Don Quixote and a time bomb

What does Slovakia mean to Slovaks? It means a country, a land, a homeland, a nation, a society they identify with – some intensely, others less so – based on ties, particularly some newer ones that bind them to their formative period or, as the case may be, the period that preceded their birth and is thus part of the world they can perceive as their current awareness and that is not beyond their powers of navigation. It means a period of 75 years or a century at most, a historical arc aligned with their identity which has been, to put it simply, shaped by the memory of their grandparents.

However, even this brief historical arc is marked by ruptures, traumas, a lack of continuity that the Slovaks have experienced between every 10 to 20 years, mostly in the form of history books and current affairs, and in the form of a continuous denial of the most recent past – and most recently characterized by graft which, paradoxically, has emerged as a symbol of the continuity of modern Slovak politics: there was graft under Mečiar, under Dzurinda and now under Fico…

This has been both the reality and the identity of a society which, in the past twenty democratic years in politics – and I must stress we are talking of democratic politics here – has hit rock bottom.

Yet most recently Slovak politics has been carried out under the slogan of the good old principle of class struggle, with a dollop of added ethnic struggle to spice it up.

And since nationalism in the 21st century has reached Central Europe via the Balkans, this ought to give us pause. Or at least a reason to step on the brakes.

As social and socialist populism in our country blossomed in recent years, we were under the naive impression that this particular kind of folly might not be too dangerous. And that it would be damped down by the global crisis anyway. However, once it was coupled with national and especially the nationalist, brand of populism, some of us began to take notice. I am one of those who noticed although, I must confess, for many years I used to be one of those optimists or Don Quixotes who were adamant that Central Europe was not the Balkans!

While for my generation there may have been some justification for the class struggle argument that we had grown up with in a period of growing social differences, the ethnic struggle that is currently gaining momentum in our country is an entirely different kettle of fish. It is now a key element in the kind of Slovak politics that is seeking to involve all those who are willing to believe in the idea of an irrational struggle for (or in defence of) the nation. There’’s nothing better than unity, especially when the enemy is so clear and obvious! For to believe that this faith alone is worth a sacrifice is truly irrational. And what is a nation if not an irrational unity – one that unites all of us, scoundrels and decent folk, ignoramuses and thinking people, each and every one of us! For a nation – to quote the American expert on nationalism who has the benefit of having been born in Prague, Karl Deutsch – represents a group of people united by a common misapprehension of their origin and a common aversion to their neighbours. The history of Central – and not just Central – Europe abounds in such misapprehensions and aversions. When Slavoj Žižek was asked a few years ago what special contribution the Slovenes would bring to the European Union, he said they would contribute nothing, since their nationalism and navel-gazing had made them part of Europe a long time ago. He might as well have been talking of us.

What applies to the two-million-strong Slovenes, is even more true of us, a superpower in navel-gazing whose importance ever since the romantic period has never extended beyond the area between the Danube and the Tatra mountains. The national cause, the Slovenian philosopher says, exists insofar as as the members of the community believe in it, it is literally a product of faith per se. Its structure is the same as the structure of the Holy Ghost in Christianity… It does not require any external proof or confirmation of faith: the simple act of my faith in the faith of others causes the Holy Ghost to exist. Except that in this Central European space faith, including the faith in a nation, has in spite of every unification often been undermined by doubt, which had an urban rather than rural character. And paradoxically, it has also been undermined by a scepticism about the nation as a sacred object, since many Central Europeans – Slovaks, Czechs, Slovenes, Poles, Hungarians and others – had lived, at least in the past century, in seven or eight different country entities, regimes, in different homelands that expected of them the sacrifice of their lives, even though the blood running through their veins was often a mixture of several nations. In a space so deprived of continuity (and not just conceptual continuity) it is very difficult to cultivate an awareness of national or state identity, patriotism, let alone loyalty, without complications and contradictions. It is much easier to cultivate an awareness of national exclusiveness or of a ghetto. Most experts on nationalism agree that language is the key criterion for granting a nation the right to exist and establish its own statehood. However, Central Europe is not comprised only of nations but also of minorities that have been left behind by the ruptures of history, like some kind of orphans. In this space, history was as shared as it was merciless. Yet this is not the only reason why, unfortunately, this shared history has not yet been written down. However, provided they did not succumb to assimilationist pressures, languages have usually remained a strong sign of identification for these leftovers, for these relics of wars, of changes of borders that showed scant regard for language or historical experience and had more respect for the geopolitical status quo, based on the interests of – usually insensitive – superpowers. This version of history lends itself to reinterpretations according to the demands of the day, yet it is undoubtedly key to a nation’’s identity because it endows it with a human dimension. Moreover, it legitimizes power – most usually, national power, which is usually not too keen on minorities that interfere with its natural homogenizing intentions and make unity, particularly national unity, more complicated.

I would not presume to determine what the key identifying sign these days might be but, in the case of minorities, I am quite sure it is language. That is why it ought to be treated by a national power, or the majority power, in a more sensitive, more thoughtful way, in consultation and mutual agreement, leading to a consensus.

To the best of my knowledge, the Hungarians, particularly the Hungarian minority in Slovakia, regard language as the key element of their identity. Suffice it to recall the Mečiar government’‘s attempts in the early nineties to remove bilingual signs and the ensuing protests in Komárno. The other end of this arc, twenty years on, is the recent protest at the stadium in Dunajská Streda. Then, as now, the issue was the protection of the Hungarian language, under genuine or perceived threat from a controversial piece of legislation. It is no coincidence that on both occasions this half-million-strong minority’’s struggle for identity has focused on the defence of the language. However, the Slovak majority, including the allegedly democratic majority, is not too concerned by this struggle; on the contrary, it is repelled by it, even though it may have some inkling that the legislation in question, though perhaps not unconstitutional, is bad. Yet at the beginning of the 21st century, when the anglicization of our language is tolerated so easily and naturally, it ought not to be necessary to make language the object of romantic arguments, let alone the fuse of ethnic conflict that has sent two allies digging trenches!

Most of the languages of Central Europe, including Slovak, having been codified at least 150 years ago, represent a stable identifying sign of nationhood. Their legislative underpinning thus ought to play a symbolic rather than a repressive role today and ought not to become the instrument of ethnic tension or, God forbid, conflict. The reason I stress this is that even a well-intentioned piece of legislation is bad unless it literally permeates the heads of the people concerned. The present language law, even if it is not unconstitutional, is not good and it won’’t permeate the heads it concerns. And that should give us food for thought. A minority must not be outvoted by the majority on an issue that concerns human rights, let alone its identity, quite apart from the fact that a piece of legislation that is so open to interpretation ought to have been opened up to public discussion and explanation to start with. Then, and only then, and by consensus, ought it to have been passed. And since this has not happened, the law has become part of a conflict which – maybe by coincidence – is meant to distract from the scandal of graft and corruption, and to inflame national passions if not outright conflict.

However, in the current atmosphere, focused as it is on emotion and passion and characterized by strong words and weak arguments, the language law which should, by definition, have been factual, clear and comprehensible – has quickly transformed into a myth which is part and parcel of the nationalist kit, a myth whose factual basis now eludes most people but which, as befits a myth, many believe in. And once we enter the realm of make-believe, reason vanishes. Of course those who support the law believe in it and those who oppose it – and who happen to be Hungarian – do not. Naturally, this is not conducive to an atmosphere of peaceful coexistence between the majority nation and the minorities of Slovakia. It is not sufficient and seems beside the point to try and convince the minority citizens that they are allowed to communicate among themselves in their own language. The language law should have tackled the issue of state versus citizen, and thereby also the issue of bilingualism. This should have been the main point of the law on the languages of national minorities, that is, it should have been a piece of legislation giving a concrete shape to the general charter of regional and minority languages. However, these two laws should have been absolutely compatible with each other. It is true that all this is too complicated and too abstract for the citizen, be they members of the majority or a minority. That is another reason why this may be an artificial problem, one that is driven by intentions that are not linguistic. And, to quote the prominent Slovak linguist Juraj Dolník, we can go as far as claim that the law is unnecessary and harmful because it will result mainly in emotional resistance among those it is aimed at because it questions their social and linguistic intelligence. Instead of creating an atmosphere that cultivates a positive attitude to the Slovak language we have achieved the opposite. Fortunately, the linguist assures us, normal life will go on as before. All that remains is to answer the question whether all this was just much ado about nothing, whether this comedy has by chance not contributed to the escalation of a tragedy whose author presumably still uses a pseudonym, or maybe a well-known alias? And of course, we have no answer to the basic question: cui bono? Do we wish to continue an ethnic confrontation? Or do we wish to slow down, applying the brakes and common sense, and ask ourselves whether our citizens want tolerance or conflict, whether they wish to live in Central European harmony or in Balkan fear? Is Slovakia a country with a tolerant face or does it want to be stuck forever with a grimace of intolerance and confrontation? This is the decision we must take. The sooner the better. For all of us.


Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article was originally published in Slovak in the SME on 12 September 2009. 

We are grateful to Rudolf Chmel for the permission to publish this text in English.