PRAGUE -- Czechoslovakia gave the appearance yesterday of a nation sliding step by step toward dissolution, but leading politicians stressed that the divorce proceedings are in their initial phases.
The 74-year-old union between the Czech and Slovak peoples, who have increasingly been pulled apart in recent months, could end before the year does, according to a prescription laid out in talks that ended early yesterday.
Politicians in Prague and Bratislava still insist upon discussing the breakup of their country in conditional terms, and there is clearly an element of brinkmanship in the negotiations between the Czechs and the Slovaks. But the dominant mood for the moment is of inexorability, with the weight of opinion on the Czech side shifting toward allowing the Slovaks to go their own way as soon as possible.
The schism began with the "velvet revolution" in 1989, which broke the hold of communism over Czechoslovakia and accentuated the differences between the more affluent, Western-leaning Czechs, and the Slovaks, who opposed speedy development and economic reform.
The split widened with parliamentary elections this month when a majority of Slovak voters, who occupy the eastern third of the country, cast their ballots for the Movement for Democratic Slovakia, led by Vladimir Meciar. His party favors a loose confederation of two sovereign nations and a softening of the economic "shock therapy" that has brought relative prosperity to the Czech lands and a severe recession to Slovakia.
The voters in Czech regions gave a plurality to the Civil Democratic Party led by Vaclav Klaus, the architect of the economic program and former federal finance minister.
In an interview on Czech television yesterday, he dismissed the Slovak idea of a confederation as a "joke."
President Vaclav Havel, a playwright who was imprisoned as a dissident under Communist rule, has acknowledged that a breakup is probably inevitable, but urged that a referendum be held.
The party leaders, Mr. Klaus and Mr. Meciar, met twice this past week, with the final session concluded in the early morning yesterday in the Slovak capital of Bratislava.
The two agreed to a joint statement proposing a sharp reduction in the size of the federal government. The number of ministries would be cut from 13 to 5, with only defense, finance, interior, economics, and foreign affairs remaining at federal levels. Other functions of government would be shifted to the Czech and Slovak national governments.
Under the arrangement announced in Bratislava, the parliaments of the Czech and Slovak lands must put forward proposals about the shape of the country by Sept. 30.
All sides agree that the division of this nation of 16 million people, if it comes, can be accomplished without the violence that has convulsed Yugoslavia.
Western diplomats, however, say the birth of an independent Slovakia of 4.5 million people would add yet another element of ethnic tension to a region already full of potential flash points.
The economic health of an independent Slovakia is also open to question. Unemployment stands at 12 percent, triple the Czech rate.