Patriotism by Decree in Slovakia

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Joe Klamar /AFP / Getty Images

Slovakia's President Ivan Gasparovic

As nationalistic laws go, the one just passed in Slovakia seems rather tame on the surface. Earlier this month, the Slovak parliament approved a "patriotic act" mandating that every school play the Slovak national anthem on Mondays and that each classroom display a set of state symbols: the flag, the coat of arms, the lyrics to the anthem and the constitution's preamble. However innocuous this all may appear to be, though, Slovaks are outraged that the government is forcing them, by law, to be more patriotic.

The legislation was sponsored by the Slovak National Party, an ultra-nationalist outfit whose controversial leader, Jan Slota, is known for his xenophobic slurs, which are often aimed at the country's ethnic Hungarians. But Slota maintains that he doesn't just want to instill more patriotism among the Hungarian minority —he wants Slovaks to have more pride in their country, too. (Never mind the fact that his own knowledge of the anthem proved spotty in an interview last week when he confused some of the words and got the author wrong.) "The children's relationship to their nation, to their homeland is not on a decent level," Slota tells TIME. "In America, the schoolchildren parade into a schoolyard, the flag is drawn, the anthem is sung and everyone holds hand over heart."

Despite the country's recent economic gains, Slovaks do tend to have an astonishingly poor view of their nation. In a 2006 study based on polling by the International Social Survey Program, for example, Slovakia ranked as the fourth least patriotic nation out of 33 countries surveyed —the U.S., not surprisingly, was number one. Slovakia's angst began when Czechoslovakia split up in 1993 and Vladimir Meciar became Prime Minister of the new Slovak nation, ushering in four years of autocratic and isolationist rule. The country was considered such a backwater during those days that then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once famously referred to it as "the black hole in the heart of Europe." Since then, however, Slovakia has caught up with and even surpassed its Eastern European rivals, joining NATO and the European Union in 2004 and adopting the euro in 2009. (Czechs, meanwhile, are still using the koruna.)

But the compulsory patriotism prescribed by Slota's party, which is a junior member of the governing coalition and has been embroiled in alleged corruption scandals for years, has irked many residents, who argue that it will have the opposite effect. "If you want to foster patriotism you must set an example," says Bela Bugar, a veteran ethnic Hungarian parliamentarian and a Slota rival. "Everything that is forced produces aversion." Thousands have signed a petition urging President Ivan Gasparovic to veto the act (he has until Saturday to do so), while others have joined groups opposing the measure on Facebook. Last week, hundreds of students and teachers sang the national anthem and jingled their keys in a march through Bratislava, a gesture that recalled the days of the Velvet Revolution when people shook their keys to signify the opening of doors.

"It is just like under communism," said Dana Okolicanyova, a 12-year-old protester, knowingly shaking her head despite having been born eight years after the communist regime fell in 1989. She says she plans to skip the first period of school on Mondays in order to avoid listening to the anthem.

Her classmate, Samuel Ninchuck, whose father is American, found the law equally repellent. "I sing the anthem when we play ice hockey, but that is not mandatory," the 12-year-old student says. He confessed that he is more proud of being American than Slovak. "The politicians here take all the money for themselves and as a result we are a boring country no one knows about," he says.

Slota isn't the only politician behind the patriotism drive — the left-leaning populist Prime Minister, Robert Fico, has also resurrected Meciar-era nationalist rhetoric during his four years in office. He recently called for a fundraising drive to erect a statue to Prince Svatopluk, a leader of the 9th century Great Moravian Empire in central Europe who has become a central figure in the government's push toward establishing Slovak heroes. Fico also triggered a heated debate when he described the nation's ancestors as "old Slovaks" —an attempt to demonstrate that the country has a deep and respectable history. And last year, parliament passed a language act that, among other things, instituted a fine of $6,800 for failing to use the Slovak language in official and public communications —a move that further estranged the country's 500,000-strong Hungarian minority. "Fico wasted the opportunity to build national self-confidence on positives, on what Slovakia has achieved," says Sona Szomolanyi, a political science professor at Comenius University in Bratislava. "He returned to the tradition of inferiority and aggravation."

Fico has backed Slota's patriotic act, but now says he prefers to delay its implementation until Sept. 1, a move analysts view as a way of mitigating public outrage before elections scheduled for June. But the legislation already seems to have done enough pre-election harm. "This law makes Slovakia look ridiculous," says Eliska Slavikova, a 57-year-old elementary school teacher. "And it's returning us to the 19th century."