Recalling a Velvet Divorce

U.S. News & World Report

PRAGUE – When the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31st and the world ushers in the new year, the Czech and Slovak republics will mark 25 years since the founding of their countries – though not everybody will be celebrating.

Known as the “Velvet Divorce” – a reference to the non-violent “Velvet Revolution” in 1989 that ended four decades of communism – the dissolution of Czechoslovakia on Jan. 1, 1993 saw it split into today’s Czech Republic and Slovakia. But while the separation transpired peacefully, unlike the breakups of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, the decision to split continues to divide people in both countries.

Just 42 percent of Czechs and 40 percent of Slovaks agree with the decision 25 years ago, according to a poll released by public opinion agencies in December. Such figures are only a marginal increase from the 36 percent of Czechs and 37 percent of Slovaks that favored a split in a government poll in September of 1992.

The mixed feelings today come as both nations are in the midst of redefining their national identities; elections in 2017 saw the rise of nationalist and anti-establishment politicians in the two countries, part of a larger regional mood across Central Europe.Czechs and Slovaks have a low opinion of how the breakup was carried primarily because they never had a voice in the split, says Lubomir Kopeček, a political analyst at Masaryk University in Brno.

“It is true that most public opinions in 1992 and also now say that [a] referendum was necessary,” he says. “The problem, however, was how to formulate a question for the referendum.

While most Czechs at the time wished to continue with a federal system, many Slovaks felt marginalized by a system largely run by a Czech political establishment in Prague. Instead, Slovaks wished to see something more along the lines of a confederation.

Twenty-five years later, both countries have solidified their roles as nation-states and remain close as members of an increasingly right-wing political and cultural alliance with Hungary and Poland, known as the Visegrad Group.

“Even with the disintegration of the common state, Czech and Slovak nationalism did not disappear,” says Fedor Gal, a Slovak former dissident and public figure. “On the contrary, nationalist sentiments are now part of the official policy.”

Still, on the eve of the 25th anniversary of their split, which also happens to be the centenary of Czechoslovak independence in 1918, both countries are reflecting on the bygone era with a slew of local media reports and even a televised debate between two political figures from the 1990s who facilitated the split – former Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus and his former Slovak counterpart, Vladimír Mečiar.

“The elections simply gave clear-cut mandates,” Klaus said during the debate this month, referring to the June 1992 elections that saw a clear victory for his Civic Democratic Party. “Discussions about anything else would have been purely artificial.”

Today, many Slovaks now believe the breakup was necessary in order for their people to find a voice they believed to be overshadowed by a centralized government in Prague.

“I would say between 1998 and the subsequent decade things went really well [for Slovakia]. Economically, the country has done surprisingly well – politically, it is fully integrated in not only the EU, but Schengen and the eurozone,” says Rick Zednik, an American-Slovak who in the 1990s established the Slovak Spectator, an English-language newspaper.

“In the absence of the referendum, I did not think it was the right thing to do and now I am converted. I think it was absolutely the right thing to do,” he says of the Czechoslovakian split.

Not everybody agrees.

“The split of the Czechoslovak Federal Republic was executed by [an] illegitimate and non-constitutional way, that is a matter of fact,” says Vojtěch Filip, a long-serving chairman of the Czech Communist Party and vice-chairman of the parliament. “The referendum had not been used and the constitutional law itself about the split of the federation was not fulfilled by either of the both succeeding states.”

Despite a wider disagreement of the dissolution without a referendum, the issue today has taken a backseat to more pressing European issues like growing nationalism and the migrant crisis, while a younger generation has become indifferent of an era they hardly remember.

Nevertheless, while most are looking to the future, a small band of activists led by 33-year-old elementary school teacher Ladislav Zelinka had until earlier this year sought to reunify the countries with the so-called “Czechoslovakia 2018” movement.

Zelinka says he was surprised in 2015 to receive thousands of emails and calls from Czechs and Slovaks after founding the movement and soon after moved to push for a referendum in 2018, but was thwarted by a Slovakian law that require 350,000 petition signatures – a daunting task in a country of just 5.5 million people.

“Czechoslovakia had a very good name in this world. It was successful, so [our supporters] would like to return to this,” he says, sitting at a restaurant only feet from the Saint Wenceslas statue where on Oct. 28, 1918, famed Czech writer Alois Jirásek read the proclamation of independence of Czechoslovakia.

While the conversation about the fate of Czechoslovakia still lingers in the minds of the public, there is still one point where all sides can now agree, that Czechoslovakia is gone and likely never coming back.

“The fact is that the common state does not exist and will never exist again,” Gal says.

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