Amicable Divorce in Central Europe

June 24, 1992

The civility of the breakup of Czechoslovakia, cordially agreed to by the elected Slovak leader, Vladimir Meciar, and his Czech counterpart, Vaclav Klaus, is a lesson to Yugoslavia and other federations unable to hold together. It is also a tragedy.

The Czech Republic of Bohemia and Moravia, which does not want the split, can survive it well enough. Employment is high. The rapid transformation to a free market, charted by Mr. Klaus as economic minister, is working as well there as it has anywhere. The Western and Central Europeans are sympathetic, and the European Community will probably extend whatever interim measures are needed until that Czech Republic, whatever its name, takes its rightful place at the center of European progress.

Eventually, the Czechs may worry about being cut off from their Slavic kin by the split with Slovakia, wedged as they are between Germany and Austria. They share with the now-independent Slovenes south of Austria the distinction of being the Westernmost Slavs, in geography and spirit. But Slavs they are, and proud of it. In mere economics, they can do without the burden of redistributing wealth with Slovakia. In terms of national identity, they will regret the loss.

It is Slovakia which wants the split, having suffered unemployment from Mr. Klaus' transition to capitalism, and cannot afford it. Smaller, fewer, poorer than the Czechs, the Slovaks resent the lesser place they have had in Czechoslovakia from the start after World War I. Theirs is a more rural society. They also pose one danger to the world. Although the Czech Republic has most of the industry, Communist Czechoslovakia concentrated its massive armaments manufacture in Slovakia. So Slovakia will come to independence as a desperately poor little country with but one thing the world wants, weapons. It will probably sell anything it can make to anyone who will pay.

Culturally close but distinct, the Czech Republic will fit into Central Europe and the Slovak Republic into Eastern Europe. It is easy to look at the map and see who will give the Czechs a lift, impossible to find who will do the same for the Slovaks. Their nationalism is genuine and transcends mere economic disadvantage. Meanwhile, the dreams of the Czechoslovakian Federation president, Vaclav Havel, which inspired the world are turning to dust. He will probably retire, like Mikhail Gorbachev, upon the abolition of his job and federation.

That is all right. Mr. Havel has more plays to write, other things to do. The future to which Mr. Meciar is leading the Slovaks, however, is the tragedy in this drama.

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