Revisiting the Velvet Divorce
Czechoslovakia, though it no longer exists, remains a symbol of courageous resistance and sensible conflict resolution
It’s been 20 years since Czechoslovakia split apart. The divorce took place without violence and without a referendum. The two leaders – Vaclav Klaus from the Czech side and Vladimir Meciar from the Slovak side – decided along with their respective political advisors that it was best for their countries to part ways. This was a decision made exclusively by the parental authorities. As is the case with most divorces, the “children” were not consulted.
In 2013, as I travelled for several weeks in both countries, I encountered somewhat different perspectives on this “velvet divorce” that followed several years after the famed “velvet revolution” of 1989.
The first person I encountered in Slovakia, on the train into the capital of Bratislava, told me that she had no regrets about the dissolution of the country of her birth. She’d been born on the Czech side, her mother Czech and her father Slovak. Under communism, her parents applied for apartments and the one in Bratislava came through first. The division of the country divided their family. Even if they wanted to, they couldn't move to the Czech Republic in those days, because they would have been treated as foreigners. There was no automatic citizenship offered on both sides. Only later came an option for dual citizenship, but by then it was too late.
She wasn’t happy with the situation in Slovakia. Her salary was low, and taxes were high. She complained that people only cared about money. She spoke Czech, had been offered a job reassignment to Prague. But she wouldn’t leave Bratislava.
When I asked her about the division of the country in 1993, she was vehement. The Czech Republic had been basically ripping off the Slovaks, taking in more revenue than it was disbursing. She insisted that no one in Slovakia had second thoughts about the velvet divorce.
And indeed, I didn’t meet anyone during my stay in the country who wanted to revisit that decision, even as they pointed out the disadvantages that Slovakia continued to suffer. Nearly eight times the number of tourists visit the Czech Republic, thanks to the international reputation of Prague and spa towns like Karlovy Vary. Bratislava doesn’t even have a major airport, for it relies on nearby Vienna. Everyone reads Kafka and Kundera, but Slovak literature doesn’t boast such major figures. When mention is made of the Velvet Revolution, it is of Prague, of Wenceslaus Square, of Vaclav Havel. Slovak contributions are slighted, and Slovaks often grumble in private about a certain Czech condescension, born of greater economic prosperity and international reputation.
But Slovakia is an independent country, with a distinct history and culture, and of that Slovaks are very proud.
In the Czech Republic, on the other hand, I encountered a certain wistfulness for the shared past. “I miss Czechoslovakia,” one prominent former dissident told me. And while another former dissident assured me that this was only nostalgia for a bigger country and easier access to the Tatra Mountains in northern Slovakia, I detected something else. “Czechoslovakia” meant something special. In the 1920s and 1930s, under the famous Czech politician Tomas Masaryk, the new country held onto its democratic institutions even as other, older countries drifted toward fanaticism. It stood up to the Nazis and later, in 1968, to the Soviets as well under the leadership of Alexander Dubcek, a Slovak. Czechoslovakia was more than just a country. It was a symbol. Polls in 1993 suggested that a majority of Czechs didn’t want to see the country break up, and some of that sentiment obviously remains.
Today, the two architects of the divorce have watched their political careers go into eclipse. In the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, who was cool to the split, remains an icon, and the Prague airport is now named for him. Vaclav Klaus will not likely be accorded such honors. If he weren’t reviled for his arrogant personality or the disasters his economic reforms have engendered, the outgoing Czech president would still deserve universal opprobrium for the recent general amnesty that he declared for low-level offenders, which blindsided even politicians in his own party.
On the fact of it, the amnesty seems reasonable as it applies to prisoners over the age of 75 and those serving terms of less than year. But critics point to a clause that provides for the cancellation of any legal case that has gone on for more than eight years, which effectively ends the prosecution of many important financial fraud cases. Klaus, who once declared that there is no such thing as dirty money, is effectively pardoning those accused of the worst excesses of crony capitalism. In response to this amnesty, the Czech Senate impeached Klaus. He’s leaving office anyway at the beginning of March to make way for the newly elected Social Democratic Party leader Milos Zeman. But impeachment would render Klaus ineligible to run again or to draw a presidential pension.
Meanwhile, during those first years of independence, Vladimir Meciar guided Slovakia into an interlude of authoritarian nationalism that elicited the condemnation of the international community and generated a reinvigorated civic movement devoted to dethroning him. They accomplished that feat in 1998, and since then Meciar has drifted into obscurity. His party no longer garners enough votes to get into parliament. It’s not likely that anything, except perhaps a toxic waste dump, would be named after Vladimir Meciar.
The Czech Republic and Slovakia currently enjoy a relationship that should be the envy of any two neighboring countries. The prime ministers maintain good contact. The two countries engage in joint infrastructure projects and provide joint military units for NATO operations. There remains a high level of intermarriage, and there is much shared culture. Geopolitics has never witnessed such an amicable divorce.
This velvet divorce might not have been the most democratically orchestrated event in history. The leaders who executed the decision have seen their political careers take a nosedive. And the two sides might well look at the results very differently. But Czechoslovakia, though it no longer exists, remains a symbol of courageous resistance and sensible conflict resolution. It’s a legacy of which the offspring of these hyphenated parents can be proud.