Feeling unappreciated, some Slovaks seek change in federation with Czechs But both sides say split may be harmful

June 14, 1992|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Contributing Writer

BRATISLAVA, Czechoslovakia -- Jozef Salak recalls a conference at Harvard University in which he and a Czech colleague were asked the name of Czechoslovakia's currency.

"The Czech crown," the colleague volunteered. When Mr. Salak, deputy minister of finance in Slovakia, pointed out that this was not true, the Czech retracted sheepishly, "Oh yes. The Czechoslovak crown."

"That's the way they think," Mr. Salak said of Czechs, the more populous nation with which he and his fellow Slovaks share a federation. "That's a problem. The Slovak nation would like to be on the international stage as Slovakia."

In a word, respect. And that, it could be said, is the real foundation of Czechoslovakia's current political crisis, in which nationalist parties that led elections in Slovakia are threatening to adopt a separate constitution and declare sovereignty of Slovak laws over those of the federation.

Whatever the outcome of current negotiations between Vladimir Meciar, leader of the Movement for Democratic Slovakia, and Vaclav Klaus, head of the conservative Civic Democratic Party in the Czech lands, there almost certainly will be a significant rearrangement of the relationship between the two republics.

The leaders are due to meet again today.

Mr. Meciar's party won only between 33 percent and 38 percent of the vote in Slovakia. But supporters of just about every political faction in the republic -- even those who vigorously favor union with the Czechs -- say the terms of the federation need to be reconsidered.

"We believe that a common state is important," says Pavol Kanis, a leader of the Party of the Democratic Left, the successor to the Communist Party in Slovakia. "But we want it to have a new structure."

Czechs and Slovaks have shared a common state for 74 years and speak similar languages, but in many ways have different histories. Slovaks represent about one-third of Czechoslovakia's population and live in the poorer, more rural eastern half of the country. Historically, the Czech lands were part of Austria; Slovakia was part of the more repressive Hungary.

Czechs and Slovaks seem to accept that the federal government should be trimmed and more power should be given to the republics. But Mr. Meciar says Slovakia first should become independent, then find accommodation with the Czechs.

That accommodation, Mr. Meciar has said, could include an agreement with the Czech republic covering a common currency and defense, a customs union and a coordinated foreign policy.

Mr. Klaus has said that he doesn't have a mandate from his voters to accept such a split, but that if he and Mr. Meciar can't come to an agreement, then the country will have to separate.

"Unlike the Czech side, we think there are other models that we haven't tried yet and that would be worthwhile trying -- models that are between a federation and two independent states," says Roman Zelenay, an adviser to Mr. Meciar.

But key to the Slovaks' demands is the issue of international recognition for Slovakia. While foreign policy would be coordinated, Mr. Zelenay says, the two would have separate ambassadors in key capitals and would enter international organizations, including the United Nations and the European Community, as separate entities.

"I think these Slovaks are crazy," says Sarka Hlavata, a young Czech teacher, expressing a sentiment common to many of her compatriots.

Few Czechs, of course, would admit discriminating against Slovaks, and indeed few consciously do so. Still, slights against Slovaks are easy to find. One man makes jokes about the way Slovaks speak; another, speaking to a U.S. delegation, describes the Slovak capital, Bratislava, as a hick-filled backwater; and any Slovak who has been abroad tells tales similar to Mr. Salak's.

Not unlike Canadians being called Americans, or Scots being called English, Slovaks are tired of being mistaken for Czechs. And Bratislava seems to be tired of playing second fiddle to the more picturesque -- and thus more visited -- Prague.

Breaking up, however, is hard to do. Slovaks and Czechs alike realize that a split would hurt the two nations economically, although it is likely that Slovakia would bear the brunt of the pain.

Already, Slovakia's economy is weaker than that of the Czech lands, and an unfriendly split could only make matters worse. While Slovaks make up about one-third of the population of Czechoslovakia, the republic accounts for only about 25 percent of exports to the West.

Foreign investors, concerned that an independent Slovakia would slow down market reforms, say a split could only discourage investment in Slovakia.

"A lot of businessmen are concerned about what could happen," says one individual who manages a large investment in both republics for a U.S. corporation. "Particularly if Slovakia goes out on its own -- not just sovereignty, but really out and out on its own."

With unemployment in Slovakia about three times what it is in the Czech Republic, an independent Slovak government would have difficulty paying even the insufficient benefits that jobless people are receiving.

"There will not be the resources to pay benefits, because the resources are all created in" the Czech lands, says Frantisek Sebej, a member of the Civic Democratic Union, a right-wing Slovak party that failed to gain enough votes to win a seat in parliament. "People believe the Czechs are exploiting the Slovaks, but it's not true."

While both sides have long had the impression that they have been footing the bill for the other, there is no way to quantify that. What is true is that many Slovaks believe that they are indeed subsidizing large numbers of bureaucrats in Prague who want to run Slovakia's economy into the ground.

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