The Velvet Divorce of the Czech Republic and Slovakia

Thirty years ago, I was in Prague and Bratislava to cover the “velvet divorce” between the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Slovaks were celebrating their separation from the Czech Republic in the squares og Bratislave, even though it was 0 Fahrenheit (minus 15 degrees Celsius). The snowy streets of Prague, on the other hand, were deserted. The Czechs had no reason to celebrate, and stayed at home pondering the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. While the world admired this peaceful divorce, which contrasted so sharply with the war being waged at the same time by Serbian nationalist politicians in the former Yugoslavia, many Czechs were saying, with a gloomy sigh: “If they want to leave, let them leave.”

The Slovaks, with their hangover from the day after the party, found themselves in an abyss. They were facing a test of their ability to survive as an independent state, to complete the hard task of adapting the Marxist-run economy to a market economy and to finish establishing a democratic system after four decades of totalitarianism which they had shared with the Czechs and other peoples of Central and Eastern Europe.

Thirty years ago, during my stay in Prague, I shared the discouragement of the Czech intellectual class at the failure to co-exist with the Slovaks. The most frustrated of all was President Václav Havel, who had striven to prevent such a rift from happening. Where did we fail? That was the key question. To find the answer, I had to go back to the events of the early 20th century.

In 1918, after the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the newly appointed president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Masaryk, said, “We Czechs have just created our state and we have no intention of talking about autonomies with the Slovak and German minorities.” The ethnically and linguistically Slavic Slovaks, whom Masaryk had invited to share the new country in order to have a larger population and who represented one third of the population of Czechoslovakia, were treated by him with contemptuous paternalism. In this speech, Masaryk humiliated and insulted two powerful minorities.

The hegemony of Czech ethnicity, proclaimed in Czechoslovakia’s first constitution, did not work out well. In 1938 and 1939, Slovakia moved away from Czechoslovakia and towards Adolf Hitler because Hitler allowed it to form an independent state on the condition that it be absolutely loyal to him. After Hitler’s fall, a reunified Czechoslovakia fell into the Soviet Union’s zone of influence. However, four decades later, after the fall of communism and the reestablishment of democracy, in 1992 Slovakia decided to become independent for good in a pact that was carried out without a referendum by the Slovak federal premier, the populist Vladimir Mečiar, and his center-right Czech counterpart, Václav Klaus. The Czech prime minister was seeking to carry out economic reforms for which he needed political stability and a centralized country; with the Slovaks in government these conditions would not have been met. Klaus did not want to waste time with a referendum; and the Slovak premier agreed. However, according to polls taken in December 1992, i.e. days before the partition, only 36% of Czechs wanted the breakup, as did 37% of Slovaks. In 2004, eleven years after the division of Czechoslovakia, the two independent countries joined the European Union.

Slovakia was slow to shake off the burden of populism and political corruption. It was not until 2019, after the murder of a journalist who was investigating the Slovak political mafia, that the country revolted and three-quarters of its voters elected as president Zuzana Čaputová, an environmental activist, LGBTI rights advocate and politician who, in the manner of Havel, stresses ethics and, like the Czechs, has taken in many refugees from the war in Ukraine, a country with which it shares a border. Many Czechs admire the Slovak president.

Although during my visit to the Slovak capital a few weeks ago I found that only the historic center of Bratislava has the stature of a capital city, Slovakia’s economic growth has not been bad. Its current GDP is 69% of the European average (the Czech GDP is 92%); the average monthly salary in Slovakia is 1,300 euros per month (1,800 in the Czech Republic).

But it’s not all about economic figures. As a nation, the Slovaks have gained in self-confidence. After 30 years of independence, for the younger generation coexistence with the Czechs is history that they learn at school. Unlike the Czechs, who only look to the West and ignore Slovak culture, the Slovaks read many books in Czech and Czech culture is an important reference for them.

The question that has been left on the table is whether it was worthwhile to move away if both are now partners in the EU. Everyone will have his own answer. And that is the way it should be.

Monika Zgustova is a writer. Her most recent book is Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag. (Other Press 2020)