The Slovak constitution guarantees freedom of religion. The majority of Slovak citizens (60%) practice Roman Catholicism; the second-largest group are Protestants. About 3,000 Jews remain of the estimated pre-WWII population of 120,000. The official state language is Slovak, and Hungarian is widely spoken in the southern region.
Despite its modern European economy and society, Slovakia has a significant rural element. About 45% of Slovaks live in villages of less than 5,000 people, and 14% in villages of less than 1,000.
Although Czechoslovakia was the only east-central European country to remain a parliamentary democracy from 1918 to 1938, it was plagued with minority problems, the most important of which concerned the country's large German population. In 1938, the Allies concluded the Munich agreement which forced Czechoslovakia to cede the predominantly German region known as Sudetenland to Germany. Then, in March 1939 Germany invaded what remained of Bohemia and Moravia and established a German protectorate. Slovakia had already declared its independence on March 14, 1939, and had become a Nazi German puppet state led by Jozef Tiso.
On August 29, 1944, 60,000 Slovak troops organized by the underground rose up against the Nazis and the Tiso regime in what became known as the Slovak National Uprising. Although ultimately unsuccessful, this act of resistance became an important historical landmark for the Slovaks. At the close of World War II, Soviet troops overran all of Slovakia, Moravia, and much of Bohemia.
Reunited after the war, the Czechs and Slovaks held elections in 1946. In Slovakia, the Democratic Party won the elections, but the Czechoslovak Communist Party won 38% of the total vote in Czechoslovakia and eventually seized power, in February 1948. The next four decades were characterized by strict communist rule, interrupted only briefly in 1968 when Alexander Dubcek, a Slovak, became party leader. Dubcek proposed political, social, and economic reforms in his effort to make "socialism with a human face" a reality. Concern among other Warsaw Pact governments that Dubcek had gone too far led to the invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia on August 21, 1968, by Soviet, Hungarian, Bulgarian, East German, and Polish troops. Dubcek was removed as party leader and replaced by another Slovak, Gustav Husak, in April 1969.
The 1970s and 1980s became known as the period of "normalization," in which the apologists for the 1968 Soviet invasion prevented, as best they could, any opposition to their conservative regime. Political, social, and economic life stagnated. Because the center of the reform movement had been in Prague, normalization was less harshly felt in Slovakia. In fact, the Slovak Republic saw comparatively high economic growth in the 1970s and 1980s relative to the Czech Republic.
The 1970s were also characterized by the development of a dissident movement, especially in the Czech Republic. On January l, 1977, more than 250 human rights activists signed a manifesto called Charter 77, which criticized the government for failing to meet its human rights obligations.
On November 17, 1989, a series of public protests known as the "Velvet Revolution" began and led to the downfall of communist rule in Czechoslovakia. A transition government was formed in December 1989, and the first free elections in Czechoslovakia since 1948 took place in June 1990. In 1992, negotiations on the new federal constitution deadlocked over the issue of Slovak autonomy, and in the latter half of 1992, agreement was reached to peacefully divide Czechoslovakia. On January 1, 1993, the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic were simultaneously and peacefully founded. Both states attained immediate recognition from the U.S. and their European neighbors.
In the days following the "Velvet Revolution," Charter 77 and other groups united to become the Civic Forum, an umbrella group championing bureaucratic reform and civil liberties. Its leader was the dissident playwright Vaclav Havel who was elected President of Czechoslovakia in December 1989. Its Slovak counterpart, Public Against Violence, was based on the same ideals.
In the June 1990 elections, Civic Forum and Public Against Violence won landslide victories. Civic Forum and Public Against Violence found, however, that although they had successfully completed their primary objective -- the overthrow of the communist regime -- they were less effective as governing parties. In the 1992 elections, both Civic Forum and Public Against Violence were replaced by a spectrum of new parties.
In elections held in June 1992, Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party won in the Czech lands on a platform of economic reform, and Vladimir Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) emerged as the leading party in Slovakia, basing its appeal on fairness to Slovak demands for autonomy. Meciar and Klaus negotiated the agreement to divide Czechoslovakia, and Meciar's party -- the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS)-- ruled Slovakia for most of its first 5 years as an independent state, except for a 9-month period in 1994, during which Slovakia was ruled by a reformist government under Prime Minister Jozef Moravcik. The Moravcik government succeeded the country's initial HZDS-SNS coalition government led by Meciar after a vote of no confidence in March 1994, but Meciar returned to power in December 1994.
In the run-up to elections in October 1998, Meciar's government was accused of thwarting democratic principles and imposing a biased election law. A record 84% of voters participated in the vote, giving the Dzurinda government a clear mandate for change to a reformist coalition led by economist Mikulas Dzurinda and made up of four diverse parties -- the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK), SDL, the Party of the Hungarian Coalition (SMK), and the Party of Civic Understanding (SOP). Since the election, the new government has exposed widespread corruption and economic mismanagement by the previous government, which had seriously undermined efforts to maintain economic growth and integrate into Euro-Atlantic institutions.
Under the original Slovak Constitution, the president was elected by Parliament to a 5-year term. Since the Parliament was unable to agree on a successor to President Michal Kovac when his term ended March 2, 1998, most presidential powers reverted to the prime minister. In January 1999, Parliament passed a constitutional amendment allowing for direct election of the president. Kosice Mayor Rudolf Schuster was elected president in a May 1999 run-off with former PM Meciar and took office on June 15, 1999. The president serves as commander in chief of the armed forces, appoints ministers, grants pardons, and has the right to dissolve Parliament under certain circumstances. The president also signs laws and has the right to return legislation to Parliament, but Parliament can override this veto with a simple majority vote.
The country's highest court of appeals is the Supreme Court, elected by and responsible to the National Council. The 10 members of the Constitutional Court, who rule on constitutional issues, are appointed by the president from a choice of candidates nominated by Parliament.
Slovakia maintains a temporary chancery in the United States at Suite 380, 2201 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20007. Construction on a permanent chancery is due to be completed in 2000.
Slovakia maintains a foreign trade office in New York and honorary consulates in Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland.
Slovakia continues to have problems attracting foreign investment, although the Dzurinda government has introduced incentives to foreign direct investment. The most egregious privatization scandals of the Meciar period are being reviewed and many state-held companies, including banks and telecoms, will be privatized in the next 1-2 years. The new government's ambitious economic plans could founder if the coalition lacks unity on some of the more painful economic decision. Encouraging words from the EU, OECD and foreign creditors should help Dzurinda and his team boost public support for their program within Slovakia.
Germany is Slovakia's largest trading partner, purchasing about 23% of Slovakia's exports and supplying more than 25% of its imports. Other major partners include the Czech Republic, Austria, Russia, and Italy. Slovakia imports nearly all of its oil and gas from Russia. Slovakia's export markets are primarily OECD countries and the European Union. More than 50% of its trade is with EU members. The United States accounts for about 3% of total trade with Slovakia. The Slovak Republic has Most Favored Nation status and receives duty-free (GSP) benefits for many of its products.
The government has applied for membership in the OECD and the EU. Slovakia signed an Association Agreement with the EU in October 1993, which went into effect in February 1995. In 1994, Slovakia was one of the original members of the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA).
Slovakia and the Czech Republic entered into a Customs Union upon the division of Czechoslovakia in 1993. The Customs Union enables a relatively free flow of goods and services. CEFTA similarly has improved market access for Slovakia's neighbors. Hungary and Slovakia signed a Basic Treaty in 1995 and are currently negotiating its implementation.
Slovakia is a member of the United Nations and participates in its specialized agencies. It is a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). It maintains diplomatic relations with 135 countries of which 44 have permanent representation in Bratislava.
Relations were cool between the two governments during the 50 years of communist rule. When the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968, the United States referred the matter to the UN Security Council as a violation of the UN Charter, but no action was taken against the Soviets.
The fall of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia in 1989 and the subsequent split of the two republics on January 1, 1993, allowed for renewed cooperation between the U.S. and Slovakia. The United States has delivered more than $200 million since 1990 to support the rebuilding of a healthy democracy and market economy in Slovakia, primarily through programs administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Slovakia and the U.S. retain strong diplomatic ties, cooperate in military and law enforcement areas, and engage in economic partnership. The election of a pro-Western, reformist government in late 1998 has further boosted close ties between the countries.
The U.S. embassy in Slovakia is located at Hviezdoslavovo namestie 4, 81102 Bratislava (tel: 421-7-5443-08-61 or 421-7-5443-33-38; fax: 421-7-5443-00-96). Duty hours are Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The embassy is closed on U.S. and Slovak holidays.