An old friend, Rick Zednik, just got a hefty headstart on the inevitable 20-years-after pieces that will start to gather steam as the year closes on the anniversary of 1993′s so-called Velvet Divorce of Czechoslovakia. In a thought-provoking op-ed published yesterday in The International Herald Tribune, Rick, who was one of the founders of the English-language Slovak Spectator, argues that “the divorce proved a boon to both countries that emerged from it”. As I read through the article, I found myself, an opponent of the split at the time, instinctively wanted to disagree with his conclusion. But, though I had some quibbles, I really can’t.

For those of us who had recently arrived in Prague (I landed here in January 1992), the impending divorce was hard to understand. I was researching the role of the media at the time, especially the nationalist press in Slovakia, and I could see the influence that various inflammatory reports had on the two populations. But the real nationalists were always fairly small contingents (as Rick points out, only around a third of each entity wanted to split). Perhaps some Czechs snobbishly viewed Slovaks as religious, country bumbkins, and some Slovaks felt discriminated against within the federation by the know-it-all, more cosmopolitan Czechs. But there was no visible ethnic animosity, at least nothing on par with what we were seeing in Yugoslavia in those days. It also seemed bizarre to many of us foreigners, and no doubt to most of the locals, that something so significant could be decided without a referendum, by two headstrong politicians that felt that they knew what was best for their respective nations. The Czechs that I knew had more of the attitude of “well, if they really want to go, then let them”.

That attitude was, yes, patronizing to some extent, but also represented the well-grounded skepticism that Rick writes about in his piece, skepticism that the Slovaks could really strike out on their own and survive in those heady but messy years after the collapse of communism (before anyone could say for sure that the region would successfully be integrated into the EU and NATO). As he notes:

My skepticism was based on Slovakia’s limited stature. Small were its population (5.4 million), its economy (a G.D.P. the size of Rhode Island’s), and its fame (birthplace of Andy Warhol’s parents). Without the 10 million Czechs, (whose beer, crystal and tennis players were world-renowned), I fretted that a Slovakia would never stand tall in the community of nations.

Yet Rick rightly concludes that we were all basically wrong. The Slovaks have managed to build a strong, robust country, with all the attendant structures, in just two decades. They turned Slovakia from being Central Europe’s black hole in the 1990s (under Meciar) into just another European country, a member of the EU and NATO. They passed ambitious economic reforms and attracted billions in foreign investment. Of course, there have been missteps along the way, and the ongoing Gorila scandal shows how ingrained political corruption has been in Slovakia. Yet I haven’t yet heard anyone explain any of the current challenges facing the country as some remnant of a hasty divorce – these are pretty much the same problems facing the rest of the region.

Though it must chagrin Rick to give any of the credit to Meciar (his paper bravely took on the autocrat and his cronies in the dark years), he apparently couldn’t help himself:

These victories, all accomplished under Meciar’s successors, were largely possible thanks to the divorce he orchestrated. Within the Czechoslovak federal context, political pressures would have inhibited Mikulas Dzurinda’s government from implementing the flat tax. Central authorities in Prague would have neutralized efforts by the Slovaks to attract foreign investors into their own territory. When Slovaks won a world hockey championship in 2002, and when they beat the Italians at soccer’s 2010 World Cup, they basked in the limelight alone … The split and subsequent autonomy has given both sides (especially the less populous, less famous Slovaks) the confidence to work as real partners.

We can argue if the central authorities in Prague (the federal authorities, made up of both Czechs and Slovaks) really would have prevented the Slovaks from courting foreign investors. Or whether the two sides – without arrogant, blustery types such as Klaus and Meciar – would have solved their problems and worked things out. However, given the perspective of the past 20 years, I’m extremely doubtful that would ever have happened, at least with the past and current Czech political elite. The reason: the low level of political culture and absolute inability to compromise with ideological opponents.

Though the country has needed to institute far-reaching reforms for years (and only now seems to be making some progress), there has hardly ever been any effort at all to seek consensus across the right-left divide. Party leaders really seem happy with ramming through their version of reforms without consulting the opposition. And, as a result, the opposition over the years has no qualms about mobilizing its electorate against changes in which their parties have not shared.

In other words, if I had a more positive view of the political elite, then I’d blame Meciar and Klaus for blasting apart a federation that had a chance of working and serving as a model for other multi-ethnic countries. But with so few people in high positions willing over the years to put their country’s needs above more narrowly defined party or financial interests, that dream would probably never have materialized – at least in a form that would have benefited both nations as much as independence.

Jeremy Druker

Jeremy Druker is the executive director and editor in chief of Transitions Online. Twitter: @JeremyDruker Email: jeremy.druker@tol.org

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