Prague, Czech Republic – Last Sunday marked the 100th anniversary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia… a country which ceased to exist a quarter of a century ago. Which begs the question: Why did Czechoslovakia actually break up?
On January 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia split into two independent states, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, in what is now known as the “Velvet divorce” (in a reference to the Velvet revolution) due to its peaceful and negotiated nature. Both countries divided their common “goods” (embassies, military equipment, etc.) on a two-to-one ratio to reflect their populations. Although the dissolution didn’t lead to any unrest or bloodshed, the new frontiers did create a few odd situations, like splitting border-towns in half.
The split “was not entirely inevitable, but the political and economic costs of keeping the country together would have been extremely high”, pointed out Jiri Pehe, political analyst and former advisor to Vaclav Havel.
An undemocratic decision?
A widespread narrative argues that the divorce was a purely political move decided behind closed-doors by Czech and Slovak leaders Vaclav Klaus and Vladimir Meciar against the will of the population. There is some truth in that: all the opinion polls at that time showed that a vast majority of Czechs and Slovaks was in favour of the preservation of Czechoslovakia.
In its January 1, 1993 edition, the New York Times wrote: “A multi-ethnic nation born at the end of World War I in the glow of pan-Slavic brotherhood, Czechoslovakia survived dismemberment by the Nazis and more than four decades of Communist rule only to fall apart after just three years of democracy”. Although no referendum was ever held on the matter, democracy was indeed at the heart of the issue: all the problems associated with the federation of two states of unequal weight and size only appeared after the centralized, communist regime collapsed as Czechoslovakia reconnected with democracy. The decision-making paralysis and the federal government’s inability to push any significant reforms in the early 1990’s strongly contributed to the top-down decision of Klaus and Meciar.
Yet, the truth is slightly more complicated. Although most Czechs and Slovaks wanted to preserve Czechoslovakia, both sides yearned for a reformed, mutually incompatible version, founded on deeply-rooted historical grievances and frustrations. And while Slovak nationalism sentiment strived for more autonomy, Czech nationalism embraced Czechoslovakism, mainly due to their privileged position within the federation.
The “arrogant” Czechs
Slovaks didn’t completely adhere to the concept of Czechoslovakism, which they often saw as a patronizing and paternalist Czech policy ever since the foundation of the First Republic in 1918. “The majority of people in Slovakia really considered Czechoslovakia as their genuine home”, Juraj Marusiak from the Slovak Academy of Sciences pointed out. But they wanted more autonomy, more control on their own decision-making and were weary of feeling that their fate was decided by bureaucrats in Prague (the federal capital) who looked down upon the less-developed Slovak “little brothers”. “Some Slovak demands – for example the modification in the name of the country – were ridiculed by the Czech media and understood as petty of Czech politicians, who did not appreciate the symbolism of such steps for the Slovaks”, Jiri Pehe highlighted.
Despite having largely benefited from economic assistance from the Czech side during their common life, “resentment of what some Slovaks saw as a distant, arrogant federal government in Prague, was skillfully fanned by Mr. Meciar, a former Communist who saw the reviving Slovak nationalism as his ticket to power”, wrote The New York Times.
The “ungrateful” Slovaks
Czechs, on the other hand, felt like they were paying out of their own pockets for the economic and regional development of the poorer (and seemingly ungrateful) neighbor. Although Slovak GDP per capita had already reached roughly three-quarters of the Czech figure in 1992, “the animus created on the Czech side by these payments (…) was exploitable by ambitious politicians”. First and foremost, Vaclav Klaus, a liberal economist who wanted to bring the Czech Republic at the forefront of Europe’s liberal economic transformation and needed centralized power to launch sweeping and radical reforms. This explains why Klaus was not so keen on granting more autonomy to Slovakia and appeared, therefore, more than willing to get rid of the Slovak “burden”.
Moreover, many Czechs saw as a betrayal the fact that, in 1939, Slovakia formed its own autonomous state which, despite being a puppet regime of Nazi Germany, was separate from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, under direct Nazi occupation. On the other hand, this experience of statehood empowered part of the Slovak elite, which perceived the restoration of Czechoslovakia after the war as a “re-provincialization” of the country. Similarly, many Czechs believed that their punishment and suffering were much greater than what the Slovak side experienced after the 1968 invasion – Gustav Husak, first secretary of the Communist party of Czechoslovakia, Czechoslovakia’s President and architect of the “normalization era”, came from Slovakia.
After the split, both countries went their own way: “In the aftermath, M. Klaus pursued the rapid privatisations that made the Czech Republic an economic star of central Europe, but also created public resentment, as ex-communist insiders and foreign multinationals benefited disproportionately from the process”, wrote The Economist. “M. Meciar, meanwhile, tightened his grip and ruled as a semi-authoritarian strongman, slowing the progress of his country’s accession to the European Union and briefly making it a regional pariah, until he was democratically displaced in 1998”.
The demographics also significantly changed: while the Czech Republic became an ethnically homogeneous country, Slovakia was still home to a strong Hungarian minority (nearly 600.000) and Roma community (between 300.000 and 500.000).
The “Velvet divorce” has often been conjured to tackle contemporary separatist movements throughout Europe (Catalonia, Scotland, Brexit, etc.). “Policymakers wondering how a euro zone disintegration would play out could do worse than study one monetary union collapse that went well: the split of the Czech-Slovak currency union” in February 1993, even wrote Reuters.
What’s the situation today?
Despite their break-up, the Czech Republic and Slovakia remain more closely linked than any other two countries in Europe. Although the dissolution was experienced as a defeat and a failure for many people, no one is seriously pleading for reunification. We should also point out that Czechs and Slovaks were separated throughout most of their history: their Czechoslovak “joint-venture” appears more as an exception than the rule. Even within the Habsburg Empire, Czechs were under the rule of Vienna, while Slovaks were governed from Hungary.
Their relationship to their common past remains highly asymmetrical and strained by long-running prejudices on both sides. While the aforementioned grievances have something to do with it, more current grievances (like the fact that the Czech Republic cunningly stole Czechoslovakia’s flag after the break-up) also play a role in the enduring stigmas on each side of the border.
Last week-end’s celebrations proved it well. While the Czech Republic celebrated the centenary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia in style and with great pomp, no event of such magnitude was held in Slovakia. October 28 is one of the major Czech public holidays to celebrate the independence and statehood… of a country that no longer exists. In Slovakia, it’s only qualified as a “memorial day”. However, to mark the centenary, the country instead decided to implement a one-off public holiday on October 30 this year. January 1, meanwhile, despite being the official “independence” day for both states, fails to have any real significance today: partly because neither Slovakia nor the Czech Republic want to “celebrate” the 1993 dissolution, and partly because it’s overshadowed by New Year’s Day.