Twenty-five years after divorce, Czechs and Slovaks closer than ever

Vladimír Mečiar, Václav Klaus

In 2018 Czechs and Slovaks will jointly mark the centenary of the birth of independent Czechoslovakia. At the same time the two nations will look back on 1993, the year that their coexistence in a common state of Czechs and Slovaks ended in divorce. In the first part of Radio Prague’s miniseries on the Velvet Divorce we look at why Czechoslovakia broke up.

Vladimír Mečiar and Václav Klaus at Villa Tugendhat | Photo: Czech Television
Twenty-five-years ago today, Czechs and Slovaks knew that the days of Czechoslovakia were numbered. The country that was born in an atmosphere of pan-Slavic brotherhood at the end of WW1 and that survived WWII and four decades of communism hit the rocks just three years after regaining its freedom.

The clouds started gathering over Czechoslovakia’s future in June of 1992. Although the word “divorce” was not yet in the air, Czechs and Slovaks went to the polls and cast a ballot that predestined the break-up. Czechs favoured a centre- right direction represented by Vaclav Klaus’ Civic Democrats, Slovaks voted for populist Vladimir Mečiar who wanted de-centralization and more sovereignty for Slovakia.

Post-election attempts to find a common course quickly hit the rocks. Vaclav Klaus, who was tasked with creating a federal government, later recalled that under the circumstances divorce was practically inevitable. This is how he recalls his meeting with Mečiar in the famous villa Tugendhat in Brno.

“That first meeting was a cold shower. I went to Brno with the idea of negotiating about the future of the federation. But it was all too evident that this was not what the Slovak team had in mind. We were not prepared for this, because we did not realize how far Slovakia’s separatist ambitions had come.”

Vladimir Mečiar of the winning Slovak HZDS said both sides clarified their positions at these talks.

“We congratulated each other on our parties’ victories and then had a very frank, open exchange, where we put our cards on the table.”

Mečiar’s ambition was for the country to be transformed into a confederation or loose union of two more-or-less sovereign partners. Slovakia wanted to have its own national bank, its own army and its own foreign policy. At that point Vaclav Klaus says he knew the only option was divorce. Mečiar paradoxically kept talking about a confederation. Then speaker of the Slovak parliament František Mikloško says this was part of his plan.

Vladimír Mečiar,  Václav Klaus | Photo: ČT24
“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 that a big problem. When I heard that he 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.”

Some say that Klaus was more inclined to opt for divorce than he would care to admit; that as a right-wing Czech politician with bold plans for reform he wanted to be free of a political partner who would pull him back and that he was happy to be cut off from what was perceived as the poorer part of the country.

Be it as it may, the politician who fought hard against the divorce was Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel. He urged Czech and Slovak politicians to save the common state and even warned Slovak voters ahead of the elections that voting for a populist leader could have far-reaching negative consequences. Slovaks did not appreciate being given advice and Havel, the icon of the Velvet Revolution, who was cheered and feted just three years before, heard boos and jeers in Bratislava.

On July 17th the Slovak Parliament adopted the Declaration of Independence of the Slovak Nation and six days later, at a meeting in Bratislava, Czech and Slovak negotiators agreed to dissolve the common state.

The Czech national assembly followed suit – declaring the birth of an independent Czech Republic as of January 1st 1993.

A disillusioned and heavy-hearted Havel resigned from office as President of Czechoslovakia.

“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.”

Václav Havel,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
Meanwhile, Vaclav Klaus and Vladimir Mečiar set about dividing the country and started work on a legislation that would cover all areas. Vaclav Klaus says he did so with one thought uppermost in mind.

“Our talks yesterday were positive in that they emphasized that the divorce process must be legitimate and it must be controlled. We want the process to be peaceful, cultivated and smooth. Both the Czech and Slovak side feel very strongly that this process must be legitimate.”

The two sides approved a law on the break-up. There were many key issues to be decided – the division of currency, who would use the Czechoslovak flag, citizenship rights and so on. Although it was agreed that the crown would remain in use for the time being – fears of economic loss led the two sides to adopt their own national currencies as early as February of 1993. The Czech Republic kept the Czechoslovak flag, despite protests from Slovakia and it took several years for the two former sister-states to accept dual citizenship. Still, the divorce went unexpectedly smoothly and many Czechs and Slovaks found it hard to believe on January 1st that Czechoslovakia –their country of birth –no longer existed.

So why weren’t Czechs and Slovaks given the chance to decide about the break-up in a referendum. Then head of the federal parliament Jan Stránsky says a referendum was deemed too dangerous.

“The worst thing that could have happened at the time was for one part of the country to say it wanted divorce and for the other to say the opposite. That could have led to the kind of crises we see abroad. I dare say the danger was so great it would not have stopped short of civil war.”

Although no referendum took place the issue was hotly debated particularly in Slovakia.

Here are some views from that time:

“We want independence, independence so that we can each do what we want.”

“Unless there is independence, we will never be able to put our house in order.”

“I am for a loose federation, but a very loose one so that each country governs itself.”

“I think it is a mistake to part after all these years. There are so many ties now and culturally we are closer to each other than to other nations around us.”

“Yes, I would accept a federation, but a federation of sovereign, equal partners and that will never be the case. Show me a mother with three children who loves them all the same. There is always one which is favoured and the federation favours the Czechs. See where it has got us.”

“You are not being fair. You, of all people. You have a Czech wife and see how well you get on!”

Czechs and Slovaks living together on the common border were perplexed by the upcoming change and uncertain as to what the future would bring. Sidonia was a village lying half in Moravia, half in Slovakia.

Czechia or Slovakia - which country to live in? | Photo: Noemi Fingerlandová
“Sidonia is one village, one entity. How do they want to divide us? The village shop is on the Moravian side and I go there daily. I said I did not want to live to see this day, but what can you do?”

“I have no idea how they plan to divide us. Klaus and Mečiar. Mister, all my life I have been listening to them talk about problems. So let them resolve it, one way or the other. But if you ask me I would favour retaining Czechoslovakia. We have no problem with Slovaks, we like the people, we like their language.”

In Slovakia the split, which took place at midnight as the country saw the New Year in, was welcomed with cheers and nationalist speeches.

There was no cheering in the Czech Republic and quite a bit of nostalgia. Czech Television played the Czechoslovak national anthem for one last time at midnight and followed it up by playing the Czech national anthem alone right after. It took Czechs many months to get over the feeling that something was missing when the anthem abruptly ended on the Czech verses.

Some Czechs and Slovaks refused to accept the divorce and describe themselves as Czechoslovaks to this day. They traditionally meet in Veľká Javorina for a New Year’s celebration and a show of cultural identity and fast friendship.

However the two peoples gradually accepted the change and there is no party or movement today advocating a return to a common state. Politicians claim that, as in many divorces, relations are better than ever since the two sides have greater respect for each other and, as two smaller countries in the EU, need to work together to boost their negotiating potential.

People under twenty-five no longer even recall a common state and those who do are no longer nostalgic. Here’s how people in Bratislava feel today.

“It wasn’t something we wanted, in my family especially. We were a little sad that President Havel was not really defending Slovaks and Czechoslovakia. So that was the sad part and at that time we opposed the separation. But now I think it couldn’t be better. Now we don’t hear that we did something wrong, that little brother Slovakia couldn’t win the hockey match or things like that. So it was actually a good idea. We are closer to the Czechs now, more than ever. You can see that if you compare the Czech and Slovak television and radio channels, their logos are almost the same, the programs are similar and even in commercial stations you have programs for both republics because the market is bigger when we are together. We understand each other still, so they are making use of that.”

“I served my army service in the Czech Republic and still have many friends there. I was born in Czechoslovakia so I was not in favour of the split. You know 1993 was a time when Europe was coming together, so I felt like we were taking a step back.”

“There were many people in my surroundings who were against the separation, but in my family there was no discord about splitting up. There are always two sides of a story. The story of Czechoslovaks might have been nice. On the other hand, as a Slovak I am very much in favour of the divorce. For me it is important that we, as a sovereign state, can manage our own life.”