COVER

THE LESSONS OF PRAGUE

Czechs and Slovaks split up without knowing why

October 16 1995
COVER

THE LESSONS OF PRAGUE

Czechs and Slovaks split up without knowing why

October 16 1995

THE LESSONS OF PRAGUE

Czechs and Slovaks split up without knowing why

Sparta Prague was the steelworkers’ hockey team in

the days when the Communists ruled Czechoslovakia, but there was no sign of lunch bucket-style hockey from the collection of faneyskating, no-hit players who took the ice one night last week against the visiting team from Zlin. At times, some fans in the boisterous crowd of 4,902 looked frighteningly tougher than the home team, pelting both benches with cans of beer when Sparta fell behind by three goals early in the third period. “Czech crowds can be pretty critical,” said assistant coach Slava Lener with a smile, watching the debacle from the safety of a corporate box.

The players this night may lack fire in the belly, but Lener remembers both the glory and the headaches of the days when, as the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, his nation was an international hockey leviathan.

“Oh, there were always problems picking the teams then,” he recalled last week.

“How many Czechs? How many Slovaks? Not only did we have to have one coach from each side, but each side had to have its own doctor, its own trainer.” For Canadians who revel in the benign flag-waving of their own international hockey bragging rights, there is a sobering lesson in what followed. “There is no doubt,” said Lener, “that the quality of our hockey has dropped since the split.”

The split, Lener simply calls it. Politicians prefer the more noble-sounding Velvet Divorce in honor of the smoothness of the process. By any name, it was the peaceful but hardly uneventful demise on New Year’s Day, 1993, of the 74-year-old experiment in federalism that was Czechoslovakia—a breakup with lessons for Canadians contemplating the end of their own federation. The end snuck up on most of its 10 million Czechs and five million Slovaks. No one on either side got

BRUCE WALLACE ¡IN PRAGUE

to vote on it. Unlike that other federal breakup in Yugoslavia, no one fired a shot. Border posts were put up and assets divided in a matter of weeks by Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus and Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, neither of whom had even campaigned for independence when they were elected in June, 1992.

To this day, there is disagreement about how it all really happened. Signs of unhappiness, mostly from the Slovak side, had been evident in the first months after the Communist collapse in November, 1989, but the first missteps seem almost trivial in hindsight. Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel inadvertently opened an emotional debate by proposing to change the name of the newly liberated state. Havel simply wanted to strike the word “Socialist,” but Slovak nationalists demanded that the new name more properly reflect both the nation’s ethnic groups. They argued that the small “s” in Czechoslovakia was another example of Czech paternalism and proposed putting a hyphen between the two words. That, in turn, angered Czechs, who remembered that a hyphen had been included in the fascist state imposed on the country by Adolf Hitler in 1938.

“The errors were small, almost absurd in nature, but compounded they ended up as serious political mistakes,” says Vaclav Zak, a former dissident who became negotiator for the Czech side during the early months of the new era. The two sides were soon arguing over the powers of the new parliament’s upper house, where Czechs op-

posed the effective power to veto legislation held by the Slovaks. And in May, 1990, Ludwik Vaculik, a writer with dissident credentials stretching back to the 1968 Prague Spring, published an article suggesting that the only way to satisfy the Slovak “little brother” was to give him “a house of his own.” With that, a taboo against discussing partition was broken.

The final schism came after the 1992 elections, which returned Klaus and Meciar. Klaus adheres to a free-market rhetoric that Newt Gingrich would applaud; Meciar is a Communist-style strongman who has mastered populism and Slovak nationalism as his route to power. There are those who still argue that Klaus seized on Meciar’s demands for more autonomy to rid the Czechs of the heavily state-subsidized Slovak economy. “The irony is that, despite all the history of ethnic disputes, it was a desire to follow different economic paths that pushed Czechs and Slovaks apart,” says former Tory cabinet minister Otto Jelinek, a Czech-Canadian who has returned to Prague to run an international consulting business.

Certainly, the two sides have different political and economic cultures, which had only been accentuated in the years between 1968 and 1989. In the 1920s, the Czechs were one of the world’s leading industrial powers, and Prague has a long history as a centre of liberal thought. Czechs remember the period following the Soviet invasion of 1968 as a time of repression and darkness. But those years were a boon to Slovakia, which was treated much more gently by the hardline Communist leaders. Money was funnelled from the Czech Lands, as they were then called, to build Slovakia’s heavy industry. “We Czechs were shocked to discover after the revolution that those years were looked upon by the Slovaks as a glorious time,” says Petr Pithart, who served as the first freely elected Czech prime minister until his defeat by Klaus in 1992. The effects are evident: Slovaks have been far more hesitant to jettison their ties to the East and their centrally planned economy.

Yet other observers contend that Klaus could never have survived politically had he accepted Meciar’s constitutional demands for Slovak sovereignty. “Meciar wanted to keep the currency, keep the army, keep all the benefits of Czechoslovakia yet still have full international recognition for Slovakia,” said Zak from his office on a back street in Prague’s Old Town. “No sensible Czech politician could accept those terms.”

If the origins of the split remain murky, the consequences are as clear as Bohemian crystal. The two countries attempted to share a currency. But with such conflicting economic policies, investors put little faith in the joint crown and foreign reserves tumbled. Just 38 days after it was introduced, the Czechs pulled out of the currency union to embark unhindered on their free-market goals. Huge swaths of the Czech economy were privatized, and foreign investors flocked in. The differences are obvious. Having escaped the bombs that devastated many of Europe’s other great cities, Prague’s architecture has survived as a real-life theme park from the continent’s age of grandeur. While the downtrodden Slovak capital of Bratislava is only slowly being replastered, Prague has become Europe’s most popular tourist destination.

The Czechs’ relative affluence masks some persistent social problems: poorly paid doctors are headed for a national strike this fall, for example. But the general sentiment is that the split from Slovakia has been good for the Czech nation. ‘We don’t talk about it much any more and most people don’t feel that we lost anything,” said Antonin Brandejs, sipping espresso in the café of his family-owned Hotel Pariz in Prague. “It’s a pity, because we would eventually have been stronger together. But it has gone too far now. What’s done is done.” That feeling is only reinforced as Czechs

watch Meciar indulge in old-style anti-democratic governing techniques. He is currently engaged in a power struggle with Slovak President Michal Kovac, a thuggish battle in which Kovac’s son was kidnapped, stuffed in the trunk of a car and dumped in neighboring Austria, where he was wanted on fraud charges. “Czechs regard the state of Slovak politics as a further argument for being right to break away,” says Pithart.

Some Czechs still fight the split. Petr Uhl, 54, another former Czech dissident, took out Slovak citizenship to protest the Czech Republic’s policy of making residents choose one passport or the other (Slovakia still allows dual citizenship). Uhl traces his nostalgia for Czechoslovakia to stories his father told him about the bravery of Slovak partisans in the Second World War. The Slovak resistance struggled for the ideal of Czechoslovakia against their own nationalist brethren who had set up a Nazi puppet state. “Our politicians have failed us,” says Uhl. “Polls may show that people are happy now, but nobody ever asks them if it was fair to leave the Slovaks behind.”

Uhl maintains contacts with some Slovaks, trying to ensure, he says, “that mutual contacts in business and culture are not so weakened that they cannot one day be reawakened.” (The Slovaks have already raised the prospect of rejoining the Czech hockey league.) But former prime minister Pithart sadly argues that the two countries have become “perfectly disengaged.” In that, he argues, the Czechoslovak divorce has lessons for Canada. “The politicians who are responsible for dissolution will seek to get more than just 51 per cent of the people to agree to the breakup,” he warns. “Tie problem is not legality, it is legitimacy, and that can only be gained by worsening relations with the other side. The politicians have to convince people that what was done was right “Canadians won’t want to hear this,” he continues, “but my advice would be to postpone a final decision. We were too impatient. Yes, it seems unbearable. But it is better than paying the longterm price of losing a country.” □