SLOVAKIA is a genuine comparator for a Scotland looking towards independence. It is a country of just over five million people that split from a larger union in which the other half was dominant, though both Czechs and Slovaks had been under Soviet domination since the Second World War.
That split happened in 1993, and Slovakia then endured what Scotland hopefully will not when we become independent – several years of governmental instability after a poor constitutional arrangement.
When that was resolved, Slovakia progressed swiftly towards membership of Nato, the EU and the eurozone, joining the first two in 2004 and the latter in 2009.
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Like Scotland, it depends on exports and, increasingly, on tourism in an economy that is basically sound and progressing. After massive leap in unemployment following the 2008 global financial crisis, the situation eased and employment returned to pre-crash levels.
At the crossroads of central Europe, Slovakia is landlocked and bordered by Austria, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine and, of course, its former partner the Czech Republic.
The Slovaks are an ancient people and proud of their culture, but it is only since the separation through the Velvet Divorce that Slovakia has truly embraced freedom, not least because of the long period under Soviet control that included the brutal suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968.
Dr Jan Culik, senior lecturer at Glasgow University’s school of Modern Languages and Cultures, feels Scotland has a lot in common with Slovakia in the run-up to the Velvet Divorce and that we should learn from the Slovak people about the importance of freedom.
He said: “The relationship between Czechs and Slovaks was very similar to that between England and Scotland, though of course the population numbers are very different.
“Back in 1993, we were really only emerging from years of communism into an economy that nobody really knew about, and the Slovaks kept being told that their economy would collapse if they separated.
“Now we are hearing the same thing from England about Scotland, but that was not even an issue for Slovakia back then. Czechoslovakia was split by the will of the politicians, without a referendum, and there was a transitory government.
“The Czechs were determined to make themselves almost a Thatcherite free economy but, in a parallel with Scotland, the Slovaks wanted to keep their socialist ideals.
“Sure there were economic problems for Slovakia at the start, but they would have happened anyway. Now Slovakia has a fast-growing economy and a qualified workforce.”
The actual division of the country including the carve-up of debts and assets, was done “very efficiently”, according to Culik, though the common currency was abandoned within six weeks.
He said: “There were repercussions for the smaller country, but overall the economy survived, and then when we joined the EU in 2004 and became part of the Schengen area, the borders opened up. That was huge for Eastern Europeans. For more than 40 years they were effectively behind barbed wire and now people could go more or less anywhere.
“I still remember how we couldn’t travel where we wanted. Now I’ll be on a train and the only way I’ll know that I have crossed a border is when I get a text message welcoming me to Vodafone Hungary or wherever – that is so wonderful, and I don’t think people in the UK really know what a big deal freedom of movement is.”
He added: “When Slovakia joined the euro, there were no concerns, just the feeling that now we are part of a sophisticated European family.”