Moravians want to see greater recognition of their regional identity. They may be fighting a losing battle.
Moravia, approximately the eastern half of the present-day Czech Republic, was pretty much autonomous for nearly a millennia until the Communist takeover in the late 1940s.
Decades on, clamours for independence and political autonomy are still heard although most "regionalists" confine themselves to more symbolic gestures.
Throughout 2021, for example, activists campaigned for their brethren to write “Moravian” not “Czech” as their nationality when filling out the census, which is taken every decade.
“I have long declared my Moravian nationality," Zdeněk Koudelka, an academic and spokesperson for the Moravian National Initiative, a campaign group, told Euronews.
"I especially oppose it when someone puts me in Czech nationality."
Yet when the census results were published earlier this month only 359,621 people — around 5% of all respondents — had called themselves Moravian, down from 522,474 at the previous census in 2011.
“The number of Moravians has been declining ever since the first emergence of Moravian nationality as an option in the census in 1991,” explained Vít Hloušek, professor of European Politics at Masaryk University.
He added that before the breakup of Czechoslovakia around 1.3 million people declared themselves Moravian.
Drive around the Moravian countryside today and you can still occasionally spot the unofficial flag — a yellow-red bicolour with a checkered Moravian eagle — fluttering above homes.
Not unusually for Europe, this regional sensibility often finds its voice in complaints about the capital city — Prague, in the west of the country — which is seen as wielding too much power.
Prague accounts for nearly a third of the country’s GDP, according to the Czech Statistical Office, and happens to also be the capital of Bohemia, the western half of the country.
In the national language, “Czech” and “Bohemian” mean pretty much the same. According to some in Moravia, the Bohemians have held power for far too long.
There are occasionally claims that Moravian is its own distinct language, but most linguists classify it as a dialect of Czech.
While the western Bohemians produce beer, the Moravians drink wine and slivovice, a plum brandy.
On average, Moravians are more religious, more rural, and their traditions are different. Moravians will tell you they’re more laid-back than the uptight Bohemians.
“The feeling that we, inhabitants of Moravia, are somewhat special compared to Czechs, was here before recognition of Moravian nationality and will remain,” Hloušek said, somewhat dismissively.
Martin Wihoda, a historian and medievalist at Masaryk University, said attention must be paid to a schism that arose during the early 1990s between ideas of ethnic Moravianism and Moravianism related to the land.
For nearly a millennium, up until the 20th century, Moravia governed itself with relative autonomy as one of the three historic “Lands” of the Bohemian Crown, along with Bohemia and Silesia.
The Greater Moravian Empire was one of the largest Slavic states in Central Europe, controlling much of the region in the 10th century, but was later conquered by the Premyslid dynasty, which controlled Bohemia.
Moravia became part of Bohemian dynastic territory but was still governed as a so-called margravate, its own administrative area. In the 14th century, when the Czech lands fell under the Holy Roman Empire, Moravia kept its autonomy, as it did under Hapsburg rule from 1526 until 1918, when it had its own Diet, or parliament.
That year saw the creation of independent Czechoslovakia, which maintained the traditional delineation of the Czech lands, with Moravia possessing its own Land Assembly, Land Government and Land President, essentially a national administration. (In 1928, Moravia was merged to become the Moravian-Silesian Land.)
But the tradition was eroded first with the Nazi occupation of the country in 1939, and then with the communist takeover in 1948. The following year, the communist regime did away with the land system and broke the country into regions (or kraje), splitting the Moravian territory into two separate administrative entities subjected to direct rule from Prague.
“Moravian regional identity was strong until 1949 when the communist government terminated Moravia as an administrative region,” said Hloušek, of Masaryk University.
After the fall of communism in 1989, some national politicians lobbied for the return to the Czech land system. The Movement for Self-Governing Democracy-Association for Moravia and Silesia (HSD-SMS), a party founded in 1990, gained a tenth of all votes at that year’s legislative election, making it the country’s third-largest party. But it failed to turn this support into action, partly as a result of the death of the party’s charismatic leader and, partly, after the formation of more radical Moravian parties.
A bigger problem was that the Slovaks — many of whom had wanted formal separation from the Czechoslovak state since it was founded, and who had stronger grounds for this demand than the Moravians in the 1990s — took up most of the attention.
Czechoslovakia eventually split in January 1993. With that, separatism was taken off the table for the Moravians, and, in the early 2000s, Prime Minister Václav Klaus ended the autonomy question by expanding the kraje system, dividing Moravia between five administrative regions: South Moravia, Olomouc and Zlin regions, and parts of the Vysočina and Moravian-Silesian regions.
This hodgepodge of administrative reform, where the regions do not “respect historical boundaries, are dysfunctional and are a source of corruption”, remains a source of frustration for some Moravians, said Wihoda, the historian.
“It is an unfortunate legacy of Klaus, who enforced this concept of dividing the country into small non-functional units in order to preserve his power and influence in Prague,” he added.
Today, however, only a few Moravians seriously think the land system can return - and the issue is all but dead in national politics.
At last October’s legislative election, the two Moravian parties took just 0.3% of the national vote, combined. Even in the South Moravian and Olomouc regions, the Moravian party (Moravané ) only won around 1% of the vote.
“Moravian identity is in decline,” said Hloušek.
Divisions between Bohemia and Moravia are becoming less clear-cut. Moravia is slightly more religious than Bohemia but the divide is narrowing, for instance, said Hloušek.
Internal migration within the Czech Republic, mainly from the Moravian east to the Bohemian west, is diluting regional identities. According to a 2019 study by the academic Richard Hubl, around 89,000 people moved from the eastern parts of the country to the west between 1991 and 2015.
However, Filip Kostelka, a professor at the European University Institute, argued the census data needs a little parsing. The nationality question is not mandatory and just 68.4% of respondents answered it, down from 74.7% in 2011. As such, the number of self-described “Czechs” also decreased, possibly suggesting “nationality has become even less salient to Czech citizens,” Kostelka said.
On the other hand, people might have been too lazy to fill out the questionnaire properly.
“All identity loses its importance,” said Ctirad Musil, chairman of the Moravians Party. Older people are losing interest, he said, also blaming it on the consequence of “the EU's policy of de-nationalisation…the attempt to create a unified European identity.” And in the world of consumerism and globalisation, people are losing “basic identities”.
However, Musil wasn’t entirely downbeat. Despite what he calls the media's “complete suppression of all things Moravian”, almost 360,000 people still inscribed their nationality as Moravian.
“Unlike the six million people who wrote down Czech nationality without a second thought, 359,621 people wrote down their Moravian nationality out of deep conviction,” he said. “This is the fundamental difference in belonging to the Czech and Moravian nationality.”
He also pointed out, as did the analyst Kostelka, that while declarations of only being “Moravian” decreased between the 2011 and 2021 censuses, the number of respondents who described themselves as both “Czech” and “Moravian” increased from 99,028 to 179,121, up almost 80%.
The historian Wihoda points to what may be a more durable, dual character of Moravianism, a trend witnessed in other European countries. Just as Bavarians or Saxons also consider themselves Germans, he said, Moravians appear to increasingly consider themselves Czechs and Moravians at the same time. One is political; the other is cultural.
“Moravianism will remain part of the country's identity, as it has been for hundreds of years,” Wihoda said.
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