Our Sunday interview with Zuzana Palovic, co-founder of the Bratislava-based NGO Global Slovakia. We talk Slovakia’s place and brand in the world, how it can promote better relations with its diaspora abroad, and ties with its Czech neighbours to the west and Hungarian neighbours to the south.
Can you tell us more about the Global Slovakia initiative ?
I am the founder of Global Slovakia, an NGO dedicated to sharing Slovakia with the world. We are unique in the sense that we produce content that is mainly in English because obviously we are trying to reach the world, so we use a global language. Slovakia in general is a pretty invisible country in the world, it is also quite invisible in Europe, it was the smaller brother of Czechoslovakia, we were behind the Iron Curtain. Before that, we were part of Austria Hungary, so Slovakia has a very short experience of having sovereignty and of being an independent country. That means we are a country that is also coming into its identity, and through this process, it is also discovering how to position itself in the world.
I consider myself as a global citizen and a Slovak, I want to use my know-how from having lived in different countries, having multiple citizenships to help communicate Slovakia’s story to a global audience.
Who is the main audience of your books? Is it mainly Slovaks living abroad, or are Slovaks living in Slovakia also interested?
That’s really hard to say, that’s kind of what makes our job exciting because we have to communicate to two different audiences. Our main purpose is to “sell” Slovakia globally, and there’s not a lot of people in our country that can do that, my team and I feel that we are in a unique position to achieve that goal. But at the same time, we would like to contribute to the dialogue that’s happening in the country, so we also do awareness-raising campaigns and produce literature in Slovak for Slovaks. It’s mostly about empowerment and education.
In 2019 we released Czechoslovakia behind the Iron Curtain on the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Velvet Revolution, and as part of raising awareness about the dissolution of the totalitarian regime, we spoke to 2,000 students all over the country. But in general, the resonance with our work and the positive response usually comes from abroad. Its people outside, or beyond Slovakia, that support our initiatives and buy our books.
Can we say that the purpose of Global Slovakia is also to build a brand?
Absolutely, we are helping to build the Slovak brand. We are players in it, but on a personal level, me and my colleague Dr Gabriela Bereghazyova, about five years ago submitted a proposal in the national tender for the first-ever Slovak brand. Because for the first time in 23 years, Slovakia had its first ever national branding tender to create the very first Slovak brand. Most countries pay a lot of money for this, but my colleague and I were so passionate about this opportunity, we convinced a renown British graphic design studio to join us – free of charge. We just went for it, unfortunately, we ended up being kicked out of the competition due to a technicality. This was heartbreaking for us, and another new brand was chosen. But we learned a lot along the way.
This was actually even before Global Slovakia was born. That is where you can really see the seeds of our initiative, which is truly to help brand and promote the country.
One way you can brand the country and why we think we are in a unique position to do so and why we even dared to go into a government tender with absolutely zero experience in marketing or graphic design, is because, in order to communicate the story of our country to a global audience, you need to know how those people think. That’s the thing with Slovaks doing it, they can do it very well for a domestic audience, but sometimes there’s a big gap in terms of understanding how outsiders view Slovakia and how to speak to their mindsets, many projects fall short of actually speaking to the “a world” beyond Slovakia.
This is a long-term issue and one of the main drawbacks of being behind the Iron Curtain for forty years. The post-communist countries simply did not have enough experience or “contact” with the West for decades upon decades, and that lack of know-how shows… They don’t know the mindsets because they haven’t had contact with those societies, so you need these kind of “hybrid” people, these people that can exist in or know both worlds, like myself, to step in.
When you talk about outsiders, do you conflate Western Europe with North America altogether or do you distinguish both?
In general, if we want to go to the core argument, the reality is these countries were behind the Iron Curtain. There was no contact with the West, the West was Western Europe and North America in this case. So, it can be all of that obviously, there are specificities, a different way of communicating Slovakia to a European audience, say a French audience, versus an American one. But there is still that need to be able to speak about the country in a way that you speak to an outsider.
When I see a lot of the branding happening in this country, we are speaking in a way that “we” (insiders) perceive our country, but it doesn’t necessarily resonate with a global mindset. So if we sell our country with, say, castles and mountains, there is a lot of competition around us that does the same, and are actually bigger countries with better tourism infrastructure – so we need to find our unique position. Part of finding this is to really have these national discussions, “who are we?”, “where are we going?” or “where do we want to go?”, “what’s the vision?”; that’s something that is generally missing in Slovakia.
So, no castles or mountains then. What would be the main asset that the Slovak brand could sell?
I feel it’s its people and its journey being at the crossroads of so many different systems. Most recently, the Iron Curtain, Bratislava was the only capital actually located on the Iron Curtain. Czechoslovakia was where the communist and free world met. It formed the buffer zone between the “Soviet Bloc” and “democratic West”.
But the legacy of see-sawing at the cusp of converging civilizations goes back to the 1st millennium. For example, Slovakia formed the Roman Empire’s northern-most frontier on the continent of Europe. It constituted the buffer-zone between the civilized Roman empire and the rest of what Romans believed to be a barbarian and untamed Europe.
Later with the advance of Christianity, this small country in the heart of Europe constituted the dividing line between the Latin West and the Greek East, that is between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. This existence at the crossroads of belief-systems is immortalized in the sacral architecture of the country. For example, the wooden churches and onion shaped towers in eastern Slovakia remind us of Byzantium. While the monumental architecture of the Catholic Church scattered throughout the country demonstrate Slovakia’s allegiance to Rome. Did you know that Slovakia has one of Europe’s eastern-most Gothic cathedrals in Europe?
When Slovakia was absorbed into the Kingdom of Hungary, it became known as Upper Hungary and formed the buffer-zone between the Hungarian Kingdom and the reign of Hapsburgs, which then went on to become the Empire of Austria-Hungary. And most obviously, Slovakia, which borders Ukraine on one end and Austria on another, forms the buffer-zone or gateway also between the Slavic and Germanic worlds.
About another one of your books, The Great Return. How important is this trend of people returning to Slovakia? When did it start? How is it possible to measure it?
I did my Ph.D. on this topic. I was interested in how human mobility contributes to knowledge transfer. I viewed return migration to be a fast track means to acquire skills that were missing in our economy. As a society, you can certainly cultivate the skills that are missing in our labor market. But that takes time…
Knowledge and skill gaps are a reality in Slovakia, this is because of the 40-year communist experience, that hampered the development of the human capital. But the problem goes back even further, we had feudalism here for very long time and even when feudalism collapsed, we did not really get out of that mindset. Communism in a way was a kind of continuation of the subject-object relationship, between a ruling class and those that simply “obeyed” them.
I saw the lack of agency and sovereignty in general as a great deficiency in terms of mindsets and skill sets from our region. As I mentioned earlier, you can meet the need of a society and economy by cultivating a new generation of human capital through the education system. But that takes a long time, like thirteen years of schooling.
I was looking at how this country can do quantum leap faster, and one way is through circular migration. Our young people travelling abroad, to say more advanced – economically speaking – societies, getting the “codes” and coming back to implement that know-how back home. And this is what really matters right now, because in Slovakia we don’t have an entrepreneurial ecosystem. All our GDP is exported out in the form of services and products such as cars and administrative services for multinationals that come here to hire cheap labor to do back-end office work for, say, IBM for example. That’s ok, but we also need to build an ecosystem of entrepreneurs that are making businesses sustaining themselves, hiring other Slovaks and selling services outside of Slovakia, because this market is small.
Seeing is learning. When our young people go abroad they get exposure to Germany, France England, etc., they see how let’s say – capitalism works. Then they come back to this society and they become vessels of that knowledge.
This may all sound like incredibly basic, but that’s what’s missing here. Because entrepreneurialism simply didn’t exist. During communism all small businesses, plots of land, industries were collectivized and seized by the state. Nobody was allowed to run their own business. And this is why for generations there was no “know-how” for generations with how to actually do business. And then 1989 happened and people all of a sudden were expected to make money, and simply did not know how.
So is it about importing a proper capitalism?
It’s not just about capitalism, or entrepreneurialism, it’s also about freedom, independence, democratic thinking. As well as critical thinking and creativity. When our young people go abroad, they can acquire these skills, which are the norm in most Western societies and bring them back.
And this already happened organically, when Slovakia joined the European Union in 2004, around 200,000 young people left in the subsequent years. But unlike the previous diaspora waves – because of the EU tenet of “freedom of movement”. That has been a game changer for “Eastern European” migrants, because for the first time the people that were formerly behind the Iron Curtain could live, work or study in any other EU country as if they were in a “national” there.
In practical terms, and for Slovaks, it means we can go live abroad without needing to naturalize in the country, without the need to actually become German or British to be able to stay and work there. Thanks to the supranational citizenship that European Union offers they can go and then come back, hassle-free of any immigration visa. That’s why the trend of “circular migration” has become so normal, it’s because borders were opened and Europe was in a way unified. So young people leave, and young people are coming back now.
In Slovakia the actual statistics of out-migration and return are still very hard to measure, because Slovakia doesn’t have any organs that registers those that left. However, there are many qualitative studies that confirm 50% of those young people that left to study abroad are back in Slovakia just two years after graduation.
We can also make a reference by proxy with neighboring Poland, where studies were conducted to show that 50% of migrant Poles in the EU are back in Poland at any given time. This demonstrates a tremendous potential for these countries not to lose their human capital, but rather to see an influx or circulation – back – of new knowledge, and new ways of thinking.
2004 was an important step, but this phenomenon of people leaving and coming back was already happening before?
No, not really. People mostly just left… During the communist regime, “leaving” was banned. If you left, or managed to somehow illegally cross the Iron Curtain, you were labeled a “defector”. Because of the political upheavals, you had huge waves of people that left but they couldn’t come back. For example, in 1948, there was the coup that saw the complete takeover of the Communist Party, this was when 200,000 people fled from Czechoslovakia. Mostly, the intelligentsia, the creative class. Then again in 1968 when the Soviets invaded, almost exactly 20 years later, another 500,000 people fled from Czechoslovakia. Again these were mainly the creative class and the intellectuals.
We have to keep in mind that the people that flooded out of the country, were also those that had the skills sets to also “run” it. Of course, talented people also remained. But the communist’s target audience was the proletariat, so the loss of the Czechoslovakia intelligentsia was in a way a good riddance, in their eyes.
Then in the 1990s, when the Iron Curtain came down, the country embarked on a massive transition from controlled to free-market economy and from totalitarian to democratic thinking. This was the cause of a great amount of instability in Slovakia. For a good several years, the mafia took over, there were killings, bombs, etc. – when all of the assets of the country were being privatized. And at the same time there was a huge power vacuum because of the collapse of the old system. So, a lot of capable people left, not in the same numbers as before, but they left nevertheless in search of greater economic stability.
But it was only in 2004 when the borders truly opened for Slovaks, when Slovakia joined the EU, that young people took advantage of this so called “return to Europe”. This was when you could travel, live and work abroad with just your passport, and you had the same privileges as a French or Belgian person. The cost of migration decreased and people started to view mobility as an opportunity to learn something new, even a new language. This when you could meet architects and engineers in London, that were happy serving coffees. Because their migration wasn’t permanent, it was like a “working holiday”. Many intended to go back to their country because that’s where they could actually apply their education and have a good life.
Thanks to the tenet of “freedom of movement” which I personally believe is one of the greatest legacies of the EU, people can come and go more easily. Of course, once abroad, their goals and aspirations to return back to Slovakia may change. They can fall in love or start families with locals, in which case it’s less likely for them to return.
Once again Slovakia is losing a lot of human capital and that’s why we formed the One Slovak Family initiative, we want to encourage bridge-building with the Slovak diaspora also via the extension of Slovak citizenship. Or stopping the unnecessary loss of Slovak citizenship. Because if a Slovak migrant is living in France, and has a child there for instance, they may prefer to become a French citizen to assimilate into the society but also make life easier for themselves and their progeny. But the way the current law is structured means they would lose their Slovak citizenship once they gain the French one. Slovakia is shooting itself in the foot unnecessarily, and this is why the 2010 law needs to be reversed so that we do not continue to punish the diaspora, but rather work with them.
What is the profile of people coming back? You already mentioned a bit about their motivations but do we know more? Are they maybe sometimes disappointed about their life in the West or could it be a sign that Slovakia is “catching up”, so to speak?
Slovakia is certainly catching up, that’s why we have all these multinationals investing in this country.
People are coming back to a more politically and economically stable country, but again we don’t really have the numbers. There are now initiatives, organizations and NGOs out there that are very well funded that are trying to practically drive return by pairing, for example, young students abroad with companies back home, as well as with work opportunities in the Slovak government, including ministries that can truly benefit from their languages and skill-sets. This is all happening in real-time, but there is no real infrastructure in terms of how to integrate these people back, because for many years the government was simply used to them leaving – permanently.
Is it common for people who left in the 1980s or the 1990s, and have been living abroad for say 20 years, to all of a sudden decide they would rather go back to Slovakia?
Of course, it happens but it’s not common, it’s very rare. This may change because there’s now this interest in general with people wanting to research their ancestors and connect deeper with their roots. But realistically, the only people the country can truly attract back in bigger numbers are fresh graduates. When people start to get settled in “normal adult lives”, it’s much harder for them to just up and move.
Slovakia has the largest student diaspora per capita in the EU: a little bit less than one-third of our university students are abroad, mostly in the Czech Republic, but that just shows how many people have left. Our best, or soon to be best human capital is outside, and that means once they graduate, they will be contributing their skills and talent to foreign labor markets.
Can we talk about a brain drain?
Absolutely. Brain drain, or the flooding out of Slovakia’s best and brightest has been happening for a long time. For example, when we were part of the Empire Austria-Hungary, at the turn of the 19th and 20th century, one-third of our nation immigrated, mostly to the United States. They left to find work, make money and basically feed themselves and their families.
Could you maybe tell us the typical life path of a person you interviewed?
In my book “The Great Return” I mostly focused on young people – men and women that were finishing high school or finishing university when we joined the EU in 2004. They were in a unique position, because they were essentially “free”. They didn’t have a career, most weren’t married yet, so they decided to take advantage of the freedom of movement they gained as newly ascended EU citizens and roam. A large number went to Western Europe, and it’s there they gained direct exposure to a different way of life.
What’s the current relationship with the Czech Republic?
The Czech Republic is the number one destination for young people in Slovakia. Mostly because of the universities, and the Czech language is very similar to Slovak. Due to bilateral treaties, Slovaks are able to study there but write their thesis in the Slovak language. There are all these privileges that make it easy for Slovak students, on top of the proximity between the two countries, for them to study in the Czech Republic.
The problem is that many Slovak students then stay and become employed – meaning they add value to the Czech economy as working professionals, rather than their native Slovakia. This is a direct example of brain drain. Some would say this pattern is inevitable, Slovakia has historically been the weaker player economically, and even socio-culturally we’re not as powerful as the Czechs, but nevertheless, we have very good and friendly relations.
Do you think this relation needs to disappear in a way? Is the Czech Republic an asset for Slovakia, or would you prefer to see a truly global Slovakia where people go abroad, no matter where, and come back from anywhere, so to speak?
I think it’s an asset. I think the Czechoslovak relationship will only strengthen over time and into the future. The stronger Slovakia comes into its identity and gains more self-confidence as an equal nation, the more it can pair up with the Czechs, and do things that are mutually beneficial to both brethren nations.
Let’s talk diaspora and double citizenship. The concept of diaspora is widely used but, in a way, it remains still somewhat difficult to agree on a universal definition.
Absolutely. Diaspora means a scattering of seeds. Because the conditions here in Central Europe were not stable, there’s been many diaspora waves in the last century. I would love to see these diaspora communities reconnect with their homeland and through it create a more global Slovakia. Right now, you have different generations that left during different social, economic and political cycles. Which is why these communities in way do not have much in common, for example those that left in 1968 or 1948 are very different in mindset from those who left in 2004.
One of the key ways the diaspora can unify to the benefit of Slovakia is if this country starts to acknowledge them. During communism there was a very aggressive policy against those that left. They were to be punished and their families were punished for it, so these imprints don’t just die out. When people leave today, there is still a certain aversion to them, it’s as if they abandoned their country. Which is not the case, because most Slovak migrants abroad want to keep positive relations with their homeland, it is only natural.
Can we still talk about a diaspora when the motherland itself does not recognize its own citizens abroad?
The law was changed for geopolitical reasons with our immediate neighbors to the south, but it had very serious consequences on the current diaspora. It’s very reflective of the relationship that government had to the diaspora. It didn’t seem to care.
It didn’t care at all?
That particular government that had been running the country for over a decade until very recently. SMER’s voter base was not the diaspora, in fact the diaspora could compromise their position of power. In their eyes, we were just troublemakers and would destabilize the hegemony they have. But, in 2020 a new government was formed, and these political parties have a different mindset and are also reforming the laws, including the Slovak Citizenship Act which saw dual-citizenship banned in Slovakia in 2010. Of course, they are not only changing it because they want to unify the Slovak diaspora, they’re also changing it because it’s in their interest to do so, so they can gain more voters.
But the change is happening simultaneously. People at the bottom, the diaspora for example, are becoming more empowered and are making demands, like that of easier voting from abroad. Seeing this cohort as potential voters as well, political parties are responding.
Do you think it will change in the future? Ironically, Hungary does the exact opposite and genuinely uses the Hungarian minority abroad for their votes. Wouldn’t that be an “inspiration” in Slovakia?
Absolutely, for some parties yes, but up until recently, the ruling [SMER] party in power for many consecutive years didn’t find it in its interest to incorporate the diaspora. For the current party coalition, the opposite is true.
Let’s imagine that this law banning dual citizenship remains in the long term. What will be the consequences? Do you think it will negatively affect the feeling of belonging and of national identity for Slovaks abroad?
I think so. The law on dual citizenship will definitely change. What the argument is now is that you can become a dual citizen of another country and maintain your Slovak citizenship if you’ve lived in that country for five years, which is a long time. If the restrictive law on dual citizenship doesn’t change, that would be completely crazy: Slovakia would unnecessarily lose so many people – its very own citizens. We would continue to lose our most talented human capital and would continue to punish those that left us, and that would just be the continuation of the same communist way of thinking.
The acceptance of Slovak nationals having “plural” citizenship would require a whole societal thinking shift in Slovakia. In today’s day and age of hyper mobility, and vast and continued out-migration from Slovakia, national identities inevitably become more fluid. Due to migration and people living in foreign countries, you can be Slovak, but you can also become citizen of Britain, France, Germany, etc. But here, people don’t really understand that, their thinking remains very black and white. You are either with us or against us.
Historically the Slovak and Hungarian people have inhabited together, it’s still in the history of some people with double identity, is it not?
Yes, the national and ethnic pluralism of our country makes some uncomfortable. Many Slovaks prefer to see national allegiances as a black and white issue, you are either Slovak, or you are not. Of course, it’s not that simple when for example 10% of Slovakia’s population is ethnically Hungarian, and another 10% are Roma.
Some people in Slovakia believe, or how shall I put this: the more populist perspective is that Slovaks were here first, and Hungarians came after. Indeed, historical records show that the predecessors of the modern Hungarian people were a nomadic tribe that came to the region some 1,000 years ago. Of course, once they settled, they also began to rule – including over the Slovaks. Yet both people co-existed harmoniously, and present-day Slovakia became absorbed in the Kingdom of Hungary.
The tensions between the two people date back to a more recent history, some 150 years due to the Magyarization process – the “one state, one nation, one language” policy of the Kingdom of Hungary that resulted in the forced assimilation of Slovaks… Ever since then, there have been grievances. And the past injustices spill over into present day. The Slovak government took away dual citizenship because of the perceived Hungarian “threat”. Even right now, as recently as last month, there was a hearing in the Slovak parliament about the reform of the Slovak Citizenship Act to once again include the extension of dual-citizenship. But one of the MPs referred to it as a compromise to national security.
I see this as outdated thinking. It is to Slovakia’s advantage to have a population that understands the perspective of both sides, “both tribes” so to speak. This is the advantage of any buffer-zone, it is a natural point of convergence between worlds. Persons with identities that bridge both sides of the border can actually help to deescalate conflicts. Not that there are any such acute conflicts of course. Politicians like to dramatize them to sway voters…
Nevertheless, I have to say that the success of the Visegrad Group has been remarkable, especially as a platform in Brussels. The informal allegiance between Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic shows the way of the future, it shows what can happen when countries can put aside their petty conflicts and paranoias aside and work together towards a common goal. I believe the only future for Central Europe is in cooperation, in working together both economically and politically. We have to learn how to put our differences, and past traumas and injustices aside. Or heal them, together…
How would you compare the Slovak diaspora with other ones, like the Polish or the Armenian diasporas for example?
Compared to the Polish diaspora, it is not as unified or as organized. There is also a failure from the Slovak side to include that diaspora, you can see that also in immigration policies: Poland, the Czech Republic or Hungary have all passed policies that make citizenship by descent very accessible to their diaspora. Slovakia is in the dark age in that regard. That’s why we’re pushing to change it, to make citizenship by descent accessible to descendants of Slovaks abroad. This is a practice which is normal in Ireland, it is normal in Italy and in Western Europe and has been for several decades. Now our neighboring countries have started to join this trend, and we hope Slovakia will join them shortly.
Interview conducted by Thomas Laffitte and originally published in Le Courrier d’Europe Centrale, an official partner of Kafkadesk.