Slovakia - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion

Read about Slovakia: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Slovakia, landlocked republic in central Europe, bounded on the northwest by the Czech Republic, on the north by Poland, on the east by Ukraine, on the south by Hungary, and on the southwest by Austria. Bratislava is its capital and largest city.

Slovakia existed as part of Hungary from the beginning of the 10th century until 1918, when it united with the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia, in addition to a small part of Silesia, to form Czechoslovakia. In 1939, shortly before the start of World War II, Slovakia declared its independence under pressure from German dictator Adolf Hitler, but in 1945 it was reunited with the rest of Czechoslovakia. From 1948 until 1989 Czechoslovakia was ruled by a Soviet-style Communist regime. In 1993 the country broke apart, and Slovakia and the Czech Republic became independent.


Slovakia’s total area is 49,034 sq km (18,932 sq mi). The country’s maximum length from east to west is about 416 km (about 258 mi), and its maximum width from north to south is about 208 km (about 129 mi). The Danube River, located in the southwest, forms part of Slovakia’s border with Hungary.

Natural Regions in Slovakia

Slovakia is known for its numerous and impressive mountain ranges. Many of the country’s mountains give way to rolling hills and river valleys, where agriculture, winemaking, and livestock raising are practiced. Slovakia’s mountainous terrain has also influenced settlement patterns within the country.

The Carpathian Mountains, a major mountain system of central Europe, extend across much of northern and northwestern Slovakia and encompass the Little Carpathians, the White Carpathians, and the Tatry, which is the highest Carpathian range. The High Tatry mountains contain the country’s highest peak, Gerlachovský Štít, which rises to an elevation of 2,655 m (8,711 ft). The High Tatry also contain one of Slovakia’s largest national parks and are a popular place for skiing and hiking. Other important mountains include the Low Tatry, in central Slovakia, and the Lesser and Greater Fatra ranges, in central and western Slovakia. The Slovak Ore Mountains, in eastern Slovakia, are named for their mineral deposits.

Southwestern Slovakia is dominated by the Danubian Lowlands, a fertile region that extends to the Danube River on the Hungarian border. Much of the country’s agriculture is produced in this area; Bratislava is its main industrial center.

Slovakia also contains a number of interesting and unusual caves. Among them are the Demänovská caves, a series of caves linked by underground lakes and waterfalls, located in central Slovakia; and the Domica cave, known for its vaulted roof and colored stalactites, located near the Hungarian border in eastern Slovakia.

Rivers and Lakes in Slovakia

The Danube is Slovakia’s main navigable river. Other important rivers include the Váh, Hron, Ipel’ (Eipel), Nitra, Ondava, Laborec, and Hornád. Many small glacial lakes are located in the High Tatry Mountains.

Plants and Animal Life in Slovakia

Some 39 percent of Slovakia is forested. Species of fir and spruce are common in most mountain areas. At lower elevations, oaks, birches, and lindens predominate. Slovakia’s forests are home to foxes, rabbits, squirrels, weasels, and muskrats; wild boar and wolves are occasionally seen in remote mountain areas. Wildlife stocks have been diminishing in Slovakia, due to pollution, urbanization, and deforestation.

Natural Resources of Slovakia

Slovakia contains significant forest resources. The country’s main mineral resources are copper, lead, zinc, manganese, and iron. Lignite, a type of coal, is found near the cities of Modrý Kameň and Handlová.

Climate in Slovakia

Slovakia has a continental climate, with four distinct seasons. Winters are typically cold and dry, while summers tend to be hot and humid. The average daily temperature range in Bratislava is -3° to 2°C (27° to 36°F) in January and 16° to 26°C (61° to 79°F) in July; temperatures tend to be cooler in the mountains. Bratislava receives an average of about 650 mm (about 26 in) of precipitation annually. In areas of high altitude, snow is often present for as many as 130 days each year.

Environmental Issues in Slovakia

Citizen concern about the environment—particularly air and water pollution—increased in the 1990s. However, efforts to shut down pollution-producing industrial plants have been hampered by economic considerations, including concern about the high rate of unemployment.

Slovakia suffers from some of the worst air pollution in Europe. Coal-burning factories and power plants spew forth huge amounts of pollutants. High levels of nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and soot and dust in the atmosphere present human health risks and contribute to the dangerous levels of acid rain that fall on central Europe. Air pollution and acid rain have caused defoliation in 16 percent of Slovakia’s forests. Water pollution is also severe in many communities. Experts believe that half of Slovakia’s rivers are polluted to such an extent that they can no longer support aquatic life.


Population and Settlement in Slovakia

The Slovaks are descendants of a Slavic people who settled near the Danube between AD 400 and 500. Slovaks comprise about 86 percent of the country’s inhabitants; Hungarians, who constitute the largest minority group, comprise close to 11 percent; and Roma (Gypsies) represent less than 2 percent. Small numbers of Czechs, Moravians, Silesians, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, Poles, and Germans also live in Slovakia.

The country is divided informally into the three regions of Western Slovakia, Central Slovakia, and Eastern Slovakia, corresponding to administrative divisions that were abolished in 1989. Most of Slovakia’s 600,000 Hungarians live in the southern parts of Western and Central Slovakia, which served as the cultural center of Hungary for several centuries after Hungary proper was invaded by the Ottomans in the 16th century. The Ruthenian and Ukrainian minorities are concentrated in the northern regions of Eastern Slovakia. At the time of the 1991 census, Slovakia’s total population was 5,274,335; the 2009 estimated population was 5,463,046. The population density in 2009 was 112 persons per sq km (290 per sq mi). Some 58 percent of the population lived in urban areas.

Principal Cities of Slovakia

Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital and largest city, had an estimated population of 425,000 in 2003. Other important cities include Košice (235,509), an industrial city; Nitra (86,958), a food-processing center; Prešov (92,488), known for electrical-engineering; Banská Bystrica (82,493), in a mining and manufacturing area; and Žilina (85,347), a business center.

Languages spoken in Slovakia

Slovak, a language of the West Slavic subgroup of Slavic languages, is the official language of Slovakia; Slovak is closely related to the Czech language (see Slovak Language). Hungarian is also widely spoken. In July 1994 a law was passed allowing the use of Hungarian as the official language in areas of Slovakia where at least 20 percent of residents speak Hungarian. However, this was retracted by a subsequent law, passed in November 1995, which makes Slovak the only language that can be used in the civil service, on road signs, and in advertisements. A coalition including ethnic Hungarians and members of opposition parties planned to challenge the new law. Other languages spoken in Slovakia include Ukrainian, Romani, and Czech. Most members of minority ethnic groups speak Slovak in addition to their own native languages.

Religion in Slovakia

About 68 percent of Slovaks are Roman Catholics. Protestant churches, including the Slovak Evangelical Church, and the Reformed Christian Church, are also widely supported, claiming about 11 percent of the population as members. The Orthodox and Uniate churches maintain active followings among the Ruthenians and Ukrainians of Eastern Slovakia. Most of Slovakia’s Jewish community died during World War II in the Holocaust. Religion plays a major role in everyday life in Slovakia, with 85 percent of Slovaks claiming a religious affiliation. Even under the Communist system, which explicitly opposed religious practice, the majority of Slovaks baptized their children and were married and buried in religious ceremonies.

Education in Slovakia

Nearly all of Slovak adults are able to read and write. Compulsory education begins at age six, when children enter primary school; primary education takes nine years to complete. After completing primary school, students may choose among three types of secondary education: vocational or technical schools, schools of general education (gymnasia), or teacher-training institutes. Slovakia has 14 institutions of higher education. Comenius University of Bratislava was founded in 1467 and is the country’s oldest university. Technical universities are located in Bratislava, Košice, Žilina, and Nitra.

Way of Life in Slovakia

The reintroduction of a market economy in the early 1990s produced a sharp increase in unemployment, a high rate of inflation, and therefore a decline in living standards for many Slovak families. However, most households are relatively well-equipped with consumer goods, such as refrigerators, washing machines, televisions, and automobiles. Most urban residents live in high-rise buildings; many also own small cottages in the countryside. In rural areas, single-family homes predominate.

The Slovak diet relies heavily on pork. Bryndzové halušky (noodles with goat cheese) and Hungarian dishes including goulash are also widely enjoyed. Wine, beer, slivovitz (plum brandy), and borovička (an herb-flavored drink), are popular beverages.

Attending soccer games and other sporting events is a popular pastime in Slovakia. Many Slovaks ski and hike in the mountains; and urban dwellers attend the opera, the ballet, concerts, and plays. Socializing with friends in wine cellars and taverns is also common.

Social Problems in Slovakia

Slovak society suffers from many of the problems found commonly in developed Western societies. Crime, prostitution, and drug abuse increased after 1989, when the Communist government collapsed, political controls were lifted, and borders were reopened. Poverty has also increased, particularly among single mothers and the elderly.

In recent years, tensions have mounted between the Slovak government and Hungarians residing in Slovakia. Many Hungarians have complained of discrimination and have pressed for educational and cultural autonomy in addition to the right to use Hungarian as their official language. Tensions have also increased at the local level in areas populated by both Slovaks and ethnic Hungarians.


The development of Slovak culture reflects the country’s rich folk tradition, in addition to the influence of broader European trends. The impact of centuries of cultural repression and control by foreign governments is also evident in much of Slovakia’s art, literature, and music.

Literature in Slovakia

In the late 18th century, a national movement began in Slovakia, with the aim of fostering Slovak culture and identity. One of its leaders was Anton Bernolák, a Jesuit priest who codified a Slovak literary language based on dialects used in western Slovakia. In the 19th century, Protestant leaders Ján Kollár and Pavol Šafárik developed a form of written Slovak that combined the dialects used in central Slovakia and the Czech lands. The linguist and Slovak nationalist L’udovít Štúr, a contemporary of Kollár and Šafárik’s, rejected the Czech influence and set out to develop a more authentic literary Slovak; his language was adopted by a group of Slovak poets, whose work dealt largely with national Slovak themes. Poetry remained an important literary form into the 20th century, and was used by some Slovak writers to address the experience of World War II and the rise of Communism. During the Communist period, Slovak literary culture suffered from heavy governmental control. The works of Dominik Tatarka, Luboš Jurik, Martin Butora, Milan Šimečka, and Hana Ponicka were exceptions to the pattern of politically influenced works.

Art and Architecture of Slovakia

A Slovak school of painting emerged in the mid-19th century. Sculpture and architecture also developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, much of it heavily influenced by western European styles. Peter Michal Bohún and J.B. Klemens were among the best-known artists of this period. The work of landscape and figure painters Ladislav Medňanský and Dominik Skutecký received widespread attention in the late 19th century. The cubist artist Ester Simerová-Martinčeková and surrealist Imrich Weiner-Kráĺ were influential in the early 20th century. Other important 20th-century artists include L’udovít Fulla, Mikuláš Galanda, Martin Benka, and Mikuláš Bazorský. Dušan Jurkovič was an important architect of the early 20th century.

Folk arts and crafts, which include wood carving, fabric weaving, and glass painting, have a long and popular tradition in Slovakia, especially in rural areas. Examples of folk architecture, such as wooden churches and brightly painted houses, are found throughout the country, particularly in the Ukrainian communities of Eastern Slovakia.

Music in Slovakia

Music has long occupied an important and distinguished place in Slovak cultural life. In the first half of the 19th century, a national musical tradition began to develop around Slovakia’s impressive folk heritage. Modern Slovak music has drawn from both classical and folk styles. Well-known works from the 20th century include the compositions of Alexander Moyzes and the operas of Jan Cikker.

Libraries and Museums in Slovakia

There are 12 state scientific libraries in Slovakia, 473 libraries affiliated with universities and institutions of higher learning, and 2,600 public libraries. The University Library in Bratislava, founded in 1919, contains more than 2 million volumes and is the country’s most important library. The Slovak National Library (1863), located in Martin, includes a collection of materials relating to Slovak culture.

Slovakia is also home to more than 50 museums. The Slovak National Museum (founded in 1893), located in Bratislava, contains exhibits on Slovak history, archaeology, and musicology, and is probably the country’s best-known museum. Other museums include the Slovak National Gallery (1948), also in Bratislava; the Slovak National Uprising Museum (1955), located in Banská Bystrica; and the Museum of Eastern Slovakia (1872), in Košice.

Motion Pictures in Slovakia

During the Communist period, when art was to be directed to political ends, filmmakers in Slovakia suffered from the same restrictions that affected their counterparts in the Czech lands. Nonetheless, certain individuals, including Ján Kadár, Dušan Hanák, Štefan Uher, and Juraj Jakubisko, gained international recognition for their work. As in many of the other post-Communist countries of Eastern Europe, the Slovak motion-picture industry has been affected by the reduction in state subsidies and increased competition from international filmmakers. Although the main film studio has been closed, filmmakers Jakubisko and Uher, as well as Martin Sulík and Štefan Semjan, continue to make important and innovative films.


The reintroduction of an economy based on free enterprise has been a difficult process in Slovakia. Because much of the country’s industrialization took place during the Communist era, many Slovakian industries were inefficient and produced goods that were not competitive in the world market. To modernize these industries and retrain workers has required foreign investment, but this has been slow in coming, due in part to perceived political instability in the country. Compounding the problem of outmoded industry was the Czechoslovak government’s decision in the early 1990s to drastically reduce the country’s defense industry. The production of weapons and other military equipment had been based largely in Slovakia and had employed as much as 10 percent of the Slovak workforce in the 1980s. The reduction led to a decline in overall industrial production and a significant rise in unemployment.

The Slovak economy has improved somewhat in recent years. Between 1993 and 1994, gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 4.3 percent, inflation fell from more than 20 percent to about 12 percent, and the budget deficit was brought under control. The pace of change remains slow, however. A fundamental part of the conversion to a market economy is the return of state-controlled enterprises to private ownership. Although many new private firms have been established in Slovakia’s service sector, most of the industrial sector remains in state hands, and privatization has been virtually halted in recent years by the parties controlling Slovakia’s government. In 2007 the GDP was $75 billion.

Slovakia is a member of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), as well as of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). In October 1993 Slovakia became an associate member of the European Union (EU). In December 2002 the EU invited Slovakia to become a full member. Slovakia and nine other countries formally joined the EU in May 2004, during the organization’s second round of expansion.

Labor in Slovakia

The unemployment rate in Slovakia has been 10 percent or higher since the end of Communist rule; in 2007 unemployment averaged 11 percent. The service sector, which has developed very quickly since 1989, employs 56 percent of the labor force. Some 39 percent works in industry, and 5 percent is employed in agriculture. Labor unions are not as important as they were during the Communist period. However, sizable numbers of workers and employees continue to belong to unions because of the benefits they provide. The largest union in Slovakia is the Engineering and Metal Union, which was founded in April 1993 to replace the Czechoslovak Trade Union of Metal Workers.

Agriculture of Slovakia

Although subsistence agriculture traditionally dominated the Slovak economy, this sector declined during the Communist period, when industry was promoted as Slovakia’s principal economic activity.

Cultivated fields occupy 29 percent of land in Slovakia. Wheat, barley, maize, sugar beets, and potatoes are the country’s principal crops. Viticulture (the cultivation of grapes for wine production) is practiced on mountain slopes, and some tobacco is grown in the Váh River valley. The breeding of livestock, including pigs, cattle, sheep, and poultry, is also important.

Mining and Manufacturing in Slovakia

Copper, lead, zinc, manganese, iron, and lignite are Slovakia’s chief mineral products. However, the country’s mining industry has decreased in importance since the end of Communism, as many mines were found to be inefficient and unable to compete in the market economy.

Slovakia became industrialized in the latter half of the 20th century, under the Communist government. The Communists emphasized heavy industry, including the production of machinery and steel. Much of this was produced for military purposes, and Slovakia became the center of Czechoslovakia’s weapons industry.

Manufacturing is still one of the most important sectors of the Slovak economy. Ceramics, chemical products, machinery, petroleum products, steel, and textiles are among the chief manufactures; the production of processed food, such as beer and sheep’s cheese, is also important. Although the weapons industry declined with the collapse of Communism, it has been revived somewhat since Slovakia gained independence in 1993; military equipment produced in Slovakia is now primarily exported.

Energy in Slovakia

Much of Slovakia’s energy supply is imported, particularly oil and gas. Hydroelectric power from plants located on the Váh, Orava, Slaná, and Hornád rivers provides an important domestic source of energy. There is a nuclear-power station at Jaslovské Bohunice and another one under construction at Mochovce. In 2006, Slovakia produced 29.7 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity.

In 1977 the Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros hydroelectric project began as a joint effort between Czechoslovakia and Hungary, with Austria providing technical and financial assistance for the Hungarian part of the project. The plan called for the diversion of the Danube and the construction of two dams on the section of the river that formed the Czechoslovak-Hungarian border. One dam was to be built by Hungary at Nagymaros, and the other was to be constructed at Gabčíkovo in eastern Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia). In 1989 environmental concerns led Hungary to abandon the project; the Czechoslovak government proceeded unilaterally on construction of the Gabčíkovo dam, producing a major dispute between the two governments. The dispute, inherited by the Slovak government with independence in 1993, was referred to the International Court of Justice at The Hague, the Netherlands. A 1997 ruling that both countries had violated the project agreement did not resolve the dispute.

Tourism and Foreign Trade in Slovakia

Slovakia’s tourism industry has grown since the end of Communist rule. In 2007 the country received 1,685,000 visitors. Slovakia’s historic cities and numerous mountain ski resorts are popular tourist destinations.

Foreign trade is important to Slovakia’s economy. In 2007 exports were worth $57.8 billion and imports cost the country $59.8 billion. Crude oil, natural gas, machinery, and transportation equipment are Slovakia’s main imports. Exports include machinery, chemicals, fuels, steel, and weapons. In the mid-1990s the Czech Republic was Slovakia’s main trading partner, supplying about 30 percent of Slovakia’s imports and purchases approximately 40 percent of its exports. Other leading purchasers of exports are Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, and the United States.

Currency and Banking of Slovakia

The monetary unit of Slovakia is the euro. It was adopted in January 2009. The euro was preceded by the Slovak koruna; it was introduced in February 1993, when Slovakia and the Czech Republic began using separate currencies. In 2007 an average of 24.70 koruny were equal to U.S.$1. Slovakia’s central bank is the National Bank of Slovakia, founded in 1993 with headquarters in Bratislava. The central bank is responsible for setting monetary policy, issuing currency, and supervising the activities of other banks. More than ten new commercial banks also have been established since 1990. A stock exchange is located in Bratislava.

Transportation in Slovakia

Slovakia currently has 43,000 km (26,719 mi) of roads. Railroad track extends for 3,629 km (2,255 mi), linking all of the country’s major cities and many smaller towns as well. Tram and light rail networks have been developed in Bratislava and Košice, where Slovakia’s main airports are also located.

Communications in Slovakia

The constitution adopted in 1992 prohibits censorship and provides for freedom of expression and the right to information. There are currently 13 daily newspapers published in Slovakia. Those with the largest circulations are Nový cas (New Time) and Pravda (Truth), both published in Bratislava. More than 500 magazines and journals are also published in the country. Slovakia has two national television stations, both owned by the state; several independent local stations also exist. Although private radio stations were permitted after 1990, these stations have had difficulty competing with state radio channels.


In November 1989 massive demonstrations by citizens in cities throughout Czechoslovakia brought about the end of Communist rule. A non-Communist government took office, and the country’s new leaders began the difficult process of transforming Czechoslovakia’s political system, recreating a market economy, and reorienting foreign policy. The country’s first multiparty elections were held in June 1990.

During the early 1990s, Czech and Slovak leaders within the government began to disagree on economic and political issues. Parliamentary elections held in June 1992 brought a leftist government to power in Slovakia, while a center-right group won control of the Czech Republic. Later that year, the leaders of the two republics decided to split the federation into two independent nations. A new constitution of Slovakia, adopted on September 1, 1992, went into effect with independence in January 1993. The constitution declares Slovakia to be a parliamentary democracy. The first parliamentary elections of independent Slovakia were held in 1994.

Executive of Slovakia

The president of Slovakia is popularly elected to a five-year term. The presidency is a largely ceremonial position. The president is responsible for naming the prime minister to head the government; the prime minister is typically the leader of the party with the majority of seats in parliament. Under the advice of the prime minister, the president also appoints a cabinet.

Legislature of Slovakia

Slovakia has a single-chamber parliament called the Slovak National Council. The parliament’s 150 members are elected to four-year terms by popular vote. All citizens over the age of 18 are eligible to vote in Slovakia.

Judiciary in Slovakia

Slovakia has a constitutional court composed of ten judges. These judges are appointed to seven-year terms by the president, from a list of names proposed by the parliament. The country’s judicial system also includes the Supreme Court, regional courts, district courts, and a military court. Most judges for these courts are elected by parliament or appointed by the minister of justice.

Political Parties of Slovakia

Many political parties are active in Slovakia. They include the liberal Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (known by its Slovak acronym, HZDS); the center-right Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU); the Direction-Third Way (Smer), a coalition of centrist parties; the Party of the Hungarian Coalition, representing ethnic Hungarians; the center-right Christian Democratic Movement (KDH); the centrist New Civic Alliance (ANO); and the Slovak Communist Party (KSS).

Local Government of Slovakia

Slovakia is divided for administrative purposes into 8 regions and 79 districts. The regions are directly subordinate to the federal government, and regional officials are nominated by the federal parliament. Administrative districts are directly subordinate to the regions, and their officials are elected by the people.

Health and Welfare in Slovakia

Slovakia’s social welfare system remains largely as it was during the Communist period. The health care system is still run largely by the state, and citizens continue to receive low-cost health care. A national insurance company opened in January 1993; payments into the company’s funds are made by employers, employees, the self-employed, and the state. Many of Slovakia’s childcare centers have closed in recent years, due to lack of funds.

Defense of Slovakia

After the breakup of Czechoslovakia, Slovakia gained control over those units of the armed forces that were based on Slovak territory. All males age 18 and older are required to serve 9 months in the military. In 2006 the total strength of the Slovak armed forces was 15,223 soldiers; 6,038 were in the army, 3,660 in the air force, and the remainder in border guard and civil defense units.

International Organizations in Slovakia

Slovakia is a member of the United Nations (UN), the Council of Europe (CE), and the Central European Initiative (CEI), a group promoting regional political and economic cooperation. In February 1994 the Slovak government signed the Partnership for Peace accord with Western nations, and in 2002 the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) offered membership to Slovakia. Slovakia formally entered NATO in 2004.


Slavic tribes settled near the Danube in the area that is now Slovakia during the 5th and 6th centuries AD. In about 623, a Frankish merchant named Samo organized these tribes into a kingdom that also included tribes from other parts of central Europe. Samo ruled over this Slavic kingdom until his death in 658. Beginning in the early 9th century, Slavic tribes of two different principalities, Morava and Nitra, were united by a Slavic chief known as Mojmír I and ruled as a new state, the Empire of Great Moravia. In the beginning of the 10th century, Magyar tribes from Hungary invaded the region and conquered the empire. Slovakia remained under Hungarian rule, in different forms, for nearly 1,000 years.

In the 1400s a period of religious wars began in the Czech regions of Bohemia and Moravia; many Czech nobles fled the fighting and settled in the territory of Slovakia. Between 1438 and 1453 a Czech noble controlled much of southern Slovakia. In 1526 the Ottomans defeated Hungary at the Battle of Mohács (see Ottoman Empire). While much of Hungary fell under Ottoman domination, Slovakia and the remaining parts of Hungary came under the control of the Habsburg dynasty. Slovakia became the center of Hungarian culture and politics, with Bratislava (then called Pozsony) serving as the Habsburg capital. Under Hungarian rule, Slovaks were pressured to give up their language and cultural identity and become Hungarian. Mainly rural, landless peasants, the Slovaks had little economic status and virtually no role in the political life of Hungary.

During the 18th century, a Slovak national movement was founded with the aim of fostering a sense of national identity among the Slovak people. Advanced mainly by Slovak religious leaders, the movement grew during the 19th century. A key component was the codification of a Slovak literary language by Anton Bernolák in the 1700s, and the reform of this language by L’udovít Štúr the following century. Hungarian control remained strict, however, and a large Slovak movement did not emerge until the 20th century.

The Federation of Czechoslovakia

In 1867 the Habsburg domains in central Europe were reconstituted as the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. During World War I (1914-1918) Czechs, Slovaks, and other national groups of Austria-Hungary were joined by Czechs and Slovaks living abroad in campaigning for an independent state. In October 1918, at the end of the war, Slovakia announced its independence from the empire and incorporation into the new republic of Czechoslovakia. The new republic included the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia, a small part of Silesia, and Slovakia; within these boundaries were areas inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Hungarians. A parliamentary democratic government was formed, and a capital was established in the Czech city of Prague.

Slovaks, who were greatly outnumbered by the Czechs, differed in many important ways from their Czech neighbors. The Slovak economy was more agrarian and less developed than its Czech counterpart; the majority of Slovaks were practicing Catholics while the Czech leadership believed in limiting the power of the church, and the Slovak people had generally less education and experience with self-government than the Czechs. These disparities, compounded by centralized governmental control from Prague, produced discontent among Slovaks with the structure of the new state.

In the period between the two world wars, the Czechoslovak government attempted to industrialize Slovakia. These efforts were not successful, however, due in part to the Great Depression, the worldwide economic slump of the 1930s. Slovak resentment over what was perceived to be economic and political domination by the Czechs led to increasing dissatisfaction with the federation and growing support for extreme nationalist movements. Father Andrej Hlinka, leader of the Slovak People’s Party, and his successor, Father Jozef Tiso, were joined by many Slovaks in calls for equality between Czechs and Slovaks and greater autonomy for Slovakia.

World War II

In addition to Czechoslovakia’s internal conflicts, the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and the aggressive policies of German dictator Adolf Hitler led to the demise of the Czechoslovak federation. In 1938 the leaders of the United Kingdom, France, and Italy were trying to avoid another war with Germany and were willing to negotiate with Hitler. The result of their negotiations, the Munich Pact, forced the government of Czechoslovakia to cede the Sudetenland, an area inhabited largely by Germans, to Germany. Fearing that the federal government would not be able to protect Slovak interests, the Slovak leadership nominated an autonomous provincial government and approved a new constitution, creating the short-lived Second Republic of Czechoslovakia. Faced with the threat of being divided between Germany, Poland, and Hungary, the Slovak government decided to withdraw from the federation and declare its independence. On March 14, 1939, the first independent Slovak Republic was established, and Father Tiso was chosen as head of government.

With independence, Slovakia came under heavy German influence and protection. Tiso allowed German troops to occupy Slovakia in August 1939, and the country entered World War II as Germany’s ally. Government policies were closely aligned with those of Germany’s ruling Nazi Party, and between 1942 and 1944 approximately 70,000 Slovak Jews were sent to concentration camps. Although many Slovaks supported the state, an underground resistance movement also gained strength. In 1944 this movement organized the Slovak National Uprising against German control.

When the war ended in 1945, the republic of Czechoslovakia was resurrected, with the exception of Ruthenia, a small area in the east that was taken over the by Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Prime Minister Tiso was hanged for treason and collaboration with the Nazis, and other high party officials were also punished. Between 1945 and 1948, Communists and representatives of other political parties ruled the country in a coalition government, and a free press existed. Although the Communist Party controlled many important positions, it had less support in Slovakia than in the Czech lands.

The Communist Regime

In February 1948 the Communists provoked a political crisis and took over the government in Prague. Under the leadership of Slovak Klement Gottwald, the Communists patterned Czechoslovakia’s economy and government on those of the Soviet Union. The state took control of the country’s factories and many businesses; private property was nationalized; and farmers were forced to join collective farms in which all land and equipment were jointly owned. The government prohibited opposition to the Communist Party and made efforts to decrease the influence of churches. The Communist Party became the only effective party in Czechoslovakia.

In the 1960s party leaders and intellectuals in Slovakia and the Czech lands created a movement to reform the Communist system. The movement, which came to be known as “socialism with a human face,” was led by Alexander Dubček, a Communist from Slovakia who became the head of Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party in January 1968. The USSR feared that the reforms would threaten its influence in Czechoslovakia, and on August 20 of that year, the Soviet military, assisted by other Communist countries of Eastern Europe, invaded Czechoslovakia. As a result, nearly all the reforms that had been introduced were eliminated. Dubček was replaced by Gustav Husák in April 1969, and ultimately was expelled from the party. Many other leaders and intellectuals who supported liberalization also lost their positions. The Husák government reestablished tight party control and censorship of the press. However, in January 1969 a new socialist federal republic was established, granting the Czech and Slovak republics autonomy over local affairs.

During the 1970s and 1980s, dissent took different forms in the two republics. In the Czech lands, political organizing brought forth a powerful dissident movement called Charter 77. In Slovakia, subversive activity was confined largely to the private sphere. Historically a religious people, Slovaks turned to the practice of Catholicism to express their opposition to the Communist regime. During this period a number of mass pilgrimages and religious celebrations took place in Slovakia; because these events brought large numbers of people together, they effectively became nationalist demonstrations.

Slovakia after Communism

In 1989 revolts against the Communist governments swept through many eastern European countries, including East Germany, Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. In November Slovaks joined with Czechs in mass protests against the Communist government. Less than one month later, the government resigned and non-Communists took control of the country. A new movement called Public Against Violence (PAV) was formed in Slovakia, bringing together political dissidents, intellectuals, and Catholics to lead the transition to an open democratic society. The federation’s first free elections since 1946 were held in June 1990, and were won by PAV in Slovakia and Václav Havel’s Civic Forum in the Czech lands. Havel was chosen as president of Czechoslovakia, and Marian Čalfa, a Slovak, became vice president. Within Slovakia, the new non-Communist government was led first by Vladimír Mečiar, then a member of PAV, and then in 1991 by Ján Čarnogurský, leader of the Christian Democratic Movement.

One of the major tasks facing the new government of Czechoslovakia was the reestablishment of an economy based on free enterprise. The country began a mass privatization program with the goal of shifting hundreds of state-owned companies into private hands, and took steps to encourage foreign investment. However, as these and other reforms got underway, tensions developed between the two republics. Because Slovakia had industrialized during the Communist period, it inherited an inefficient, defense-oriented industrial base; the transition to a market economy thus resulted in greater unemployment and economic hardship in Slovakia than it did in the more economically advantaged Czech lands. Because of their economic differences, Czechs and Slovaks held opposing views about the appropriate pace and nature of economic reform; they also disagreed about how power should be divided between the federal and republic-level governments. These differences complicated the reform process and prevented the adoption of a new federal constitution.

The Breakup of Czechoslovakia

The results of the elections of June 1992 reflected the growing split between the two lands. The liberal Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), led by the Slovak Mečiar, and the conservative Civic Democratic Party, led by Czech Václav Klaus won the two largest representations in parliament; each leader became the prime minister of his own republic. Disagreements between the republics intensified, and it became clear that no form of federal government could satisfy both. In July 1992 Slovakia declared itself a sovereign state, meaning that its laws took precedence over those of the federal government.

Throughout the fall of that year, Mečiar and Klaus negotiated the details for disbanding the federation. In November the federal parliament voted to dissolve the country officially on December 31, despite polls indicating that the majority of citizens opposed the split. In January 1993 Czechoslovakia was replaced by two independent states: Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Slovaks gathered for celebrations in their new nation’s capital at Bratislava.

Independence and Instability

Under Mečiar’s leadership, the process of privatization slowed in Slovakia. In February 1993 Michal Kováč was elected president of the country. Although a fellow member of the HZDS party, Kováč was not a Mečiar ally, and conflicts soon developed within the government. Mečiar’s position was further undermined by the resignation and defection of a number of party deputies in early 1994. In March of that year, Mečiar resigned from office after receiving a vote of no confidence from the Slovak parliament. An interim coalition government comprising representatives from a broad range of parties was sworn in, with Jozef Moravčik of the Democratic Union of Slovakia Party as prime minister. Moravčik’s government revived the privatization process and took steps to attract more foreign investment to Slovakia. It also helped to calm the increasingly strained relations between Slovaks and resident Hungarians, who had begun campaigning for educational and cultural autonomy. In May a law was passed by parliament allowing ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia to register their names in their original form; this replaced previous legislation requiring Hungarians to convert their names to the Slavic form.

In elections held in the fall of 1994, the HZDS Party, led once again by Mečiar, received 35 percent of the popular vote and announced its plans to form a government with the support of the ultranationalist Slovak National Party. Although the two parties did not control enough parliamentary seats to command a majority, this situation was resolved in November when the left-wing Association of Slovak Workers joined Mečiar’s coalition. The new government took office in December, and Mečiar became prime minister for a third time. In an effort to reverse Moravčik’s liberalization policies, the Mečiar government returned radio and television communications to state control and blocked the privatization of state-owned companies. These and other measures aimed at centralizing power in Mečiar’s hands were met with concern by a number of Western governments.

In the months that followed, tensions mounted between Mečiar’s government and President Kováč. In May 1995 the Slovak National Council passed a vote of no confidence in Kováč over his alleged failure to control the activities of the Slovak Information Service, the intelligence agency that had been transferred from Kováč’s authority to that of the government the previous month. The vote, which had no legal consequence, was declared unconstitutional by Kováč. Prime Minister Mečiar backed the resignation demand. In June Kováč was stripped of his role as head of the armed forces.

Since becoming independent, one of the priorities of Slovak foreign policy has been to maintain good relations with the Czech Republic and other central European nations. However, Slovakia’s relations with Hungary have been strained by the status of Slovakia’s large Hungarian population, and by fear among Slovaks of Hungarian expansionism. In March 1995 the two governments took an important step toward peaceful relations when the prime ministers of both countries signed an historic Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation; the treaty reaffirmed the Slovak-Hungarian border, and contained pledges on the part of both governments to protect and foster the rights of ethnic minorities residing in their countries.

Slovakia and Hungary have also been involved in a dispute over the Gabčíkovo dam, located on the Danube on the Slovak-Hungarian border. The dam was initially part of a joint hydroelectric project between Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The project called for the diversion of the Danube and the construction of two major dams, one in each country. However, in 1989 Hungary withdrew from the project, citing environmental concerns. Czechoslovakia proceeded with the construction of the Gabčíkovo dam and completed it in 1992. Hungary continued to object to the project, claiming that by diverting the flow of the river, the Czechoslovak government had unilaterally altered the border between the two countries. Slovakia inherited the dispute when it became an independent country in 1993. That year, the European Union demanded that the two governments forward the issue to the International Court of Justice at The Hague, Netherlands, for arbitration. In September 1997 the court ruled that both Hungary and Slovakia had violated the hydroelectric project agreement. Hungary had breached the international contract by withdrawing from the project, while Czechoslovakia had not been entitled to alter the course of the Danube for the Gabčíkovo dam without Hungary’s consent. The countries were ordered to compensate one another and negotiate the future of the dam project. A resolution has yet to be reached.

In March 1998 President Kováč’s term ended and none of the candidates to succeed him were able to gain the necessary majority in parliament. With the president’s office vacant, many presidential powers reverted to Mečiar. In parliamentary elections held in September, Mečiar’s HZDS party won the most votes with 27 percent. However, opposition parties formed a coalition that took 93 of the 150 seats in parliament. Mečiar resigned as head of HZDS and gave up his parliamentary seat. Mikuláš Dzurinda, the leader of the coalition, replaced Mečiar as prime minister. In 2000 Dzurinda announced the formation of a new party, the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU), which unified liberal and conservative groups in a single party in order to challenge the HZDS in parliamentary elections. The SDKU emerged victorious from the September 2002 elections and formed a new government with the help of three other center-right allies; Dzurinda returned as prime minister.

In May 1999 Slovakia held its first direct presidential elections. Rudolf Schuster, a candidate backed by the government coalition, defeated Mečiar in a runoff election, taking 57 percent of the vote. Mečiar ran again in the 2004 presidential election, this time losing to his former ally, Ivan Gasparovic.

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