Of Birds and Men in Central Europe

Why do Slovakians have the dove where others have the eagle?

All Central European states consider more or less officially a certain kind of bird as a national symbol. Poles, Austrians and two of three Czech nations have the eagle; Hungarians have the mythic bird, Turul; and Slovaks label themselves the nation of doves. One could speculate about the symbolical importance of birds for our ancestors, but one thing is indisputably true – the Slovak bird is small, harmless and not very self-confident. At the same time, it is one of the most persistent birds and, as a symbol of peace, evokes mostly positive emotions. Why do we have the Dove where others have the Eagle?

The international image of a relatively unknown Central European country like Slovakia is generally created by the headlines and stories posted on the CNN homepage. In recent history, Slovakia has “made it” to the main headlines twice. First, when Slovakia beat Italy in the Football World Cup and, later, when Slovak policemen accidentally smuggled a bomb onto a plane to Ireland as part of standard police training.

The above-mentioned descriptions don’t necessarily draw a relevant picture of a state of 5-million-people in the heartof Europe. This is, however, the image of Slovakia presented to the world by international media. While it does depict some of this state’s potential, a great deal is left to be said.

A complex region with a rich historical background, Central Europe was a playground and laboratory for geopolitical analysts as well as practitioners. Despite the proud historical statehood experience of the Great-Moravian Empire, the Czech Kingdom, the Polish Kingdom or the Austro-Hungarian Empire, I dare to say, many people in the region have a problem with self-confidence and a problem with selling themselves to the world. In this manner, the term “Dove Nation” suggests even some particularities.

Maybe it is this dove-like nature that protected Slovaks throughout history by helping them to survive among the more numerous and powerful. The tools were persistence, adaptability, pacifism and the ability to keep their heads down. However, these same attributes caused the shortest regional independent statehood experience, a lack of self-confidence and a fear to take action.

Fear

Many external observers, be they academics, diplomats or businessman, describe Slovaks as extremely hospitable people with a lot of knowledge and potential. At the same time, they speak of Slovaks as shy people, not very good at presenting themselves to the outside world. Negative aspects of national character are also picked out in analysis, painting Slovaks as people who will find a thousand reasons to not take an action, why to blame others and why to wait for the others to act. There is some truth in this, seen also in the lack of public involvement in politics. But like most human beings, the majority tends to express dissatisfaction with authorities, life standards, the educational system, the National Hockey Team, etc. Due to the human nature but also because of the particular historical context of the region, however, this dissatisfaction is often expressed in a very silent way, behind closed doors. Most of the observers consider these attributes to be the result of some inherent fear of doing something wrong.

Nevertheless, there is a positive trend in the country as well as in the region. Vaclav Havel, the first Czechoslovak president after 1989, described the social dynamism in a very simple but true manner: “People will orchestrate change when they cannot stand the situation any more”. This is quite true, historically speaking, and this dynamism is gaining momentum over time. The Slovaks have managed to safeguard their culture for more than a thousand years under suppression and eventually established an independent state, and it seems that each new challenge presented takes less time to mobilize the people. It took Slovaks some time to reconsider the “alliance” with Nazi Germany and to rise up against it during World War II; it took another forty-one years to get rid of communism with the Velvet Revolution; finally, it took some four years to dismiss the last attempts of Vladimir Mečiar’s government to avoid the standard democratic track. In this manner, the periods of silent opposition are getting shorter and shorter and the tolerance of suppression is decreasing.

Challenge

Shortening response time was, however, only the first step. The next step was to launch the development of a functional democratic and open society. After reaching the ever-desired goal of joining the others in the EU and NATO in 2004, Slovaks established a new deal to form a constituent part of the European project. For a nation more used to defending itself against suppression than integrating, this presents a challenge. In this context, it will take some time before people learn to “think big” as a part of a bigger family, and to think constructively and proactively. This period – so necessary for the mentality shift – will be the shorter the more people recognize the need for it.

After Slovakia started doing its homework on all those aspects required to prove full compliance with the western liberal democratic standards, there was one more path to be taken. The reconstruction of the educational system and process even today demands attention. While political, economic or security reforms that can be enacted by legislative changes, education reform seems to be more difficult. It will require many inputs and resources, a statesman-like approach, and time. More than these, it will require the will to change the old standards according to which education has traditionally been conducted.

As the cornerstone of the society, we need enlightened teachers and educational entrepreneurs willing to surrender the pure memorizing educational methods, who adapt educational processes by reflecting upon present and future necessities and, in so doing, prepare the next generation for real international competition in the global economy.

Must

Today, it is less about teaching the theoretical content and more about teaching the next generation how to think analytically in broader contexts, how to materialize a vision, how to become more entrepreneurial and, most importantly, how to be prepared for mistakes. We need a self-confident and creative generation capable of using its potential by transforming its useful dove qualities into effective practices. Only then will the Dove constitute a relevant contribution to our European family.

As one of the rewards for succeeding in this quest, I hope Microsoft developers will grant the Dove Nation an updated Slovak Widows Office thesaurus that will finally recognize the word “pro-active” (proaktívny) and will not suggest the negative connotation “too active” (priaktívny) anymore.

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