A village awaits its nationality Divided: After Czechoslovakia split up, it was found that the Czech Republic owed a few acres to Slovakia. Both nations agreed the few acres would be the border village of U Sabotu. But it hasn't been that simple.

Sun Journal

December 31, 1996|By David Rocks | David Rocks,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

U SABOTU, Czech Republic -- With his pasture just across the road from his house, Jan Marecek has no trouble finding grass to feed his rabbits. But soon an international boundary may separate his house and field, effectively forcing Marecek to import food for his animals.

"Maybe I'll cross the road and I'll need my passport to go to my pasture," Marecek chuckles. "Or I'll have to pay customs duty on what I bring back from there."

That his home and field may soon lie in separate countries is bad enough. Worse is that Marecek and his neighbors in this village on the Czech-Slovak border have been waiting nearly four years to find out whether the frontier will change -- and whether they will live in Slovakia or the Czech Republic.

"It's very frustrating, unnerving, not knowing whether we'll be here or there, how it will play out," Marecek says. "There's just no certainty about what will happen."

The residents of U Sabotu are suffering one of the final hangovers from Czechoslovakia's partition Jan. 1, 1993. While almost every detail of the split has been worked out between leaders in Prague and Bratislava -- each country has its own currency, military, diplomatic service, passports, border posts and more -- the Czechs and Slovaks have yet to formally agree on the boundary separating them.

And the sticking point is U Sabotu.

The trouble began shortly after the split, when a group of villagers petitioned the Czech government to cede U Sabotu to Slovakia. Most residents were of Slovak descent and worked in Slovakia, and the nearest town -- Vrbovce, Slovakia -- is where they had traditionally turned for schools, shopping, church and medical care.

But Slovakia's economy and politics soon began to seem less promising than the Czech Republic's, and many villagers reconsidered their decision.

"They originally asked people whether they wanted to go or stay, and 56 percent said they wanted to join Slovakia," says Martin Kruzica, mayor of the nearby Czech town of Javornik, which administers U Sabotu. "But the economic situation changed and they got Czech citizenship. Now they don't want to live in Slovakia."

Of course, European borders have changed many times over the centuries. Much of what is now Poland, for example, was part of Germany before World War II; Poland once had much of present-day Ukraine and Belarus.

But the line dividing Czechs and Slovaks remained remarkably stable for about 350 years, running from the Carpathian mountains south to the Morava River. And for most of this century, the border was within Czechoslovakia.

U Sabotu received telephone, postal, electric and water service from what now is Slovakia. The frontier was marked by a small sign, not the two customs checkpoints that now mark the middle of the village. Dozens of buses crossed each day, many of them on their way to Vrbovce's train station, which now lies in the Czech Republic.

More importantly, Czechoslovak currency was legal tender on both sides of the boundary. But since early 1993, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have had separate currencies. Because of Slovakia's weaker economy, the Slovak crown has lost about 20 percent of its value against the Czech crown.

For U Sabotu residents working in Slovakia and earning Slovak crowns, this means Czech goods have become one-fifth more expensive. So the local store and adjacent pub have closed; people preferred to buy their groceries and beer in Slovakia.

It often seems as if the two nations had never been united. While Czechs and Slovaks can use national identity cards instead of passports to cross the border, they wait in lines as long as those on the Czech-German or Slovak-Austrian frontiers.

Newspapers in each country now relegate news from the other to the foreign pages, often giving it lower priority than items from the United States, Japan or Africa. Each country maintains an embassy in the other's capital.

The Czech and Slovak languages are, of course, unchanged since 1993, and older Czechs and Slovaks still have no trouble understanding each other. But younger people -- no longer routinely exposed to both languages on television and radio -- have more difficulty.

In 1993 and 1994, surveyors working from maps drawn by Nazi occupiers during World War II or by clerks of the Hapsburg Empire traveled the length of the border. One problem arose: In the 1950s the meandering riverbed of the Morava was straightened, leaving parts of each republic stranded in the other.

After counting up all of the acres that each country had gained or lost, the surveyors determined that the Czechs still owed the Slovaks a piece of land that, conveniently enough, was about the size of U Sabotu.

Acting on the villagers' original petition, the two governments negotiated a treaty giving U Sabotu to Slovakia. The Slovak Parliament approved the treaty last spring and amended the constitution to take the border change into account, but the measure remains hostage to Czech politics:

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