The split of Czechoslovakia: context, reasons, and lessons for the future

For Czechs and Slovaks, New Year’s Day has a special meaning as the independent Czech and Slovak Republics emerged 20 years ago today. But what strained their relations while they were still living in one country? Why did Czechoslovakia split against the wishes of most of its inhabitants? And what lessons can be learned from the history of their common country? In our special New Year’s Day programme, we discuss these issues with Jan Rychlík from the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University, and political scientist and historian Juraj Marušiak from the Slovak Academy of Sciences.

Juraj Marušiak | Photo: TA3
In both countries, January 1 is a state holiday although it is perhaps overshadowed by the fact it’s also New Year’s Day. Mr Marušiak, is the day considered a true national holiday in your country?

Juraj Marušiak (JM): “I’m not so sure. The dissolution of Czechoslovakia in fact took place against the will of the majority of the population in both countries. All public opinions show that at that time, more than half of the inhabitants supported the preservation of Czechoslovakia – but definitely not in the form of a centralized federation. Slovaks perhaps preferred a looser federation or a confederation. But the majority of people in Slovakia really considered Czechoslovakia as their genuine home.”

Well, that’s an idea that Czech president Václav Klaus, who at that time was the Czech prime minister within the federation – strongly rejects. In a recent interview he said the idea he and his Slovak counterpart, prime minister Vladimír Mečiar- split the country against the wishes of the people was absurd. Mr Rychlík, what do you think of this position?

Jan Rychlík: “Well, it’s not so simple. But first, I’d like to say something else – when you asked whether the Slovaks celebrated January 1 as a national holiday, we should also ask if the Czechs celebrate it, and the answer is definitely not because the Czechs consider the whole of Czechoslovakia as their, Czech state. So for them, the holiday is still October 28 [the foundation of Czechoslovakia in 1918].

Jan Rychlík,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková ČRo
“But back to your question: I think that Mr Marušiak made a point. Most Slovaks did not want a total separation; they preferred some kind of loose federation which was however of no use for the Czechs. Such an arrangement would give an advantage to the Slovaks because they could pursue their own policies but would be covered by a roof protecting them against the inconveniences and turbulences in central Europe and the Balkans of the 1990s. But this was of course unacceptable for the Czech right, and especially for Mr Klaus. He was planning to carry out a quick transformation of the economy which required a centralized, Prague-based system, and that’s why he said, ‘either you will accept our terms or we must part’.

“Whether it happened against the will of the people or not – we should know that in the 1992 general elections, most Slovaks gave their votes to the Movement for Democratic Slovakia of Vladimír Mečiar, and the party had in its programme a requirement that Slovakia must be an independent subject of international law. That in fact meant an independent state. So it depends on which point you look at it from; I think it was a rather schizophrenic situation: most Slovaks wanted to run their own affairs but simultaneously, they wanted to preserve some form of the common state. But that’s impossible. You cannot have both.”

Mr Marušiak, isn’t it true that all the relevant political forces in Slovakia 20 years ago would prefer an independent country? The debates between the Czech and Slovak representations took months before a decision was taken to split the country – wasn’t that a sign that the Slovaks were not interested in keeping a joint country?

JM: “In the second half of the year 1992, after the general elections which in Slovakia were won by Vladimír Mečiar and his party, the pressure for the division of the country was already stronger among Czech political elites than the Slovak ones. However, it was obvious that the political parties which clearly and openly advocated the preservation of the federation totally lost in the elections, so the supporters of the federation were not strong enough to defend the integrity of the party.

“But I would like to make a point related to the perception of independent Slovakia by Slovak themselves. I think this issue of why Slovaks do not celebrate the anniversary of independence so enthusiastically as perhaps the Croatians, Latvians, Lithuanians or even Ukrainians has to do with the fact that the new Slovak state faced grave economic and social problems and the acceptance of the country was connected with its success. But Slovakia was not a success story in the 1990s. In the period of the second and third government of Vladimír Mečiar, Slovakia was on the edge of isolation; also the standards of living and the economic situation deteriorated rapidly. That’s why independence was perceived in a rather negative way.”

JR: “I’d like to add one thing which is probably not so commonly known abroad. Our fathers ancestors – Masaryk, Štefánik, Beneš – in 1918, at the end of WWI, based the state on the idea that the Czechs and Slovaks need each other, that the Czechs need a corridor to the east, to the Poles and the Russians because there were 3.5 million Germans living here who didn’t like the new state, and had no reason to like it. So Masaryk’s idea was, ‘we need Slovaks so that there is more of us, and we need them to have a corridor to the east. And the Slovaks need us to check the Hungarian pressure, and the Bohemian lands will be for them a window to the west.”

“But after WWII and especially in the 1990s, the geopolitical situation changed completely; the German issue was over as we expelled the German minority after the war and after the 1968 Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, it became obvious the problem is not Berlin, or Bonn; the problem was Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Slovakia played a totally different role in Czech policy than 70 years before. No corridor to the east was necessary, quite the contrary. In this situation, Slovakia, in the eyes of Mr Klaus and other Czech politicians, was to play the role of a buffer against the uncertainty from the east. But Slovak politicians did not see this. They did not realize the Czechs did not need Slovakia any more; Mečiar believed the Czechs would accept his proposal for confederation but the Czechs had absolutely no reason to do anything like that.”

Czechoslovakia in 1919 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain
When we go back to the actual foundation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, was it predominantly a Czech project?

JR: “The Czech factor was certainly stronger but I would not say it was exclusively a Czech project. It was also a project of the Slovak elites, or at least part of them, as well. Under the circumstances which occurred during WWI, a joint state was the optimal solution for both nations because all other solutions were either impractical or very problematic.”

JM: “I would only add that the establishment of Czechoslovakia in 1918 was a matter of consensus of all relevant Slovak political forces: the Slovak National Party, the Catholics, and also the Social Democrats. Also, for Slovakia, Czechoslovakia was a big project of social and economic modernization. And regarding the idea behind the state: Slovaks needed to cooperate with Czechs against the Hungarian pressure. But in the 1990s, it became clear that Czech politicians lost any interest in the Danubian affairs and Prague’s engagement in the complicated issues with Hungary, for example in the problem of Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros waterworks, was rather weak. So after the Velvet revolution, the idea of Czechoslovak statehood suddenly became empty and any attempts to find new ideas for the common statehood simply failed.”

Why was that? Why was the relation between Czechs and Slovaks and their political elites so weak by that time? Why wasn’t done more to save the country?

JR: “I think that people did not really care whether there would be Czechoslovakia or not. Most of the people in both republics would of course prefer to preserve it in one way or another. But when it failed, it was not seen as a tragedy.”

Václav Klaus said that in each of the crises Czechoslovakia went through – in 1938, 1948, 1968 – more strain was put on the Czech-Slovak relations because the Slovaks used these moments to demand more autonomy. That would suggest that the Slovaks never really felt comfortable as part of the federation. Do you see it similarly, Mr Marušiak?

Václav Klaus,  photo: archive of ČRo 7 - Radio Prague
JM: “I don’t share this view. Of course, Slovaks raised some requirements during each of the international crises. But on the other hand, Slovaks generally supported Czechoslovakia at those times – take for example the mobilization of 1938 when even leaders of the autonomistic Slovak People’s Party called for the mobilization and they supported the defence of the country. But of course the Slovak political representation always had its own interest. That’s a normal part of the political game and they used the opportunities.

“During WWII, Slovakia experienced its own statehood. That was a crucial moment because a new political and administrative elite was established which was not always inevitably connected with the pro-Nazi regime. And the restoration of Czechoslovakia after this short experience was seen as a step back; it was considered a re-provincialization of the country. In the 1990s, the Slovak representatives then used the opportunity and established their own state again.”

JR: “You made a point that the Slovaks did not feel comfortable. Not in the sense that they would be oppressed in some way, that was not the case. It was a mistake that some western politicians made when they thought that if you give a people some cultural and language rights, they would be satisfied. Once they are culturally saturated, they require political autonomy, they require autonomy and ultimately independence. That’s not criticism, that’s how it is.

“We are thinking in the system one nation – one state. In Czechoslovakia, which was both internally and externally considered a Czech state, the Slovaks were not visible. Alexander Dubček was considered a Czech, ice hockey players like Vladimír Dzurilla, Peter Šťastný were considered Czech players. But Slovaks wanted to be considered an independent nation, not part of the Czechs. But that was not possible.

“I’m not only a historian, I’m also an ethnologist, and I don’t believe that two or more fully conscious political nations can permanently live in one state. It doesn’t work. Czechoslovakia is not an exception – look at the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia as well as Belgium which will probably disappear from the map of Europe, maybe even the UK and Spain. So from this point of view, Czechoslovakia was no exception.”

Photo: Vojtěch Berger
Do you think that the history of Czechoslovakia teaches us any lessons when it comes to European integration? There are plans for tighter integration with one government. Slovakia seems to be more optimistic about this than the Czech Republic – but should we learn anything from the story of Czechoslovakia?

JM: “I think Czechoslovakia could be an example for European integration not only in the history of its split but also in the history of its establishment. Czechoslovakia was an alliance of interests and it was a great example of the diplomatic skills of two political representations which at the time did not have their own statehood. So the history of Czechoslovakia could be a positive impulse. On the other hand, the lesson for European integration is to keep a balance between the interests of the particular national states and those of the union as a whole. It will be really a big challenge for the EU not to interfere with the national identities of the individual states.”

JR: “I think there is one lesson Europe and the world can learn: a split of two nations can be carried out in a civilized manner and peacefully while maintaining further relations as much as possible. That I think is a great thing. As far as European integration is concerned, I don’t see a link between the split of multinational state and European integration. That’s not an integration of nations in the eastern European sense. As our listeners might know, nation in eastern Europe has a different meaning than in the EU or even western Europe. It’s not a political unit, it’s a language and ethnical unit.

But you said that once a nation has language and cultural autonomy, it will want more. So what happens if you take away political rights from a country, say the right to decide about taxes and foreign policy? Will that not lead to a rise in nationalism?

JR: “I’m not a futurologist so I can’t tell you yes or no. I think that if people do believe that the European authorities and institutions in Brussels are also their authorities, then a new wave of nationalism does not necessarily have to arise. That’s exactly what was missing in Czechoslovakia because for the Slovaks, the authorities in Prague, regardless of whether they were Slovak or Czech ministers, were considered something strange, something directed against Slovak interests. Under such circumstances, Czechoslovakia had to fail: if you have no confidence in the authorities you elected, the state is lost. So it will be a long process and whether it will be a success or not, no one knows.”