A 'Velvet Divorce' in Czechoslovakia

BEN BARBER

September 30, 1992|By BEN BARBER

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- In the home of a Slovak journalist this summer, I was given a stiff dose of the brandy her family had distilled this year along with a frank description of the two worlds -- Slovaks and Czechs -- about to spin off into their own separate states.

''We know they are smarter than us,'' she said. ''They have a culture for a long time. They grew up with books and ideas. If it wasn't for a neighbor who talked to me and encouraged me, I would never have gone to university. No one in my family did before me.

''It's only since the communists came that thousands of Slovaks got higher education. But the Czechs have had it for a long, long time. Someone who was brought up with culture is different from me -- I just received it as an adult.''

Spoken without resentment or guilt, this view of Czech-Slovak relations was laid out before a fireplace bordered with bookcases, full from floor to ceiling with records, art books and the spectrum of world literature. Artistic ceramic mugs and well framed modern art gave one the special feeling of modern Central European culture -- a feeling one somehow never gets in America despite our wealth and freedom.

Just three years ago, Bratislava had been a gray and vicious arm of the evil empire, punishing even whispers of opposition by barring the sons and daughters of suspected dissidents from universities or rights responsible jobs or the right to an apartment.

So Slovaks -- no less than the Czechs who now rush to escape from their Eastern neighbors -- concentrated their inventiveness, PTC skepticism, love, art and intellectual freedom inside homes such as this one. Seeing it made me ask myself: Why have the Czechs given these people such a bad rap? They do not appear to deserve it.

I was raised in America, but my father was a Czech from Brno. From him and from other Czechs I met abroad and on previous visits to Czechoslovakia, I had always detected an undertone of condescension toward Slovaks. They were drunken, crude, ignorant, rustic and anti-Semitic. And indeed, the second or third Slovak I spoke to in Bratislava blamed the country's economic troubles on ''Jews that Havel appointed.''

Another Slovak demurred: ''Such stupidity: may as well blame the blue-eyed people.'' Yet both he and the anti-Semite favored partition from the Czechs.

Many Slovaks are aware that they are looked down upon by Czechs. ''When I go to Prague,'' said the journalist, ''I can't find a Slovak newspaper anywhere. But here, you can buy the Czech papers everywhere. Why?''

This feeling of being looked down upon propelled Vladimir Meciar's nationalistic Slovak party to victory in June elections. Mr. Meciar also vowed to retard capitalist reforms and protect jobs in the inefficient arms and other large factories that gave post-war Slovakia its first escape from ruralism.

But the ultimate expression of Czech contempt came after months of haggling over Slovak demands for slower economic reforms. Upon repeated Slovak threats to divide the country in two, Czechs called the Slovak bluff.

The pro-capitalist Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus picked up the issue of separation and is showing the Slovaks the door in a ''velvet divorce'' -- a phrase that apes the ''velvet revolution'' by which communism was ousted three years ago without bloodshed.

Mr. Meciar now appears to want to proceed cautiously, keeping unified currency and army long after the January separation, but here in Washington this month, Mr. Klaus was firm in his rejection of these proposals. Mr. Klaus wants separate states which will join the European Community, resulting in open borders for people and goods and an economic union.

About 70 years ago the Slovaks gained freedom from Hungarian domination and the Czechs from Austrian. Since then they have shared a common language and some 40 years of subjugation under Soviet communism. But time has not overcome their differing temperaments.

Ironically, polls show that in both territories the majority wants to keep a united Czechoslovakia. Yet the leaders -- though chosen in democratic elections -- will not allow a referendum to decide on separation. ''It's too late,'' Mr. Klaus told me. ''And I am sure 80 percent of Slovaks would say they don't want to be dominated by Prague.''

My Slovak friend said that ''the Czechs can change faster than us and it will make them rich now. But it may hurt them in the end. Remember that they voted for the communists after the war -- not us. And when Germans own most of the businesses, and begin to put pressure on them to return the land and homes of the Sudeten Germans expelled after the war, they will be alone.

''I have just been divorced and let me tell you. There is no such thing as a velvet divorce.''

Ben Barber is a free-lance journalist.

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