A divided country likes it that way Breakup: It seemed odd five years ago when the Czech Republic and Slovakia suddenly split. Today each partner is happier apart, perhaps reflecting differences rooted in their German and Hungarian pasts.

Sun Journal

January 01, 1998|By David Rocks | David Rocks,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BRECLAV, Czech Republic -- All across Europe in recent years, nations have dismantled border posts, reassigned frontier police and removed passport controls. But not in this small corner of the Czech Republic, where just the opposite story has unfolded.

Breclav was once a sleepy rest stop where motorists might drop in for a cup of coffee or a sandwich on the way from Prague to Bratislava. Now it's the main frontier crossing between the independent Czech and Slovak republics.

Clerks in a newly built customs complex busily stamp and collate documents, cars form a constant stream past immigration controls, and truckers endure marathon waits that are often measured in days rather than minutes.

"We used to breeze right through this place without even noticing it was here," Ivan Cerny laments as he waits in a long line of trucks backed up on the highway. "Now, taking a load to Slovakia can be worse than going to Germany, Austria or Poland."

Since the Slovaks and Czechs dissolved their federation and went their separate ways five years ago today, each has developed its own flag, national anthem, currency, central bank, foreign service, railroads, police and secret service.

Czechoslovak jet fighters, tanks and armored personnel carriers have been divvied up between the separate Czech and Slovak armed forces. Phone calls that once were local or regional now cost international rates. Czech and Slovak ambassadors are accredited to each other's capitals. And each country maintains its own border posts, to the frustration of travelers.

Indeed, the two countries have done so much nation-building that it's hard to believe they were united just five years ago.

"The split of Czechoslovakia is a fait accompli, and no relevant political force either in the Czech Republic or Slovakia wants to re-establish it," says Jan Carnogursky, leader of the Slovak opposition Christian Democrats.

"Practically the whole world was surprised by the vitality of Slovakia. They thought Slovakia would collapse, and it didn't."

Although initially there was talk of a special relationship for the two peoples -- who, after all, spent 74 years sharing the same country and speak nearly identical languages -- at times their relations have sunk far lower than those with other neighbors.

In December, Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar told supporters at a rally a series of vulgar jokes that made fun of Czech President Vaclav Havel and his wife. Earlier in the year, Havel remarked that Meciar was "paranoid," causing the Slovaks to recall their ambassador from Prague, the Czech capital.

Furthermore, while the two men responsible for the split -- Meciar and outgoing Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus -- pledged to maintain close working ties, the two went four years without a single bilateral meeting until this fall, when they finally got together for a couple of hours.

"It clearly hasn't been anything like what Meciar and Klaus promised, that it would only be a formal separation that citizens would hardly notice," says Miroslav Kusy, former rector of Comenius University in Bratislava, the Slovak capital. "That was a lie, and we've seen the differences get ever greater."

Nowhere is the separation of the two nations more evident than in their international standing. Although the Czech Republic has seen its share of economic and political turmoil in recent months, the country is one of three east European nations invited to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and is among six favored for early membership in the European Union.

Slovakia has not made the short list for either organization, due to concerns that Bratislava is less than democratic.

Plenty of evidence supports that view. The pugnacious Meciar feeds his country a steady diet of nationalist and populist invective while tolerating no dissent in the ranks of his party members. He has waged a war of words with the country's president, Michal Kovac.

Meciar's government has severely limited opposition access to state-run media, and there has been virtually no independent oversight of the country's secret police, who have been accused of involvement in numerous questionable activities, including the kidnapping of the president's son.

"We've been concerned about the concentration of power, and that Meciar appears to want to maintain that power at any cost," says a European diplomat stationed in Bratislava. "And there really is concern about the rule of law in the country."

Somehow, though, Slovakia's economy has managed to pump along steadily, showing the region's highest growth -- 6.9 percent -- in 1996. And the country appears relatively prosperous. Bratislava's Old Town bustles with new bars and cafes; two mobile-phone networks cover every city of any size, and storefronts are full of imported goods.

Many observers, however, fear a decline is likely since the country's trade and fiscal deficits have soared in the past two years.

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