People along Czech-Slovakian border want to know where they live

January 03, 1994|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Contributing Writer

U SABOTU, Czech Republic -- Radek Melicharek's barn stands exactly where it has for decades -- across the road from his house. But for the past year it has been in another country.

Mr. Melicharek would like to reunite house and barn but, rather than moving either one, he wants to shift the border that separates them.

"Our house here is in Moravia," Mr. Melicharek said, referring to the Czech province in which he lives. "And the barn there is in Slovakia," he said, pointing to the stone building that stands less than 50 feet from his home.

Since the partition of Czechoslovakia on Jan. 1, 1993, the Czech-Slovakian border has separated the 140 residents of U Sabotu from the nearest town -- Vrbovce, Slovakia -- where they have traditionally turned for schooling, shopping, church, medical care and a host of other services.

So U Sabotu's residents -- nearly all of whom are of Slovakian descent -- have petitioned the governments of the Czech Republic and Slovakia to move the border to the far side of their settlement.

"We're all Slovaks, and we all work in Slovakia, our children go to school in Slovakia, the stores we go to are in Slovakia," said Mr. Melicharek, 20, who repairs farm equipment just across the border. "We're Slovaks, so we want to live in Slovakia."

Of the myriad problems dividing the Czech Republic and Slovakia in the year since they split, one of the most difficult has been determining exactly where one country ends and the other begins.

Over the last year, surveyors from both sides have traveled the length of the frontier to mark the borderline. Working from maps drawn by the Nazi occupiers during World War II, they have demarcated about 70 percent of the border and expect to finish by next summer.

In four instances -- including U Sabotu -- local residents oppose the surveyors' conclusions. That means residents of those areas have been waiting for Prague and Bratislava to decide whether they will live in the Czech Republic or Slovakia.

"We're tired of not knowing where we live," said Milan Zriny, a farmer from U Sabotu. "We've already waited a year."

South of here, the Moravia River has marked the traditional frontier between the two republics. But in the 1950s the meandering riverbed was straightened, leaving numerous sections of each country stranded on the far side of the river.

To the north, nine houses in the Czech village of Sidonie lie on the Slovakian side of a small creek that separates the two republics. Farther north, at the town of Velke Karlovice, about 80 acres of Slovakian territory -- inhabited by Czechs -- is cut off from Slovakia by a mountain range and is accessible by road only from the Czech side.

The deadline for resolving the problem remains two years away, at the end of 1995. Then the two republics are to sign a standard border agreement, such as they have with other neighbors.

Although members of the two countries' border commissions have proposed an exchange of about 500 acres of land -- which would resolve all four problem areas -- politicians on both sides of the boundary have resisted giving up any territory.

"Changing borders is a very sensitive issue," Jiri Pesek, head of the Czech Border Commission, said in an interview in Prague. "Politicians get involved and start to shout, 'We won't give up even a meter of our land,' as if we wanted to take something. We want to trade what they've got for something a little farther on."

Before Czechoslovakia split, the border, while officially there, meant almost nothing. The Czechoslovak koruna was legal tender on both sides of the boundary. Since February, the two countries have had separate currencies, and because Slovakia's economy is weaker, the Slovakian koruna has slipped about 20 percent against the Czech koruna.

For U Sabotu residents working in Slovakia and earning Slovakian money, goods in the local Czech store have become one-fifth more expensive. The store and adjacent pub have closed because locals preferred to buy groceries and beer in lower-cost Slovakia.

Even though most U Sabotu residents are Slovaks, many express more faith in Czech leaders than in Slovakian Premier Vladimir Meciar. The Slovakian government has spent much of the last year in turf battles among various ministries and political parties, while urgently needed economic reforms have been delayed or lost in the shuffle.

The Czechs, meanwhile, have pushed ahead with an ambitious privatization plan, and the republic has become the hot spot for foreign investment in Eastern Europe.

Nonetheless, historical ties and immediate economic worries outweigh the more distant potential rewards of Czech citizenship, said U Sabotu resident Anna Melicharkova.

"We know that the Czech Republic has a more certain future, but what can we do?" she said, looking at the Slovakian customs post just a stone's throw away from her front porch. "We work in Slovakia, we have Slovak money, we do our shopping there. Why shouldn't we live there?"

Most of all, though, those living in the border region want the issue resolved so they can get on with their lives. Since most U Sabotu residents are of Slovakian descent, they will have to apply for Czech citizenship if they don't want to become foreigners in their homeland.

Because of the delay, and because the transition period in which Slovaks may receive Czech citizenship with reduced formalities will end soon, several families have applied for Czech documents.

It's better, they say, than waiting for a decision from the same politicians who split the country in the first place.

"If they change this land to Slovakia, then we'll change all of our documents back and we'll be Slovaks again," Anna Polachova said. "We're like chameleons around here, so we can change if we need to."

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