Divorced but friends, Czechs, Slovaks plan new lives Formal separation takes place Friday

December 28, 1992|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Contributing Writer

PRAGUE -- Three years and one month after the "Velve Revolution" that brought down communism in this former Soviet satellite, Czechs and Slovaks are poised to begin life anew as separate nations Friday.

Surprisingly enough, the divorce thus far has been relatively "velvet" as well. Although harsh words have been exchanged and officials have sparred over the country's gold reserves, flags and fighter jets, there has been no threat of violent conflict between the two parties.

"There will be no war; the mentality of the people just isn't violent," said Jaroslav Veis, a columnist for the daily Lidove Noviny. "I can imagine some fights in pubs for some girl, which could be seen as political, but there won't be anything serious."

Violent or not, it seems that few people really wanted the split in the first place. Czechoslovakia's fate over the last six months is not unlike a big game of "chicken" gone bad: Two leaders pushed each other to the brink and ended up with the only solution possible, but one that neither really wanted.

The voters continue to prefer a common state. Only 40 percent of Slovaks and 50 percent of Czechs think that splitting the country is necessary, according to the most recent polls, taken in early November.

At no point did the voters stand up and demand that the federation be preserved. The same poll found that a plurality of voters in both republics wanted to express their opinions in a referendum but that only a handful of small groups and marginal parties spoke out in favor of either the common state or a vote on the split.

"After a half-century of nondemocratic regimes, people are not aware of their power," lamented Frantisek Sebej, a psychologist and former deputy in the federal Parliament from the Civic Democratic Union, a conservative Slovak party.

"From time to time they wake up and take to the streets, but otherwise they feel impotent. One of the most important things for the future is to develop a sense of civic responsibility."

After two years of seemingly incessant bickering over exactly what Slovakia's position in the current federation was to be, the country held elections in June -- the second time since the 1989 revolution.

The poll resulted in a split decision, with Slovak voters favoring the left-leaning nationalist Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, led by Vladimir Meciar, and those in the Czech Republic preferring the rightist Civic Democratic Party of Vaclav Klaus.

Each man won a plurality large enough to form a government in his home republic, but at the federal level the two needed to

work together. Mr. Meciar had campaigned on a platform of sovereignty for Slovakia, while Mr. Klaus backed the current federal system of government.

"We didn't want complete separation, we wanted a confederation," said Roman Zelenay, a leader of Mr. Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia. "That wasn't possible, and holding together this state would have been much worse and more tragic than splitting and renewing our relations based on new principles."

More important perhaps than the issue of sovereignty were the differing approaches to economic reform proposed by the two.

Under Mr. Klaus' guidance as federal finance minister, Czechoslovakia made great strides in privatizing thousands of state-run businesses yet kept a tight lid on inflation.

But unemployment in Slovakia soared to nearly three times the rate in the Czech lands, and Slovak industrial production plummeted due to its higher number of arms plants that needed to be closed down or converted to other production.

When the two sides began talks over the summer, Mr. Meciar continued to demand sovereignty, but in the framework of a common state.

He said that Slovakia's deeper economic crisis made it imperative that the republic keep control of its finances, and proposed that the two republics share a common foreign policy, defense and currency, but that each maintain its own central bank and pursue its own monetary policy.

Mr. Klaus responded that he would settle only for a federation that had full control of the economy, or no federation at all.

"The results of the elections were the starting point, and we had to look at things pragmatically," said Jiri Kovar, a deputy from Mr. Klaus' party in the outgoing federal Parliament. "The Czech and Slovak Federative Republic, sooner or later, had to break up."

By mid-July it became apparent that the country would split. Mr. Klaus and Mr. Meciar agreed to form a government that would serve only as long as it took to dismantle the 74-year-old federation. In late November, the federal Parliament, in its last substantive act, passed a bill that outlined the terms of the split.

It is questionable whether citizens of either republic will see much immediate change after the first of the year. No border controls are expected initially, and the two nations plan to share a common currency for the first half-year.

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