avowedly satirical artwork to mark the beginning of its EU presidency last January, neighboring Slovakia was depicted as a giant Hungarian sausage.

It was a stinging humiliation for many Slovaks, who have spent centuries struggling to assert their own sense of nationhood, first as serfs under the Hungarian Kingdom in the 19th century and then as the poorer segment of the former Czechoslovakia.

Slovakia complained about the artwork until the Czech government apologized. The Slovak artist Martin Sutovec drew a caricature showing the Czechs as beetles wearing socks and sandals. Other critics said it was an insult that Slovakia — the first former Warsaw Pact country to join the euro zone, in January — was being compared with Hungary, the economic sick man of the region.

The fierce reaction underlined both the insecurities that continue to dog the European project, and the ambivalence of relations between Slovakia and its richer, larger neighbor 16 years after their “velvet divorce” in 1993.

Slovakia, so proud of having finally bested the Czechs in some international league by joining the euro zone first, exuded all the uncertainty that still makes it so hard for Eastern and Western Europe to feel like a joined-up whole.

Even a well-established country like Austria can feel lorded over by far-larger Germany.

After the rocky separation from the Czechs, Slovakia at first languished under the authoritarian rule of Vladimir Meciar. Then it remade itself as a low-tax, investor-friendly haven in Central Europe, becoming the post-Communist darling of the former Soviet bloc.

The decision to join the euro zone was embraced in Slovakia as a canny move that would shelter it during hard economic times. Instead, Slovakia’s economy tied Latvia’s for the sharpest downturn in the 27-member EU during the first four months of the year, contracting 11.2 percent after years of strong economic growth.

While the decline was a setback and brought “I told you so” remarks from the Czechs, who have clung to their national currency, the koruna, Slovak officials insist that it is they who will have the last laugh when the global economy improves and their wealthier, haughty neighbors remain isolated.

Martin Barto, vice governor of the National Bank of Slovakia, attributed the recent weakening of the economy to a steep fall in exports to Western Europe that had hit the country’s large automobile industry.

A pricing dispute over natural gas between Russia and Ukraine in January also cut Slovak supplies and all but halted industrial output for two weeks. But, Barto insisted, the stability and political influence afforded by membership in the euro zone will ultimately prove to be a lifeline.

“It was a big psychological boost for this country that we were in the euro ahead of the Czechs and the Hungarians,” he said in an interview. “There was a certain extra satisfaction, because the Czechs have always considered us their weaker and poorer cousins.”

Nevertheless, businesses across Slovakia have looked on with growing alarm in recent months as a small army of Slovaks has gone shopping in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, taking advantage of the relative strength of their euros to buy things from livestock to cars outside the country.

Roman Guta, a 35-year-old Slovak distributor of dental equipment, lamented that nearly a dozen buses filled with Slovak dentists had recently traveled to nearby Poland, where X-ray machines, dental floss and other dental necessities had become cheaper. But he insisted that he would not give up the euro for one simple reason: “For the first time, the Slovaks are ahead of the Czechs in something,” he said. “That is well worth whatever sacrifices.”

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