The End of Czechoslovakia


The Velvet Revolution and those who received most credit for it were almost too successful for their own good. The Civic Forum among the Czechs and the Public Against Violence among the Slovaks emerged from the ordeal of November–December 1989 with unrivaled prestige and honor. It did not seem to matter that the former all-Communist government was replaced by a new government with a considerable number of Communists. It hardly counted that the Civic Forum and Public Against Violence were less than a month old, had no semblance of organization, and were mainly composed of intellectuals without experience in government or business. It was a time to celebrate and rejoice.

But the problems of the country would not wait. Most urgent were the need for a democratic constitution to take the place of the Communist constitution, attention to the festering antagonism between Czechs and Slovaks, a new economic policy, and in general a sense of where the country was going. The revolution had been too much of a surprise to permit the victors to plan and prepare for the next stage. The Civic Forum and the Public Against Violence were so heterogeneous in their political makeup and so haphazard organizationally that they could agree on little else than getting rid of the Communist stranglehold.

The result was that most problems were put on hold until free elections could be held six months later in June 1990. In his first public address as president in January 1990, Václav Havel did not exaggerate the problems which the country faced:

Our country is not flourishing. The enormous creative and spiritual potential of our nations is not being used sensibly. Entire branches of industry are producing goods which are of no interest to anyone, while we are lacking the things we need. A state which calls itself a workers’ state humiliates and exploits workers. Our obsolete economy is wasting the little energy we have available. A country that once could be proud of the educational level of its citizens spends so little on education that it ranks today as seventy-second in the world. We have polluted our soil, our rivers and forests, bequeathed to us by our ancestors, and we have today the most contaminated environment in Europe. Adult people in our country die earlier than in most other European countries.

After this and more, Havel told of he kind of republic that he dreamed of:

I dream of a republic independent, free, and democratic, of a republic economically prosperous and yet socially just, in short, of a humane republic which serves the individual and which therefore holds the hope that the individual will serve it in turn. Of a republic of wellrounded people, because without such it is impossible to solve any of our problems, human, economic, ecological, social, or political.1

Unfortunately, Havel could provide little more than dreams. Czechs and Slovaks waited to see how and when his dreams were going to be realized.


The election of June 1990 was a smashing victory for the Civic Forum and the Public Against Violence. Both were able to dominate the governments that came out of it. The prime minister of the new federal government continued to be the former Communist Marián Calfa but Jirí Dienstbier as foreign minister and Václav Klaus as finance minister, representing the Civic Forum, gave the government its political identity. The prime minister of the Czech government was Petr Pithart of Civic Forum. In Slovakia, the new government was headed by Vladímir Meciar from the Public Against Violence, still a little-known figure.

The Civic Forum was the first to fall victim to its own nature. It was still very much like its old self—unorganized or disorganized, a motley collection of individual intellectuals, proud that it was not like other parties or a party at all. The most famous and most influential of them all, Havel, was now president and determined to favor no group or faction, including his own. Czechoslovak politics went back to its condition in the first twenty years, beginning in 1918, when a multiplicity of parties had competed for favor and a coalition of five parties had usually formed the government.

Government service was a new and somewhat intoxicating experience for the Civic Forum graduates. For the most part, they had no aptitude for or interest in the grubby work of political organization and fence-mending. Eda Kriseova, who worked in Havel’s office and is the author of a biography of him, later explained why intellectuals were not made for politics; she might have been thinking of her friends in the Civic Forum:

The intellectual-turned-politician is by nature self-critical, and thus unable to campaign in his own favor. His self-criticism, detachment, non-partisan approval—these are his positive qualities. Intellectuals shy away from the power of government. They have a permanently critical attitude to power, a lack of confidence in it. For that reason they are not very successful at practical politics. The intellectual wishes to create ideas but dislikes repeating them and forcing them down people’s throats. He finds it painful to go over the same story time and time again.2

But at least one member of the Civic Forum did not conform to this political portrait of the intellectual. He was Václav Klaus, the new finance minister, perhaps because he was an economist. The second Václav was as different from the first as can be imagined.

During the Communist years, Klaus had managed to stay out of trouble without joining the Party. Now fiftyone, he began his career in the early 1960s by working at the Economics Institute of the Academy of Sciences. Later in the decade, the temporary relaxation of controls during the “Prague Spring” enabled him to study in Italy and at Cornell University. At Cornell, he discovered the theories of Milton Friedman and became a monetarist true believer. On his return, he was ousted from the Academy of Sciences and spent the next sixteen years in a minor post in the Czechoslovak State Bank. In 1987, he managed to get an appointment as an economist and statistician at the Institute of Economic Forecasting under its director, Valtr Komárek, later economics minister with Klaus in the first postrevolutionary government. In that year, he began to contribute articles on economics to the samizdat publications of the opposition. He was such a zealous Friedmanite that he signed them with the initials “M.F.”3 His background hardly seemed to prepare him for a heady political career.

Klaus first emerged into the open by taking part in the Communist–Civic Forum negotiations in November–December 1989. In a matter of months, he went from obscurity to political leadership. In October 1990, he succeeded in making himself chairman of Civic Forum. But the success and institutionalization of Civic Forum was not his goal. Instead, he wanted to transform it into an American-style political party, veering sharply to the right, as that term was understood in Czech politics. This meant taking up a much stronger anti-Communist position than had been adopted and, above all, pursuing an economic policy based on Friedmanite principles. Klaus insisted on full speed ahead toward a market economy and privatization of ownership.

When Klaus encountered resistance within the Civic Forum from those who preferred a mixed economy and a slower transformation, he pushed ahead toward a split. In March 1991, he led his free-market followers into a new Civic Democratic Party, which he said would “not be led by dreamers but would be characterized by realism and pragmatism.”4 He openly described the new party as “right-wing” and gloried in his election as chairman of “the first, really right-wing political party in Czechoslovakia in the last four or five decades.”5

The opposition in the Civic Forum answered by forming the Civic Movement, headed by Jirí Dienstbier, the foreign minister. It considered itself to be “centrist,” because there was a “left” represented by the legal and active Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia. Klaus derided the Civic Movement as ” ‘liberal’—I have to say in the American sense, not in the European sense, to my regret.” 6 But the Civic Movement, unlike its alleged American prototype, still failed to organize itself as a traditional political party and contented itself with halfway measures that made it seem closer to the Civic Forum from which it had sprung.7

In this way, the Civic Forum, which had emerged the unchallenged victor in the election of June 1990, consumed itself a few months later. Nevertheless, Dienstbier’s Civic Movement still had many of the bestknown figures that had been identified with the Civic Forum, and there was no telling how the contest with the Civic Democratic Party was going to come out. Yet the split was another turning point in the Veivet Revolution. It underscored how much the revolution had been “against” and not “for.” Once the children of the revolution had to define themselves, they started to go their separate ways.

In Slovakia, a similar development took place with a different twist.

In February 1990, the Public Against Violence was faced with the emergence of a rival organization. One of its prominent members, Jan Carnogursky, a Catholic dissident, broke away to form a new Christian Democratic Movement. It succeeded in coming in second to Public Against Violence in the election of June 1990, and, together with a smaller third party, they formed a coalition to constitute the first freely elected Slovak government.8

The prime minister of this government was Vladimir Meciar of Public Against Violence. Like Klaus in the Czech government but with a different background, he came out of obscurity as a result of the sudden political shakeup brought about by the revolution.

Unlike Klaus, Meciar had been a Communist. Years ago, he had been a leader of the Communist youth league in Slovakia and had studied in the Soviet Union. But Meciar had gone along with the “reform Communists” in 1968 during the “Prague Spring,” for which reason he was expelled in 1970. He went to law school and bided his time as the lawyer of a glass factory. For almost twenty years, he kept his head down and waited for an opportunity to get back into political life.

The chance came with the Public Against Violence in 1989. He grasped it with such zeal that he became the minister of interior in the Slovak interim government between January and June 1990. Something he may or may not have done in this period has haunted him ever since. He was accused by the parliamentary Slovak defense and security commission of having ordered the removal of six pages of the secret police records, including two file cards on himself. According to the commission, one of the cards said that he had been arrested in 1970 for the possession of illegal pamphlets. The other card stated that he was a “right-wing opportunist” and collaborator, whose code name was “Doktor.” Meciar has repeatedly denied the latter charge, and it has done him little harm except to keep him busy denying it.

So little harm that he was named prime minister after the Public Against Violence came out far ahead of the other Slovak parties in the election of June 1990. Soon, however, Meciar did to the Public Against Violence what Klaus had done to the Civic Forum—he split it. In March 1991, he took his followers into a new party called the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia. The remainder was left to limp far behind; it merged with a smaller party as the Civic Democratic Union/Public Against Violence, and in March 1992, even the Public Against Violence part of the name was dropped.

Between the elections of June 1990 and June 1992, Meciar’s chief rival in Slovakia was Carnogursky’s Christian Democratic Movement. In the first flush of the Velvet Revolution, nothing had been heard of Slovak separatism. The first politician to bring it up was Carnogursky, and he did so even before the election of June 1990. He came out with statements that his party “favored more autonomy for the Slovak Republic” and that some of the federal government’s powers should be abolished. In July 1990, his party proposed that Czechoslovakia should be made a “confederation” instead of a federation and that Slovakia should become part of Europe as a “sovereign and equal” entity. “Confederation” became the code-word for an undefined, loose union between two “sovereign” republics, Czech and Slovak. This line proved to be so popular that the Christian Democratic Movement shot ahead in the opinion polls.

Now it was Carnogursky’s chance to shine. The split in the Public Against Violence deprived Meciar of part of his majority and led to his temporary downfall. In April 1991, Carnogursky replaced Meciar as Slovak prime minister, an indignity which Meciar never forgave. But Carnogursky’s advantage did not last long. He had second thoughts about Slovak separatism and decided to edge away from an extreme expression of it. He toyed with a loose federation instead of a formal confederation and talked of putting off full Slovak independence to the year 2000.

This attack of moderation was Carnogursky’s undoing. His party had an extremist wing which did not appreciate his wavering. In February 1992, he negotiated an agreement with the Czech side which implied the survival of a common state and brought on an internal revolt. The result was another split, out of which came the Slovak Christian Democratic Party.

Meciar knew how to take a hint. When Carnogursky began to flirt with separatism. Meciar decided to take up the cause and run off with it. As Carnogursky’s enthusiasm for it waned, Meciar’s increased. By the summer of 1991, the polls showed a drop to 12 percent in the popularity of Carnogursky’s party and a rise to over 30 percent in Meciar’s.

In this way, the Civic Forum of the Czechs and the Public Without Violence of the Slovaks were fatally wounded from within their own ranks. As the election of June 1992 approached, they were shadows of themselves and needed only one more blow to succumb.


It was that election which largely determined the political condition of Czechoslovakia today.

The Civic Movement, which was most closely identified with the original Civic Forum, went into the election after having been in control of both the federal and Czech governments for the previous two years. In the Czechoslovak system, voters choose parties, not individual candidates. Parties need a minimum of 5 percent of the popular vote to get any parliamentary representation. The Civic Movement did not succeed in getting even the minimum. All of its federal ministers, including the best known. Jirí Dienstbier, the foreign minister, were replaced. In the Czech government, all of its ministers, including the prime minister, Petr Pithart, were finished off. One reason given for their debacle is that many were voting their “bad conscience”—the dissidents reminded them too vividly of their own passivity or collaboration with the Communist regime.

The big Czech winner was Klaus’s Civic Democratic Party. It obtained about 30 percent of the vote, by far the largest number. With allied parties, it was able to control the next government, with Klaus as the new prime minister. Next in strength with 14 percent came the so-called Left Bloc, of which the Communists were the most important component. In effect, the center, represented by the Civic Movement, was eliminated, and only a right and a left remained.

In Slovakia, Meciar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia did even better, with over 37 percent of the vote. The Party of the Democratic Left, the renamed and renovated Communists, came in second with almost 15 percent. Carnogursky’s Christian Democratic Movement just squeaked through with over 7 percent. Meciar promptly took his revenge and replaced Carnogursky as Slovak prime minister.

It could not be said that the people had failed to express their wishes; 85 percent of the electorate had voted. The problem was not how they had voted but why.

One reason was organizational. Klaus had painstakingly put together a real party, with branches in virtually every city and town in Bohemia and Moravia, the Czech lands. He had campaigned indefatigably up and down the country. Dienstbier’s Civic Movement had rested on its laurels from the already distant Velvet Revolution and still lagged behind in turning itself into an ordinary party with traditional structure and discipline. When the electoral test came, Klaus’s troops brought in the votes and overwhelmed the high-minded but languid opposition.

Klaus also said what many voters wanted to hear. He knew—or claimed to know—just what the country needed. He exuded self-confidence and absolute conviction. He had the ability to explain his economic policies clearly and simply, as if they were undeniable first principles. As finance minister, he had already started putting into effect the policies of liberalized prices, tighter budgetary controls, tax reform, preliminary privatization, and the rest of the litany of the market economy. The immediate result of the so-called shock therapy was painful. In 1991, consumer prices rose sharply while personal consumption, industrial production, investment, and real wages dropped. When prices were deregulated on January 1, 1991, the monthly rate of inflation rose to 26 percent; Klaus himself called it “traumatic inflation.” Yet Klaus was able to boast that the rate went down to zero by September 1991.9 The annual inflation rate is now about 10 percent. Klaus succeeded in getting across the message that, if only his policies were given enough time, they were bound to succeed. By the time of the election, consumer prices fell, industrial production and exports rose, and Czech unemployment went down to 2.7 percent.10

Klaus won the election primarily because he knew what he wanted, conveyed it forcefully, and events seemed to bear him out. His campaign was based on his free-market economic program and the virtues of social conservatism. Czech voters decided to trust him, because he seemed to be the only one with a clear-cut policy and the cocksureness that it would work. His opponents accused him of arrogance and dogmatism—attributes that did not endear him to the intellectuals, who thought that they owned the Velvet Revolution, but did him no harm with voters who were desperately seeking hope and reassurance in their daily lives.11

Meciar came out far ahead in Slovakia for different reasons. Unlike Klaus, he did not have a single-minded concentration on the economy or fixed convictions about anything else. He had something different—a demagogic ability to exploit the resentments and aspirations of his fellow Slovaks.

Before the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the differences between Czechs and Slovaks had been largely suppressed or ignored. They had played no part in the revolution which tended temporarily to bring both sides closer together. Soon after the revolution, however, the latent Czech-Slovak antagonism became the stuff of Slovak politics, with which every Slovak politician had to reckon.

After Carnogursky had stirred up separatist sentiment and had backed away from it. Meciar jumped on the same bandwagon but in a characteristically devious way. He first came out for a vague “confederation” with the Czechs—the code-word for loosening the bonds without breaking them. As the election approached, however, his party issued a program which promised “to transform the present federal ties between the Slovak and Czech Republics into a link of two sovereign republics each with its own international subjectivity.” But it also pledged to seek a treaty with the Czechs for a common policy in economy, defense, and foreign policy.12 Meciar seemed to want to have it both ways—to adopt a quasi-separatist program while taking out an insurance policy to get continued assistance from the Czechs via a treaty between two sovereign states.

Meciar succeeded in exploiting the issue without getting too far ahead of the public opinion expressed in the polls. He was more extreme than Carnogursky, whose separatism was now muted, and less extreme than the Slovak National Party, which had come out unequivocally for an independent state. Voters could opt for Meciar without really knowing how far he was willing to go.

On economic policy, Meciar also pulled away from the Czechs. One statistic was more expressive than any other—on June 30, 1992, unemployment among Czechs was 2.76 percent, among Slovaks 11.26 percent.13 The disparity was largely caused by the difference between Czech and Slovak industry. The Soviet Union had insisted on putting large arms factories, producing such weapons as tanks and employing about 100,000 workers, in Slovakia on the ground that the Czech part of the country was most vulnerable to attack from the West. Obedient to Soviet wishes, the former Communist regime had put 80 percent of the country’s arms factories in Slovakia. Now Slovak arms were cut off from their accustomed markets in the former Soviet empire and were hopelessly inferior in competition with Western products. To make matters worse, the federal government announced a policy of halting arms manufacture and sales.

As a result, Klaus’s Czech policy of a rapid transition to a market economy was political suicide in Slovakia. The Slovak population, long accustomed to a paternalistic system which guaranteed full employment, albeit on a minimal level, was fearful of large-scale economic dislocation. Slovaks looked back at the former Communist regime with far more sympathy than the Czechs.14 The unemployment figures spoke more eloquently than anything else. Meciar, therefore, campaigned for a different economic policy—a much slower rate of privatization, continued state subsidies to failing industries, a mixed versus a strictly free-enterprise economy.

Thus the election of June 1992 immensely widened the gap between Czechs and Slovaks, but the reasons were far deeper than the personalities or policies of Klaus and Meciar.


There had never been a Czechoslovakia before 1918. The Czechs had belonged to Austria, the Slovaks to Hungary. Czech nationalism was inextricably linked with the Czech language, which began to revive only at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Slovaks had a much harder time resisting the forced Magyarization of the more repressive Hungary, and their language-driven nationalism came somewhat later, toward the middle of the nineteenth century.

Although they are related linguistically and ethnically, Czechs and Slovaks had very different histories imposed on them by their Austrian and Hungarian overlords. Bohemia and Moravia were the most advanced, industrialized part of the Austrian empire. Slovakia was an agricultural backwater of the Hungarian empire. Though they were neighbors, the Czechs and Slovaks had little in common until they were thrown together by the peace treaties after World War I.

The Czech leadership under TomᚠGarrigue Masaryk wanted to incorporate Slovakia in the new state for reasons that were primarily geopolitical,not because it was consanguineous. In 1918, northern Bohemia was inhabited by a large German minority of three million, when there were only six million Czechs. The three million Slovaks were seen as necessary to counterbalance the Germans and produce a Slav majority of nine million.15 In addition, Slovakia was enlarged with 600,000 Hungarians in the south and with Ruthenia in the east.

To give this multinational conglomeration a sense of nationhood, Masaryk and his collaborators sought to instill a belief in “Czechslovakism,” as if it were a natural emanation of the Czech-Slovak combination. Czechs were far more receptive to the new faith than Slovaks. Nevertheless, the Slovaks were reasonably satisfied for the first twenty years, because they were beneficiaries of the greater wealth and more advanced skills of the Czechs.

In 1939, for the first time in a thousand years, Slovakia became an independent state. It owed its independence, however, to Nazi Germany, which installed Mgr. Josef Tiso as prime minister, while making Bohemia and Moravia into a German protectorate. Tiso’s government was so slavishly imitative of its Nazi creator that it rounded up about 70,000 of about 100,000 Jews and sent them to their slaughter. History had played one of its malicious tricks on the Slovaks: the only time they could look back at even six years of independence had brought them shame. Attempts have recently been made to rehabilitate Tiso and cover up his responsibility for the destruction of Slovak Jewry.16

In 1945, Czechoslovakia was restored as a unitary federal state and remained one when the Communists seized power three years later. Yet the old antagonisms between Czechs and Slovaks continued to be so trouble-some that the Communists made a far-reaching constitutional change in 1968. To give the Slovaks a semblance of self-rule, they set up a tripartite system of a Slovak Republic, a Czech Republic, and a Czechoslovak federal government to bind the two together. This arrangement changed far less than appeared on the surface, because the real power was still lodged in the Communist center in Prague, which the ostensibly separate governments—Slovak, Czech, and federal—automatically obeyed. The only real government was the Central Committee and presidium or politburo.17

This was the political arrangement which the Velvet Revolution inherited. It was not prepared to change it any more than it was prepared to deal with other problems left it by the Communists. Yet if there is one thing that underlies the split between Czechs and Slovaks, it is their long and troubled history, extending as far back as the Austrian and Hungarian empires.

The specter of the split first appeared in the summer of 1990, not long after the Velvet Revolution, in the form of an argument over how to spell the name of the country. Should it be Czechoslovakia or Czecho-Slovakia? The “hyphen debate” was set off by Slovaks, who thought that the punctuation mark was necessary to make both halves seem equally important. Czechs professed to be amused. Nevertheless, the issue was significant enough to result in a change in the name of the country. It was now to be called the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic.

This compromise did not last long. Between the two elections of June 1990 and June 1992, Slovak sentiment against federalism gathered strength. The new Slovak strong man, Vladimir Meciar, went from advocating federation to calling for confederation and then for something called “sovereignty,” whatever that was. The Slovak politicians clearly thought that they were on to something and competed with each other on how best to turn it into vote-getting.

Meanwhile, the Czechs could not get themselves to believe that the Slovaks really meant what they said. One reason was the disparity between the public opinion polls and the elections. According to the polls in mid-1992, no more than 20 percent of Slovaks ever preferred separatism.18 Yet most Slovaks voted for separatists or quasi-separatists in the election of June 1992. Meciar’s victory was interpreted as giving him a mandate to move forward toward Slovak independence, even though, in the campaign, Meciar stressed his economic policy more than his separatism.

For some time before the election, the Czech response was largely passive. Slovak politicians, especially Meciar, were permitted to make aggressive noises without stirring up much rancor or retaliation. In fact, both Havel as president and Petr Pithart, the Czech prime minister, made statements that put the Slovaks in the right in their past treatment by the Czechs. “At times,” Havel said of the Czechs, “they were so selfish, disparaging, and insensitive about it that they drove the Slovaks to stop thinking of Czechoslovakia as their country.”19 Pithart made a speech in November 1991 in which he expressed a guilty conscience for “the Czechs’ bad habit of belittling the Slovaks, usually referred to as Czech paternalism. It is the arrogance of the ‘older brother.’ “20 In effect, Czech politicians tried without apparent success to soothe the Slovaks by conceding past Czech sins.

But something had also changed among the Czechs. As Slovak agitation for some form of separation gained in intensity, a Czech school of thought began to entertain the view that it might not be such a bad idea—for the Czechs. Since Klaus was determined to impose a strict market economy with the least possible delay, the Slovaks could only hold back the Czechs, who were in a much better position to make the change. Meciar was holding out for much greater state protection and for much slower privatization. The Czechs, with their richer economy, had long subsidized the Slovaks from the national treasury and now saw a way to get rid of the burden. The Slovaks had most of the useless, rusting arms factories. Far more foreign investment was coming into the Czech lands than into Slovakia. The more Klaus and his followers thought about it, the more they liked—or the less they disliked—an independent Slovakia.

Caught in the middle between the divorcing partners was federal president Havel. Slovak extremists had long treated him as if he were an enemy. In March 1991, he was met in Bratislava with anti-Czech slogans and near physical violence. His escorts were pushed and beaten, his car damaged, and attempts made to attack him personally as he walked through the streets of the city. The following October, he came to Bratislava to commemorate the forty-third anniversary of Czech Independence Day. Extremist gangs were bussed in; he was pelted with eggs; the onslaught forced him to flee from the platform. No effort was made to protect him.21

Havel could not see his country come apart without trying to save it. His problem was that he was willynilly in politics but wanted to be out of politics or at least above politics. In theory, he was a nonpolitical, nonparty president. In practice, he could not stay out of this life-or-death political crisis for the common political home.

On the issue of separation, Havel took the risk of openly intervening. He first tried to head off the showdown by coming out boldly for a common state.

It is impossible to live in and outside a common state at the same time; to have and not to have simultaneously a common army, foreign policy and currency, to acknowledge and at the same time oppose the validity of common laws. I regard various assumptions about a kind of possible compromise between the existence of two fully independent republics and a common state—one that has been presented to the public by some politicians—as completely unreasonable, unpremeditated, and irresponsible.22

Havel also came out for holding a referendum of all the people, Czechs and Slovaks, on the issue of separation. He proposed five constitutional changes to give the president more power, including one to enable the president to call a referendum if he so chose or if 20 percent of the people in either republic called for it. The parliamentary rejection of all his proposals left the impression that he was politically ineffectual.

On November 17, 1991, the second anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, he warned ominously that the constitutional crisis was fraught with the danger of a “total disintegration of the state.” His public statements began to sound more and more alarming. “What are the actual causes of our nervousness, our feelings of helplessness, impatience, and even despair?” he asked on January 1, 1992. His answer was that “history has confronted us with a completely unprecedented task: to find ourselves anew.”

In the face of Slovak obstinacy, Havel decided to offer a last, desperate compromise. On May 1, 1992, he went to Slovakia, where he proposed that a common state should be based on a treaty between the two republics and that Slovaks should be given equal representation in all federal organs, though Czechs outnumbered Slovaks by two to one. In effect, he offered Slovaks a loose confederation, such as they had once wanted, instead of a unitary federation as heretofore, which was as far as he could go and still hold on to a single state.

On the eve of the June 1992 elections, Havel made a last-ditch effort to reverse the trend. He appealed to voters to “resist all cheap and seductive appeals to nationalist emotion”—an allusion which Meciar took to apply to himself.

After the June 1992 election and the victories of Klaus and Meciar, Havel accepted defeat. Addressing the opening session of the new federal parliament on June 25, 1992, he said that he recognized the results of the election “as a political reality of the highest degree which must be respected and which has its consequences,” namely, the division of the state, as long as it was carried out “on the basis of negotiations, in a legal manner—without civil conflicts nor in an atmosphere of confrontation.”

All of which did him no good with the Slovaks. On July 3, 1992, he was put up to succeed himself as federal president and was defeated by the votes of a majority of the Slovak deputies. Their action was viewed as Meciar’s revenge for Havel’s pre-election warning against “cheap and seductive appeals to nationalist emotion.” Havel immediately handed in a letter of resignation to take effect on July 20. After Havel, the federal state was left without a president, because no prominent politician was willing to take the job.

The lost cause of the common state seemed to change Havel’s attitude toward it. For one who had fought so hard and so long to preserve it, he made this equivocal comment on its imminent demise:

If we become two stable democratic states, then the fact that we are not a large state is not a tragedy. If the breakup of our common state should lead to inner instability, chaos, poverty and suffering, then it would start to become a tragedy. The fact in itself that two states shall emerge out of one is not a tragedy. I do not feel any sentimental ties to the Czechoslovak state. I do not place the highest value on the state, but rather on man and humanity.23

It was not a ringing affirmation of what the Czechoslovak state had meant for most Czechs and even for many Slovaks. Havel, as usual, was determined to go his own way, even in bidding the common state adieu.


The Velvet Revolution was achieved by means of a peculiar type of negotiations. The breakup of Czechoslovakia was also achieved by means of peculiar negotiations.

A decision of such great moment clearly required the approval of the people of the entire country, both Czechs and Slovaks. But Klaus and Meciar, the prime ministers who were behind the split, were keenly aware of the public opinion polls, which told them that it might well be voted down in a referendum. As a result, they went about arranging the split in another way.

After the elections, Havel, in one of his last presidential acts, authorized Klaus and Meciar, as leaders of the two largest parties, to negotiate the formation of a new federal government. On June 8, 1992, they met in Brno and immediately faced the problem that they could not form a new federal government if they did not know what the ultimate relations between Czechs and Slovaks were going to be. Once the larger issue was broached, Meciar announced that he was bound by his electoral program, including the independence of Slovakia, a Slovak constitution, and international recognition of a sovereign Slovakia. Klaus took the position that he was empowered to discuss nothing more than a “reasonable and functional” federation or partition of the state.

The two prime ministers had no authorization from the federal parliament to negotiate on splitting the state. They were acting only in the name of their two parties, to the exclusion of all other parties. For different reasons, both were committed to a split, which neither had emphasized during the election, least of all Klaus. Yet they pretended that the election had decided the issue in favor of a split without the need for a referendum. Meciar said that he would allow a referendum in Slovakia only to ratify all the preliminary steps taken to ensure a split. Klaus opposed a referendum on the ground that it would polarize the country and bring about “chaos.” Klaus also maintained that the Slovaks were determined to split, referendum or no referendum, making any referendum futile and impossible to enforce peacefully.

Other meetings behind closed doors between the two prime ministers and their advisers worked out the modalities of the split. There was something almost conspiratorial about the way they went about dividing up the state. As legal experts at Masaryk University in Brno put it, the discussions resembled “a conversation between two deaf men who talk past each other,” so that they

led to inflexibility and to making proposals known in advance to be unacceptable to the other side. 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.24

By August 26, 1992, the two sides agreed on January 1, 1993, as the date of the formal separation. But the federal parliament discussed the issue for the first time only on September 11, 1992, and then failed to pass the necessary legislation. Parliamentary ratification of the separation was not reached until November 25, 1992, after it had become an all but accomplished fact.

Yet, the latest poll conducted by the Institute for Public Opinion Research in October 1992 showed that the Slovaks were more worried than the Czechs about the separation. Only 37 percent of Slovak respondents thought that the division of Czechoslovakia was necessary, against 56 percent in Bohemia and 43 percent in Moravia. A civil war was feared by 13 percent of Czechs and 7 percent of Slovaks. In Slovakia, 23 percent expected freedom of speech and other democratic rights to diminish in the next three years.25

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. A referendum was the only way to make sure what the people in both parts of the country really wanted. It would have forced the issues to be debated publicly far more extensively and openly than they have been. It is not inconceivable that the majority in favor of maintaining the unity of the state might have been so decisive among both Czechs and Slovaks that the politicians could not have held out against them. This is not to say that a vote for some form of federal system would have made the differences between Czechs and Slovaks disappear. It would have guaranteed that the people knew what they were doing and could not blame the politicians for whatever came next. The risks of taking this course may have been considerable, but the way this split has been managed is not without considerable risks of its own.

Was the split necessary? Will it benefit both parties—or either? What comes next?

The original impetus for the split came from the Slovaks. They even anticipated it formally by adopting a new constitution for themselves on September 1, 1992. Yet they are undoubtedly going to pay the highest price for it. A study by the Czech and Slovak Confederation of Trade predicted that Slovak unemployment might go from 10–13 percent in 1992 to as high as 25 percent after the separation. If it should go anywhere near that high, Slovak society would be dangerously strained, with unforeseeable political consequences. Ironically, Meciar might be the first victim of such a drastic downturn. In past years, Slovakia received about $300 million in annual subsidies from the federal government. The economic ties between the Czechs and Slovaks are not so tightly meshed that they cannot pull further apart and result in increased estrangement; only about 11 percent of Czech goods are exported to Slovakia, and no more than about 27 percent of Slovak goods go to the Czechs.26 A truly independent Slovakia needs its own convertible currency, a bank to issue funds, and a monetary policy—none of which will be easy to bring about. In foreign affairs, Slovakia is now embroiled with Hungary over the hydroelectric dam at the Slovak-Hungarian border and Slovakia’s treatment of its large Hungarian minority along its border with Hungary. Including the Czechs, 15 million Czechoslovaks faced about 10 million Hungarians; now 5 million Slovaks face twice as many Hungarians. The Slovaks may find that it is not so comfortable to survive alone in a hostile environment.

Most attention has been paid to the apparently peaceful Slovak-Czech separation. But once cut adrift from the Czechs, as one experienced Czech observer has warned, the Slovaks may have entered on a less peaceful course elsewhere, starting with their breach with Hungary. The dam, by diverting the Danube River, has put in question the border between Slovakia and Hungary which was fixed at the river’s center.

A Slovak-Hungarian propaganda war has already broken out. Hungarian nationalists argue that the post–World War I peace treaties were signed with Czechoslovakia, and say they must now be renegotiated with Slovakia, a different country, including the disputed border and the status of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia. The same premise may conceivably inspire the Ukraine to clamor for Ruthenia, the easternmost part of Slovakia, and this demand could be followed by German claims, based on the expulsion of the 3.5 million Sudeten Germans from western Bohemia. Such cumulative disruption of existing arrangements can be envisaged only in a worst-case scenario, but it is not so unimaginable that it may be safely ignored. The breakup of Czechoslovakia may let loose more disintegrating forces in the region, already at their worst in Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union.27

Ever since the revolution, the approximately 600,000 Hungarians in southern Slovakia, just where the hydroelectric dam is causing trouble, have felt threatened by Slovak nationalists. In effect, one out of ten Slovaks is ethnically Hungarian, a minority too large to neglect and too small to carry political weight. Here again, language has been the neuralgic point. As early as October 1990, Slovak nationalists demanded a language law making Slovak the exclusive official language in Slovakia, a move obviously aimed at the Hungarian minority. Meciar succeeded in getting a law that permitted a minority language to be used in schools and public facilities only in areas where the minority exceeds 20 percent. Since then, disputes over the language used in schools in the Hungarian districts and about restricted Hungarian representation in government bodies have continued to envenom the relations between Slovaks and Hungarians. The Hungarians sense that they have more to fear from a headstrong independent Slovakia than they had from a Slovakia that belonged to the federal system. Yet the greatest danger is not between Slovaks and the Hungarians in Slovakia; it is between Slovakia and Hungary.

The Czechs are also expected to suffer economically from a breakup but much less than the Slovaks, because the Czech economy is much the stronger of the two. Almost 85 percent of foreign investment has been coming into the Czech territory, most of it from Germany. On March 31, 1992, 1,100,000 private entrepreneurs were registered in the Czech Republic, 300,000 in the Slovak Republic.28 Tourists, especially from Germany, have been pouring into Prague, few of them into Bratislava.

These disparities could have worked both ways. They could have suggested to the Slovaks that it was best to be satisfied with the status quo, because they were too weak to throw off their ties with the Czechs. In purely material or economic terms, a strong case could be made against separation. But this was precisely what angered the Slovaks the most. In Bratislava, I came across informed and intelligent Slovaks who fully realized the risks that Meciar was taking and had no use for him. They feared his authoritarian ways and worried about the health of the democratic order that the Velvet Revolution had brought Slovakia. Yet they invariably ended by considering separation an accomplished act that could not be resisted.

Slovak separatism was driven primarily by the wounds and slights of history rather than by any material advantages that could be expected to come from it. After so many centuries of Slovakia’s oppression and humiliation, the prospect of standing tall in the world, of being recognized as a sovereign state, became increasingly attractive, especially to the politicians. Many Slovaks seem to be intoxicated by the thought of having their own seat in the UN and representation in other international bodies, as if they were more important than anything else.

Yet the cost of separation for both sides is incalculable. After over seven decades of living together as one family, however quarrelsome, the separation is costly and wrenching. So far it has been easiest to agree on a common currency and a customs union, partly because they have been demanded by the European Community, to which both parts wish to belong. The most difficult problems are still ahead; they are a division of the common property and of the armed forces. With good will on both sides, the split may be manageable, but some of the details may take lengthy negotiations and much hard bargaining.

One of the peculiar aspects of the split is that the closer it came, the more the Slovak side realized how much it can lose by it. I even came across some who believed that Meciar had agitated for the split without really wanting it; he had allegedly put the heat on the Czechs in order to get more concessions from them, not a total divorce. Klaus surprised him, it is said, by taking him at his word and telling him he could have his independence any time. It was as if Meciar pounded at Klaus’s door without really wanting to knock it down; to Meciar’s surprise, Klaus opened the door, and Meciar fell in. In any case, Meciar clearly seeks to get from the Czechs, through a treaty between two separate states, the very things the Slovaks used to get through the federal state.

For the Czechs, the divorce may be easier in material respects but more difficult psychologically. In effect, they have to rethink who they are and what they want to be. The idea of “Czechoslovakism” took much deeper root among the Czechs and gave them a sense of participating in a larger multinational enterprise. Alone, they may eventually be better off, as Klaus contends, but they will also be obliged to start national life all over again, as if they have been deprived of their heritage. They face a crisis of identity, without having even an accepted name for their new state. In truth, the Czechs will have to “find ourselves anew,” as Havel had put it earlier.

For a time, most Czechs seemed to watch absentmindedly as the split approached, until it was too late. The human costs began to dawn on them only after they could do nothing about them. What was going to happen to the 300,000 Slovaks who live among the Czechs and the 60,000 Czechs in Slovakia? What of the thousands of mixed marriages in which each partner will have to choose which country they wish to belong to and how to register their children? How would millions of people who had thought of themselves as Czechoslovaks adjust to the new reality that they are only Czechs, which somehow has a diminishing effect?

Havel has not escaped unscathed from this turmoil. He fought for unity and a referendum but then quickly resigned himself to their defeat. His decision to stand for the future Czech presidency seemed to symbolize an uncharacteristic willingness to go over to the winning side and enter into a misalliance with a right-wing government that many of his former associates detest.29 Havel had let it be known that he had no intention of accepting the Czech presidency, if he were only to be a figurehead or decoration. But Klaus has given his enthusiastic approval to the draft of a new Czech constitution, finally presented in mid-November 1992, which called for a weak Czech presidency with little of the authority that Havel had previously demanded in his five-point presidential program.30 It appears that Havel could be elected president only with Klaus’s approval and support, in which case he will owe his presidency to a domineering prime minister who has the real political power and does not like to share it. Some of Havel’s intimate friends have regretted his presidential decision and wonder whether he is not risking too much for what is likely to be an essentially ceremonial office. While he is still prized as his country’s most illustrious figure, Havel’s prestige at home has suffered, and he looms larger outside the country than in it.

A strange disquiet exists about a step that almost everyone concerned regards as inevitable. There is far more fatalism and passive acceptance than confidence or enthusiasm about the separation. No one expected it only three years ago. No one now knows where it will lead three years from now. If there is one thing that both new countries will need, it is time. Optimists think they need five or ten years to turn things around, pessimists a generation or two. It remains to be seen who is right.

December 30, 1992
(This is the second of two articles.)

  1. 1

    Václav Havel, Open Letters: Selected Writings 1965–1990, edited by Paul Wilson (Knopf, 1991), pp. 390, 396.

  2. 2

    At a conference on “Intellectuals and Social Change in Central and Eastern Europe,” published in Partisan Review, special issue, 1992, pp. 704–705. Kriseova’s biography of Havel has appeared in French (éditions de l’aube, 1991) and is forthcoming in English from Pharos Books. It does not deal with the Communist–Civic Forum negotiations or the subsequent developments.

    Kriseova’s reflections on intellectuals in politics remind one of a remark by Sir Lewis Namier on what he considered to be another such revolution in 1848: “The ‘Revolution of the Intellectuals’ exhausted itself without achieving concrete results: it left its imprint only in the realm of ideas” (1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals, 1946; new edition, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 31).

  3. 3

    The information on his articles for samizdat comes from Rita Klimová, the first postrevolutionary Czechoslovak ambassador to the United States, herself an economist, who knew Klaus before the revolution and was responsible for handling his articles for samizdat. Klaus’s background is briefly described by Jaroslav Veis, “King Klaus,” East European Reporter (Budapest), September–October 1992, pp. 12–13. Veis is vice-president of the Czech PEN Club.

  4. 4

    Bernard Wheaton and Zdenek Kavan, The Velvet Revolution (Westview Press, 1992), p. 167. This book uses the terms Citizens Democratic Party and Citizens Forum, but I have preferred Civic Democratic Party and Civic Forum, because they are employed almost everywhere else and are more easily recognizable.

  5. 5

    Václav Klaus, Dismantling Socialism: A Preliminary Report (Prague: Edice Top, 1992), in English and Czech, p. 22.

  6. 6

    Dismantling Socialism, p. 22.

  7. 7

    A smaller Civic Democratic Alliance also came out of Civic Forum in 1991; it was usually allied with the Civic Democratic Movement.

  8. 8

    It should be recalled that there were, in effect, three governments and two republics: the federal or Czechoslovak government, the government of the Czech Republic, and the government of the Slovak Republic. How this arrangement came about is discussed later in this article.

  9. 9

    Václav Klaus, “Transition—An Insider’s View,” Problems of Communism, January–April 1992, p. 74.

  10. 10

    Report on Czechoslovakia, published by the International Institute for the Study of Politics of the School of Law of Masaryk University, Brno, August 1–31, 1992, p. 6.

  11. 11

    In an otherwise informative article, Lawrence Weschler reflects the tendency in anti-Klaus circles in Prague to denigrate him. Weschler asserts that Klaus “could not boast a single anti-Communist credential before November of 1989” and belittles Klaus’s “indifferent prior career” (The New Yorker, October 19, 1992, pp. 84, 94–95). But Klaus, as Rita Klimová told me, had contributed to samizdat publications for two years prior to 1989. He was recognized as the outstanding economist in the Civic Forum’s ranks and as such took part in the negotiations with the Communists in November–December 1989, for which reason he was chosen the first minister of finance. Weschler attributes the defeat in June 1992 of the Civic Movement, led by Dienstbier and Pithart, to shady tactics, such as the lustrace or screening act against Communist agents and informers. The defeat of Dienstbier and Pithart in June 1992 had more to do with their lack of organization, lackadaisical campaigning, and absence of a persuasive program than to anything else. Whatever may be thought of Klaus’s policy or personality, there was nothing unfair about his electoral victory.

  12. 12

    Report on Czechoslovakia, May 1–June 6, 1992, pp. 3–4.

  13. 13

    Report on Czechoslovakia, July 1–31, 1992, p. 8

  14. 14

    In June 1991, public opinion polls revealed that about 50 percent of Slovak citizens thought that the Communist regime had certain advantages over the present one (cited by Petr Mares, Ladislav Rabušic, and Libor Musil, “Civil Society and Cultural Change in Czechoslovakia,” unpublished paper, p. 4).

  15. 15

    The German population was expelled from Czechoslovakia in 1946 in retaliation for its behavior on behalf of the Nazi conquest of the country. In late 1990, both Havel and Dienstbier apologized for the transfer of the so-called Sudeten Germans as an act of vengeance. The Czech public did not respond favorably to these apologies.

  16. 16

    Zora Butorova and Martin Butora, Czechoslovak Sociological Review, Vol. 28 (special issue, August 1992), p. 93.

  17. 17

    If there is one book I would recommend for the historical background, it would be Carol Skalnik Leff, National Conflict in Czechoslovakia: The Making and Remaking of a State, 1918–1987 (Princeton University Press, 1988).

  18. 18

    Report on Czechoslovakia, June 7–30, 1992, p. 1.

  19. 19

    Václav Havel, Summer Meditations (Knopf, 1992), p. 29.

  20. 20

    East European Reporter, March–April 1992, p. 9.

  21. 21

    Report on Czechoslovakia, March 1991, p. 3; October 1991, p. 5. Havel was not the only target of Slovak intolerance. Fedor Gal, the former chairman of the Public Against Violence, one of the rare Jews in Slovak politics, was physically molested on the street. Meciar refused to sit at the same table with him at a meeting in Brno. Gal moved to Prague in 1991 (Report on Czechoslovakia, October 1991, p. 2).

  22. 22

    Speech of September 24, 1991.

  23. 23

    Interview with Lance Morrow, Time, August 3, 1992, p. 47. More recently, Havel has made other comments that seem to suggest that the Czechoslovak state means more to him. In an interview in Libération (Paris), October 28, 1992, he insisted that he had always been right in his effort to save the Czechoslovak state and he expected that cause to triumph in the end.

  24. 24

    Report on Czechoslovakia, June 7–30, 1992, p. 7.

  25. 25

    Prague Post, November 10–16, 1992, p. 2. A later poll for the period October 19 to November 2, 1992, by the Assocation for Independent Social Analysis, on the division of Czechoslovakia produced the following results: in favor, 22 percent Czechs and 14 percent Slovaks; strongly against, 29 percent Czechs and 27 percent Slovaks; inevitable, 27 percent Czechs and 14 percent Slovaks; probably inevitable, 45 percent Czechs and 42 percent Slovaks. The Slovak Statistical Office reported that in Slovakia, 47 percent agreed to the division of the state and 50 percent disagreed. On willingness to participate in a referendum, 60 percent agreed, 15 percent refused, and 25 percent hesitated. The main reason given for refusal or hesitation was the opinion that the referendum would not matter, because the decision had already been made (Report on Czechoslovakia, November 1992, p. 10).

  26. 26

    Milan Svec, Current History, November 1992, p. 380.

  27. 27

    Jan Urban, “Europe’s Darkest Vision,” The Washington Post, October 11, 1992. This article was republished in Europe by the International Herald Tribune, October 13, 1992. Urban was former chairman of the Civic Forum and is now a journalist in Prague.

  28. 28

    Report on Czechoslovakia, July 1–31, 1992, p. 10.

  29. 29

    In an interview in Der Spiegel, November 23, 1992, Havel said of his relations with Klaus: “I believe that we complement each other very well. Our goals and ideals generally agree. We merely put different accents on them.”

  30. 30

    It provides for a presidential term of five years; a presidential veto only of the infrequent laws that would change the constitution; and the power to dissolve the legislative assembly only in limited circumstances.