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Twenty Years of Separation

October 31, 2013 - Martina Cebecauerová - Articles and Commentary

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It has been 20 years since the break-up Czechoslovakia and clearly a lot has changed in the two countries which for 70 years formed one state. And yet, the effects of the divorce of the once complete family can still be felt. But not in the same way by both sides.

With the establishment of two new independent states on January 1st 1993, the people of both the Czech Republic and Slovakia were filled with uncertainty and concern about what the next chapter of their history will look like, as independent states. Today these emotions, once so strong, already seem like history to the younger generation – one which has never experienced neither communism nor its collapse. Nor did they ever experience the dilemma that came with the choice of citizenship: Slovak or Czech? “Where do I really belong? Which country should I work for?”

These were difficult questions, given the fact that the culture and language of these two nations have always overlapped; both Czech and Slovak belong to the Slavic group of languages and are strongly related to each other. This has allowed the two peoples to share, for years, the same means of information, education, entertainment (including literature), newspapers, magazine, TV programmes, films and so on. Without a doubt, being under one umbrella for over 70 years has had a significant impact on the mutual perception of both languages. A significant imbalance, however, has started to emerge between these two countries.

Continuously immersed

Somewhat surprisingly, not much has changed in Slovakia since the break-up of Czechoslovakia. Despite having their own language (which is also the official language of the state) the Slovaks, willingly or not, are still heavily exposed to the Czech language. In this way, the generation born in the late 1980s early 1990s have been continuously immersed in the Czech culture. Even today, some of the TV programmes are in Czech and no dubbing seems necessary. The same goes for a great number of magazines and newspapers which are sold in Slovakia. Slovaks do not have any difficulties understanding the language of their most direct neighbours, once members of the same family. In Slovakia, Czech is not considered a foreign language but rather part of a daily life. Even from an early age, Czech is seen as a part of Slovak culture. Czech cartoons, for example, are very popular among Slovak children. Slovak children, often completely unaware of it, even use Czech words when speaking.

On the other side of the border, however, the course of events has taken a completely different shape. Since the 1990s in the Czech Republic, there has been significantly less efforts to preserve the culture of their former other half. Contrary to Slovakia, the young generation of Czechs have not been raised in an environment deeply exposed to Slovak culture, especially in regards to the language. Young people in the Czech Republic are not exposed to Slovak on a daily basis. This can lead to a greater misunderstanding of their neighbours.

Another clear example of this difference can be seen in films. In Slovakia, Czech films are shown in the cinema in the original language without translation. Slovak films shown in the Czech Republic, however, are dubbed. This imbalance between the two nations which not that long ago lived together in one state seems to be growing. It is also quite regrettable that after only 20 years these two languages are drifting apart so quickly. And along with this drift, opportunities to build a multilingual society is also fading.

When the break-up of Czechoslovakia took place, nobody knew to what extent relations between the two new states would be affected. Since the end of the First World War, Czechoslovakia had existed for over 70 years, with the exception of the Second World War when Slovaks were forced by Nazi Germany to create an independent fascist state (1939-1945). And although the separation of the state took place not that long ago, there is already a new generation, which has not lived through the radical changes that occurred in Czechoslovakia in the early 1990s. This is probably the main reason that they cannot be blamed for the lack of understanding of the close ties between Czechs and Slovaks.

Examining the causes leading to the break-up, there had not been any signs of cultural dominance, hatred or exaggerated nationalism among Czechs and Slovaks. The separation of Czechoslovakia was an alternative to the unsolvable disputes in regards to different political and economic attitudes. The transformation was based on mutual agreement between two sides evading any use of force or aggression.

Time passes, good relations prevail

Despite the atmosphere of uncertainty that characterised the 1990s, cooperation, especially at the state level, between the two countries is good. Certainly, many would agree that familiar relations between the Czech Republic and Slovakia are not the past and would hardly regard each other as a foreign country. The interactions between the Czechs and the Slovaks are quite visible at different levels. For example, studying at Czech universities is very popular among Slovak students. To do it, they do not have to submit any proof of Czech language proficiency and the entrance process is quite easy. Hence, a lot of Slovak students attend Czech universities in Prague, Brno, Ostrava or Olomouc. And while the capability of the Czech youth to speak Slovak language is on the decline, the professors and employers generally do not have any objections and accept Slovak students. Whether applying for university or seeking employment in the Czech Republic, Slovaks, overall, do not face many obstructions.

Another level is culture, and especially the film industry, which is growing in importance in the Czech Republic and engages many good Slovak actors. Prague, in comparison to Bratislava, is more of an international and multicultural city, making it is so attractive for Slovaks who do not considered it as “abroad”, but rather as “somewhere in-between”.

All in all, despite the growing differences in language skills, for Slovaks the Czech Republic is unlikely to turn into a country where they would experience language barrier in short period of time. Moreover, today’s greater cross border exchanges and cultural cooperation obviously evidenced between the two countries is well appreciated especially by those who had been in doubt, during 1990s, of any future contact. Even Slovak sausages and traditional cheese “bryndza” sell like hot cakes in Czech stores. And even though it is unlikely that the next generation of Czechs will rediscover their Slovak neighbours in as deep way, hopefully a deeper cooperation of the once split family will follow its path.

Martina Cebecauerová gained her BA in International Relations and European Studies at Metropolitan University Prague, the Czech Republic. She is currently working as an intern for New Eastern Europe.

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