CURIOSITY more than elation brought Slovaks onto the streets to mark independence in 1993.
Perhaps the fact that the split wass unexpected makes it easier to imagine it never happened. Or maybe because relations between Czechs and Slovaks on all levels remain so excellent the political division is less important. Added to the equation is the fact that the transition from one federal republic to two independent sovereign states was a surprisingly smooth process.
Although Vladimír Mečiar's HZDS party in Slovakia openly supported the idea of independence from the federation in the two years following the fall of communism in 1989, few people in Czechoslovakia in 1992 believed that Slovakia would leave the federation. President Václav Havel, at the height of his post-Velvet Revolution popularity, opposed the move. So did the majority of Czechs and Slovaks, according to opinion polls taken at the time.
But the other Václav, the prime minister of the Czech half of the federation, Václav Klaus, was in favour of the break-up. Klaus took up the challenge from Mečiar's HZDS by agreeing with him. Never before in the history of central Europe had two parts of one state peacefully agreed to go their separate ways. When the division came, in January 1993, not too far to the south, across the border from Hungary, the former federation of Yugoslavia was in violent turmoil that was to last three more years.
Klaus was to argue publicly that if Slovakia wanted independence then it should have it. Privately, he argued that Bohemia and Moravia would be better off without their poorer eastern neighbour. The new Czech Republic would grow wealthier faster and EU accession would be easier.
However, the deal so easily reached between Mečiar and Klaus had another side. By agreeing to a split, each man would become stronger in his own realm. Privatisation had hardly started in Czechoslovakia at the end of 1992. Huge publicly held wealth was up for grabs. The history of newly independent Slovakia supports the view that large sections of Slovak industry were disposed off at very low prices to political cronies of the then prime minister. The same thing happened in the Czech Republic, but less visibly. The Czechs, despite their affinity for the Slovaks, had always considered themselves more sophisticated.
Czechs and Slovaks now look back at the split with mixed emotions. There is renewed national pride, but there is sadness too. A recent opinion poll in the Czech Republic showed that there are still more people who regret the division than there are supporters for it. Within Slovakia, the split was highly beneficial in an economic sense to Bratislava - ironically not a stronghold of the HZDS - but detrimental to the eastern part of the country, a region that had looked to Prague and not to Bratislava for leadership and help.
Bratislava is now a flourishing capital city instead of the provincial backwater it would have remained if Czechoslovakia still existed. Košice and its eastern region is finally doing better, as low labour costs on the edge of the soon-to-be-enlarged European Union attract more investors.
With both Slovakia and the Czech Republic poised to join the EU in less than 18 months, the two halves of Czechoslovakia will become joined again in many ways. A majority on both sides of the frontier will be happy to see the border crossings become the service stations they should really be. Soon, they may hope, these best friends will be able to put the split behind them. Perhaps that is why this month's landmark anniversary of the Velvet Divorce has been less of an event than it might have been. Decree nisi, not finalised.
13. Jan 2003 at 0:00