Czechoslovaks troubled by citizenship quandary

December 31, 1992|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Contributing Writer

PRAGUE -- Eva Eliasova lays down her pen and sighs, staring sadly at the questionnaire before her.

"It's terrible," said Ms. Eliasova, who was born in Slovakia but has lived in Prague for the last 27 of her 41 years. She points at a line asking what nationality she claims. "I have to write Czech.' But I feel like a Czechoslovak."

As 15 million Czechs and Slovaks contemplate what their country's partition tonight will mean for them, hundreds of thousands of citizens living outside of their home republic are already faced with a tough choice: whether to take up citizenship in a new country, move back to the republic where they were born or continue living where they are but become foreigners.

Like Ms. Eliasova, about 40,000 Slovaks living in the Czech Republic are expected to give up their Slovak citizenship before Czechoslovakia splits into two independent countries at midnight tonight.

"It's ridiculous," she said, sitting at a small table in the cold corridor outside a district registration office where she must make her citizenship declaration. "I've been living here for 27 years, and now I have to come down here to fill this out."

As of Monday, about 30,000 Slovaks had applied for Czech citizenship. And their numbers have been growing by as many as 2,000 daily, said Vladimir Zeman, Czech deputy interior minister.

"There's been an invasion of the district offices in the last few days," Mr. Zeman said yesterday. "People are standing in long lines everywhere."

If the movement toward the Czech lands is an invasion, however, the trickle of Czechs requesting Slovak citizenship could barely be called an incursion. As of Monday, only 40 Czechs -- of about 53,000 living in Slovakia -- had done so, said Petr Kuchar, a spokesman for the Slovak Interior Ministry in Bratislava.

Mr. Kuchar says the reason for the imbalance is that the issue isn't as pressing in Slovakia, where the Parliament has not yet begun debating a law on citizenship. In the Czech lands, the legislature passed a law Tuesday that makes it more difficult for foreigners to adopt Czech citizenship after the first of the year.

Many, however, would say the reasons go far deeper. Although both republics will be hurt economically by the split, Slovakia almost surely will be harder hit. And, though the Czech lands seem firmly anchored in the Western world, many Slovaks fear their new country will turn back toward socialism.

"People are afraid of things to come in Slovakia," said Frantisek Sebej, a Bratislava psychologist. "In the Czech lands, there are better prospects for a prosperous and honest and civil life."

Mr. Zeman, for his part, believes that many more Slovaks will adopt Czech citizenship throughout the next year.

The biggest change introduced by the new law is a two-year residency requirement -- which most of the 300,000 Slovaks living in the Czech Republic will have no trouble meeting. So they may choose to sign up later next year, when they presumably will not have to wait in line to register.

For the 97 percent of Czechs and Slovaks who live in the republics where they were born, the imminent demise of the 74-year-old Czechoslovak federation is being greeted with emotions ranging from consternation to cautious optimism.

"We were expecting this, but it's still surprising," said retiree Stepana Sirova. "I regret the split, but to hold the federation together by force wouldn't be any good."

The partition will have little effect on most citizens at first. Federal television will be eliminated, but will be replaced in each republic by a new channel with similar programming; Czechoslovak crowns will remain legal tender in both republics.

But soon thereafter, the two countries will begin to act exactly that way -- like two different countries.

The first border posts have been built and are expected to begin operating Saturday, although non-commercial traffic should move freely. Passports and identity cards will be stamped with the bearer's citizenship, and should soon be replaced with new Czech or Slovak documents. And by midyear, the two republics plan to establish their own currencies.

"There has been good cooperation, but it's not possible to divide a state in six months," said Jiri Dienstbier, former Czechoslovak foreign minister. "After the first of January, we'll have constitutions, anthems, flags and so on, but we'll still have a pile of problems that need to be solved."

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