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RELATIONS BETWEEN THE CZECH AND SLOVAK REPUBLICS NOT HARMED BY SEPARATION

Two countries that share a past and a future

JANUARY 1, 2003, marked the 10th anniversary of the existence of two countries - the Czech and the Slovak Republics - but it also marked the end of a union that had lasted for 68 years.
Ten years ago, opinion polls showed that the majority of citizens on both sides of the border opposed division, not only because of their shared history but also because they were afraid of what might follow. A referendum was never held on the issue, and the split was agreed upon by the two national governments.
"It was perhaps because of this that the end of Czechoslovakia was connected with certain bitter aftertaste and sense of unease. No significant group of citizens protested against the division then, but no significant group celebrated it either," said Czech president Václav Havel in this New Year's address to the nation.

JANUARY 1, 2003, marked the 10th anniversary of the existence of two countries - the Czech and the Slovak Republics - but it also marked the end of a union that had lasted for 68 years.

Ten years ago, opinion polls showed that the majority of citizens on both sides of the border opposed division, not only because of their shared history but also because they were afraid of what might follow. A referendum was never held on the issue, and the split was agreed upon by the two national governments.

"It was perhaps because of this that the end of Czechoslovakia was connected with certain bitter aftertaste and sense of unease. No significant group of citizens protested against the division then, but no significant group celebrated it either," said Czech president Václav Havel in this New Year's address to the nation.

According to a survey conducted by the Centre for Public Opinion Studies (CVVM) of the Czech Academy of Sciences at the end of 2002 on a sample of 1,046 respondents, only 22 per cent of Czechs said they were in favour of the division in 1992 and 60 per cent said they were opposed.

The CVVM study showed that today only 43 per cent of questioned Czechs view division as a positive thing and 46 per cent see it as a negative one. The Czechs still celebrate October 28, the day on which the first Czechoslovak Republic was established in 1918, as a national holiday.

No similar surveys exist in Slovakia, but experts believe that even those Slovaks who view the division as a negative thing, accept the new country.

"I think people accepted the political reality and 10 years later there is no real alternative to independence," said Grigorij Mesežnikov, head of the Institute for Public Affairs think tank.

Independence no longer seems to be an issue for politicians on both sides of the border either. Havel, who stepped down as president of the federation in 1992 in protest against the division, was one of many to praise the separation with hindsight.

"With the passage of time I feel more and more that regardless of the strange way in which [division] happened, it is good that it did happen. Most nations have to taste complete national sovereignty in order to collaborate well with others later. Czechs and Slovaks are today perhaps closer than ever before," he said.

No common language

The cultural closeness of the two nations has always had a firm basis in the proximity of the two languages. Critics point out that communications may not be as problem-free in the future.

In 1999 experts from both countries at a conference in Prague were already warning that Czech children were losing the ability to understand Slovak.

"The Slovak language and information about Slovakia have virtually vanished from Czech schools," said Naďa Vokušová, chairperson of the Slovak-Czech Club, on that occasion.

Besides education there are other factors that impact the linguistic skills of the Czech population, among them the absence of broadcasting in the Slovak language in the Czech media and the absence of Slovak literature on the market.

The situation is very different in Slovakia, where Czech-language TV stations, including children channels, are widely accessible and popular.

As a result Slovaks have no problem understanding Czech. Czech-dubbed soap operas at the Slovak Joj TV station have Slovak subtitles added, but that is only to comply with media law, which stipulates that 80 per cent of broadcasting has to be in Slovak.

Economic differences

One of the arguments for Czech independence was the fact that the larger Czech economy was expected to perform better without the burden of the poorer part of the country. Statistics show that 10 years later, the Czech Republic is indeed better off than Slovakia (see box, this page).

From independence onward, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have remained in a customs union to preserve the advantages of a 15-million strong market, whose complete separation would have represented a serious blow to producers on both sides of the border.

Experts say the customs union has played a positive role in two respects: It provided a larger market for Slovak producers while the free access of Czech goods also put pressure on domestic companies to improve their production.

"Both these factors had a positive impact on the quality of production in Slovakia," said Ján Tóth, chief analyst with ING Bank in Slovakia.

Both countries are set to join the EU in May 2005 and will thus become a part of the joint European market. This will open new possibilities to both Slovak and Czech companies, but close ties are likely to remain.

"Many companies have seats in Prague and from them manage even their activities in Slovakia. This is likely to continue in the future," said Tóth.

Even though the Czech Republic has thus far attracted more foreign investment, the situation is turning around and Slovakia seems to be catching up with its western neighbour, thanks to recent developments.

"Slovakia is becoming the new favorite country for investors. The Slovak government currently has a much wiser economic policy than the Czechs," said Tóth.

In a move that may further strengthen ties, the governments of the two countries are currently discussing shared protection of their joint airspace.

Overall, after 10 years of separation Slovakia and the Czech Republic seem to have preserved what was good about their former close relationship, while moving slowly towards equality.

"[With independence], we gained a new, very valuable dimension. We started to feel proud that we are citizens of the Slovak Republic," said Slovak President Rudolf Schuster.

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