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Slovakia is one Europe's youngest countries, dating only from January 1, 1993, and the amicable dissolution of Czechoslovakia into separate Czech and Slovak republics. While many on both sides at the time regretted the split, for Slovaks it represented a chance to realize a long-held ambition of forming an independent state. Slovak history goes back about 1,200 years, but for nearly the entire time -- save for a few years during World War II when the Slovaks were permitted by the Germans to run a quasi-independent fascist puppet state -- they were ruled by others.

The Hungarians first conquered the territory of modern Slovakia before the first millennium and ruled over the Slovaks for nearly 1,000 years, until the end of World War I. Slovakia was known on maps from the period simply as "Upper Hungary," and indeed Bratislava even served as the capital of Hungary during the Turkish occupation in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Hungarians suppressed Slovak culture and language, and the Slovaks were only one of a number of ethnic minorities -- including enclaves of Poles, Germans, and Ukrainians -- sharing the territory. The end of World War I saw the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which gave the Slovaks a chance to split from Hungary and form an independent state together with the ethnically and linguistically similar Czechs.

The Slovaks profited greatly from the 70-year existence of Czechoslovakia, but there was also a bitter undercurrent of resentment against the authorities in Prague and a festering Slovak inferiority complex. It was only the collapse of Communism in 1989 that first opened the door to the possibility of a separate Slovak state. In 1992, with national politicians in Slovakia calling loudly for independence and Czech leaders fearful of the drag a poorer Slovakia would have on the national budget, the split was sealed and Czechoslovakia was finished. The "Velvet Divorce" was finalized on January 1, 1993. The years since independence have brought both ups and downs. Poor political leadership initially hurt the Slovaks in their bid to join the European Union and the NATO military alliance, but they eventually achieved both goals, joining the E.U. in 2004.

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