Cars, corruption and love: Tales about Slovakia

Slovakia, a nation which boasts 180 castles.

BRATISLAVA: Slovakia, which kicks off a two-round presidential election on Saturday, spent decades behind the Iron Curtain before joining the European Union, the eurozone and NATO.

Last year’s murder of a journalist probing high-level corruption led to the largest anti-government protests since communist times.

Here are five things to know about the central European country of 5.4 million people.

Car-driven economy

With the world’s highest per capita auto production, Slovakia is home to Volkswagen, Kia Motors, PSA Peugeot Citroen, and Jaguar Land Rover car plants.

Last year, more than a million cars rolled off its assembly lines, while exports totalled 3.7 billion euros (US$4.3 billion).

Overall, the car-making sector has a 44% share of Slovakia’s total industrial production.

The economy is expected to grow 4.5% this year, from 4.2% in 2018.

The parliament also approved a balanced state budget for 2019 – a first in the country’s modern history.

Tourist paradise

Though geographically one of the smaller EU members, Slovakia boasts nine national parks, more than 6,000 caves and 180 castles, among other treasures.

It also has nearly 60 well-preserved wooden churches – built without a single nail – many of them UNESCO world heritage sites.

The oldest is the 15th-century Church of St Francis of Assisi in the eastern village of Hervartov.

Slovakia’s mountains are a favourite ski location in the region.

Murdered journalist

Investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his fiancée were gunned down in February 2018 as he was about to publish a story on alleged ties between Slovak politicians and the Italian mafia.

His murder and explosive report, published posthumously, plunged the country into crisis, raising concerns about media freedom and corruption and sparking protests that forced the government to resign.

To date, four people have been charged in the double murder.

Last year, Slovakia earned its worst corruption score since 2013. It placed 57th – down three spots from 2017 – on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, which ranks 180 nations for  public-sector corruption.

‘Epicentre of Love’

According to the World Record Academy, Slovakia boasts the longest love poem. The 2,900-line “Marina”, written in 1844, recounts the doomed love between poet Andrej Sladkovic and his muse Maria Pischlova.

They were star-crossed lovers but unlike Romeo and Juliet their tragic romance is a true story. Marina’s parents shunned the poor poet and forced her to marry a wealthy gingerbread maker.

The house where Marina lived in the medieval silver mining town of Banska Stiavnica is today called the “Epicentre of Love”. The exhibition includes a “love-o-meter” that measures the strength of a couple’s affection.

Peaceful split

The Slovak Republic was part of Czechoslovakia, which declared independence from the dying Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 and was home to Czechs and Slovaks.

It remained a stable democracy until dismemberment in 1938. Under Nazi occupation Slovakia became a puppet state under the regime of Father Jozef Tiso, who agreed to send tens of thousands of Jews to World War II death camps.

Czechoslovakia was liberated and a republic restored in 1945. Three years later, following a Communist coup, the country fell under Soviet domination.

The Velvet Revolution toppled totalitarian rule in 1989, and in 1993 Czechoslovakia split peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Michal Kovac became Slovakia’s first head of state. Presidential elections have since been held in 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2014.