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Issue Date:  July 15, 2005

Slovakia at the crossroads

Small nations with rich histories may have much to teach us


Devin Castle sits on top of a 2,000-foot rock at the intersection of the Danube and Morava Rivers. From it you can see Austria to the west, Slovakia and its capital Bratislava to the east, and, just over low mountains to the south and north, Hungary and the Czech Republic. It is almost the exact geographic center of Europe: 350 million people live within a day’s drive. At the castle’s base are the remains of a chapel built by Roman soldiers where archeologists believe the first Mass north of the Danube was celebrated. (A bit earlier, Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations in the general neighborhood as he battled the “Quadi and Marcomanni.”) Turkish forces passed by here on the way to their 1683 defeat at the gates of Vienna by Jan Sobieski. The castle is a ruin now, but has existed for more than 1,000 years at the crossroads of several political and religious currents that have shaped European and Western civilization.

The conversation in this part of the world (where I have been for the past two weeks) continues to revolve around large-scale historical choices. The Slovaks are a very Catholic people and, like the Poles, orient themselves by intention toward the West. They have been doing reasonably well since the fall of communism. The population is the best educated in Europe, which is one reason why the economy has been growing by over 5 percent annually in recent years. Taxes are low: A flat tax of 19 percent has attracted investment and innovative industries. (There are more bars on my cell phone in rural central Slovakia than in downtown Washington -- a mixed blessing, to my eye, for young Slovaks.) Slovakia is poised to become the third largest automaker in Europe. This small nation of under 6 million has even become a sports power. Last year the Slovak hockey team won the world championship, a real-life David-and-Goliath story that has boosted national pride. Gypsies and Eastern Slovakians suffer serious poverty, but for a country that not long ago emerged from almost a half century of oppression, there is much to be amazed at.

Slovaks are nervous about the future, however, and not just for economic reasons. They joined the European Union in 2004, in the “Big Bang,” the expansion of the original 15 countries to almost 30. Given their Catholic and Central European roots, they cast a more jaundiced eye than even the French and the Dutch at the European Union constitution. Faith and family are relatively intact here, though communist-era law shapes questions like abortion and divorce. For most Slovaks, the European Union apparatus, with its “democracy deficit” and standard internationalist social policies, looks all too much like the old socialist centralization that they instinctively reject.

Many of us on the outside wish these new union members had a greater say in shaping the European ethos, but they were told by French president Jacques Chirac during the run-up to the Iraq war -- and fear it will be the case -- that, like children, they should be seen and not heard. A great loss, and not only for a richer cultural conversation within the union. Slovakia and several of the other former communist nations are continental Europeans who have not yet developed characteristic European vices. They value security and solidarity -- many talk about such matters in explicitly Catholic terms -- but have recent experience of government monopolies on public compassion. At the moment, they are working toward a social security system that will allow choices among state-run funds and personal accounts. They’ve seen nationalized health care and, as a result, are elaborating personalized medical savings accounts in addition to standard insurance.

The birth rate has not fallen to Western Europe’s suicidal levels, but it is on the low side as young people pursue university degrees and take advantage of the new social openness. The demographers predict that there will actually be a baby boom over the next decade or so as this first generation to grow up in freedom forms families. Vocation numbers, too, remain strong. Under communism, seminarians had to be approved by the state and were often, therefore, the kinds of people unlikely to become opposition leaders. True Catholic institutions were driven underground, but managed to flourish. Now, the fruits of those trials are clear: In central Slovakia, the communists took over the seminary and turned it into a police academy. You can see the wear from their boots on one side of the stone staircases (Slovakians tell me they have more jokes about police than, in Washington, we have about lawyers). The restored seminary currently numbers about 90 students for an archdiocese of just a few hundred thousand.

I do not know if the Slovaks will be able to resist the European Union, American and global currents that are likely to threaten, rather than strengthen, their most attractive features. But I hope so. As we chew over the relations among the big modern nations, we might do well to remember that there are smaller peoples, with rich histories, ancient and modern, who should be better known and might have something to teach us.

Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, July 15, 2005

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