Slovaks resent, resist their second-class role Slovaks feel that they have been treated like illiterate, poor country cousins.

January 20, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

BRATISLAVA, Czechoslovakia -- When Frantisek Hutka arrived here 55 years ago in the capital of Slovakia, all but five of the mailmen were Czechs.

And that was just the beginning.

"There were Czechs everywhere, in all the offices," said Mr. Hutka, who became the sixth Slovak mailman in town.

To the fiercely proud Slovaks, being dominated by the Czechs is a sore point.

It is a point that even today threatens the stability of Czechoslovakia, a country of 15.7 million people struggling to overcome the ravages of 41 years of Communist rule.

Mr. Hutka was encountered in the heart of this provincial city, on his way down Slovak National Uprising Square to play chess with cronies at a government recreation center.

He is a roly-poly 80-year-old whose light blue eyes sparkle and laugh even when he says vicious things about the Czechs.

And he had a lot to say. For example, he paused in Slovak National Uprising Square to accuse the Czechs of cowardice. The square commemorates the Slovak uprising against the Nazis in 1944.

"The Czechs didn't do it," he said. "We contributed to the liberation."

Of course, the Czechs have a stinging retort: The majority of Slovaks prospered under the Nazis, and they were the only people in Europe who paid the Nazis to take local Jews away.

The antipathy between Czechs and Slovaks is rooted in 1918, when the Republic of Czechoslovakia was formed. The Slovaks thought they were entering into an equal partnership, a federal government in which two semi-autonomous republics shared power.

Instead, they found that the Czechs, who outnumbered them 2-1, controlled the government and the economy. Slovaks were treated like illiterate, poor country cousins, which, in a sense, they were.

When the two peoples merged, the Czech lands were more economically developed and the Czechs were better educated than the Slovaks, who inhabited a largely agricultural region.

The Czech version of events is that they had to control the post office and other civil services in Slovakia because there weren't enough well-educated Slovaks to do the job.

Mr. Hutka remembers things a bit differently.

He was one of nine of children from a poor family, but he learned Morse code and the operation of the telephone system, skills that qualified him to work in the developing urban world.

The Czechs say that both during the First Republic, which lasted from 1918 to 1939, and then under the Communists from 1949 to 1989, they poured billions of crowns into the Slovak economy to make it more industrial.

The Slovaks concede that the Czechs invested money in Slovakia, but insist that for years the Czech-dominated central government in Prague took all the profits.

"They wouldn't be where they are now if they didn't have Slovakia," said Mr. Hutka.

The dispute heated up in December when the Slovak regional premier, Vladimir Meciar, threatened virtual secession unless the federal parliament passed a power-sharing law that had been negotiated by the Czech and Slovak regional governments.

President Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright-turned-politician, responded by telling the Federal Assembly that he needed special, temporary powers to keep the country together.

The assembly managed to pass a power-sharing law that is acceptable to all sides, at least for now. It gives Czechs and Slovaks more control over their regional economies and more responsibility for their respective budgets.

But Mr. Havel's request for more presidential power is apt to face stiff opposition in the legislature from Slovak representatives, many of whom advocate the creation of an independent Slovakia.

The separatist Slovak National Party seems to be in decline, but even middle-of-the-road Slovak parties such as the Christian Democratic Movement, which is part of the current Slovak government, advocate Slovak independence before the country enters the European Community.

"We were a Slovak state during World War II. We had a very good time then. There is no reason why we couldn't do it again," said Mr. Hutka, referring to the Slovak puppet state created by the Nazis in 1939.

Mr. Hutka, who was born in Bastra Bystra in 1910, remembers the war period well, because all the Czechs were removed from the postal service and he was promoted to postmaster.

"The Czechs don't want to recognize that these six years were successful," Mr. Hutka said.

"They try to press their hegemony. They don't want to give Slovaks any rights."

Not everyone crossing Slovak National Uprising Square on a cold December afternoon shared Mr. Hutka's views.

"It's baloney. It's nonsense. Slovakia can't exist without the Czech land. The economies are just too intertwined," said Eduard Ryba, a 32-year-old engineer who was carrying home Christmas presents for his children.

Eva Paskova, a 42-year-old civil engineer, said she didn't believe the Slovaks could survive without the Czechs. But she agreed that there was a long history of Czech discrimination against the Slovaks.

"I don't mind Czechs," she said, "but they don't like Slovaks."

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