Co-author: Gabriela Bereghazyova
On the week of the 48th anniversary of the Soviet Occupation of Czechoslovakia, there is much to reflect upon.
It is beyond a doubt that we do not want that painful history – of separation from the world – to repeat itself. As the host of the EU Presidency our job is to help harmonize Europe. But tensions run high across the 28 member states. The refugee crisis, terrorism, Brexit and the on-going conflict in Ukraine all contribute to increasing anxiety. Pressure coming from many sides brings old grudges back to life. None more apparent then over the migrant allocation quotas and Eastern Europe’s refusal to accept them. This has polarized East and West, each accusing the other of ignorance.
Located at the heart of Europe, we are at the centre of it all
Slovakia is a small landlocked country located in the heart of Europe. With no coastline in sight, we take pride in our greenery and mountains. We often forget that our greatest advantage is our very location. Strategically important, it has caught the eye of many invaders. From the Celts, Germanic tribes and Romans in the first millennium, through to the Magyars and Austrians in the second one. In the last century alone, our little country experienced two brutal invasions. One led by the German Nazis, the other by those who liberated us from their grip – the Soviets.
From Warsaw-Pact to NATO
All former Warsaw Pact countries became members of NATO in less then 15 years after the collapse of the regime. This was a very quick geopolitical turnaround. Evaluating the situation from a consumer perspective, we can safely say the ‘Soviet product‘ failed. How else can we explain the speed with which the former Soviet-bloc countries, including Slovakia jumped ship? Today, just over 25 years after the collapse of the USSR, Russia is chocked-in by defense missiles at NATO bases located in countries that were once ‘brothers’. Vladimir Putin is correct in his assessment of the collapse of the Soviet Union being “the major geopolitical disaster of the last century”. It certainly was a disaster, but a disaster for Russia. Not its former satellite countries. The Russian vision failed in Eastern Europe, and it failed horribly.
From Soviet-Bloc to European Union
Swiftly breaking away from the past, Slovakia along with 8 former Eastern-bloc countries was elated to join the European family in 2004. EU membership has transformed our country. Yes, there are flaws. Yes, structural funds continue to be siphoned into crony pockets. Yes, we are not happy with all the decisions made in Brussels. On the other hand, let us not forget our claim to victory. We are free. Free to move freely. This was something that was inconceivable until recently. Caged from within, we were locked out from the world for 4 decades by our own government.
The West-East Gateway
It is important to remember our past. We are a Slavic Eastern European nation that spent 40 years under Soviet influence. Today, we remain one of the only Eastern European economies using the euro currency. We are positioned on the buffer zone between East and West. Based on our location and history, we have the innate advantage of understanding the perspective of both sides. Germany, France or the UK cannot, because they were never a part of the Eastern world. We were. At the same, we fully align with the ‚West‘ in values. It is enough to look at our European performance. With all this comes a responsibility to serve as a mediator between the two worlds.
It’s time to start exploring what Slovakia can offer the world?
Is there an opportunity for us to step up as a country and re-brand ourselves? These are important questions we need to ask as a nation. It is beyond a doubt that our manufacturing abilities are world-class. Dubbed the ‚Detroit of Europe‘, we are a car market leader. The influx of global multinationals setting up shared service centers in our capital confirms that we are also talented professionals. The efficiency of our workforce is celebrated in international business circles. We are very good at assembling other people’s products and executing other people’s services. It is a win/win. We gain jobs and salaries, while multinationals increase their profits. These advancements meet our immediate needs, but are they enough? Are we happy to be producing, serving and delivering visions of others? Or, do we want to create something of our own? If so, what do we specialize in as a nation? What do Slovaks excel at?
Every great nation thinks at least 100 years in advance
The time has come to start looking to the future. As one of Europe’s youngest nations, we have been very short-sighted. Getting our country off the ground was a priority, but a lot has happened since 1993. We have grown a lot. The next level awaits. Crafting a better future is a matter of care and investment. It is also about getting to know ourselves – who we are and what we are good at. Is Slovakia a bridge between East and West? Could we offer our skills and understanding to both worlds? Are we the future ‚Eastern European Norway‘ in peace-making? What is our 100 year plan?