Czechs and Slovaks

June 12, 1992

Much political debate in what is formally called the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic swirls around the question whether the word Czechoslovakia properly contains a hyphen. In last weekend's election, the hyphen won.

More separates Czechs from Slovaks than their language, religion and whether it was Austria or Hungary that suppressed them for centuries. Slovakia has only half as many people as the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, more farms and less industry. The Czech Republic is Central Europe; the Slovak Republic is Eastern Europe. And after the drastic free market reforms of Finance Minister Vaclav Klaus, the Czech Republic has 3 percent unemployment while the Slovak Republic has 11 (( percent.

Small wonder that the winner of the weekend election in the Czech Republic was the Civic Democratic Party of Mr. Klaus, which wants to push the reforms home. Or that the winner in the Slovak Republic was the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia under the former Communist, Vladimir Meciar, who wants to halt them. Economic program aside, Mr. Klaus wants to preserve the union of Czechoslovakia and Mr. Meciar to end it. Mr. Klaus wants to retain the national leadership of President Vaclav Havel and Mr. Meciar wants to dump him.

Czechoslovakia should not break apart under the tensions of th two leaders, each of whom took one-third of the vote in their respective constituencies. That makes Mr. Klaus the dominant national political leader and Mr. Meciar the principal opposition. Their relationship will tell whether Czechoslovakia remains one sovereign country.

The Slovaks did not provide a mandate for secession. They divote to roll back reform in Slovakia. In the Czech Republic, the mandate -- with a significant opposition -- was for pressing on. Both leaders ought to realize that splitting their country is worse than failing to get their way. As Britain's Prime Minister John Major made clear, the European Community's agreement -- so cherished by the Czechs -- is with the whole country and not its parts. They have only to look at Yugoslavia to see the tragedy of nationalism rampant. None of the outstanding grievances between Czech and Slovak is worth what Croatians and Muslims and Serbs are doing to each other.

Mr. Havel's presidency is on the line. It is up to those three thold their country together in the interest of all its people, even if that requires Mr. Klaus to make concessions. Mr. Meciar, in turn, may not like Czech domination but he has no reason to think that Slovakia would do better alone.

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