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The Velvet Divorce

Why did Czechoslovakia, which had emerged from Communism in an outburst of goodwill, eventually split into two?

Essentially, the post-Communist political leadership failed to solve the old riddle of how fully to involve Slovaks in the political process despite their numerical minority status.

According to Henderson, while many accounts blame a strident, misguided Slovak nationalism for the divorce, "it may also be argued that the Slovaks actually showed a greater understanding that they lived in a Czechoslovak state comprising two nations. They took it for granted that they were different from the Czechs, and did not regard this as inherently problematic, but rather as a fact that had to be respected in the governing of the country."

As for the Czechs, "they often showed discomfort when dealing with Slovak otherness ...[and] it was easier for them to conflate Czechoslovak and Czech identity."

Fault lines began to appear rapidly. The two triumphant dissident groups, the Czech-based Civic Forum and Slovakia-based Public against Violence, in essence mirrored the Communist power structure in one important way: while Public Against Violence made policy for Slovakia, Civic Forum made policy for Czechoslovakia. Thus the asymmetric model survived the fall of Communism.

The situation became apparent as early as December 1989, when the time came to form a provisional government. By unwritten tradition, the post-war Czechoslovak government had always divided the presidency and prime ministership between the Czechs and Slovaks. A Slovak president meant a Czech prime minister, and vice versa. Thus when Havel emerged as the popular choice for president, it became necessary to choose a Slovak prime minister. Civic Forum chose what for it was a known quantity: Marián Čalfa, a Slovak who had spent most of his career in Prague. Slovak politicians felt rebuffed by the choice.

Attempts to reform the structure and create a new constitution palatable to Czechs and Slovaks ironically foundered on an old obstacle: the old constitution, which had been passed in 1968. That document, tailor-made for a system in which parliament merely rubber-stamped policy created by the CP, demanded a high degree of consensus. For a law to pass, at least three-fifths of Slovak deputies in parliament had to support it, including abstainers and absentees. "In other words, for anything to pass, there had to be almost no opposition at all," Henderson writes.

The country never managed to agree on a new constitution. Even agreeing on a name proved vexatious. In January 1990, Havel proposed changing the nation's name from the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic to the Czechoslovak Republic. This provoked what would be called the "hyphen wars." Slovak politicians countered that the nation should call itself the Czecho-Slovak Republic, to remind the world that it consisted of two peoples, not one that could be abbreviated as "Czech."

After much debate, a third name emerged: the Czechoslovak Federal Republic. It won in the lower house, where two-thirds of the deputies were Czech, by about two to one. In the upper house, half Czech and half Slovak, it did even better, gaining 78 percent of the vote. Yet it did not pass. Why not? Because three-fifths of the total Slovak representation in parliament, including abstainers and absentees, had not supported it.

In April 1990, a clunkier appellation won the day: the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic.

Economic tensions also arose. Czech politicians tended to favor a rapid shift to a market economy, while Slovaks generally favored a more gradual approach - not surprisingly, given that the Slovak economy remained less industrialised than the Czech. One of the few areas of Slovak strength, arms manufacture, came under attack from the federal government. The Nazis had used Slovakia as a center for arms manufacture, and the Communists had concentrated most of Czechoslovakia's arms production there. Havel deplored the old Soviet-sanctioned practice of selling arms to foreign despots, and wanted to create a "peace" economy that eliminated arms production. This rankled Slovak leaders.

In the June 1990 elections, Vladimír Mečiar, a lawyer from Trenčín who had been named interior minister in the provisional Slovak government in 1989, emerged as the dominant Slovak politician. His party, Public Against Violence, won a slight plurality in elections to the Slovak National Council, allowing Mečiar to form a government and claim the Slovak premiership. He began his term as a moderate on the Slovak question, advocating a federal solution. Meanwhile, the elections ratified Havel as president of the republic, and Čalfa remained prime minister.

Mečiar, a relative unknown before becoming interior minister, immediately began a pattern of gaining popular support while making elites nervous. "He tapped into popular unease about the indifference of Prague politicians to the consequences of economic policy in Slovakia," writes Henderson. Yet at the same time, "he had suspicious links to the Soviet Union, a hazy past, and a question mark over his handling of secret files while interior minister."

Worried about these factors, the Public Against Violence leadership sacked Mečiar in April 1991, replacing him with the former dissident Jan Čarnogurský. Predictably enough, the move only increased Mečiar's popularity, and in June 1992, his breakaway party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), gained 74 out of 150 seats in the Slovak parliament. Thus Mečiar began his second term as Slovak prime minister - this time pushing for a more radical solution to the Slovak national question. He now wanted a confederation of equal states, each of which would have its own government and sovereignty under international law. The Czechs and Slovaks would have a common market, and some common institutions, but otherwise would operate independently.

Thus the constitutional debate muddled on. Havel twice proposed settling the question with a referendum that would allow Slovaks to decide their status for themselves; Slovak politicians twice rejected the idea with a combination of suspicion and derision; as one politician said: "They threaten us with a referendum. Do they know ex ante that Slovaks will decide in a certain way and no other?"

Meanwhile, Havel's political nemesis, the privatisation-fixated Czech economist Václav Klaus, gained the premiership of the federal government in 1992. In July, the two premiers, Klaus and Mečiar, met in private, ostensibly to negotiate terms of a future federal government. Instead, they agreed to split the nation in two. In the autumn, the Federal Assembly reluctantly passed the laws to make the split possible, essentially voting for its own extinction. Václav Havel resigned as president in disgust.

Yet outright independence had never won much support in Slovakia, and its political leadership had made sure that Slovaks would not have a direct say in choosing their national status. Just as in 1938, news of independence drew a muted reaction: no parades, no dancing in the streets. In January 1993, the international community recognized the Slovak Republic as an independent state.

Havel later was elected president of the new Czech Republic, and when he retired from that post in 2003, he remarked that the dissolution of Czechoslovakia (or, to be exact, the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic) was the greatest political setback of his career.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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