Czechoslovakia: The Pain of Divorce

It is not that the Czechs and Slovaks didn’t have enough to do already in trying to create a normal society out of the cold ruins of communism. They have to build democratic institutions that hold together and an economy that works. The expertise they need to do this has been crushed out of existence, or languished unused, or has been forgotten. It is proving to be an almost superhuman task, even without the additional burden of domestic strife. But in the middle of all this, the Czechs and Slovaks have decided they can’t go on living together. They are like an old married couple trying to renovate their derelict house with unskilled labor while carrying on divorce proceedings, with the children, the inlaws, the door-to-door salesmen, and the neighbors all clamoring for attention. In fact, the whole neighborhood is turning ugly: just two doors down, an extended family of distant cousins are hacking away at each other and keeping people awake at night. The neighbors in the fancy houses across the way are getting nervous.

The Czecho-Slovak altercation is turning out to be painful for everyone involved. Instead of the slick and civilized separation advertised by the protagonists, the divorce has turned sticky. While Václav Klaus pushes and Vladimír Meciar pulls and Václav Havel offers assistance from the sidelines, the seventy-four-year-old country is being jerked along toward dissolution on January 1 in a climate of growing unease and confusion. Denied a referendum on the vital question of the future of their country and locked into decisions of dubious legitimacy by their elected leaders, the Czechs and Slovaks face the very thing this divorce was supposed to circumvent—bitter, agonizing, and expensive wrangling. Moreover, Western Europe, preoccupied with the problem of togetherness, is now urging them back into a closeness their elected representatives find awkward. Like so many divorced couples during the chronic housing shortages of the Communist era, they may end up stuck together in the same apartment simply because they have no place else to go.

Prague in the autumn of 1992 was a city going about its business, apparently oblivious to any constitutional crisis. The plane I had arrived on was packed with ebullient Germans flying in from Frankfurt; they didn’t seem the least bit worried. The same afternoon I met a frustrated American entrepreneur in a restaurant, but it wasn’t the constitutional crisis that was on his mind, it was the inability of the Czechs he was dealing with to understand the binding nature of a handshake.

The next morning, I bought an armful of newspapers. Though maddeningly partisan, they were full of interesting bits of news. Prague’s city hall had just passed a bylaw making catalytic converters mandatory on new cars, without having any idea how to enforce it. The police had arrested a man for growing a field of marijuana but the judge said they had no right to destroy the crop because they couldn’t prove he intended …

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