“We felt like Czechoslovaks and we still do” – Czech-Slovak border 30 years after Velvet Divorce
Despite the Velvet Divorce, relations between Czechia and Slovakia still remain very close. This is perhaps most evident in the Moravian Slovakia region, which lies on the border between the two countries. Radio Prague International visited the area in December and has this report.
Cut in half
“They say that Slovakia owns land on our side and this is partially detrimental to our development.”
You can literally stand with one foot in Czechia and the other in Slovakia in the small village of Sidonie, which lies in the picturesque White Carpathians right in the centre of the more than 250km border between the two countries.
Jaroslav Vaněk, the mayor of the local Brumov-Bylnice district, which Sidonie is a part of, says that there still are some unresolved matters more than 30 years after the Velvet Divorce.
“Slovakia owns some of the land on our side and this is partially detrimental to our development. Locals who want to build first need to get approval from our neighbours across the border.
“It’s been neglected for 30 years and it’s a shame.”
“When some of the villagers didn’t hear from them, they had to go to Bratislava and ask for a statement. Apparently, they told them to hand in their request and that they will get back to them, but an answer still hasn’t arrived. We don’t have water there, no drainage, and the infrastructure isn’t great either.
“It’s been neglected for 30 years and it’s a shame. There aren’t any shops and the pub is only open from Friday to Sunday. It’s not ideal in terms of quality of life.”
Despite these ongoing issues, the locals say that they feel naturally close to Slovakia, with many family and work relationships remaining strong 30 years after the Velvet Divorce.
Just as in the rest of Czechia, nostalgia for Czechoslovakia is mainly noticeable among the older inhabitants. To the young, on the other hand, the fact that Czechia and Slovakia are separate states feels natural, says Pavel Mašláň, a historian at the local Wallachian Regional Museum who himself lives in Sidonie.
“For them Slovakia is a foreign country. They can easily go across the border for shopping, or to swim during the summer, but they consider it a foreign state.”
Sidonie found itself split in two after the Velvet Divorce. Twelve houses ended up on the Slovak side of the otherwise Czech village and it took years to solve the problem, he says.
“The inhabitants of these houses had Czech citizenship and they wanted to live in Czechia. When you drive through the local valley, you have to go over several small bridges that are built above a stream. That stream is the border between the two now independent countries.
“A lot of people would drive to the Slovak side for work, since the largest nearby cities are there. We had a lot of mixed Czech and Slovak families here and there never were any border checks.
“But then, suddenly, the Velvet Divorce happened and we got border guards and policemen stationed around here and they started checking people. New tolls had to be paid too. It was a hassle.”
Eventually, in 1996, the contested land was exchanged between the two countries, through the so-called Židlochovické agreements.
Nevertheless, the people living near the border, be they Czechs or Slovaks, still travel to the other side to do their shopping, visit their families and work. Sidonie is also popular among cyclists and the local cycling route crosses the border as well.
It wasn’t just land that became an issue after the Velvet Divorce. Some locals, such as Františka Bařinková, also had to deal with their pensions not being recognised.
“It still hasn’t been solved to this day. Interpersonal relationships are the same as they were before the two countries separated, but for those of us who worked in Slovakia much remains unresolved.
“For example, Czechia is now going to add CZK 500 per child to one’s pension. I wasn’t employed in Czechia because I worked in the nearby village of Dolné Srnie on the Slovak side, so I have no right to a Czech pension.
“In the years between the Velvet Divorce and the entry of Czechia and Slovakia into the European Union, we had to pay both Czech and Slovak health insurance, even though we didn’t use the Slovak health system. There really were many problems on the economic side of things.”
Although EU membership and the associated Schengen Area helped tackle many of these problems, locals were again reminded that they live between two sovereign states during the Covid pandemic. Many of the border checks reappeared at that time. Even today, more than a year after the end of lockdowns, the borders are still being guarded after Czechia chose to reinstate checks when a change in the direction of the so-called Balkan Route saw many illegal migrants cross the border between the two countries on their way to Germany.
“I don’t see Slovakia as a foreign country. It seems just like Czechia to me.”
In the nearby small town of Brumov-Bylnice, we run into the young beautician Renata Hudečková who recently returned to her home town after living in Paris for four years. She says that she hadn’t even been born when the Velvet Divorce happened.
“I love it here. I think Moravia is beautiful. I don’t see Slovakia as a foreign country. It seems just like Czechia to me. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t experience the separation of the two countries that I am less conscious of the differences. We, Czechs and Slovaks, are friends.”
On the other side of the border lies the settlement Šance (formerly called U Sabotů). Its mayor is Dušan Eliáš.
“We didn’t see any reason why the two countries should be separated.”
“I was 15 when the two countries separated. For us it meant the addition of the Javorník U Sabotů hamlet into our district.
“The division of Czechoslovakia led to problems with transport because our village lies on a border crossing. There were huge traffic jams of lorries that would stretch for several kilometres. The locals didn’t like it.
“We didn’t see any reason why the two countries should be separated. We felt like Czechoslovaks and we still do. The families here are closely intertwined with the neighbouring Moravian region on the Czech side and they visit each other often.”
He says that some of the locals chose to sell their houses rather than live in Slovakia and instead built new ones on the Czech side of the border.
“They just felt like it. I think everyone understood them. Those that remained either felt that it was good that our village is on the Slovak side, or they just came to terms with it.”
Helping each other through thick and thin
Vrbovce is part of Moravian Slovakia (Slovácko), a region that is known for its rich folklore traditions and mixed Czech and Slovak dialect. The now Slovak village maintains official ties with the Czech side of the region, specifically with the municipality of Vrbice, which has become a so-called partner village of Vrbovce since the Velvet Divorce, says the mayor.
“We searched so long until we found each other. We have since organised several folklore projects together. We also share the same pottery workshop.”
Vrbice lies west of the border near the city of Hodonín, which was incidentally the birthplace of the founder of the Czechoslovak state Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk.
The mayor of Hodonín, Libor Střecha, says that the town commemorates its most famous citizen every March 7, the day on which Masaryk was born.
“We have a statue of him here and that’s where the commemorations take place. We also have a museum dedicated to Masaryk and, in 2022, we set up a special walking route through the town which traces the stops Masaryk made when he visited Hodonín after he became Czechoslovakia’s president. Our Slovak partners helped us in realising this project.”
“Volunteer firefighters from the town of Holíč across the border came to help us that same evening after the tornado struck.”
He says that the strength of the ties between people on the Czech and Slovak sides of the border were also shown two years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the 2021 South Moravia tornado that devastated several municipalities around Hodonín.
“The reaction of our Slovak neighbours was immediate. Volunteer firefighters from the town of Holíč across the border came to help us that same evening after the tornado struck.
“The locals from the nearby Slovak towns also collected donations for the people here and Slovakia donated wood to us to help repair one of the damaged schools. I think it proved the sincerity of our partnership.”