January 28, 2021, 12:00
The Partition of Czechoslovakia
Chapter 8 of Separatism: Democracy and Disintegration (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998)Petr Pithart and Metta Spencer
The division of Czechoslovakia into two separate states is frequently taken as a rare success story, especially by separatists elsewhere who like to prove that secession can be done painlessly and without bloodshed. To most of the citizens who went through the experience, however, it was less an exemplary success than a sad story of egotism, short-sightedness, and misunderstanding. Still, to some of the citizens of Slovakia, who now have the political opportunity to stand on their own feet, it does not seem sad but a risky and challenging experiment. We shall recount that tale here from the perspective of one of the participants, a prime minister of the Czech part of that federal state as its disintegration approached.
Two countries came into existence on January 1, 1993 as another country ceased to be. The newly independent Czech Republic includes the lands identified as Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia, where the Czech language is generally spoken. Its sibling state, the newly independent Slovak Republic, comprises the traditionally Slovak lands and part of Ruthenia in the east. Most of its people, who are but half as numerous as the Czechs, speak a closely related Slavic language, Slovak, though more than 600,000 of them speak Hungarian. By apparently mutual consent, these two new countries created themselves by ending the country that they had shared.
Yet that country, Czechoslovakia, was itself a relatively young state, having been created in 1918 by the victors of World War I from remnants of the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire. The country's first leader, Tomáś Garrigue Masaryk, had not always favored the breakup of the old empire, but when the time came he in fact led the way to independence and democracy. He could support this new position by pointing to a tradition of Czech statehood (which had lasted, with some interruptions, a thousand years) and to the military achievements of the Czech legions, which fought on the victorious side in the First World War. Thus Czechoslovakia, unlike other Eastern European countries, enjoyed two decades of democracy before World War II -- a background that would facilitate the restoration of a liberal republic some fifty years later.
That fifty-year interval was a somber epoch for the whole region of Eastern Europe. The downfall of the Czechoslovakian state resulted from the infamous Munich Pact, by which its allies (especially Britain and France) ceded to Hitler one-third of the country, the borderland inhabited mainly by 3.5 million Germans. Half a year later, in 1939, Germany occupied the rest of the country, calling it the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The Slovaks, lacking alternatives, escaped from a similar fate by only declaring a separate state in 1939, for the first time in their history. The conservative Catholic traditionalism of the region expressed itself as support for the Hlinka Slovak People's Party, led by an old priest, Josef Tiso, who was attracted to fascism. He administered the state with Hitler's blessings throughout the war years and collaborated by sending Jews to the death camps.
When World War II ended, Czechoslovakia was reconstituted as a unitary state with some elements of asymmetric autonomy added as a concession to the Slovaks; for example, Slovakia had a Communist Party and so did Czechoslovakia, but Czechia did not. The recent war criminals were executed, including -- much to the disapproval of most Slovaks -- Father Tiso. To complete the vengeance of the period, nearly three million Sudeten German citizens, mainly from the Bohemian and Moravian borderlands, were expelled from the country.
In some respects the first postwar regime was pluralistic, though there were important limitations. For example, some political parties were forbidden, and any new party could be established only with the approval of the four existing ones. Then in 1947-48 the Communists took advantage of the weakness and blindness of their political rivals and organized a coup, using a combination of constitutional mechanisms, including overt threat of violence. They established a police state, and repressed their political enemies. Under this regime the Slovaks experienced a limited, asymmetric self-governance. (Only much later, after 1989, would the counter-productiveness of that asymmetry become apparent. Indeed, one can see it in retrospect as a predisposing factor in the breakup of the country. Having some limited executive decision-making capacity of its own -- while Czechia did not -- did not mean that Slovakia was the stronger region but instead showed its weakness. Rather than being a counterpart to Czechia, it appeared to be only a subsidiary component of a federal state that was almost indistinguishable from its Czech center. Asymmetrical structures fostered the Czechs' tendency to consider the common state as their own, while the Slovaks resented being less than their full partner. This resentment would intensify after 1989.)
However, as early as 1968 an effort was made to overcome the asymmetry. On becoming Czechoslovakia's Communist Party leader in that year, Alexander Dubček prepared a federal constitution establishing formal equality between Czech and Slovak National Councils (parliaments) as part of the Prague Spring, a remarkable liberalization that would survive only briefly. Aided by nearby satellite states, the Soviet Union launched a military invasion on August 20, 1968 to impose its heavy-handed version of socialism. The reformers were removed from power, isolated, and allowed to work thereafter only in menial jobs. A fellow Slovak, Gustáv Husák, replaced Dubček as the country's leader and abolished all the reform plans except one: the federalization of the state, which was proclaimed two months after the invasion.
The plan was to make each of the constituent republics, Czech and Slovak, sovereign. They would have their own constitutions and national councils and, in turn, would devolve a limited amount of power and sovereignty to a federation that they would create, with certain joint organs, including a constitutional court and supreme court.
Though most Slovaks accepted this federalism as a victory, the dispirited Czechs hardly bothered to oppose the weakening of the federal government, dismissing it as unimportant in comparison to the devastating effect of the recent invasion. The Czechs had, through the Prague Spring, won and again lost democracy. For their part, the Slovaks had wanted federalism more than democracy, but the Czechs knew that without democracy, federalism would be hollow and useless.
This proved to be the case. Article Four of the Constitution, which assigned the Communist Party the "leading role" in the society, negated the other provisions of the constitution by allowing all important decisions to be made by the Party. The National Assemblies of the Slovaks and Czechs would meet, as prescribed by the constitution, but their deliberations would count as nothing. Actually, by late 1970 the federation was strengthened, and it was decided that the economy should be unified. Work was never even begun by the Communists to write the promised separate constitutions. The Czechs, who anticipated this, were disgusted with the Slovaks' folly and selfishness, which reminded them of the time under Hitler when Slovaks, facing a terrible dilemma, had won statehood at the expense of their Czech countrymen.
The disparity of attitudes concerning federalization and democracy presaged the widening distance between Slovaks and Czechs during the period of so-called normalization -- from 1968 to 1989. Only afterward would the spiritual chasm become apparent; polls would show that the normalization period had been considered by the Slovaks the most successful time in their history but by the Czechs their most miserable period.
If before the Prague Spring, asymmetry had been designed to disadvantage the Slovaks, after 1968 it worked to their advantage. To stifle reformism, the highest party organs were not created in Czechia. New jobs and educational opportunities opened for conformist Slovaks, while more than one million others -- predominantly Czechs -- were dismissed or blocked.
The regime was cruel. To criticize the state was to incur imprisonment, the loss of one's profession, or the denial of higher education for one's children. Yet many Slovaks adapted, taking the new federal system seriously. Some of them moved to Prague to participate in governing structures. There was a widespread feeling among the Czechs that during normalization the Slovaks governed the Czechs, who loathed the existing totalitarian state.
In fact, some independent Czech intellectuals willingly incurred the heavy penalties of criticizing the government. In 1976 a group of dissidents protested against the repression of a rock music group and formed Charter 77 the next year. They signed a document calling for the respect of human rights, and some members began meeting in each other's homes to monitor breaches of law, edit periodicals, translate books, organize "home universities," and the like. Charter 77 was a tool for the self-reflection of the society, and its members worked hard at their self-appointed tasks. There were only 1,250 signatories, for the penalties for signing were severe. Police harassment and pressure even resulted in death occasionally, as in the case of the philosopher Jan Patočka. Hundreds of opponents of the regime were forced to emigrate. The most prominent chartist was playwright Václav Havel, who spent years in prison for his audacity.
In the fall of 1989, Central and Eastern Europeans finally began to take Mikhail Gorbachev at his word when he pledged that Soviet force would no longer be used to control the socialist bloc. A nonviolent revolution spread quickly from one country to the next. Czechoslovakia's turn came on November 17, when riot police attacked a student demonstration in Prague. This brutality prompted citizens to join even larger demonstrations, which grew day by day as student organizers traveled around the country, inviting workers into their movement. By the third day, Václav Havel called together dissident intellectuals and student leaders in the "Činoherni Klub," and then to the famous Magic Lantern theater, where they launched a movement: Civic Forum (CF). In Slovakia a parallel organization, Public Against Violence (PAV) was formed and its members too included intellectuals who had already expressed their dissent against the communist regime.
That regime was led by old men who were fully aware of their unpopularity. Gustáv Husák, who had led the Czechoslovak Communist Party since 1969, had already been replaced two years before by another uninspiring hard-liner, Miloś Jakes, and a new prime minister, Ladislav Adamec. The duty fell on Adamec to negotiate with the demonstrators' new movement, Civic Forum, which had called for a general strike. Civic Forum and Public Against Violence were represented at the negotiating table by Václav Havel and Ján Čarnogurský, respectively, both of them famous dissidents who had been released only recently from prison.
By December 8, the negotiators were able to name a new government. Its president was Havel and its prime minister was Marián Čalfa, a former member of the preceding Communist government. Most of the members of the new government were not dissidents but recent members of the Communist Party or related organizations. The Civic Forum members found, to their astonishment, that the old regime put up almost no resistance to their demands. However, few of the anticommunist dissidents were prepared to fill political leadership roles yet, so they accepted others whose experience would provide the continuity that they regarded as necessary and stabilizing until a democratic parliamentary election could be held -- as soon as possible. As revolutions go, it was a marvel of good humor and mutual accommodation: No one was killed, and the protesters were cautious, proceeding slowly so as to prevent bloodshed. The old regime accepted their downfall civilly, and the new leaders did not immediately take as much power as they could have claimed. Everyone called it a "velvet revolution." Only the students who had launched the revolution were disappointed because their demands had brought about few changes in the political composition of the government.
But changes did take place. The Party lost its official "leading role in society." Political prisoners were set free. The opposition replaced 120 members of the 300-member bicameral Federal Assembly. And in June 1990, only six months after the demonstrations began, free elections where held, with Civic Forum and Public Against Violence winning a great victory. Havel remained president, Marián Čalfa was prime minister, Alexander Dubček was Chairman of the Federal Assembly, and Jiŕi Dienstbier was foreign minister. The first moves were made toward adopting a market economy under the leadership of Václav Klaus, finance minister.
The structure of the state did not immediately change. As before, there was a bicameral legislature at the federal level -- the Federal Assembly (of whose members ninety-nine were elected by proportional representation from the Czech Republic and fifty-one from Slovakia) and the House of Nations with seventy-five members from each republic. The Assembly chose the president, who chose the prime minister, who in turn put together a government that served as long as it could retain the Assembly's confidence.
The system was much the same within the two republics, except that each legislature was a unicameral national council that elected a presidium to carry out the presidential duties. In Slovakia the new prime minister was Vladimir Mečiar of Public Against Violence, while in Czechia that post was held by Petr Pithart of Civic Forum. A new phase of Czechoslovakia's history was beginning.
Democracy allowed new conflicts to emerge -- as well as old ones that had been suppressed under communism. Civic Forum members, suddenly becoming politicians, did not necessarily agree on many issues but found their views distributed from right to left across the whole political spectrum, though the majority probably could be considered liberals or centrists. These new politicians began to form new factions that increasingly functioned as real parties, each one representing certain interests, as political parties normally do in democracies.
It is, however, debatable whether the "interests" that became politically significant were primarily realistic or symbolic in nature. The economic decisions were material and realistic in nature, but the most troublesome issue that quickly re-emerged was the old tension between Czechs and Slovaks, and one can ask whether it was based more on actual, substantive interests or on sensitivities about relative status and other symbolic considerations.
Despite the close similarity of their languages, the histories of the Czechs and the Slovaks were quite different. The Czechs had their own state starting from the beginning of the ninth century, and Prague had sometimes been the center of the Holy Roman Empire. After the Thirty Years' War the Habsburgs had ruled Czechia. The Slovaks, on the other hand, were less happy, for they had never had their own state. From 1867 Czechia had belonged to the Austrian half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with its constitutional liberties, while Slovakia had been under harsh Hungarian domination and cultural repression. To this day, the Slovaks' relationship with Hungary remains fraught with antagonism. There were also many cultural differences between the two republics of Czechoslovakia. The Czech republic has long been an industrial center, whereas Slovakia is more agricultural. The Bohemian city Prague is proud of its accomplishments in art, literature, scholarship, and music, whereas the Slovakian city Bratislava is less often recognized abroad for such cultural accomplishments. The Czechs have often been insensitive and blunt in making invidious comparisons between themselves and their Slovak neighbors -- an attitude for which President Havel has apologized, referring to it as the "arrogance of an elder brother." In objective terms -- demography, economic prosperity, and the like -- the two nationalities became similar during the period of normalization. But the tensions between them were not based on objective comparisons, but rather upon subjective aspirations for collective recognition.
When after the downfall of the communist regime it became permissible to discuss nationality questions, some Slovaks broached the subject of their "humiliation" -- a subjective, symbolic sense that one's community ought to be accorded a higher rank in the ethnic stratification hierarchy. Those who had founded the country had hoped that the two main groups would become a single "nation" -- neither Czechs nor Slovaks but "Czechoslovaks." Many Czechs claimed this identity for themselves, but the Slovaks rarely did so. The preferred solution of Slovak nationalists -- the independence of a separate Slovakian state -- remained unacceptable to the Czechs because the sizable population of Germans would also have wanted to secede from Czechoslovakia if the Slovaks had been able to do so.
At the same time, there were also economic issues at stake that differentiated the two republics. With the initial moves toward capitalism came unemployment, but levels of joblessness immediately became much higher in Slovakia than in Czechia: At the end of June 1992, Czech unemployment was less than 3 percent, whereas it was over 11 percent in Slovakia. The reason for this disparity was the industrial structure of the two regions. Huge factories had been built in Slovakia to foster the development of that region, and these were especially difficult to privatize. Also, under pressure from the Soviet Union, the Communist regime had put 80 percent of the arms factories in Slovakia. Now there was no market for these weapons, and anyway the new federal government planned to end all involvement in the arms trade.
Because of their different experience, the Slovaks looked back more warmly than did their neighbors on communism, which a generation or two before they had been more reluctant to embrace. In response to this reality, the Slovaks' new prime minister, Vladimir Mečiar, wanted to slow the transition to capitalism. He favored a continuation of state subsidies to failing industries, a slower privatization of ownership, and permanent state ownership in the cases of certain firms.
In these policies Mečiar was at odds with the first finance minister of the Czechoslovakian federal government, Václav Klaus. In fact, Klaus was at odds with many members of his own political movement, Civic Forum, whose convictions leaned toward the center. He presented himself as an unqualified right-winger, though in fact his policies were not as radical as he claimed. The main difference between his approach and that of the majority of others in Civic Forum was that he underestimated the legal aspects of the transformation and focused on economic factors alone. He had adopted Milton Friedman's "monetarist" views. Intending to lead Czechoslovakia painlessly and quickly into a market economy, he promised that capitalism would bring prosperity almost immediately. Soon Klaus and Mečiar had developed a polarized relationship in regard to economic policies, and the growing antipathy between them would become an important factor in the partition of Czechoslovakia into two countries, as Slovak nationalists backed up their intransigent prime minister on economic matters.
One may call it irrational to break up a country over the minor disparity of economic interests between the Czech and Slovak republics, since with regard to the whole economic picture, the two regions had many more interests in common. Indeed, no one would be hurt by secession more than the Slovaks, who initiated the idea. (In the end the Czech side would share the responsibility for the breakup of the country, but this was not so at first.)
The two sides came to separatism from quite different motives; for the Czechs the rationale was economic. Throughout the country's existence, the richer Czech republic had been subsidizing Slovakia -- in the later years by about $300 million annually. The Czech contribution to the federal budget was supposedly ten times that of Slovakia. Moreover, the amount of foreign investment in Czechoslovakia had begun to diminish as the prospect of secession increased, and the Slovak side would suffer more than the Czech side from lack of capital.
From the Slovak perspective, these facts would seem to argue unmistakably against secession. Unfortunately, however, for them the economic argument cut in both directions. Though it was true that Slovakia was the net beneficiary in an unequal partnership with the Czech Republic, this was only a material basis for continuing the relationship. In symbolic terms, that inferior status was yet one more humiliation to the already wounded Slovak national pride. (Who wants be an economic burden in addition to being a cultural backwater?) Both material and symbolic issues counted. As the prospective break between the two republics became more imminent, the material considerations increased in salience, and polls showed Slovak public opinion worrying more and more about their economic future after independence. However, the humiliation factor always loomed large, perhaps most so in the unspoken debate.
Economic issues, then, which inevitably were paramount concerns for the whole country as it began a transition toward private ownership, also became intertwined with the other major conflict that divided Czechoslovakia: the renewed misunderstanding between the two main nationalities of the society. Despite much intermarriage and frequent visits to the other republic, neither group really understood the other, and the Czechs were especially unaware of offending the Slovaks by underestimating them in their stereotypes and treating them as a "third world country." The problematic relationship between the two republics exacerbated another political problem -- the rewriting of the country's constitution.
Early in 1990, the new Civic Forum government recognized the necessity of revising the federal constitution and developing constitutions for both republics, neither of which had one. The 1968 federal constitution clearly had to be adapted, at least to redefine the power of the republics and the federal organs. The political leaders of both republics asked for more powers, but there were major differences between them, the Slovak demands generally being more radical. Each of the three entities -- both of the republics plus the federal government -- set about developing its own constitution, though no coordination procedure existed for integrating them at each step of the way, nor did a supreme constitutional court exist. Hypothetically, all three constitutions could have been changed in incompatible ways, so that a new innovation would have been required to fit them together again.
Differences of approach soon became apparent, with Slovakia preferring a confederal structure, in which it would be linked only loosely with the Czechs. The revising went slowly, with the Slovaks in particular increasing their demands for autonomy. Symbolism was a prominent aspect of the process, as, for example, in the controversy over the name of the federation. Should it be Czechoslovak or Czecho-Slovak or Czech and Slovak Federal Republic? Initially the Federal Assembly chose the unhyphenated name, but there were public demonstrations of outrage in Bratislava, so a new decision was reached: to call the country the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic.
Another factor increasing the polarization was the Slovak National Council's decision to make Slovak the only official language of the Slovak Republic, despite the fact that more than half a million Hungarians live in the southern part of Slovakia.
As the constitutional revision dragged on through the second year, the Czechs realized that the process was creating uncertainty and costing the whole country money as investors withheld much-needed capital. Losing confidence in the federation, the Czechs began paying more attention to the constitution of their own republic. There was even a brief discussion of a tripartite federation in which Moravia and Silesia would constitute a third republic. The idea was somewhat unacceptable for the Slovaks, for it would mean that the Slovak nation was determined in the same way as that of the Moravian and Silesians -- only on an ethnic basis -- and it was threatening to the Czechs because, if it were implemented and then the Slovaks seceded anyway, the Czech Republic would be a "two-member" federation again, which is the most unstable kind of federation. Any federation comprising only two parts is nearly impossible, since if the republics take opposing sides in a dispute, the impasse cannot be resolved by voting; with two subjects there can be no majority.
The constitutional process became a frustrating experience in which Slovak nationalists kept increasing their demands and rendering every agreement ambiguous as soon as it was reached. For example, in early 1991, they proposed a new notion: a "state treaty" to be adopted by the two national assemblies to structure the drafting of the three constitutions. The proponents of this idea argued that the 1968 constitution had been imposed on the society from above and was therefore illegitimate. Their solution was to renew the union from below, beginning by reestablishing the legitimacy of the two republics, who would then "re-marry," creating a new and fully voluntary federation. Critics of this proposal believed that it would cast doubt on the authority of the existing federal constitution. Havel opposed this "state treaty."
Another Slovak demand was that the National Councils should ratify the federal constitution. By autumn, while these proposals were being discussed, they were superseded by a new Slovak demand -- for a Declaration of Sovereignty and a complete constitution of the republic's own.
Frustrated by these Slovak maneuvers, the Czechs gradually began to accept separation for their own, quite different, motives. For a time they left the constitutional matters in the hands of Havel and the other federal leaders. Havel accepted numerous compromises in the constitutional struggle, including a clause guaranteeing national self-determination in the Bill of Fundamental Rights and Liberties, but he warned that the resort to unconstitutional solutions would bring legal chaos. He pointed out the urgency of creating a constitutional court and insisted that laws were needed to provide for a referendum by which to resolve constitutional questions. Most Czechs liked the idea of a referendum, for they knew that, according to public opinion polls, neither they nor a majority of Slovaks actually wanted independence.
On the other hand, the very proposal for a referendum made people take the possibility of secession more seriously. No imaginable constitution seemed to be acceptable to all sides, and by May 1991, the Czech National Council too was examining possible scenarios for dividing the federation.
Partition did not take place only through formal negotiations and the work on revising constitutions. Electoral politics also came to focus on the issue of nationalism versus federalism, as we can see from the record of political parties in post-communist Czechoslovakia. That story begins with the fragmentation of Civic Forum soon after its moment of triumph.
Four months after the 1990 elections, the finance minister Václav Klaus became chairman of Civic Forum with the express intention of moving it toward right-wing politics and an economy in the style of Milton Friedman. He and other like-minded deputies formed the Inter-parliamentary Club of the Democratic Right. Predictably, this move stimulated the centrists to form a club of their own: the Liberal Club of the Civic Forum. Next Klaus's group proposed that the movement become a party, which any member of a group affiliated with the Civic Forum would have to join individually. This motion passed, and the affiliated groups that could not properly belong to the same party responded by quitting Civic Forum. At first the Liberal Club did not quit and did not give up its loose organizational form, but it did change its identity, becoming the Civic Movement, led by the foreign minister, Jiŕi Dienstbier. In March 1991 Klaus's club became the Civic Democratic Party (CDP), which was indeed a right-wing party. A month later Civic Forum disintegrated.
The Civic Movement was organizationally weak from the outset. Indeed, the word "movement" in the organization's title was aptly chosen, in that some Chartists (especially Havel) had a reserved attitude toward standard political parties. This skepticism was not a negation of politics but rather the emphasizing of civil society, with elements of direct democracy, over partisan politics. Accordingly, the Civic Movement, which largely constituted the rump Civic Forum after Klaus had left, preferred to function as a loose movement rather than as a party. This decision would soon limit its effectiveness in organizing electoral campaigns.
A comparable fragmentation of parties also occurred in Slovakia. As early as February 1990 (before the elections) Jan Čarnogurský broke away from PAV to form the Christian Democratic Movement (CDM).
Next, in February 1991, the premier, Vladimir Mečiar, also did his part to split PAV. As in the case of Civic Forum, this disintegration resulted from an effort to make the movement into a formal party with an authoritative leader. Mečiar wanted to become chairman of a party with a nationalistic orientation, but he encountered vociferous opposition from other members of PAV. By March 5 he walked out, leading fourteen other deputies with him. In May he formed his own new party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (MDS). The centrist rump group remaining from PAV merged with a smaller party and soon became known as Civic Democratic Union (CDU).
So quickly had the umbrella groups Civic Forum and Public Against Violence fragmented that by the middle of 1991 there were twelve parties represented in the Federal Assembly instead of the six parties that had been elected a year before.
Until the elections of June 1992, Mečiar faced a rival group: the Christian Democratic Movement, which Jan Čarnogurský had formed before the 1990 elections. The CDM had been the first political group in Slovakia to elevate autonomy to a serious issue by taking a favorable position toward "confederation" -- a loosened relationship between the two republics, with actual separation to be postponed until the moment when the Czechs and Slovaks would enter into the European Union as two distinct states. Public opinion polls showed that this movement gave Čarnogurský a boost in popularity. Still, he did not actually carry the banner for separatism but gradually withdrew even his call for autonomy.
When later Mečiar split PAV, this action reduced his parliamentary majority so significantly that he lost his position as premier of Slovakia. Čarnogurský replaced him in that role in April 1991. Out of office, Mečiar had ample opportunity to reflect on the advantages that even moderate nationalism had conferred upon his rival. Thereafter, whereas Čarnogurský failed to press any demand for greater autonomy, Mečiar picked up the theme and used it himself with increasing political success.
By 1992, opinions had become polarized throughout Czechoslovakia. Those moderates who had been elected as Civic Forum and Public Against Violence candidates now were affiliated to new parties, but both at the federal and the republic level, the voters rejected them. In the Czech Republic, rightists won, whereas in Slovakia, leftists and nationalists won. The composition of the Federal Assembly was so polarized that it was hard to see how the members could reach any working compromises.
According to all three constitutions, a party must receive a minimum of 5 percent of the votes if it is to be represented in parliament at all. The centrist Civic Movement did not even receive that minimum in the federal government. Whereas CF and PAV had captured 170 of the 300 seats only two years before, in 1992 only 17 percent of the Federal Assembly's deputies were reelected. The Civic Movement's leader, Foreign Minister Jiŕi Dienstbier, and all the other federal ministers were replaced. Only Klaus was reelected, and he declined to take over as prime minister of the federal government, which he expected would be dissolved during the following term of office. The new prime minister of the now-dysfunctional federation was Jan Strasky of the CDP. For his part, Klaus opted to stand for election to the Czech National Assembly, where henceforth most major decisions would be made, and soon he replaced Petr Pithart as Czech prime minister. His CDP had won 30 percent of the vote in Czechia, and controlled the next coalition government.
In Slovakia, Mečiar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia won even more handily, gathering more than 37 percent of the votes. They were followed by the former communists (now renamed the Party of the Democratic Left) and the CDM. This victory gave Mečiar the satisfaction of ousting his rival, Čarnogurský, and reclaiming his position as premier.
There are many interpretations of the centrists' rout. Perhaps the Civic Movement leaders, having held office for two years, had failed to campaign effectively because of losing their "will to power." Clearly Klaus must have run a more convincing campaign, for, despite the hardships they were experiencing from the economic reforms he had launched as finance minister, the voters accepted his program for further price liberalization, budget cuts, and privatization.
On the Slovak side, however, Mečiar won without offering an economic program, but by exploiting nationalism. This outcome is hard to explain, for in mid-1992, polls showed that only 20 percent of Slovaks wanted separation, yet most Slovaks voted for separatists in the elections at about that time. Perhaps they did not realize where Mečiar intended to lead Slovakia. At first he presented the separatist idea only as a moderate call for "confederation" -- a less radical proposal than the Slovak National Party's demand for full independence. In the first phases of his move toward separatism, Mečiar was calling for two separate, sovereign states that would be linked by treaty so as to coordinate their economies and well as their foreign and defense policies. He supposed that such a bond would be close enough to ensure the Czechs' continuation of their financial assistance to the Slovaks. In any case, with the centrists out of power, the right and left nationalists faced each other, and serious fighting could be expected to begin.
That expectation was not entirely fulfilled, for shortly after the election more Czechs began to see advantages for themselves in the partition of the two republics. Klaus's impressive victory demonstrated their political will to undertake rapid economic reforms. Czech nationalists began coalescing around the idea of ridding themselves of their "economic burden" -- Slovakia. Klaus never took such a position openly, but his actions suggest that he willingly allowed Mečiar to trap himself in his own separatist rhetoric so that he could not easily back away from his political commitments, even when they became manifestly disadvantageous.
The only political leader who struggled at the federal level to hold the country together was President Havel, whose position became increasingly difficult, especially in Slovakia, where he was hated by the extreme nationalists. He continued making public appearances there, though sometimes he was jostled and whistled off the stage. (Czech speakers, including the senior author, learned to expect abuse -- including being pelted with eggs -- as the price of approaching a podium in Slovakia.) Through all this Havel sought compromise, and before the June 1992 elections he had moved far in accommodating those Slovaks who wanted a confederation in which both sides would be represented equally in all federal bodies. When his concessions were rejected and Mečiar and Klaus were elected, Havel came to regard secession as inevitable. Though he stood for election as federal president, he was defeated by the Slovak deputies and promptly resigned. No other credible political leader could be found who was suitable for the office, and it was therefore left vacant. Soon, however, Havel would serve as president of the Czech Republic, having failed to prevent its becoming independent.
Although the Federal Assembly had not authorized Klaus and Mečiar to negotiate between themselves, and although neither of them had won a majority of the popular vote in his own region, they nevertheless decided the fate of the nation in their own discussions. Klaus rejected any new relationship other than that of a "functional" (which meant strong) federation; Mečiar claimed to be bound by his electoral promise to accept nothing less than increased independence for Slovakia. Knowing that the voters might not accept secession in a referendum, both Klaus and Mečiar decided against holding one, pretending that a referendum was unnecessary and possibly even dangerously provocative. Actually, polls showed that only 37 percent of the Slovaks thought secession was necessary. By then, however, 56 percent of the people of Bohemia and 43 percent in Moravia believed that secession had become necessary. Had a referendum been held, the outcome might have showed so much opposition to partition that it would have been politically impossible to carry it out.
There were some final efforts to avert the separation. In August 1992, the MDS in Slovakia developed a paper that proposed coordinating foreign and defense matters through a joint Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs. Further, it suggested that citizens of each republic would also be citizens of the Czech-Slovak Union and that both languages would be official throughout that union. The Czech leaders rejected this confederative compromise, and Prime Minister Strasky also expressed doubt that it would work well.
The Federal Assembly never even discussed the issue until September 11, and by November 25, 1992, it ratified the proposal to dissolve the country. The decision was moot anyway; by August 26 matters had proceeded to the point of no return. Negotiators had agreed to dissolve the federation on January 1, 1993, and had established a schedule for the transition. The republics were supposed to develop laws on interstate cooperation during October. For a period, there would continue to exist a common currency and a common military.
On September 1, the Slovak National Council had adopted a constitution by a vote of 114 to 16, with 4 abstentions. This decision was the final declaration of intent to secede. On January 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist.
The world did not come to an end in January 1993, but it would be hard to argue that life improved in the former Czechoslovakia. The estrangement between the two new states immediately became official and even colder than is normal between neighboring European countries. They fell to quarreling over the division of common assets and, although they had agreed by treaty to maintain the Czechoslovak koruna as their common currency, the Slovakian economic situation deteriorated so much during the first month of independence that the two republics canceled the treaty and introduced their own national currencies. By February the Czech Republic began to set up border checkpoints, creating a new conflict between the two states that was resolved in April by their agreement to cooperate in introducing customs checks at their common border. Fortunately, there was nearly no ambiguity about the location of that border, so no serious disputes arose between them over territorial claims.
Cross-border trade plummeted, causing alarm on both sides. (More than 25 percent of Czech foreign trade is with Slovakia, and more than 40 percent of Slovak foreign trade is with the Czech Republic.) Because this trade involved hard currency, of which the Slovak government lacked sufficient reserves, many Czech companies stopped exporting to Slovakia after the currency split. Within months, a majority of Slovakia's major companies were threatened with bankruptcy. Slovakia's trade deficit with the rest of the world also increased, and it attracted very little foreign investment in comparison to the Czech Republic, Hungary, or Poland.
The Slovaks had elected parties promising a gentler path of economic reform than Klaus's way, but when their new state became free to pursue such a course, they suffered a deeper recession than the Czechs. Slovak industrial production declined by about 15 percent during the first three quarters of 1993, and unemployment increased from 10.4 percent at the time of the split to 13.8 percent by October 31. (In January 1997 it was still 12.3 percent.) The country remains dependent on raw material and energy from Russia.
In economic terms the Czechs fared considerably better than the Slovaks during the first three years of independence, though their economy also suffered from the separation. During the first few months of 1993, the Czech economy contracted and foreign investment fell short of expectations.
Václav Klaus now could pursue privatization and price liberalization along the lines he preferred. Though described in the early days as "shock therapy," his austerity program was actually not austere enough, for the foreign debt of the Czech Republic increased from $8.5 billion at the time of independence to $19.6 billion in August 1997. Formerly one of the East European countries with the lowest level of foreign indebtedness, it became one of those with the highest. The currency underwent a crisis of confidence in May 1997, and six months later Klaus's government fell amid accusations of financial impropriety.
Both of the new countries experienced crises involving minorities and citizenship rules. There had been high rates of intermarriage and social contact between Czechs and Slovaks during their union, but afterward dual citizenship was not allowed. The main reason for this was the approximately 500,000 Roma people in Slovakia, many of whom would have migrated to the Czech Republic if they had been free to do so. Some 200,000 Roma live in Czechia, and in both countries they became victims of increased violence from skinheads and other nationalist groups. In September 1993 Prime Minister Mečiar explicitly referred to them in a speech calling for a reduction of welfare payments so that "the extensive reproduction of socially unadaptable and mentally retarded people drops."
Several other minorities found their status insecure in the new Slovakia. There is a Czech population of 50,000, a Ruthenian-Ukrainian population of 40,000 (which began calling themselves a nation and demanding new bilingual signs and other rights), and a community of 600,000 Hungarians concentrated along the border with Hungary. Even before, and especially after, independence the Hungarians found their linguistic rights attacked. They had preferred to remain within the common Czechoslovak state, since they worried about a republic-level language law that already in 1990 limited the use of non-Slovak languages. After independence their rights were further reduced by legislation prohibiting Hungarian place names and bilingual signs, exacerbating Slovakia's old conflict with the Hungarian state. From time to time, particular complaints of the Hungarian minority are labeled as "irredentist" by Slovak officials as a way of offering the public some visible enemies. Czechs and Hungarians are used interchangeably to satisfy this need.
Since independence the Czechs have, for the first time in history, become a monocultural society. Czech Jews were killed in World War II; Ruthenians on the eastern side of the state were lost after Stalin demanded that President Beneś cede this part of "Ukraine"; most Czech Germans were expelled after that same war, and the remainder have assimilated; and with the elimination of the Slovak and Hungarian population by secession, an upsurge of chauvinism emerged against remaining non-Czechs, especially the Vietnamese and Roma, many of whom attempted to emigrate to Canada and Britain.
In their foreign relations, both states found themselves facing new tensions after independence, in part owing to their diminished size. The claims of the Sudeten Germans for compensation again became current. The Czechs immediately became more fearful of Germany; by accepting partition they had made it possible to argue, for the first time since World War II, that the Munich Pact was understandable. This explanation could be given: "You see -- not just we Germans wanted to leave the illiberal "Czech state," but so too did the Slovaks! And they did leave at the first opportunity."
Slovakia's international tensions are primarily with Hungary, which threatened to block Slovakia's entry into the Council of Europe in June 1993. In order to forestall this, Slovakia promised to modify certain of its regulations (such as by allowing Hungarian women to omit the Slavic ending "-ova" from their last names) as recommended by the Council. Once admitted to the organization, however, Hungary did not keep its promises, leading to new complaints by legal experts from the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. The main source of conflict with Hungary concerned the Gabčikovo-Nagymaros dams and hydroelectric power stations on the Danube River, which had been undertaken jointly by a 1977 agreement. After the fall of their Communist regime, environmentalists in Hungary were able to block their government's participation by showing that the dam would create grave ecological damage. Slovakia did not refer the case to the International Court of Justice until it had diverted the water. The court ruled in 1997 that both countries must complete the project as agreed, but relations between them remain unfriendly.
The Czechs progressed more smoothly in developing democratic institutions than the Slovaks and were accordingly welcomed more readily into the international community. They were among the first group of formerly socialist countries invited to join NATO and the European Union. The Slovaks, on the other hand, made very little progress toward liberal democracy -- and indeed lost ground under Mečiar's leadership. They were rejected for membership in the European Union and NATO because of their flawed human rights record, their violations of the rules of parliamentary democracy, their misuse of the secret police against critics of the government, their pressure on the mass media, and their intertwining of political and economic power.
Instead of restoring old brotherly ties, both of the new states have maintained exceptionally frosty relations with each other since the split. Klaus and Mečiar did not even meet again until 1997, though they had promised to do so several times a year. The intention behind this unfriendliness is deliberately to eliminate any remaining doubts that the partition was necessary. Accordingly, many people have come to say, "I see now that the breakup was inevitable. What they have been doing proves that we could not have gone on living with such people as that." Czechoslovakia is truly dead and will never live again.
It would be a mistake to conclude that, because Slovak nationalists began the maneuvers toward separatism, their side was solely responsible for the eventual partition of the Czechoslovakia. Clearly the outcome resulted from a convergence of interests on both sides. If the Slovak separatists' interests were mostly symbolic -- a desire for a more equal status with their Czech partners -- the Czech separatists' interests were mostly material -- a desire to end the economic burden of subsidizing a less developed region of the country and to be "liberated" to pursue more aggressive right-wing policies. The leaders of the Czech side did not openly express these preferences but allowed the Slovak leaders to "paint themselves into a corner" by claiming to want independence when they probably were issuing that demand only as a bargaining ploy. Only a minority of Slovaks evidently ever wanted independence, and as its likely financial implications became more obvious, many of those people changed their minds -- or would have done so if a face-saving alternative had been available. But Václav Klaus took Mečiar at his word and declined every opportunity to save the country. The outcome is not only negative in terms of its objective consequences but shows the ineffectiveness of those new democratic institutions that were supposed to allow the citizens of Czechoslovakia to choose their own fate.
There are at least five lessons for the rest of the world to learn from the demise of Czechoslovakia. They are as follows:
First, the fact that a secession takes place does not prove that most of the citizens wanted it. Even though nationalism is almost always at a high pitch during the conflict over partition, there are always some people who are not nationalists and who cannot control the situation. The Czechoslovak instance is not the only case of a secession that was unwanted by most of the citizens. The breakup of the Soviet Union was another such case, and there are many others. This suggests that if the leaders of the country cannot themselves preserve the rights of the people, the international community has some responsibility to do so. It is customary for other countries to keep hands off, on the grounds that the issue is a domestic affair into which outsiders should not interfere. Probably not much direct intervention was appropriate in this case, since most Czechs and Slovaks came to the end with a sense of fatal resignation rather than bloodshed. However, this was not a chosen outcome -- either by the majority of citizens or by the minorities whose interests were also at stake. In the absence of a referendum, the decision was legal but not fully legitimate and therefore deserves no praise. Democratic institutions need to be invented and established that can prevent such unwanted consequences in the future.
Second, there are many stakeholders whose interests and rights are involved in any case of separatism. Political decisions ought to be made with a full recognition that some minorities may suffer greatly and unfairly from a decision that may benefit one sector of the population--including sometimes (but not in this case) the majority of the voters. Even if a referendum were held, and even if a clear majority voted for secession, this outcome would not necessarily be fair to a minority of citizens, whose fundamental rights might be trampled upon. Democracy does not mean only that the majority wins; it also means that the rights of minorities are protected from the dominant majority. Yet this consideration is often ignored. In this case, the Slovaks, who started the move toward secession, have suffered more from it than the Czechs. With goodwill, far better solutions to the Slovaks' grievances could have been developed, while protecting the rights of other minorities, most notably the Roma and Hungarians of Slovakia.
Third, this case offers yet another disproof of economic determinism. Certain short-term Czech economic interests did play a part in bringing this conflict to the point of partition. However, the outcome was clearly detrimental to the Slovaks' economic interests. Nevertheless, the Slovaks bear a large part of the responsibility for the outcome, partly because for a long time they refused to acknowledge that they were being subsidized by the Czechs but even more because their national pride was aroused. The sense of ethnic humiliation may have little basis in objective circumstances but may be powerful nevertheless. Because very different interests of separatists on both sides happened to coincide, the political leaders used their power to bring about partition.
Fourth, we should address the question whether decentralization helps to prevent secessions or, on the contrary, encourages them. Since separatists generally begin their demands by calling for more autonomy, and since the federalists tend to resist that demand, it is often suggested after a partition takes place that it might have been avoided if the federal government had acquiesced to the initial demands.
In fact, it is impossible to reach any definite conclusion on the basis of evidence from particular cases. If Gorbachev had given limited autonomy to Lithuania in 1989, would the Lithuanians still be satisfied with that concession? If Yeltsin had given the same degree of autonomy to Chechnya that Tatarstan received, would Chechens still be contented members of the Russian Federation? We cannot be sure. Yugoslavia was an extremely decentralized state, yet it came apart. Switzerland is an equally decentralized state that seems unlikely to come apart. In Czechoslovakia, the relative autonomy of the two parts may have made it all the easier for the federal government's power to decrease and even dissolve completely. Arguably, no demand for independence would have arisen if there had not already been two states with separate identities and partial independence. We cannot say, however, whether the policy of fully integrating two regions politically would have been more satisfactory than the limited autonomy that, in this case, gave rise to a call for total autonomy.
Fifth and finally, we turn to the question that is most commonly posed with respect to the Czechoslovakian case: Why did it happen that this country, almost alone, broke up without violence? Is there a lesson here for separatists in other countries?
Robert Young has offered a plausible answer to this question. He notes that Czechoslovakia was unusual in that it already comprised only two republics. Initially, the Slovak leaders presented their grievances to the political bodies at the federal level. However, their real counterpart within the federation was the Czech Republic, and it seemed more appropriate for them to negotiate directly with the Czechs. To the extent that power was devolved to the level of the republics' national councils and they took over management of their dispute, the federal government correspondingly relinquished power. So quickly did its importance diminish that the federal government ceased being an attractive venue for serious politicians who wanted to participate in the big issues of the day. Young reports that in late 1992, there was "virtually no leading representative of any major party in the federal government." Indeed, when President Havel himself resigned, he too indicated his readiness to stand for election to the presidency of the soon-to-be-independent Czech Republic. In Marx's language, the federal state simply "withered away"; no traumatic blow was necessary to destroy it.
Very few other separatist movements face a similar situation. In Canada, for example, the Quebec government's interlocutor in the question of separatism is the federal government of Canada, which comprises ten provinces and two territories. The federal government could not wither away while devolving its powers. There are, in fact, few countries in the world that are in this sense structurally conducive to "velvet divorce."
. This situation was comparable to that existing at the same time in the Soviet Union, where only Russia, among all the Union Republics, lacked a government or Communist Party of its own -- a fact that revealed its dominant status in the Union.
. Alexander Dubček, Hope Dies Last: The Autobiography of Alexander Dubček, ed. and trans. Jiŕi Hochman (New York: Kodansha, 1993) 149, 154, and appendix, "The Action Program," 287-339.
. Janusz Bugajski, Czechoslovakia: Charter 77's Decade of Dissent (New York: Praeger, 1987), 24, 88.
. Milan Kucera and Zdenek Pavlik, "Czech and Slovak Demography," in The End of Czechoslovakia, ed. Jiŕi Musil (Budapest: Central European University Press, 1995), 15-39.
. Theodore Draper, "The End of Czechoslovakia," New York Review of Books January 28, 1993, 23.
. Václav Prucha, "Economic Development and Relations, 1918-89," in Musil, The End of Czechoslovakia, 69.
. Draper, "The End of Czechoslovakia," 25.
. Robert A. Young, The Breakup of Czechoslovakia (Kingston, Ontario: Queens University Institute of Inter-Governmental Relations, 1994), 31.
. Sharon L. Wolchik, "The Politics of Transition and the Break-Up of Czechoslovakia," in Musil, The End of Czechoslovakia, 231.
. Young, The Breakup of Czechoslovakia, 30-31.
. Young, The Breakup of Czechoslovakia, 32.
. Wolchik, "The Politics of Transition," 240.
. Young, The Breakup of Czechoslovakia, 28.
. Young, The Breakup of Czechoslovakia, 28-29.
. Jiŕi Pehe, "Czech-Slovak Relations Deteriorate," RFE/RL, April 30, 1993, 1.
. Pehe, "Czech-Slovak Relations Deteriorate."
. "Polls Reveal Gloomy Mood Among Slovaks," RFE/RL Research Bulletin, May 7, 1993, 1.
. Sharon Fisher, "Slovakia Heads Towards International Isolation," Transition, January 10, 1997.
. Sharon Fisher, "Slovakia: The First Year of Independence," Radio Free Europe Research Bulletin on Eastern Europe, Vol. 3, No. 1, January 1994, 88-89.
. Mlada Fronta Dnes, September 1, 1997.
. Breffni O'Rourke, "The Fall of Václav Klaus," RFE/RL December 2, 1997.
. Sharon Fisher, "Romanies in Slovakia," RFE/RL Research Report October 22, 1993.
. Matthew Rhodes, "National Identity and Minority Rights in the Constitutions of the Czech Republic and Slovakia," East European Quarterly XXIX, No. 3, September 1995, 358-59.
. Rhodes, "National Identity and Minority Rights," 362.
. Young, The Breakup of Czechoslovakia, 35.