Czech and Slovak

December 02, 1991

President Vaclav Havel and the Czech and Slovak politicians and people are giving an object lesson to the warring Yugoslavs on how to have a crisis of national identity, while keeping it humane, civilized and political rather than military or terrorist. No bridges are being burnt.

Czechoslovakia, somewhat disunified since its birth by shotgun wedding in 1918, is coming apart at the seams. The separate parliaments of the Czech republic and Slovak republic refused to come up with constitutional proposals that mesh. A two-day meeting of both sides failed to produce anything. President Havel, a Czech, appealed to the people of both major nationalities to press their politicians to give him constitutional power to call a referendum on the national question without reference to the federal parliament. Crowds in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, pelted him with eggs.

Mr. Havel knows that polls show that a majority of Czechs and a majority of Slovaks want national union of some kind. It is the politicians who cannot agree to terms to make it work. There is a fairly good consensus that Czechoslovakia has rewarded the more numerous and developed Czechs better than the fewer and more rustic Slovaks. The measures to switch from communism to capitalism have created much greater unemployment in Slovakia than in the Czech republic. There is agreement this should be corrected.

This is dreadfully serious stuff and, as Mr. Havel says, foreign aid to Czechoslovakia depends on its resolution. But no armies are marching, no militias are training, no terrorists are throwing bombs, the roads are not being mined. All the dreadful torture that Yugoslavia in breaking up inflicts on itself, Czechoslovakia is sparing its citizens. The politicians, Mr. Havel excepted, may not be serving Czechoslovakia well. But they are not killing, maiming and torturing the people in the name of patriotism. Of course, they still might. But Mr. Havel is convincing when he says it is just not the Czechoslovakian tradition.

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