Tag Archives: Slovakia

Impressions of Central/Eastern Europe’s Former Communist Countries

I’ve now traveled through 8 of the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe – Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria.  Although I’ve written about most of them individually, I’ve recognized some things they share that I think are interesting:

  • Capitalism has been enthusiastically adopted in these countries.  Foreign companies are welcome.  There is advertising everywhere.  There are lots of small entrepreneurs working hard.
  • There is a lost generation of older people who grew up during the 45 years of communism.  Many have had a very hard time adapting to capitalism.  They lack the necessary skills or work ethic, and as a result, are a drag on the economy.  This has results in a huge generation gap, as younger people are driving the economy that supports the older ones.
  • Some people still look fondly to the Communist days.  They liked that everyone was provided with free, though basic, social services such as health care, welfare, pensions, etc. Now the people have to pay for these services.  They also didn’t have to work as hard or be responsible for themselves to the same degree that they do now.
  • Under communism, there was no personal property.  People were assigned housing by the government, with Communist party members normally receiving the better accommodations.  After the fall of communism, people had to apply to gain ownership of their existing homes.  They did not have to pay for them.  Communist party members generally retained their superior housing.  Citizens also had the opportunity to buy other state-owned assets like land and businesses, but most didn’t have the money, so many of these became the property of former communist leaders, who had amassed wealth under communism or who pilfered state funds, or of thugs (mafia, gangs, etc.)
  • There is still a problem with corruption in some of these countries at many levels.  The EU continues to reprimand those members with corruption problems.  A campground owner that I spoke with in Bulgaria told me of his ongoing challenges with local authorities seeking bribes for things like building permits, erecting street signs, etc.
  • Almost all of these countries are now members of the European Union, although some don’t use the Euro yet.  With the recent Euro problems, it might seem like they wouldn’t be anxious to switch.  In reality, some of their governments continue to spend wildly, and therefore don’t meet the fiscal criteria to switch to the Euro (criteria that are only likely to be tightened given the recent problems in Greece, Ireland, etc.).
  • As poorer members, countries like Romania and Bulgaria are recipients of considerable funding from the EU.  It is used to migrate to EU standards in many areas of government, business, and society (e.g. health care, military, signage, etc.) and to upgrade infrastructure.
  • With the fall of communism, many people’s communist era pensions lost value, so many seniors now exist on a small amount of income.  As prices rise towards the levels of Western Europe, inflation is making it very difficult for those who live on fixed incomes.
  • With inflation, those who own property are seeing significant increases in its value.  Those who don’t are becoming locked out of the real estate market due to the high prices (kind of like Vancouver).
  • Throughout these countries we’ve noticed a lot of abandoned buildings.  Many are government facilities no longer required (e.g. border crossings between Schengen countries that now share a common customs and immigration boundary), businesses found to be unsustainable in a free market economy, or homes abandoned as people moved to take advantage of new opportunities).
  • Despite the daily rain showers which remind us of Vancouver, we enjoyed our travels through the formerly communist countries of Central/Eastern Europe.  In most places (except for a few popular cities like Prague and Budapest) the prices are lower and there are fewer tourists.  The roads, facilities, and services are more variable, but definitely adequate, and these countries all have rich and interesting histories that most Westerners know little about.

Impressions of Slovakia

We passed though Slovakia for our 2nd time. We were here last October briefly, visiting Bratislava for 1 day only.  Thankfully we had more time and better weather this visit. Here are some of the things I found interesting…

  • Slovakia is a narrow, landlocked country in Central Europe. It is surrounded by the Czech Republic, Austria, Poland, Ukraine, and Hungary.
  • For almost 1000 years, the region that became Slovakia was part of Hungary or the Austro-Hungarian empire. Slovakia then became part of Czechoslovakia, a union which took place after the World War I.
  • During World War II Slovakia separated again and was a fascist puppet state led by Jozef Tiso and controlled by the Nazis. The pre–World War II population of the country included an estimated 90,000 Jews. After the genocide only about 2,300 Jews remained. Tiso was the only European leader to pay the Nazi authorities to deport his country’s Jews.
  • After World War II, Czechoslovakia was reconstituted and was under the control of the Soviets. Jozef Tiso was hanged in 1947 for collaboration with the Nazis. As part of the many population transfers agreed to by the Allies, more than 80,000 Hungarians and 32,000 Germans were forced to leave Slovakia.
  • In 1989 the Velvet Revolution brought about the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia. Slovak nationalism was rekindled leading to the peaceful separation of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on January 1, 1993 (known as the Velvet Divorce).
  • Slovakia has a varied geography with a lot of mountains. 20% of the land is protected in parks. The beautiful High Tatras, in the North of the country near Poland, are the smallest of the high mountain ranges in Europe.
Snow covered mountains reflected in lake with treed green shoreline
The High Tatras
  • We visited the capital city Bratislava last October. It was cold and drizzly and a Sunday, so everything was closed. The castle above the town was a recent reconstruction. I didn’t enjoy it much. It gets praise from many others though, so I’d like to give it another try some day.
Manhole cover with picture of castle and "Bratislava" surrounded by brown tile

Bratislava Manhole Cover

  • Bratislava is only 60 kilometers from Vienna, the capital of Austria.
  • Like its former partner the Czech Republic, Slovakia plays pretty good ice hockey at the international level. Slovakians are fanatical about it, which sounds like some other people I know…

Vignette Regret

Today, you get a $60 blog posting.  Others may give you a $20 posting, or perhaps even a $30 posting, but I give you a full $60 posting.  I’m willing to suffer for my art.  How can I be sure what it’s worth? Read on.

We were camped at the foot of the Tatra mountains in Northern Slovakia.  The sun was shining and the mountains were beautiful, literally begging to be climbed, but we had other plans this day.

Our camper van parked in a grassy field with tall, snowcapped mountains behind

S&M Motel at the foot of the High Tatras

I went for a run on the hilly trails while Diane planned our route south.  We were heading first to Spišský Hrad, the ruins of a 12th Century castle that along with the surrounding region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Ruins of a castle on a hill with grassy fields in the foreground

Spis Castle

It was less than 1 hour of driving through the beautiful Slovakian countryside to our destination.  This route is ornamented with rolling hills and picturesque villages right out of a Brothers Grimm folk tale.  The previous day our route had been blocked temporarily by a wedding party in traditional clothing getting into horse carts.

Horse with red collar pulling a wagon with driver sitting in front of a church

Wedding Wagon in the Slovakian Countryside

I was slowing as we headed down a hill toward an upcoming construction zone.  The speed limit dropped quickly from 90 km/h to 40 km/h.  Diane said that there were police up ahead so I braked a little harder.  I was pretty sure that I was under the limit (or pretty close to it), but as we approached them, one of the officers waved me over using a short stick with a reflector on the end of it.  I pulled over and tried to look innocent.

The officer had to walk around the car as our steering wheel is on the wrong side (or as Martin would probably say, the correct side but in the wrong country).  He seemed pleasant enough but he was speaking to us in Slovakian, so it was hard to be sure.  I smiled and said, “English”.  Fortunately he spoke very basic traffic cop English.  “Driving license, car registration, and documents”, he said.  We took the later to mean my passport.  We searched for a couple of minutes to find all three, and debated whether I should also offer him my International Driver’s License or not.  After all, I paid $15 for it at BCAA and haven’t needed it yet, so why not get my money’s worth?

He stared at my driver’s license for a bit with a puzzled look on his face and then walked to the front of the S&M Motel to check the license plate.  He walked back to my window and said, “You need a vignette. This one is finished.” and then pointed to the small coloured sticker on my windshield.  I’d placed it there last October when we arrived in Slovenia on our way south from the Czech Republic.

Vignettes (pronounced ‘vin-yets’) are a method of taxing vehicles that is used in some European countries (Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Montenegero, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Switzerland).  All vehicles using the road are required to pay a tax, regardless of the country of origin of the vehicle.  A small sticker is then affixed to the windshield to indicate that the tax has been paid.  Vehicles like ours that travel through a lot of these countries can end up with a windshield looking like it was decorated by a kindergarten class!  Vignettes are typically available for as little as 4 to 10 days or up to a year, and usually cost $10 to $20 dollars for the minimum duration.  When entering a country there are usually signs indicating that a vignette is required, which are then reinforced by the many additional signs of the various vendors offering to sell them.  Unfortunately there were no such signs, at least none that we saw, when we entered Slovakia on small mountain roads the previous day and so we had forgotten to purchase a vignette.

Close up of a purple and white 2012 Slovakian vignette sticker on the windor of our motorhome

Slovakian Vignette

While we were waiting I noticed that what I had initially thought was a radar gun on a tripod was in fact a spotting scope.  They were using it to look at a distance for cars without current vignettes.  This gave me some hope that I wasn’t going to receive a speeding ticket also.

The police officer returned and said in pretty good but halting English, “The max-i-mum fine is 140 Euros.  The min-i-mum fine is 40 Euros.”  I said, “I’ve got 40 Euros” in an attempted presumptive closing.  In Slovakia, as in many European countries, police issue ‘on-the-spot’ fines, which means that you have to pay in cash immediately.  I’ve always wondered how having police offers handle cash didn’t promote corruption, and I was about to find out.

Diane dug out €40 from the back and I handed it over the officer.  It felt very strange to be handing money to a cop through my car window, like something that happens in Africa (right Norma and Wayne?) but not in Europe.  A few minutes later, he returned with 4 chits worth €10 each as receipts for my payment.  He then told me to drive to Levoča, the next village, where I could buy a vignette at the Shell station.  I nodded and said that I would.  He returned my papers and waved us on.

I was grateful that I didn’t receive a speeding ticket (not that I think I was nor would admit to speeding), and thankful that the fine wasn’t larger.  Checking online later we read that driving without a vignette in Slovakia can result in a cash fine from €100 to €500 ($150 to $750).  Who carries that kind of cash?  And why is the amount of the fine not specific?  On what basis do police officers decide which people to charge 20 times as much as we paid?

Anyhow, we were not unhappy with the result.  It could have been a lot worse.  Diane was afraid we were going to Soviet prison.  We bought a vignette in the next town as instructed and were on our way to the castle.

Our €40 fine equates to roughly $60, our cost for the story you’ve just read (labour not included).  Hence, today’s $60 blog posting.