Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Slovak, Hungarian, Romani, Ruthene, Ukrainian, Czech
Main religions: Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Greek Catholicism, Reformed Protestant Church, Eastern Orthodox Christianity
The 2011 census recorded a total population of 5,397,036. Of this figure, the majority (4,352,757, or 80.7 per cent) identify as Slovak. The rest of the population is made up of 458,467 Hungarians (8.5 per cent), 105,738 Roma (2.0 per cent – though some estimates suggest the population could be much higher), 30,367 Czechs (0.6 per cent), 33,482 Ruthenians (0.6 per cent), 7,430 Ukrainians (0.1 per cent), 4,690 Germans (0.1 per cent), 3,084 Poles 0.1 per cent, 3,286 Moravians (0.1 per cent), 1,051 Bulgarians, 1,022 Croats and 631 Jews.
Slovaks speak a language closely related to Czech and other West Slav languages. Hungarians live almost entirely in the southern part of the country in the regions adjoining the Danube river and the border with Hungary.
The census distinguished between Ruthenians (Rusyns) and Ukrainians.
Some German communities in the Carpathians are reported to be using a form of High German.
Roma remain among the country’s most marginalized communities. While official census figures put them at just over 105,000, some estimates suggest they may number as many as half a million or more. Some of this variance may be due to Roma identifying as Hungarian or Slovak.
Slovakia continues to suffer from the effects of corruption, poor governance and an uncertain human rights environment, with frequent human rights abuses committed by police and security forces on citizens – issues that particularly affect its marginalized minorities. Roma, long discriminated against, still have limited access to many essential services as a result of widespread social prejudice, while in the wake of the large-scale waves of migration to Europe that began in 2015 the government has also adopted an increasingly hostile attitude towards migrants and asylum seekers. Though public protests following the murder of an investigative journalist exposing corruption in February 2018 led to widespread popular protests that eventually forced the resignation of then Prime Minister Robert Fico, concerns remain that the country may be sliding towards increasing authoritarianism.
This environment has important implications for the country’s Roma, who for decades have faced social exclusion. Discrimination against Roma is a major factor in their lack of access to housing and education, with an April 2018 report by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights highlighting how the persistence of anti-Roma sentiment in Slovakia has prevented any kind of upward mobility for this community. Survey data found that 62 per cent of Slovaks aged 18 or over objected to having a Roma neighbour – a rise of 15 per cent compared to 2008. In this context, Roma are frequently subjected to harassment and hate crimes as a result of their ethnicity. Everything from exclusion from education to a lack of cleaning drinking water reflect the side-lining of Slovakia’s Roma: while a national integration strategy has formally been in place for some time, there has been little sign of real action in addressing the underlying roots of Roma discrimination.
Roma are also, due to limited education and training, heavily disadvantaged in Slovakia’s labour market: just 60 per cent of Roma are economically active, compared to 76 per cent of their non-Roma peers, the result of prejudice, social factors such as early marriage, fear of discrimination and demoralization within the community at the barriers to employment. An experiment by the Institute for Financial Policy, drawing on a sample of applications using fictitious CVs with ‘Roma’ and ‘non-Roma’ identities, found that only 37 per cent of the Roma applicants received responses compared to 69 per cent of the non-Roma – a finding that appears to corroborate widespread discrimination by employers. Addressing these disparities requires a systematic approach that includes increased access to schooling, greater opportunities to engage in public life, capacity building programmes and the enforcement of anti-discrimination law in practice.
The dramatic rise in migration to Europe since 2015, driven in large part by conflict and insecurity elsewhere, has led to a hardening of official attitudes towards asylum seekers. The Slovak government publicly opposed the European Union’s calls for a quota system to share the number of refugee arrivals between member countries: the EU blocked these efforts and the government has continued to field some asylum applications, although in practice the number of asylum seekers entering the country remains extremely small.
With a Muslim community of just 5,000 people (less than 0.1 per cent of the population) and against a backdrop of growing anti-migrant sentiment, very few Muslims have applied for asylum in the country – yet this has not stopped nationalists from presenting the new crisis as a threat. Indeed, political rhetoric has increasingly been characterized by strong xenophobia, particularly towards Islam, with Fico himself declaring in 2016 that ‘Islam has no place in Slovakia.’ As a result, migrants, asylum seekers and the country’s small resident Muslim minority have found themselves presented as a threat to national security and Slovak identity. A number of attacks against Muslim women in Slovakia been reported in recent years.
For most of the twentieth century, Slovakia was part of Czechoslovakia, although a separate Slovak state was briefly established as a satellite of Nazi Germany during the Third Reich. On 31 December 1992, the union between the Czech lands and Slovakia formally dissolved and Slovakia became an independent republic.
The history of Slovakia began with ancestors of the Slovaks settling in the Carpathian region during the seventh century, though they were subsequently conquered by the Hungarians. From the tenth to the early twentieth centuries, future Slovakia formed a part of the Kingdom of Hungary. In 1918, Slovakia was joined with Bohemia, Moravia, Austrian Silesia and Ruthenia in the state of Czechoslovakia. Slovak resentment of the centralizing policies pursued by the government in Prague facilitated the disintegration of Czechoslovakia in 1939. After 1939, Hungary occupied the southern portions of Slovakia together with Ruthenia. At the end of the World War II, southern Slovakia was reincorporated in the restored Czechoslovak nation, and Ruthenia was ceded to Ukraine, which was then a part of the Soviet Union.
Although minorities living in Slovakia alleged discrimination against them during the period of the first Czechoslovak Republic (1918-1938), the most flagrant violation of their rights occurred during World War II. In the Holocaust, Nazis and their sympathizers deported and murdered almost all of Slovakia’s Jewish population, which had numbered approximately 70,000 in 1939. By the 1990s only 3,000-6,000 Jews remained. Most of the 150,000-strong German population living in Slovakia and a part of the Hungarian minority fled or were expelled after 1945. After World War II, Hungarians experienced substantial discrimination at the hands of the Czechoslovak, Slovak and occupation authorities. Their properties were confiscated, between 70,000 and 90,000 were expelled to Hungary, and a further 44,000 were resettled in Bohemia and Moravia. Along with Roma, Hungarians continued to bear the brunt of communist assimilation policy between 1948 and 1989. Nevertheless, following the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968, Hungarians, Poles and Ukrainians were accorded the legal status of minorities and their rights to education in the mother tongue and to representation in state and local bodies were legally guaranteed. In practice, however, these rights were ignored. The government provided no education in the Romani, Ruthene/Ukrainian or German languages, and between 1970 and 1989 the number of Hungarian children receiving mother-tongue instruction fell by almost a half.
The collapse of communist rule in 1989 promised a rapid improvement of the rights of minorities in Slovakia. The Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, adopted by the Czechoslovak federal assembly in January 1991, prohibited all forms of discrimination and reaffirmed the right to education in the first language.
Elections held in 1992 demonstrated sharp divisions between Czechs and Slovaks over economic issues, but parties advocating a split of the country failed to get a majority in either area. Nevertheless, without a referendum and over the objections of Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel, the nationalist Czech and Slovak prime ministers agreed to Czechoslovakia’s division into two independent nations: the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
For its part, the 1992 Slovak Constitution gave minorities the right to develop their own culture, to deal in their own language with state officials, and to be educated both in Slovak and in their mother tongues. Beginning in 1992, however, nationalist Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar displayed increasing authoritarian tendencies, sparking fears for the rights of minorities, while the more general weakness of democratic institutions in Slovakia provoked criticism from the United States and from European foreign ministers in October 1995. From 1992 to 1998, the ultra-nationalist Slovak National Party was a partner in the Meciar government. Ján Slota, the party’s leader between 1994 and 1999, routinely employed anti-Hungarian, anti-Roma, and anti-homosexual rhetoric. Specific legislative measures in the first half of the 1990s affirming the state language as Slovak and prohibiting bilingual signposts aroused additional misgivings, although the latter was overturned and bilingual signposts have become more common.
Under increasing international pressure, Slovakia found itself in danger of falling behind its neighbours, including the Czech Republic, on the path of Euro-Atlantic integration. In 1998, voters replaced the Meciar government with one dedicated to democratic reforms and inter-ethnic tolerance. From 1998 ethnic Hungarian parties participated in coalition governments and the condition of Slovakia’s Hungarian minority steadily improved.
The new Slovak government was aware that its minorities’ policy would influence the speed of Slovakia’s accession to the European Union. In 1998 it created a Council for Minorities and Ethnic Groups, an advisory body consisting of government officials and representatives from 15 minority communities. The 1999 Law on the Use of National Minority Languages attempted to address the legal protection of minority languages, affecting predominantly persons belonging to the Hungarian minority but also Roma, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, Croats and Germans in the municipalities where the minority concerned made up more than 20 per cent of the population. A shortage of minority-language speakers working in public administration has hampered implementation, especially for Roma. A new Anti-Discrimination Act passed in 2004 incorporated European Commission directives, and banned discrimination on the basis of sex, race, nationality or ethnicity in areas including employment, provision of government benefits, healthcare and education. The new act authorized the Slovak National Centre for Human Rights (SNSLP), which had been created in 1993, to represent persons claiming discrimination.
With approaching EU accession, the Slovak government took increasing steps to implement the constitutional guarantee of citizens to be educated in their mother tongues. Legislation in 2002 expanded minority-language university courses for minority teachers in order to bolster the state’s capacity to fulfil the guarantee. The government also authorized creation of a new Hungarian-language university in Komarno, which opened its doors in January 2004.
There are currently two parties representing Hungarians: Most-Hid, an interethnic party that aims to foster stronger relationships between the Hungary minority and ethnic Slovaks, and the more nationalistic Party of the Hungarian Community (SMK). Most-Hid is currently part of the ruling coalition government.
Slovakia is bordered by Poland to the north, Hungary to the south, Austria and the Czech Republic to the west, and Ukraine to the east. Most of Slovakia is mountainous, being crossed by the western arc of the Carpathians. There are two massive lowland areas in Slovakia, both north of the Hungarian border, that make up the Inner Carpathian Depressions region; this region is populated and fertile.
Conditions for Hungarians have improved since 1989 and have even been members of a number of different Slovak governments since 1998: though previously a frequent target of abuse for nationalist politicians, this situation has changed and a Hungarian party, Most–Híd, is currently part of Slovakia’s ruling coalition.
However, conditions have not significantly improved in the years since for the country’s Roma. While Hungarians have been largely welcomed into the fold of Slovak politics, Roma have been pushed further to the fringes of Slovakian society: many Roma children have limited access to education, and living conditions for the Roma have deteriorated, with a large proportion living in slums. While the government published a 2014-2020 Roma integration strategy, with a focus on improving access to education, health and housing, as well as addressing broader social attitudes towards Roma, critics have argued that little effort is being made to implement it in practice.
The Slovak government’s policies towards migrants and asylum seekers in the wake of the migration crisis that began in 2015 has been notably hostile. The Slovak government has challenged EU quotas for countries to take in asylum seekers: though it subsequently backed down under EU pressure and has taken in a significantly larger number of asylum seekers since 2015, the total number of approved asylum applications remains very low. Many parliamentary representatives have framed migrants, particularly from Muslim countries, as a threat to national identity.
More generally, corruption remains an entrenched problem in Slovakia, with some of the country’s political elite seen as complicit. Following the murder of a journalist investigating corruption in February 2018, nationwide protests have triggered a major upheaval of the incumbent government and calls for greater scrutiny of graft and other practices.
- Centre for Civil and Human Rights (Poradna pre obcianske a ludské práva)
- CVEK – Centre for research of ethnicity and culture
- Human Rights League (Liga za ľudské práva)
- Ľudia Proti Rasizmu
- Milan Simecka Foundation
- Roma House [Romano Kher]
- Slovenská humanitná rada (Slovak Humanitarian Committee)
- People in Need Slovakia (Človek v ohrození)
- Partners for Democratic Change Slovakia (PDCS)
- Slovak Helsinki Committee – email@example.com
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Sources and further reading
Minorities and indigenous peoples in