December 31, 2012
Twenty years ago, a new country appeared on the world stage. Her name is Slovakia. It’s been a pleasure being a guest in that country this last decade and seeing the people of that land define themselves.
Below is a beautiful account of January 1, 1993, the day that Slovakia officially became an independent country. It is written by Lisa Dunford and is from the book Lonely Planet’s Czech and Slovak Republics, 5th Edition, which I strongly recommend. I find it uncommon and a pleasant surprise for the author of a guide book to have this kind of depth of knowledge about Slovak culture. It would fit in a history book just as nicely as a guide book.
By Lisa Dunford
A bottle rocket zoomed across the tightly packed crowd, whistling shrilly as it passed. I watched as it landed on the end of a young girl’s hand-crocheted scarf, which caught fire. She shrieked and threw the scarf to the ground. At first no-one moved; then an old man with a grey, stubbly beard and a rumpled overcoat came forward and stomped out the small flames. Everyone around laughed. I turned back to see a policeman lighting a sparkler for a babka (‘little grandmother’).
This New Year’s Eve in Bratislava was special: at 12:01 a.m. on 1 January 1993, Slovakia would become an independent nation. The night was painfully cold. Even with long underwear, two pairs of socks, jeans, two shirts, and a sweater underneath my trench coat, I still hurt. I saw the man next to me take a swig of something out of a bottle. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Centuries-old buildings with ornate facades, grey and sagging from years of coal-fire heating and pollution, stared down at us.
At 9 p.m. we’d walked to within 15m of the stage on Nám SNP, the same square where protestors had gathered during the Velvet Revolution in 1989. More and more bodies pressed in as midnight approached. The newspapers would later say that more than 200,000 turned out to celebrate a new capital, a new country, a new life, a new year. Not everyone who usually celebrated New Year’s on the square was there though; some stayed home to mourn the loss of Czechoslovakia.
There was no violence, no revolution. This split came to be called the Velvet Divorce, and like many divorces, it just happened. Few claimed to want it. Public opinion polls did not support it. Calls for a national referendum went unheeded. But in the end, too many hateful things had been said, and both sides agreed it would be best to part. Slovakia had never before been a self-ruling nation, unless you count the 18 months during WWII when it was a Nazi protectorate. For the past 67 years Bratislava had played second fiddle to the central government of Prague. Now, for better or worse, it would get to stand alone.
Months of bickering about how to divide the assets were yet to come. The new Slovak Republic would end up with no aeroplanes of its own. Prague would put out new money so fast it would catch Bratislava off guard (the parties had agreed to wait a year). But New Year’s Eve traditionally is a time for jubilation, a time of pure promise. I doubt anyone that night discussed economic feasibility.
A few minutes before the hour, Vladimír Mečiar, a thick man in a black suit, took the stage. The soon-to-be prime minister was reported to be popular with the people, a charismatic, if somewhat heavy-handed, parliamentary leader who had pushed for independence. I couldn’t say I’d met anyone who liked him in the three months I’d lived in Slovakia, though.
Mečiar shouted into the microphone; I didn’t understand all the words, but I knew the sentiment. He spoke about the future, about triumph. At midnight, Mečiar declared Slovakia a nation and the audience erupted. A teenage boy hoisted aloft by the crowd frantically waved the Slovak flag before falling back. The old woman with the sparklers held her daughter and cried. The man who put out the fire popped a champagne cork, sending an arc of sticky liquid cascading down. Firecrackers roared in every direction. And then as a waltz blared from the loudspeakers, the crowd fell silent and we swayed together.
No guns were fired. No soldiers died. The split just happened. And the people danced.
This is from the 5th Edition of Lonely Planet’s Czech and Slovak Republics, which I review here. The 4th edition was written by people so out of touch with Slovak culture that they couldn’t even be bothered to include SNP square on a map. This edition, the 5th edition, is a very different book with at least one author who clearly has depth of knowledge on Slovak Culture. Not only is SNP square (witness to some memorable moments) included on the map, it gets a full page of the text above in a boxed text. What a pleasure it is to come across a guidebook written with such in depth knowledge of Slovakia. As I’ve mentioned before Lonely Planet guides are not for everyone, but this one really does a good job. Kudos to Lisa Dunford.
Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.