Supporters of the Slovak ice hockey team during the World Championships, Prague 2004 (AFP)

Strike up the national anthem

In the run-up to the Slovak general elections on 12 June, the campaign has degenerated into a nationalist overkill contest. The latest brainwave: have the national anthem played at schools and town halls, on radio and television.

Published on 8 March 2010 at 16:47
Supporters of the Slovak ice hockey team during the World Championships, Prague 2004 (AFP)

On 2 March, Slovakia claimed the dubious distinction of being the only European country to decree that henceforth – starting 1 April – [the national anthem is to resound]( ) in the nation’s schools every Monday before classes begin. And before every municipal meeting in every town and village. To top it all off, public radio and television are to play the tune on their programmes.

These are the directives of the new law to promote patriotism, which was proposed in mid-campaign by three leaders of the Slovak National Party, including Ján Slota [leader of this far-right party, which is part of the coalition government]. But Robert Fico’s SMER Social Democrats helped get the bill through parliament.

The sign of a lack of confidence?

This “Patriotism Act” has confused the Slovaks, who were psychologically unprepared for this new wave of jingoism. No one I know would have thought such a bill could pass. It reminds us of the Communist era, back when, by party diktat, the Czechoslovakian – and Soviet – anthems were played on every possible occasion. Though scrupulously observed, this regular ritual presently became purely perfunctory. Many believe a similar fate is in store for the Slovak anthem.

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Moreover, the Hungarian minority in southern Slovakia see themselves as the target, and wonder what’s next on the chauvinist agenda. In the meantime, they reassure themselves by saying it’s only a manifestation of the Slovaks’ complex: they lack self-confidence.

Playing the national-populist card

More than just a sign of Slovak nationalism, the Patriotism Act is an authentic expression of populist sentiment, which prime minister Robert Fico has succeeded in spreading beneath the Tatras [mountain chain in northern Slovakia] on an unprecedented scale.

Last year, on 1 September, which marks the anniversary of the country’s 1992 constitution, Fico had already proposed putting up a statue of prince Svatopluk, “King of the Slovaks”, in the courtyard of Bratislava castle, and floated the idea of singing the national anthem and running up the Slovak flag before classes in the nation’s public schools. Fico’s populism invariably draws on national themes and myths. Social democratic ideology is dead in central Europe. Hardly a single politician stands up for social justice any more. And that explains why, in a bid to woo voters away from the National Slovak Party, Fico has to play the national-populist card with conviction.

Serving a symbolic purpose

Don’t forget Slovakia is one of the newest countries to emerge in Europe, which is why it needs to undergo a period a national revival. So the latest events may seem a little comical to neighbouring states, which have already been there and done that. Slovakia has to put up with facile derision at the hands of its Czech and Hungarian neighbours. But Slovaks do not display their patriotism any more ostentatiously than other European countries. They make a show of it chiefly in the football stadiums, or when vaunting the charms of their mountainous land or their culinary specialities: borovička [juniper brandy], halušky [national dish of Slovakian gnocchi] and brynza [goat cheese].

So this patriotic booster shot will have no effect – and suffer the fate of many a law adopted by the current government coalition: it will soon go unheeded. Unlike the controversial language law, violations of the Patriotism Act carry no fine or other penalty. It serves, in a word, a purely symbolic, “promotional” purpose. So rebellious citizens are free to flout it as they see fit. Unless, of course, they are wooed.

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