“It was falling apart by itself” – Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Divorce

Vladimír Mečiar and Václav Klaus

This January marks 30 years since the end of the common Czech and Slovak state. While some of the phenomena that ultimately led to the Czechoslovak split can be identified already in the early and mid-20th century, the separation of the two nations ended up being driven by politicians. Three decades on, Czechs still regret the end of Czechoslovakia more than Slovaks.

Gathering of people in the upper part of Wenceslas Square  (October 28,  1918) | Photo: National Museum in Prague / Prague Castle photo archive

The state of Czechoslovakia was born in an atmosphere of pan-Slavic brotherhood in October 1918. It survived both the Second World War as well as four decades of Communist rule. However, less than three years after the country re-emerged as a democratic nation, Czechoslovakia would end up becoming two countries - the Czech and Slovak republics.

Contemporary historiography argues that the causes of the Czech-Slovak split stretch back far into the past. They include the failure of Czechoslovakism to truly take root during the First Republic period or the inability of the 1968 constitution to successfully address the question of how to federalise.

While it may be difficult to truly quantify how significant these reasons were for the eventual breakup of the shared state, it is undeniable that with the re-emergence of a democratic Czechoslovakia after 1989 the question of what the relationship should be between Czechs and Slovaks was dynamically reintroduced into popular discourse.

Czechoslovakia | Photo: Archive of Kartografie Praha

Deadlock – the 1992 election

Jan Rychlík | Photo: Khalil Baalbaki,  Czech Radio

Negotiations about power-sharing in the new democratic Czechoslovak state began as early as 1990 and continued for the next three years. But it is the election of June 1992 that is commonly seen as the definitive beginning of the end for the shared state. Professor Jan Rychlík from Charles University’s Philosophical Faculty explains:

“They took place from June 5-6, 1992. In both Czechia and Slovakia, two completely incompatible political entities were elected into the Federal Assembly.

“It is necessary to realise that the constitution set up the Federal Assembly in such a way that it did not operate according to majority voting. Instead, important laws could only be passed by both a majority of Czech-elected and Slovak-elected politicians. The result of the elections meant that the Federal Assembly suddenly got blocked.”

“In both Czechia and Slovakia, two completely incompatible political entities were elected into the Federal Assembly.”

Václav Klaus | Photo: archive of Czech Radio

The Czechs favoured a centre-right direction represented by the economically reform minded Václav Klaus’ Civic Democrats, who went into the election with the blunt slogan “joint state or separation”. Meanwhile, Slovaks voted for populist politician Vladimír Mečiar, who wanted de-centralization and more sovereignty for Slovakia.

Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) had adopted an antifederalist stance in 1991, supporting the notion of Slovak sovereignty, while also arguing for further decentralisation. The then Slovak leader’s stated ambition was for the country to be transformed into a confederation or loose union of two more-or-less sovereign partners.

Vladimír Mečiar | Photo: Tomáš Novák,  Czech Radio

The lack of political consensus made it extremely hard to form a federal government and Václav Klaus chose to take the position of Czech premier instead of federal prime minister. Meanwhile, Mečiar became the head of the Slovak government. This left the federal government with few leading political figures within its cabinet.

The then speaker of the Slovak parliament František Mikloško recalled what this development meant for him when speaking to Czech Radio.

“Vladimir Mečiar was playing this game. He didn’t want to reach a deal, but he didn’t want to be the one who would break up the country. So in his wily way he was pushing for Klaus to take the initiative. And, in the end, Klaus did not appear to find it that a big problem. When I heard that Klaus was withdrawing his candidacy for federal prime minister and wanted to be prime minister of the Czech Republic I knew that Czechoslovakia’s days were numbered.”

On July 17th, the Slovak Parliament adopted the Declaration of Independence of the Slovak Nation.

“Vladimir Mečiar was playing this game. He didn’t want to reach a deal, but he didn’t want to be the one who would break up the country.”

Havel resigns

The Plantu exhibition during the French Film Festival in 2011 | Photo: ČT24

Amid this rapid flow of events came the abdication of Václav Havel from the office of Czechoslovak president. Havel announced his move in a surprise televised address to the nation.

“Dear citizens, I have handed in my resignation to the federal Parliament. I fear that under the present circumstances I would not be able to observe the oath of office I took in defending and protecting our common state. Indeed my efforts to do so would go against the far reaching changes that are taking place and Slovakia’s emancipation efforts reflected in the Slovak declaration of Independence.”

Havel had warned Slovaks against voting for a populist leader could have far-reaching negative consequences and urged politicians from both parts of the federation to save the common state. However, his advice was not taken favourably by many Slovaks, as was shown when boos and jeers could be heard as he visited Bratislava in 1991. Until its dissolution five months later, the federation would no longer have a head of state.

Negotiating the divorce

Vladimír Mečiar and Václav Klaus | Photo: National Museum

For his part, Václav Klaus also seemed ready to give up the common state as long as it enabled him to enact the wide-ranging economic reforms that he had planned. Some have argued that that he was happy to cut off what was perceived as the poorer part of the country for the sake of these plans.

That summer, in a closed meeting in Brno’s Villa Tugendhat, the Czech and Slovak prime ministers discussed the future of the state. On August 26th, both leaders signed an agreement to divide the federation.

Speaking to Radio Slovakia International, sociologist Miloslav Bahna said that the different views Klaus and Mečiar held on the country’s economic future had a big influence on the political processes that led to the divorce.

Vladimír Mečiar and Václav Klaus at Villa Tugendhat | Photo: Czech Television

“The Czech and Slovak political elite couldn’t agree on how to proceed with transforming the market. The Czech perspective was: the faster the better. Meanwhile, the Slovak perspective much more cautious, with a slower approach being preferred. This clash of political representations that were elected separately in both countries led to a political decision on going separate ways.”

When the opposition Social Democrat’s pushed through a proposal in the Federal Assembly in October 1992, calling for the setting up of a commission that would be tasked with transforming the federation into a Czecho-Slovak union with common organs for foreign policy, defence and finance, Klaus’ Civic Democrat-led government refused to send any representatives to it. Vladimír Mečiar agreed to do the same.

A month later, a constitutional amendment was passed regarding the division of federal real estate property between Czechia and Slovakia by a ratio of 2:1. Then, by a narrow majority, another amendment was passed setting the date for the dissolution of the joint state to be December 31st, 1992.

Source: Radio Prague International

Despite attempts by some politicians, no public referendum on the question of separation was held. Had it taken place it could have had an impact on events, says Miloslav Bahna.

“Public opinion in both parts of former Czechoslovakia was not in favour of the split. If there had been a referendum on the issue, the most likely outcome would have been that voters in both Czechia and Slovakia would have voted against the division.”

In Slovakia, the so-called Velvet Divorce was welcomed with cheers and speeches on New Year’s Eve in 1993. In Czechia, on the other hand, the split was largely perceived with nostalgia with many only getting used to their country’s shortened anthem after several months. Czechia also chose to keep the original Czechoslovak flag. Some Czechs and Slovaks chose to mark the split by gathering on Veľká Javorina hill, which lies on the Czech-Slovak border, as a sign of silent protest.

Czech-Slovak border | Photo: Vojtěch Berger,  Czech Radio

It would still take several years for the divorce to be finalised. For example, the question of how to exactly divide Czechoslovakia’s state assets took seven years to resolve. The new border between the two countries also caused some immediate practical problems, but these were relatively quickly resolved.

“If there had been a referendum on the issue, the most likely outcome would have been that voters in both Czechia and Slovakia would have voted against the division.”

30 years on – A success or a failure?

Michal Kopeček | Photo: Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes

Contemporary historians generally view the divorce as more of a success than a failure. Historian Michal Kopeček from the Institute of Contemporary History at the Czech Academy of Sciences sees it as having happened at the right time.

“I would dare to make the hypothesis that perhaps one of the reasons behind why this was a good divorce was the good situation and prospects for both Czechs and Slovaks at the beginning of the 1990s. You had a situation where there was no ethnic strife. You didn’t have any territorial claims from both sides. You have a working solution.

Divorce | Photo: smarnad,  FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“However, at the same time, you have the hoarding of problems in the Czech and Slovak relationship that are kind of standing in the way of democratic transformation in terms of politics, society and economics. You have to understand that, after the Stalinist revolution, the early 1990s see the biggest change of Czech and Slovak society. There are a lot of things that have to be sorted out at this time and the relationship between Czechs and Slovaks is just one of them.”

Historian Juraj Marušiak from the Slovak Academy of Sciences, agrees.

Juraj Marušiak | Photo: TA3

“I think that it was the right decision, both economically and politically. Slovakia is now truly in Slovak hands which also means it is our responsibility. Unlike in the past, it is not up to Prague to save democracy in Slovakia. Nor does an external actor carry responsibility for our defeats. The responsibility is all ours. Looked at from this perspective, it was a fundamental moment in Slovak history.”

Professor Rychlik says calling the split a success or a failure would be asking the wrong question.

“The division of the state was the only possible solution, because it was blocked, it was falling apart by itself.  If we see the state not just as a legal subject but as a functional structure then we have to realise that the state was gradually disappearing in 1992. It wasn’t really here anymore. The federal government in Prague wasn’t in charge anymore. Everything was being decided at the level of the individual republics. I think that if the agreement to separate hadn’t been reached, the federation would have ended up breaking apart anyway, although it would perhaps have taken longer and been more emotional.”

Was the division of Czechoslovakia right? | Photo: ČT24

According to a recent Median poll conducted for Czech and Slovak public television, 47 percent of Czechs and 62 percent of Slovaks view the division of Czechoslovakia as the right decision. Meanwhile, 48 percent of Czechs and 33 percent of Slovaks said that it wasn’t. The survey also revealed that the majority of respondents in both countries would have preferred the decision to have been made via a referendum.

Nevertheless, both countries continue to maintain excellent relations. Indeed, Czech and Slovak prime ministers traditionally make their first foreign visit to their neighbour. This was also case when Prime Minister Petr Fiala chose to travel to Bratislava last January. In his address to the nation on Sunday, January 1st, the Czech head of government also took the opportunity to address the 30 year anniversary.

Prime Minister Petr Fiala during his New Year's speech. | Photo: Office of Czech Government

“Three decades ago two nations decided to go their separate ways. They agreed to this on the negotiating table. They did so fast, while mutually respectful way and, above all, peacefully. It may seem like a distant and natural event to us today. Both countries work closely together. However, most importantly, the Slovaks are our close friends.

“It is especially good to recall it now when on the other side of Slovakia’s borders a brutal war is taking place where one eastern power has not come to terms with the fact that another nation has chosen not to be a part of it or its sphere of influence but, rather, wants to make its own decisions about its future path.”

“Both countries work closely together. However, most importantly, the Slovaks are our close friends.”

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  • The Velvet Divorce: 30 years

    The former state of Czechoslovakia peacefully split into two countries, the Czech and Slovak Republics, on December 31, 1992.