Former Czechoslovakia: Crossed destinies of the velvet divorcees

17 July 2012
Respekt Prague

Czech Republic vs Slovakia in the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship
Czech Republic vs Slovakia in the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship

On 17 July 1992, the Slovak parliament proclaimed the sovereignty of the Slovak republic, paving the way for the split-up of Czechoslovakia. Twenty years on, the Slovaks have overcome their demons and adapted to Europe. For the Czechs, an examination of the national conscience has yet to be done.

Twenty years ago, following the June 1992 elections, this magazine came out in the then federal Czechoslovakia with a big front-page headline: “Two civilisations.” The subtitle ran: “Solo to Europe, or together to the Balkans.” Today’s readers – especially the younger ones – may have to be reminded that that other civilisation, which was supposedly towing the Czech lands towards the Balkans, was Slovakia, which was just splitting off from “Czecho-Slovakia”.

We may perceive it now as an irony of history that Slovakia, thanks to its membership in the eurozone, is anchored more deeply in Europe than the Czech Republic. But the truth is that that old headline in Respekt was in tune with the atmosphere of the time, when even many Slovaks saw in the onset of Slovak nationalism some unsavoury features of the Balkans.

And Czech public opinion gradually changed from regret over the split-up of the federal state to a decision that brought relief: not to let Slovakia hamper our economic reforms and the road to the West.

The split-up of Czechoslovakia was experienced totally differently by each of the two nations. The Czechs – ignoring their sorrow over losing the High Tatras – took it as a relief and lightening of the load, while to the Slovaks it came as a shock similar to falling in cold water they could drown in.

Slovaks trod a thorny path of self-discovery

These different experiences have consequences even twenty years on, though both countries are now outwardly much alike – from the economic level and the internal organisation of the state to the problems of corruption and partokracií, or rule by party machineries.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico recently made two remarkable statements. Answering a question from a Czech journalist on how he would have voted twenty years earlier in a possible referendum on the split-up of Czechoslovakia, he replied that it was a hypothetical question and that one had to look to the future, not to the past.

The Slovak media again declared that the EU is “our living space” and that Slovakia as a small country must show the big powers in Europe – Germany and France – that “we deserve to be in the strong group of states, if it comes down to a division of Europe.”

It’s easy to see from both statements just how different the moods are in both countries. In the Czech Republic – unlike in Slovakia, where the passionate dispute between supporters and opponents of an independent state has not been completely forgotten – any politician can say that he had no desire to see the federation dissolve (hence no coming into being of the Czech Republic), without doing any harm to his prestige and electoral chances.

What he cannot say, however, without risking damage to his prestige and chances of being elected, is that he wishes that the Czech Republic would struggle with all its loyalty and discipline to be part of a more closely integrated Europe.

How to explain this divergence in the two societies’ attitudes towards their past and future? The key could be the development of both countries following the split of Czechoslovakia.

Slovaks trod a thorny path of self-discovery in the nineties, when they discovered that being an independent state did not automatically guarantee them security, and that to be admitted to Europe they first had to solve problems with democracy at home.

Their dramatic internal struggle over the character of the state taught them some humility and made them realise that national sovereignty only makes sense, in fact, if it ensures freedom. And for that to happen, part of that sovereignty must be handed over to what they consider their “living space”, i.e. the European Union.

The Czech story is different. The Czechs spent the nineties with a sense of security and natural continuity, when they understood the Czech state as a continuation of the Czechoslovak state, and not as a completely new (geopolitical) reality. Never for a moment did they doubt that they were part of the West, which indeed confirmed this affiliation by showing its respect for Vaclav Havel.

Czech society has not learned anything

The feeling of success and a relatively painless economic transformation did not force them towards self-knowledge, let alone humility. If they even noted the Slovak drama, it only confirmed for them that winding up the federation was the best thing that could have happened.

For these reasons, they did not perceive of the EU as a “living space”, a guarantor of security and national sovereignty (as Slovaks perceived it), but rather as a mere economic framework that coincided with Czech commercial interests. The sudden European crisis therefore caught them unprepared to answer the question: how do they actually imagine their own “living space”?

Paradoxically, the situation of 1992 is being repeated in a different form. Then Czechs urged Slovaks to state very clearly what they wanted and reproached them for playing unfairly in wanting, at the same time, “the right to act on their own internationally” – and a joint state.

Vaclav Klaus resolved it for them when in fact he forced them to go their own way. Today, in contrast, it is the Czechs themselves who are being called on to say clearly what they want, when on the one hand they refuse closer EU integration, yet have no idea how the EU should solve its crisis without that closer integration.

This does not mean that part of Czech society is unable to look at itself critically. Petr Pithart is not alone in accusing the Czechs of always having been happy to get rid of those they felt were a burden: from the Jews to the Germans to the Slovaks – and even considered it their success.

Today it almost seems that the politicians in the Czech government look on the EU in a similar way: as a burden they would be better rid of. If it is true, it’s also a proof that, unlike the Slovaks, Czech society has not learned anything from its own history, and that hard lessons still lie ahead.

Translated from the Czech by Anton Baer

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