An American with Slovak roots shares his memories of the day when Slovakia was born.

The air was frigid on Bratislava’s Námestie SNP as the calendar flipped from 1992 to 1993, and the pyrotechnics were underwhelming. But then, as the clock struck 12:01 am, hundreds of Slovaks spontaneously joined in singing their new republic’s national anthem, “Lightning over the Tatras.”

Then, a man unafraid of seizing control, took the microphone. “Slovakia is yours,” roared Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar. “And you will be successful!” The crowd cheered enthusiastically, waving the white, blue, and red flag of the world’s youngest state.

Minutes later, Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube” came on the loud-speaker. Bundled- up couples started what vaguely resembled waltzing around the square. They were still dancing at 12:30 am, when I went to bed.

Unmissable Opportunity

In more sober moments, however, many Slovaks I spoke to were apprehension about the so-called “Velvet Divorce” that left them citizens of Czechoslovakia’s smaller, poorer part. Zuzana, a university student married to a Czech, said independence only made future economic and political conditions even less certain than before.

Yet, a taxi driver – we’ll call him Jozef – struck a patriotic note. “This is Slovakia’s big opportunity,” he said, his hands briefly leaving the wheel to illustrate the magnitude of the moment. Then, as his hands returned to the wheel, Jozef added, “It is one the people would be foolish to miss.”

Who would prove right, Zuzana, the pessimistic student, or Jozef, the optimistic taxi driver? With the benefit of a quarter century’s hindsight, the answer is now clear: both.

Optimists vs. Pessimists

It is often said that it is human nature to overestimate change in the short-term and underestimate it in the long. This has been the case for Slovaks and their expectations of what independence would bring.

Those first years saw little progress in economic, political and diplomatic terms. From a low, post-Communist, base of US $15.4 billion (US $7,675 per capita) on that chilly December 31st of 1992, Slovakia’s GDP rose modestly over the next eight years through 2000, due to political leadership focused on populism rather than progress.

At home, Mečiar’s government battled accusations of kidnapping and killing, and abroad, it clung to Russian largess. Meanwhile, its neighbors unambiguously sought to strengthen their connections with western Europe. Slovakia had submitted its application for European Union (EU) membership already in June of 1995, but years passed without the European Commission recommending that negotiations begin. In contrast, the Czech Republic submitted its application in January 1996 and already had the Commission’s agreement to start negotiations in July 1997. In those first five years after the schism, Zuzana’s pessimism was looking more clairvoyant than Jozef’s.

But neither the Zuzanas nor the Jozefs were satisfied to let this continue. In the 1998 general election, they made their voices heard. Defying many prognoses, the election left Mečiar isolated and new parties came to power. The right-left coalition focused on economic reforms and entering Western international structures. Results came quickly. The European Commission recommended starting EU membership negotiations with Slovakia in 1999 and the country joined the OECD in 2000.

Slovakia 1993 // © TASR Peter Brenkus

A “Normal” Country

Not long thereafter, Mikuláš Dzurinda’s government attracted investment by two major car manufacturers. In early 2004, Slovakia was admitted to both NATO and the EU. In late 2007, Slovakia entered the Schengen Area, and on January 1, 2009, Slovakia adopted the euro. Between 2000 and 2008, Slovakia’s GDP rose robustly, reaching US $100 billion. A decade and a half after independence, the optimistic vision of Jozef the taxi driver had been proven correct.

Indeed, as the 21st century entered its second decade, Slovakia had achieved the ambition I had heard friends express over a pivo in the 1990’s: to be a “normal” country. It had been integrated into European structures, and purchasing power had risen to levels comparable with that of older EU members like Portugal, Spain and Greece.

This full status as a player in European and global affairs has brought prestige in a number of ways that would have been difficult to predict on January 1, 1993. Slovak ambassadors have risen to some of the highest ranks in world diplomacy, including Miroslav Lajčák as President of the United Nations General Assembly, Ján Kubiš as Secretary General of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and Miroslav Šefčovič as Vice President of the European Commission.

The country’s good name has also been promoted by its sporting ambassadors. Slovaks have climbed the highest heights with gold medals and trophies in various sports, including ice hockey, cycling, tennis, skiing, canoeing, and biathlon.

What Comes Next?

Could these successes have been foreseen that chilly winter’s night 25 years ago? I doubt even Jozef the cabbie, as he beseeched his backseat passengers to imagine the opportunities, envisioned all this.

But as 2018 dawns, Zuzana would again be nervous, and even Jozef would struggle to maintain his sunny outlook.

Like some of its neighbors, Slovakia is a landlocked country not blessed with a wealth of natural resources. Like them, it is also threatened by the challenges of its own shrinking population. But one hopes that unlike them, Slovakia will not breed protectionist populists who turn inward in a misguided search for strength.

On the contrary, there is an opportunity for a Slovakia that shows steady, visionary leadership at the heart of a strategically vital central European neighbourhood brimming with volatile personalities. This should go hand-in-hand with the stabilisation of national political parties whose fortunes are less subject to the rising and falling popularity of their founding faces.

The time is ripe for Slovakia to emerge as a model state in the region, open to engaging with the world economically, but also culturally. Slovakia would be wise to not merely tolerate immigrants, but encourage skilled workers to bolster its economy. Slovakia has shown that it can transform itself, as it moved from an agrarian to an industrialized society in the middle of the 20th century, and from defence industries to more benign and modern sectors at the turn of the new century.

Now, Slovakia’s challenge will be to show that it can build an economy that uses its heads more than its hands, as heavy industry moves to lower-cost regions, as high tech and services pave the way to the future.

On the whole, independent Slovakia’s first 25 years have been a success story. Whether its next 25 years can build and improve upon this recent history will depend on how much Slovaks have learned from all their experiences. I, for one, believe the future is a big opportunity that Slovaks would be foolish to miss.