The first known peoples of the territory of present-day Slovakia were Celts, who lived in the region about 50 BC . The Celts were pushed out by Slavs, who moved in from the east at the beginning of the modern era. A Frankish merchant named Samo formed the first unified state in the region in the mid-7th century. The Moravia Empire appeared in the 9th century, incorporating parts of present-day Slovakia. Although the first Christian missionaries active in the area were Orthodox (including the monks Cyril and Methodius, who introduced an alphabet of their own invention—still called Cyrillic—in which to write the Slavic languages), it was the Roman church that eventually established dominance. At the end of the 9th century the Magyars (Hungarians) began to move into Slovakia, incorporating the territory into their own. For many centuries the Hungarians treated the Slovaks as subject people, so it was not until the 13th century, when Hungary had been ravished by Tatar invasions, that the territory began to develop. Some contact with the Czechs, who speak a closely related language, began in the early 15th century, as refugees from the Hussite religious wars in Bohemia moved east.
After the Turkish victory at Mohacs in 1526 the Kingdom of Hungary was divided into three parts; so-called "Royal Hungary," which included Slovakia, was passed to the rule of the Hapsburg dynasty. Bratislava became the Hapsburg capital until the end of the 17th century, when the Turks were driven from Hungarian territory, and the Hungarian capital moved to Budapest. Although there was some religious spillover of Protestantism from the west, Slovakia was solidly in control of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, establishing the long tradition of strong church influence in the region.
In the late 18th century the attempt of the Hapsburg rulers, especially Josef II (1765–1790), to germanify the empire led to a rise in Hungarian nationalism, which in turn stimulated a rise in Slovak national self-consciousness. During the 1848 Revolution a program, "Demands of the Slovak Nation," was formulated, which called for the use of Slovak in schools, courts, and other settings, and demanded creation of a Slovak assembly. These demands were rejected, and the Hungarians continued their efforts to suppress Slovak nationalism. When the Austro-Hungarian Empire was formed in 1867, the Hungarians began a program of intense Magyarification. In the absence of a Slovak intellectual elite, nationalistic ideals were largely maintained by the local clergy.
When World War I began the Slovaks joined with the Czechs and other suppressed nationalities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in pushing for their own state. Czech and Slovak immigrants in America were united in their efforts to prod the United States to recognize a postwar combined Czech and Slovak state. The Czechs declared independence on 28 October 1918, and the Slovaks seceded from Hungary two days later, to create the Czecho-Slovak Republic.
The relationship between the two parts of the new state was never firmly fixed. The Czech lands were more developed economically, and Czech politicians dominated the political debate. Although they were supported by a portion of Slovak society, there remained a large constituency of Slovak nationalists, most of them in Jozef Tiso's People's Party, who wanted complete independence.
Attempts to deal with Slovak separatist sentiments occupied a good deal of legislative time during the first Czechoslovak Republic, particularly since economic development continued to favor the Czech lands over the Slovak.
In 1938 Adolph Hitler demanded that the Sudeten German area, in the Czech part of the country, be ceded to Germany. Representatives of Germany, Italy, France, and the UK met in Munich, without participation by Czechoslovakia, and decided that in order to achieve "peace in our time" Germany could occupy the Sudetenland, which it did in October 1938. Slovak nationalists argued that once the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia had begun, they too should secede, particularly because both Poland and Hungary also took advantage of the situation to seize parts of Slovakia. When Hitler's forces seized Prague in March 1939, a separate Slovak state was declared, which immediately fell under Nazi domination. Although
nominally independent, the Slovakia of President Tiso was never more than a Nazi puppet.
During the war Slovak leaders like Stefan Osusky and Juraj Slavik cooperated with E. Benes' Czechoslovak government-inexile, headquartered in London. There was also a small group of Slovak communists who took refuge in Moscow. In December 1943 a Slovak National Council was formed in opposition to the Tiso government, with both democratic and communist members. They began an uprising in Banska Bystrica in August 1944, which failed because of lack of support by both the West and the Soviet Union. When the war ended, the Slovak National Council took control of the country. Soviet attempts to use Slovak nationalism as a tool of control failed in the 1946 elections, when non-communist parties received 63% of the vote. The communists switched their tactics to encouraging civil disorder and arresting people accused of participation in the wartime Slovak government. Tiso himself was executed in 1947.
Elsewhere in Czechoslovakia, the communists had been the largest vote getters in the 1946 elections, but in 1948 it seemed that they might lose. Rather than risk the election, they organized a Soviet-backed coup, forcing President Benes to accept a government headed by Klement Gottwald, a communist. Benes resigned in June 1948, leaving the presidency open for Gottwald, while A. Zapotocky became prime minister.
Once Czechoslovakia became a People's Republic, and a faithful ally of the Soviet Union, a wave of purges and arrests rolled over the country, from 1949 to 1954. In 1952 a number of high officials, including Foreign Minister V. Clementis and R.
Slansky, head of the Czech Communist Party, were hanged for "Tito-ism" and "national deviation."
Gottwald died in March 1953, a few days after Stalin, setting off the slow erosion of communist control. Zapotocky succeeded to the presidency, while A. Novotny became head of the party; neither had Gottwald's authority, and so clung even more tightly to the Stalinist methods, which, after Nikita Khrushchev's secret denunciation of Stalin in 1956, had begun to be discredited even in the USSR. Novotny became president upon Zapotocky's death in 1957, holding Czechoslovakia in a tight grip until well into the 1960s.
Khrushchev's liberalization in the USSR encouraged liberals within the Czechoslovak party to try to emulate Moscow. Past abuses of the party, including the hanging of Slansky and Clementis, were repudiated, and Novotny was eventually forced to fire many of his most conservative allies, including Karol Bacilek, head of the Slovak Communist Party, and Viliam Siroky, premier for more than a decade. Slovaks detested both men because of their submission to Prague's continued policies of centralization, which in practice subordinated Slovak interests to those of the Czechs.
Alexander Dubcek, the new head of the Slovak Communist Party, attacked Novotny at a meeting in late 1967, accusing him of undermining economic reform and ignoring Slovak demands for greater self-government. Two months later, in January 1968, the presidency was separated from the party chairmanship, and Dubcek was named head of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, the first Slovak ever to hold the post.
Novotny resigned in March 1968, and Czechoslovakia embarked on a radical liberalization, which Dubcek termed "socialism with a human face." The leaders of the other eastern bloc nations and the Soviet leaders viewed these developments with alarm. Delegations went back and forth from Moscow during the "Prague Spring" of 1968, warning of "counter-revolution." By July the neighbors' alarm had grown; at a meeting in Warsaw they issued a warning to Czechoslovakia against leaving the socialist camp. Although Dubcek himself traveled to Moscow twice, in July and early August, to reassure Soviet party leader Brezhnev, the Soviets remained unconvinced.
Finally, on the night of 20–21 August 1968, military units from all the Warsaw Pact nations except Romania invaded Czechoslovakia, to "save it from counter-revolution." Dubcek and other officials were arrested, and the country was placed under Soviet control. Difficulties in finding local officials willing to act as Soviet puppets caused the Soviets to play on Czech and Slovak antagonisms. On 31 December 1968 the country was made into a federative state, comprised of the Czech Socialist Republic and the Slovak Socialist Republic, each with its own legislature and government. In April Gustav Husak, once a reformer, but now viewing harmony with the USSR as the highest priority, was named head of the Czech Communist Party. A purge of liberals followed, and in May 1970 a new Soviet-Czechoslovak friendship treaty was signed; in June Dubcek was expelled from the party.
Between 1970 and 1975 nearly one-third of the party was dismissed, as Husak consolidated power, re-establishing the priority of the federal government over its constituent parts and, in May 1975, reuniting the titles of party head and republic president.
Once again it was liberalization in the USSR, which set off political change in Czechoslovakia. Husak ignored Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's calls for perestroika and glasnost until 1987, when he reluctantly endorsed the general concept of Party reform, but delayed implementation until 1991. Aging and in ill health, Husak announced his retirement in December 1987, declaring that Milos Jakes would take his post; Jakes had been a life-long compromiser and accommodator who was unable to control dissenting factions within his party, which were now using the radical changes in the Soviet Union as weapons against one another.
Enthusiasm for political change was not as great in Slovakia as it was in the Czech west, where in November 1989 people had begun to gather on Prague's Wenceslas Square, demanding free elections. The so-called "velvet revolution" ended on 24 November, when Jakes and all his government resigned. Novotny resigned his presidency soon after.
Alexander Dubcek was brought out of exile and put forward as a potential replacement, but the hostility of Czech intellectuals and activists, who felt that they had to drag unwilling Slovaks into the new era, made it impossible to choose a Slovak as president. The choice fell instead on Vaclav Havel, a Czech playwright and dissident, who was named president by acclamation on 29 December 1989, while Dubcek was named leader of the National Assembly.
Dismantling the apparatus of a Soviet-style state began immediately, but economic change came more slowly, in part because elections were not scheduled until June 1990. The old struggle between Czechs and Slovaks intensified, as Slovaks grew increasingly to resist the programs of economic and political change being proposed in Prague. Slovak demands led to an almost immediate renaming of the country, as the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic.
In the June elections the Slovaks voted overwhelmingly for Public Against Violence, the Slovak partner of the Czech Civic Forum, which meant that economic transformation was begun. Again there was much greater enthusiasm for returning to private ownership in the west than there was in the east, intensifying Slovak separatism. In December 1990 the country's Federal Assembly attempted to defuse the problem by increasing the roles of the Czech and Slovak regional governments, but it also gave President Havel extraordinary powers, to head off attempts at Slovak secession. The nationalists found an articulate and persuasive voice for growing separatist sentiments in Vladimir Meciar, the Slovak Premier.
During a visit to Bratislava in March 1991, President Havel was jeered by thousands of Slovaks, making obvious the degree of Slovak discontent. Meciar was replaced in April 1991, by Jan Carnogursky, but the easing of tensions was only temporary, since Carnogursky, too, favored an independent Slovakia.
By June 1992 matters had reached a legislative impasse, so new federal elections were called. Slovakia chose to hold elections for its National Council at the same time. In July the new Slovak legislature issued a declaration of sovereignty and adopted a new constitution as an independent state, to take effect 1 January 1993. Throughout 1991 and 1992 a struggle followed, with the Federal Assembly and president on one side, trying to devise ways of increasing the strength of the federal state, and the Czech and Slovak National Councils, or legislatures, on the other, seeking to shore up their own autonomy at the expense of the central authorities. Although polls indicated that most Slovaks continued to favor some form of union with the Czechs, the absence of any national figure able or willing to articulate what form that union might take, left the field to the separatists and the charismatic Meciar.
In the federal election the vote split along national and regional lines, with the Czechs voting for right-of-center, reformist candidates, especially Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party, while the Slovaks voted for leftist and nationalist parties, especially Vladimir Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (MDS). Although the federal government and President Havel continued to try to hold the state together, Czech Prime Minister Klaus made clear that the Czechs would offer no financial incentives or assistance to induce the Slovaks to remain in the union. Increasingly the republics began to behave as though they were already separate so that, for example, by the end of 1992, 25.2% of Czech industry had been privatized, while only 5.3% of Slovak industry had. By the end of 1992 it was obvious that separation was inevitable. The two prime ministers, Klaus and Meciar, agreed to the so-called "velvet divorce," which took effect 1 January 1993. Czechs and Slovaks alike have objected that this move was never put to a popular referendum.
The new constitution created a 150-seat National Assembly, which elects the head of state, the president. Despite the strong showing of his party, Prime Minister Meciar was unable to get his first candidate through, and so put up Michal Kovac, a Dubcek supporter and former Finance Minister in Slovakia, who had served as the last chairman of Czechoslovakia's federal parliament.
The Meciar government rejected the moves toward political and economic liberalization which the Czechs were pursuing, attempting instead to retain a socialist-style government, with strong central control. Swift economic decline, especially relative to the Czech's obviously growing prosperity, combined with Meciar's own erratic and autocratic manner, caused him to lose a vote of no-confidence in March 1994.
Kovac was elected for a five-year term by the National Parliament on 8 February 1993; on 12 December 1994 he appointed Meciar prime minister. Meciar's party (MDS), which won 35% of the vote in the 1994 elections, formed a ruling government with the Slovak National Party and the Association of Slovak Workers. However, Meciar again was slow to implement economic reforms, and his attempts to consolidate his power via undemocratic legislation were rebuffed in 1996 by President Kovac. The MDS-led coalition government managed to remain in power until the September 1998 elections. During the MDS era, opportunities to privatize state-owned property were used to reward political loyalty, and election laws were changed in a way that favored the MDS. Much of the legislation introduced by the Meciar government was found to be unconstitutional.
Under the new election laws, the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDC) was formed by five small political groups in 1997. Mikulas Dzurinda was its leader. Elections held in September 1998 saw the SDC gain 26.33% of the vote. On 30 October 1998, SDC formed a coalition government with Dzurinda as prime minister.
In January 1999, parliament passed a new law allowing for the direct election of the president. Presidential elections were held on 15 and 29 May, and in the second round, Rudolf Schuster of the small centrist Party of Civic Understanding (SOP) was elected with 57.2% of the vote over Meciar (42.8%). The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) found the elections to be free and fair. In July 1999, a law was passed improving the status of minority languages. In February 2001, parliament amended the constitution as a step toward gaining membership in the EU and NATO. Among the 85 amendments bringing the 1992 constitution in line with EU judiciary and financial standards were the creation of an ombudsman as a public protector of human rights, and an initiative to have the government support the aspirations of ethnic Slovaks living abroad to preserve their national identity and culture.
Parliamentary elections were held on 20 and 21 September 2002, and although Meciar's HZDS party won the most number of seats in the 150-member National Council (36), three core center-right parties formed a coalition without left-wing parties that had previously hampered it. Dzurinda continued in office as prime minister.
At a NATO summit in Prague held in November 2002, Slovakia was formally invited to join the organization, and in December, it was one of 10 new countries invited to join the EU. EU accession for Slovakia is expected in 2004. The government still faces the task of improving the conditions of its Roma (gypsy) minority, cutting the budget deficit, creating jobs, reforming the judicial system, and fighting corruption.