Building a better future - lessons on independence from the Slovak Republic

There are few countries in the world with anything like Scotland’s long history of nationhood which are NOT independent. Scotland emerged as a kingdom in the 9th century and remained as an independent sovereign state until 1707, when it entered into the Treaty of Union. 

Looking at global examples is not meant to provide exact comparisons -  but it can be instructive to see the ways other countries successfully - and peacefully - journeyed towards independence. 

Lessons from the Slovak Republic

The Slovak Republic, now an independent country within the EU, has almost the same population size as Scotland - 5.4 million - but it is about one-third smaller. A landlocked, mountainous area of central Europe,  it was a semi-autonomous duchy within the Hungarian Empire in the middle ages, but became a fully independent country for the first time when it broke with the Czech Republic (both used to be part of Czechoslovakia).  It is often referred to as Slovakia, but its official title is the Slovak Republic.

Initially, nationalism was based on Slovaks’ desire to preserve their different ethnic and cultural identity, but in the 21st century, it has adopted the kind of civic nationalism that characterises the Scottish independence movement. 

Since independence, the Slovak Republic’s GDP has started to reach parity with the Czech Republic, which was better off before the split. Although it is not a wealthy country, the percentage of people at risk of poverty and social exclusion is lower in Slovakia than in the UK. 

The Velvet Revolution 

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, demonstrations began against Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. On November 20, 1989, an estimated 500,000 protestors gathered in Prague. The entire top tier of the Czechoslovakian government resigned a few days later - they peacefully relinquished power and the one-party state came to an end. In June 1990, the first first democratic elections were held. 

At that time the Czech area’s GDP was 20% higher than the Slovak area. Cash transfers to the Slovak area, which had been the norm, stopped in 1991. The two areas’ leaders decided to split into independent countries. There was no referendum.

As the dominant economic power, the Czechs were concerned about potential damage to their currency. The Slovaks agreed to introduce their own version - initially by stamping a crest on Czech banknotes. 

The Velvet Divorce

At midnight on December 31, 1992, Czechoslovakia peacefully split into the Czech and Slovak Republics. On January 1, 1993, the National Bank of Slovakia was formed. Just a few weeks later on Feb 8,1993, Slovakia introduced its own currency, the koruna, which replaced the Czech koruna at the same rate. The transition was smooth. The two countries remained in a currency union and continue to cooperate closely.  

Building a stronger economy post-independence

In 1995, the Slovak Republic signed an Association Agreement with the EU. In 2003, a referendum on joining the EU was held, with 93.7% voting Yes. The Slovak and Czech Republics were two of the countries that became EU members as part of the 2004 enlargement

On January 1, 2009, Slovakia adopted the Euro as its national currency. Slovakia became a more integral part of the EU than their neighbours, because of their adoption of the Euro and their greater enthusiasm for taking part in the banking and fiscal unions. The Czech Republic still does not use the Euro. 

Since joining the EU, Slovakia’s GDP per capita has risen to 95% of the Czech Republic’s. Poverty has also reduced significantly. Pensions are about the same rate in both countries. 

The Slovak Republic is subdivided into 8 regions, each having a certain amount of autonomy. The capital and largest city is Bratislava. In 2019, Zuzana Čaputová, an environmental campaigner, became Slovakia's first female president (there is also a Prime Minister). The country has been very dependent on Russian gas and is now attempting to speed up a transition to renewable energy. 

The rise of the Slovakian independence movement

Arguments for independence started to gain force in the 19th century when Slovakia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At that time, Hungary started to force people to assimilate, adopting the Hungarian language and culture. 

When revolution erupted in 1848, the Slovaks supported the Austrian Emperor’s side, hoping for independence from Hungary, but they failed. Thereafter relations between Slovaks and the state of Hungary deteriorated. 

The rise and fall of Czechoslovakia

After the First World War, in the chaos that surrounded the break up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, several territories broke away and joined together to form Czechoslovakia. 

In 1938, the Munich Agreement, which UK PM Neville Chamberlain famously signed with Hitler, allowed Germany to annexe part of Czechoslovakia - the Suddetenland. The remaining country became Czecho-Slovakia with more autonomy promised for Slovakia. In fact, Slovakia became a puppet regime of Nazi Germany. Almost all of the Jews, along with gypsies and dissidents were deported to death camps. In 1944, there was an uprising against Nazi occupation - the Slovak National Uprising. It was unsuccessful and thousands of people were put to death. 

After the Second World War, Czechoslovakia was taken over by the Soviet Union. It became a puppet regime of the USSR, behind the Iron Curtain. In 1968, armed tanks rolled into Prague to put down an uprising called the Prague Spring. In 1969, Czechoslovakia became a federation of the Czech and Slovak Republics but it remained under Soviet control, with only limited autonomy, until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Conclusion - it is possible to build a better future with independence in Europe

There are of course many differences between Scotland’s story and that of the Slovak Republic. But when Unionists pour scorn on Scotland’s plans, it is useful to look at what Slovakia managed to accomplish in a relatively short time.

Since gaining independence, the Slovak Republic has managed to increase the prosperity of its citizens and to reduce relative poverty. They have seized the opportunity of joining the EU to improve trade and cooperation.

Scots have every reason to feel confident that Scotland can also accomplish the task of building an independent nation. Scotland is significantly more prepared, and has a wealthier more advanced economy that the Slovak Republic had when it became independent.

More independence lessons

Too wee, too poor for independence? Malta didn’t think so  - read more here

Why Norway Chose to Become an Independent Country –  read more here

Why Quebec’s independence dream went wrong - read more here

New Zealand’s century-long journey to independence - read more here 

As Jamaica proudly celebrates 60 years of independence - read more here

 

By Jackie Kemp