Cultural Split Complicates Czech-Slovak Federation

June 14, 1992|By MARK J. PORUBCANSKY

BRATISLAVA, CZECHOSLOVAKIA — Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. - Take a proud Central European country bridging the geographic, cultural and economic gap separating the German powerhouse from the chaos of post-communist Ukraine.

Divide that country, Czechoslovakia, in two along a faint but distinct ethnic and linguistic line. What would you get?

* One country, the Czech republic, bordering on Germany and with heroes like Vaclav Havel, Franz Kafka and founder Thomas G. Masaryk to give it a secure sense of itself and its place in Europe; a relatively homogeneous, westward-looking country of 10 million with an industrial tradition.

* A second country, Slovakia, with a third the population, less of the Gross National Product, bordering Ukraine. Except for a brief and unfortunate period as a Nazi puppet state, it would have no tradition of self-rule. It would have a potential minority problem and would enter the world community with 12 percent unemployment and large, inefficient, Soviet-style factories. At least initially, it would have to sell arms.

For the third time since the communist world fell apart, Europe faces the prospect of an essentially Slavic federation breaking up.

Czechoslovakia was formed from the ashes of World War I, like Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. Unlike them, its potential dissolution offers neither bloodshed nor chaos. But once more, the parts appear weaker than the whole.

The sore spot here is disagreement over Slovakia's demands, voiced by Vladimir Meciar, for more sovereignty and a chance to tailor economic reform to its weaker economy. Populist leader Meciar emerged as Slovakia's most influential politician in elections last Friday and Saturday.

Slovakia's chosen leaders seek a loose association with their Czech neighbors. Vaclav Klaus, the tough market reformer who leads the Czech republic, doubts that this is possible.

Jozef Sucha, spokesman for Mr. Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, says the movement basically supports market-oriented reforms, but disagrees on their implementation.

The vast majority of foreign investment since the end of Communist rule in 1989 has poured into the Czech lands. Volkswagen's investment in the Skoda motor works is one example.

Slovakia was saddled with much of the communists' arms industry. Mr. Meciar says Slovakia will have to continue producing weapons "until we find other sources of income." He has promised such production will gradually decrease.

Slovakia also could be burdened with a minority problem. Ethnic Hungarians, comprising about 10 percent of the population, have looked to the federation to guarantee their rights.

The relationship is compounded by Slovakia's centuries of domination by Hungary in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ladislav Gyurovsky, a spokesman for the Hungarian Civic Party, says Hungarians cannot count on Mr. Meciar to respect their rights.

Slovakia also would labor under an historical and geographic handicap in attracting the West's interests.

The Czech lands border Germany on the west. Slovakia's eastern neighbor is Ukraine. Prague, the federal and Czech capital, is rapidly gaining a reputation as a tourist and business center. Bratislava is much smaller and not as well-known.

At least initially, there is little to distinguish Slovakia from the poor republics emerging from the breakup of Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union -- all clamoring for Western assistance.

Dating from 600 years ago, when Prague was the center of the Holy Roman Empire, Czechs are well-established in European consciousness.

The more rural Slovaks knew Hungarian domination and have few figures who fix the world's attention.

Mark J. Porubcansky, Associated Press news editor in Vienna, has covered the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe since 1987.

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