• Email
  • Print

The End of Czechoslovakia’: An Exchange

In response to:

A New History of the Velvet Revolution from the January 14, 1993 issue

To the Editors:

After a very promising start in “A New History of the Velvet Revolution” [NYR, January 14], Theodore Draper spoils it all with his “The End of Czechoslovakia” [January 28], which takes the so-called velvet revolution up to the present and to the split into the Czech and Slovak Republics, which took place on January 1, 1993.

He repeats what seems to be the new conventional wisdom of the US media (see also the editorial in The Washington Post, carried by the International Herald Tribune on December 31, 1992, on this issue), but which is nevertheless one-sided and probably misguided.

Professor Draper writes that the Czech and Slovak prime ministers have “pretended that the election had decided the issue in favor of a split without the need for a referendum,” that “there was something almost conspiratorial about the way [the two prime ministers] went about dividing up the state,…negotiations were conducted with secretiveness…” and “given the disparity between the polls and the politicians, the lack of a referendum may haunt this division of the country for years to come.”

As far as the referendum about splitting is concerned, Václav Havel and many others called for one in 1991 when it would indeed have been meaningful by exposing Slovak partisans of separation as pursuing a minority demand. But at that time it was impossible to achieve the necessary consensus in our parliament on what the questions should be and whether such a referendum was needed. But after the election of June 1992 it no longer made sense and the cry for referendum was taken upon by the opposition in the Czech republic, and of course by many abroad, who did not bother to analyze the situation. What democratic politician would offer a referendum where one alternative submitted to the citizens—that is, maintaining Czechoslovakia as one country—was not doable, was impossible to implement, because the democratically elected government of Slovakia had by that time declared its sovereignty, its own constitution, its own flag, national anthem, etc. Should the federal government have resorted to force? The election of June 1992 brought clear majorities to coalitions of parties committed on the Slovak side not only to separation, but also specifically to sovereignty and international recognition, and on the Czech side to a “functional federation”—two mutually exclusive options.

While it is true that the issue of splitting the country was not a direct debating point in the election campaign, all the parties which won had very clear language on these issues in their election platforms. As a matter of fact because of our very new experience with democratic elections and because a total of forty-two parties had registered to participate (the large majority of which obtained less than 5 percent of the vote and hence did not gain access to parliament) and there was the issue of equal access to the media, our election campaign was very cumbersome, badly organized, and with the exception of economic reform no real debate on issues took place. Voters had to make up their minds on the basis of other information than that provided by the campaign itself, which is regrettable, but under no circumstance does it invalidate the outcome of the election, nor does it make public opinion polls or referendums superior to the holding of normal elections. To hold a referendum in the fall of 1992, in a situation where perhaps (not decisively, as Draper claims) the nays to splitting might have had a majority, would have been highly irresponsible. The federation had by then deteriorated because most of its jurisdictions had, piece by piece, been dismantled and transferred to both republics. Thus a negative vote to splitting would have meant depriving the Slovak government of legitimacy. What was to have followed in Mr. Draper’s opinion? The road to chaos and to a non-negotiated split, with a much greater potential for violence, would have been open.

Nationalisms in the post-Communist world are disorderly, little understood, and they develop spontaneously. They refuse to behave according to “normal” logic advocated by the international community. If Yugoslavia has taught us anything, it is that common-sense pressures not to change borders or not to acknowledge the fact once they have been changed are about as meaningful as demanding that the seasons do not change. The only reasonable prevention of nationalistic logic leading to violence is to prevent the building up of hatred in the first place, which was probably not feasible in the case of Yugoslavia, given its history. Once violence appears the international community can only insist, by all available means, that illegal, criminal behavior and the use of illegal methods, such as genocide, ethnic cleansing, or starvation, are unacceptable. But as we all know, even that is very difficult to do. Yugoslavia is historically and geographically very close to Central Europe, and the Czech government and public have been and are very much aware of what is going on there. That is precisely why a referendum was not held on the issue of a split after the election. While there are still some loose ends since it is evidently unsustainable, the split has been accomplished in a civilized and legal manner. But Mr. Draper seems to be oblivious to what is at stake here, so that Klaus’s claim that the outcome of a referendum could not be enforced peacefully is for him “pretended.”

The negotiations between Klaus and Meciar were perhaps not as open as they might have been elsewhere, but on the other hand, in contrast to Klaus’s predecessor, Petr Pithart, who never told anybody about Slovak demands, Klaus, after every negotiating session, including those that ended at 4 AM, right then and there faced the press and the TV cameras and, with Meciar standing next to him, provided an overview of what had been agreed, which issues remained to be resolved, and what would be on the agenda the next time. Very early in the negotiations, Klaus made it very clear that it was in the best interests of the Czech Republic to have as its neighbor a stable and prosperous Slovakia. This often required generosity, taking the longer term view, not insisting on equity at all costs, avoiding hysteria, even when it would be the most human of reactions.

As far as Mr. Draper’s opinion that the Czechs will be “obliged to start national life all over again…and face a crisis of identity,” is concerned, there is much to oppose that view. While it is true that the new Czech state came into being unexpectedly and thanks to the Slovaks, and it is also true that a “nation state” with only the Gypsies as an important minority is less intellectually stimulating than when we had large German and Jewish populations before World War II, or when two nations lived in one state, after World War II, nevertheless Mr. Draper is too harsh. The Czech lands have been in existence as a separate entity for over a thousand years continuously, even if during this time they have often been a part of larger entities, such as the Habsburg and/or Austrio-Hungarian Empire. But the Czech language has a very long (thousand-year) history and there is a body of Czech music, literature, art, architecture and design, so there is a small, albeit very real, contribution to, and stake in, European culture in the broadest sense of the term. A lack of nationalism should not be confused with a lack of identity and should not be perceived as such, especially not by intellectuals.

There are also several factual errors in Mr. Draper’s article, some of them quite important:

1) The Slovaks were not “reasonably satisfied for the first twenty years [after 1918]…” They abandoned Czechoslovakia when the opportunity arose and declared, on March 14, 1939, one day before Hitler marched into Prague, their independent state. Many other events in the course of those twenty years were precursors to that act.

2) No Hungarian politician has so far, to my knowledge, publicly advocated a revision of the Slovak-Hungarian border as it was established by the Trianon Treaty of 1919. So far the most extreme Hungarian nationalists have only pleaded for a higher degree of autonomy for their brethren in southern Slovakia. Writing about a “conceivable Ukrainian clamor for Ruthenia” (which is not the easternmost part of Slovakia, as Mr. Draper writes, but a part of the Ukraine, even if there is a small Ukrainian minority in eastern Slovakia) is premature to say the least. That this “could be followed by German claims….” is also not based on any fact worth the name. The same holds true for the worst-case scenario from the pen of Jan Urban (who is not the “former chairman of Civic Forum” as Mr. Draper and the IHT claim, at least not in the US sense of the word. He was for several months chairman of the Civic Forum Council before the split in 1990), which Mr. Draper cites. An exercise in stringing together worst-case scenarios may be a way to titillate the imagination, but has no place in serious analysis.

3) Mr. Draper writes about the draft of the new Czech constitution, but not about the actual document which was legislated on December 18, 1992, before his dateline. It is not true that the presidency is an essentially ceremonial office. While Havel did not get as much authority for the presidency as he had campaigned for before the constitution was legislated, he did get substantially more powers than he had during his term of office from December 1990 to July 1992. According to the new constitution, a presidential veto can be leveled at all laws legislated by parliament, with the exception of constitutional laws, which require a qualified majority even without a presidential veto, not the other way around, as Mr. Draper claims.

Of course the world would be a much neater and more easily understandable place if states and borders stayed put. And of course a larger economic entity is more productive and efficient than a smaller one, as any economic textbook clearly explains. Nevertheless, there are situations in the real world, where all the options are bad in some respect and the least negative one must be chosen. The Czechs and their government are very much aware of the fact that the splitting of Czechoslovakia is not the best of all worlds and hence not a cause for celebration. But the peaceful and civilized manner in which Slovak national aspirations have been brought to fruition should not be an occasion for harping on worst-cast scenarios or for taking up the short-term and short-sighted agenda of the Czech political opposition and presenting it as analysis.

Rita Klimová

Prague, Czech Republic

(The writer is the former Czech Ambassador to the US)

Theodore Draper replies:

Rita Klimová cannot have it both ways. She approves of Václav Havel’s advocacy of a referendum in 1991. If it was right in 1991, why not in 1992? Her answer is, essentially: because of the election of June 1992. But, as she admits, that election was no referendum on the issue, least of all on the Czech side. A clear Czech majority for a “functional federation” was hardly a vote for a split.

Here again, she cannot have it both ways. “While it is true,” she writes, “that the issue of splitting the country was not a direct debating point in the election campaign, all the parties which won had very clear language on these issues in their election platforms.” But only the Slovak party of Vladimir Meciar had anything like clear language on the issue, and even he double-talked a good deal; his party’s electoral “theses” in early May 1992 called for a referendum on Slovak “sovereignty”—which was conveniently forgotten. The Czech party of Václav Klaus did not have any language on these issues.

In fact, she contradicts herself. The election, she says, was confused and badly organized. Where, then, was the “clear language”? More to the point, the public opinion polls in both the Czech and Slovak lands consistently showed majorities against the split. It is true, as she says, that “public opinion polls or referendums are [not] superior to the holding of normal elections.” But that is beside the point here. No one has said that polls are superior to elections. Referendums have a different function than normal elections, especially when the elections are largely waged on other issues. In this case, the politicians were afraid of a referendum, because the polls showed that it could well go against a split.

She is also coy about the Klaus-Meciar negotiations. They were, she admits, “not as open as they might have been elsewhere.” Then, as if she were still in the political campaign leading to the 1992 election, she turns on Klaus’s predecessor, Petr Pithart, as if he had anything to do with the question between us or I had mentioned him in this connection. As for how open the negotiations were, she has a quarrel with others besides myself. The jurists of the International Institute for the Study of Politics of the School of Law of Masaryk University, Brno, characterized the negotiations as follows: “Negotiations were conducted with secretiveness as to the contents of the talks, and their progress [was] disguised by subsequent disclosures of results which each side interpreted differently” [Report on Czechoslovakia, June 7–30, 1992, p. 7].

What, then is her ultimate justification for the split? As I reported in my article, Klaus gave as a reason for opposing a referendum that it would bring about “chaos.” This is also her rationale. To my mind, it requires an overheated imagination to see Czechoslovakia falling into chaos and violence as the result of a referendum. It has gone through much greater crises in the past half century without losing its self-control. One wonders how many Czechs would defend the split, as she does, on the ground that it brought Slovak national aspirations to fruition, as if the Czechs supported the split for the sake of the Slovaks! If those aspirations were so compelling, Meciar would have had nothing to worry about in a referendum, and he would even have had the best possible argument for it.

There is one thing that Rita Klimová fails to consider. Splitting a country is not an ordinary political act. It is so serious that every effort needs to be made to make it reflect the popular will. If enough Slovaks wished to split away, they should of course not have been prevented from doing so. But there should have been no doubt that they had been given the opportunity to make their will known in unmistakable fashion and that they knew full well what they are doing as the result of an open discussion brought about by a referendum. There was nothing to prevent a referendum among the Slovaks and another among the Czechs, except that the ruling politicians on both sides did not trust their own people to do their bidding.

Implicit in the view that Czechoslovakia could not hold a referendum because it would bring on chaos and violence is a profoundly troubling corollary—that the people of Czechoslovakia could not be trusted to weigh the arguments on both sides and make a peaceful, democratic decision. If Václav Klaus, Rita Klimová, and their supporters are right, it does not bode well for the future of the Czech and Slovak republics, where difficult issues are sure to arise and the same rationale may be put forward to prevent democratic decisions. It is a most unhealthy precedent.

Rita Klimová is so bent on scoring small points—I need not bother with all of them—that she even undertakes to give me a geography lesson. Ruthenia, she asserts, “is NOT the easternmost part of Slovakia, as Mr. Draper writes, but a part of Ukraine, even if there is a small Ukrainian minority in eastern Slovakia.” As almost any book on post-1918 Czechoslovakia shows, the Ruthenian minority in eastern Slovakia is called, in the Czech context, Ruthenia, even though most Ruthenians live in the Ukraine.1 That is why there may be a “conceivable Ukrainian clamor for Ruthenia,” as I put it, obviously referring to the part in Slovakia—not an imminent or inevitable clamor but a “conceivable” one, if circumstances change. I recall having dinner with a diplomat in Prague who calmly said that he was leaving for a visit to “Ruthenia” the next day—and he did not mean the Ukraine.

Rita Klimová—with whom I spent a very pleasant evening in Prague, during which it became clear to me that she was a friend and political ally of Prime Minister Klaus—seems to think that I adopted the “agenda of the Czech political opposition.” That is an unworthy insinuation. She should know that I am perfectly capable of making up my own mind, without adopting anyone else’s “agenda.” I was so little motivated to write a pro-Klaus or anti-Klaus article that I went out of my way to absolve Klaus of the charges made by Lawrence Weschler in The New Yorker, and I did not write admiringly of the opposition’s behavior before or after the elections. It may be noted that I devoted one paragraph in two lengthy articles to my view of the referendum, though one would not guess that from her letter. Evidently I struck a raw political nerve.

  1. 1

    For example, see the reference to Ruthenia in Sharon L. Wolchik, Czechoslovakia in Transition (Pinter Publishers, 1991), pp. 3, 5, and 7.

  • Email
  • Print