Czech and Slovakia

January 15, 1993

At the magic midnight of New Year's, when the 12 countries of the European Community became one market, the single market of Czechoslovakia became two countries. One week later, both were in the United Nations, bringing its membership to 180. The infant Czech Republic and Slovakia are doing about as well as was expected: not very.

The Czech Republic of some 10 million people in what was Bohemia and Moravia has high hopes. They are as educated and skilled as Germans but work for one-sixth as much, so they hope for foreign investment until the disparity ends, when they will be rich as Germans.

Meanwhile, the rapid emulation of Western economics, particularly in value-added taxation, by hard-charging right-wing Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, is making Czechs poorer. Many talk about striking -- a capitalist luxury denied under communism. Czechs are better off than Slovakians, but half the Czechs think things are getting worse. The biggest dispute is what single word to call their republic. "Cesko" is gaining, though it is a pejorative in Slovakian.

For the five million Slovakians, there is no thought of reform. Their government is in the hands of old Communists. Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar is slow about dismantling anything, particularly statist control of the economy. Slovakians danced in the streets and then made a most unusual run on the banks: panic depositing. Despite agreement on a six-month common currency, they don't want to be stuck with "foreign" Czech notes that may become worthless in Slovakia. Slovakia's biggest problem is relations with Hungary, based on a joint water project on the Danube that is no longer coordinated, and Slovakia's hinted persecution of its Hungarian minority.

After 74 years of union, Czechs and Slovakians split amicably. Although customs checkpoints went up over night, the thing was carried off with a civility that Serbia and Croatia, Russia and Latvia should observe with chastened humility.

Although they are marginally different in culture, and although the poorer and fewer Slovaks were resentful for 74 years of common nationhood, it was not raging nationalism that drove Slovakia and the Czech Republic apart. It was ideology, the relentless drive to capitalism of Mr. Klaus and obstinate clinging to socialism of Mr. Meciar.

Half the people lament the split, which the politicians and not the masses demanded. They may yet link in confederation. Till then, their division is cause for sadness, and its calm character for cheers. The gainers are the publishers of atlases.

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