Vladimir Meciar
Vladimir Meciar; drawing by David Levine


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 to sell it. The town of Cheb was issuing while-you-wait business licenses to hookers, while house painters or barbers still had to wait the usual several weeks. The International Cremation Federation was holding its convention this year in Czechoslovakia in recognition of the fact that more people here (75 percent) are cremated than anywhere else in the world. People had begun hoarding salt in response to a rumor that, after the country split, the Slovaks were going to stop exporting cheap salt to the Czech lands. The mayor of a town in Northern Bohemia had received a petition requesting that a ghetto be established for the local Romany, or Gypsy, population. A British journalist posing as an arms dealer had been able to arrange for a huge shipment of weapons to be smuggled out of Slovakia. The giant Skoda auto and heavy machinery works in Pilsen, fifty miles from Prague, were getting ready to lay off over a thousand workers, with several thousand more cuts predicted for November. And the condition of Alexander Dubcek, who had had a serious road accident on September 1, was grave.

The big news, though, was the impending separation. As January 1 drew near government ministries and agencies, radio and television networks, churches, sports associations, charities and clubs—even the Red Cross—were going about the melancholy and expensive work of setting up separate organizations in each republic. At the same time, the Czech and Slovak governments were negotiating agreements to divide up commonly held property, to relocate the army in a way that would not leave either state defenseless, and to devise forms of citizenship and a set of mutual civic rights that would not make Czechs and Slovaks aliens in each other’s country. International pressure was compelling them to create a customs union that would hold together. Opponents of the split were hoping this would eventually bring about some kind of formal reconciliation. The very act of divorce was forcing the two sides to be far more intimate with each other than if they had decided instead to try to save their marriage.



The three main actors in this drama of divorce and reconciliation—Klaus, Havel, and Meciar—are the most unlikely cast of characters one could imagine inhabiting a single stage. Of the three, Klaus appears the least enigmatic. Urbane, fit, well-dressed, he is the epitome of the managerial politician. He looks like the right person to bring his country into Europe. His fluency in the vocabulary of macroeconomics and his capacity for hard work are as legendary as his egoism and his incapacity to cooperate with others. He does not tolerate ignorance or incompetence. Insiders say he is a man of high ambition and great personal integrity. But perhaps his efficiency and confidence and charm—qualities sorely lacking in many Eastern European politicans—hide the fact that he has some dangerous failings, the foremost of which is that he does not like politics, and especially not the free-for-all of democratic, electoral politics, or the rough-and-tumble of consensual, interparty horse-trading. The Czechs have chosen as their leader a man who has the outward appearance of a democrat but the soul of a chief executive officer.

For impartial observers of the Czechoslovak political scene these days, there is no more entertaining figure—not even Havel himself—than Vladimír Meciar. Rough-hewn, direct, and often crude, he has only recently stopped wearing suits that placed him on the sartorial scale somewhere between Alexei Kosygin and Nathan Detroit. He has all the skills necessary for a populist politician: a phenomenal memory, a tireless tongue, an ability to think standing up, to know, without consulting the polls, what people want, and then to embody those desires. He sees enemies everywhere. He is quick to take offense, and slow to forget a slight. Whereas Klaus’s favorite sports—basketball, tennis, skiing—all require finesse, Meciar’s sports are soccer and boxing, where endurance and aggressiveness are prime assets. No one has ever accused Meciar of being a democrat, but his real politics remain a mystery; he takes his political coloring from the needs of the moment.

When I asked Slovaks why he was so popular in Slovakia, they would frequently reply that he was Janošík, as if that explained everything. Janošík was a legendary Slovak brigand who, like Robin Hood, was known for stealing from the rich and sharing his booty with the poor. One person told me that Janošík was, in fact, a one-man peasant revolt: the Slovaks lived out their fantasies of rising up against their masters through him. When he was alive, he was adulated; but when he was about to be hung, people gathered round to cheer his death. On the scaffold, Janošík was offered clemency, but he took the noose and put it around his own neck, preferring to die rather than face a morally ambiguous survival.

If there is anything to be learned from this analogy, it might be that Slovaks are not particularly concerned about which side of the law their leaders are on. This certainly fits Meciar: so far, every attempt to pin something on him—collaboration with the secret police or the theft of sensitive files—has only increased his stature.

It’s worth noting that the Czech national hero, the Good Soldier Svejk, is legendary for obedience carried to absurd extremes. It’s also worth noting that Václav Klaus cannot stand the Good Soldier Svejk.

Ever since the elections of last June, when Klaus’s party, ODS, and Meciar’s, HZDS, won about 35 percent of the popular vote in their respective republics, against a great many smaller parties, Klaus and Meciar have held the fate of Czechoslovakia in their hands. The two clashed immediately after the elections when President Havel asked Klaus to try to form a working federal government. Meciar demanded international recognition for Slovakia followed by a renewed “confederation” with the Czech republic. (The joke was that he wanted an independent Slovakia with a Czech safety net.) Klaus took a hard line: either a “working federation” or separation. After hearing Meciar out, Klaus decided that their positions on the common state were irreconcilable and so, with Havel’s reluctant blessing, though without a popular mandate to do so, they agreed to cooperate on the only thing that seemed to unite them: dividing the country. They came to a definite agreement in late June, and in anticipation of the demise of the federation, formed a caretaker federal government. Klaus and Meciar became prime ministers in their own republics and from then on virtually all major political decisions affecting the country’s future were made by these two men.


On July 3, with HZDS voting against him, Havel failed to win election to a third term as president of Czechoslovakia and the breakup came one step closer. Then, on July 17, minutes after the Slovak parliament declared sovereignty, Havel resigned, saying that he was bowing to the “emancipation process in the Slovak republic” and could no longer take responsibility for events over which he had no influence. It was a sad moment for Czechoslovakia. Many people wept that day, not so much for Havel personally as because they knew his resignation meant the end of the federation. Their tears remain, to this day, the most eloquent and spontaneous expression of grief for the passing of Czechoslovakia.

Sometime in the summer, Klaus made what may yet prove to be the most serious blunder of his political career: he backed off the idea of holding a referendum—which, until the Federal Assembly decides otherwise, is the only constitutional way the country can be divided. His argument was that even if a referendum showed that a majority of Czechs wished to remain with the Slovaks in a common state (and polls indicated that this was the case* ) the same problems would remain: the Slovaks had already declared sovereignty, and, anyway, the federation wasn’t working and couldn’t be fixed. A referendum would be a waste of time, and there was no time to waste. His real reasons, I believe, were twofold: first, he did not want to give the strong Czech left—which had taken up the cause of preserving the federation—the platform that a public referendum campaign would provide. And second: he was afraid he would lose.

To counteract the threat from the left, Klaus and other ODS leaders intensified their campaign to explain and justify the separation. The essence of the message was that the departure of the Slovaks was unavoidable but all for the best. It would be quick, civilized, and peaceful, and it would bring the Czechs democracy, prosperity, and entry into the European Community faster than if they had to drag the Slovaks along. But the cornerstone of the entire argument, without which the divorce would appear rather tawdry, was the claim that the Czechs were simply giving Slovakia what it had voted for.

As summer wore into autumn, almost every aspect of the Czech case for separation began to look like wishful thinking. The whole process was turning out to be slower, more fractious, and more costly than anyone had foreseen, although given Meciar’s reputation as a negotiator, hardly anything else could have been expected. The division of federal property, for instance, would probably take years of protracted wrangling over the details, and the sensitive problem of citizenship (the Slovaks want dual citizenship, the Czechs single, to prevent hordes of unemployed Slovaks pouring across the border) would not be settled without bitterness either. No one could say what tides of emotion would be released once separation had taken place. The assertion that the separation was necessary to accommodate the “emancipation process in Slovakia” was belied by polls done in September in Slovakia indicating that only 27 percent of the population had supported a separatist option from the beginning; another 30 percent supported separation now, but only because there was no other choice, and a further 34 percent did not support it at all.

Meanwhile several studies of the possible economic consequences of the breakup predicted that both republics would be the worse off for it, at least in the short run. Two other matters began undermining the assessment that the Slovak economic program of deficit spending and continuing state support for ailing state enterprises would be a drag on the Czech lands. Pressure from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank began forcing Meciar’s economic team to work out policies more in line with Klaus’s. And the very phenomena that had made Slovakia seem so intractably different—crippling unemployment, the loss of markets, bankruptcies, spiraling prices, and wage demands—were starting to appear in Bohemia and Moravia as well.

Jan Tauber, a former adviser to Klaus, told me he thought the signs were already showing that Klaus too would not be able to maintain the shape of his own reforms. “The question is,” he said, “what will happen in two years when the Czech economy is faced with the same pressures as the munitions factories along the Váh River are now? Will the government be able to stand up when the same thing happens to heavy industry in the Czech lands? If the government can survive that, and Klaus with it, then I will take my hat off to him. If not, then the argument that there were two different economies that were incompatible in a common state is short-lived, short-sighted, and, in its own way, fatal. How are we going to explain that because of a difference in the tempo of economic reform—which is what it boils down to—we decided to dismantle a state our grandfathers put together seventy-four years ago?”


The troubles that Klaus was running into in the Czech republic must have delighted Meciar and HZDS, for they were pursuing a dual course. On the one hand, they were cooperating with ODS in dismantling the federation, because it took them to their first goal—international recognition. But at the same time, and less openly, they were working toward the second part of their program: getting back into bed with the Czechs, but on terms more favorable to them. Every time Klaus stumbled, it brought the Slovaks a little closer to their aim. Meciar would say repeatedly that Klaus was the only Czech politician he could talk to, and at the same time, he would constantly try to get him to trip over loose planks in his platform.

One recent humiliation administered by HZDS to ODS involved the huge dam on the Danube, the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros project. It began in the Communist days as a joint Czechoslovak-Hungarian venture to squeeze hydro-electric power out of the Danube by diverting it into a twenty-five-kilometer-long artificial channel on the Slovak side of the border. No environmental impact studies were done and in 1989, as the project neared completion, the Hungarian side yielded to pressure from its own environmental movement and withdrew, leaving Czechslovakia to finish it. The Czechs had never liked the idea. Charter 77, in its dissident days, condemned it, and Havel himself was personally against it. But once he saw how far construction had progressed, he acknowledged that it had to be finished, and this became official Czechoslovak policy.

Now that the country was breaking up, however, the Czechs felt they could turn their backs on the dam. The Slovaks, meanwhile, worked out a way of finishing it that would allow them to divert the Danube into the channel while the river was still within Slovak territory. But when a journalist brought the question up at a press conference on October 22, two days before the Slovaks began the final diversion of the Danube, Klaus said it was none of his business: it was a Slovak not a Czech problem. What Klaus apparently didn’t know was that almost as he was uttering these words, the minister for international relations of the Czech republic, Josef Zieleniec, was being told by the German foreign minister, Klaus Kinkel, that as far as Germany was concerned, Czechoslovakia was still a legal entity and therefore the Czechs shared full responsibility with the Slovaks for what happened at Gabcikovo. Moreover, Zieleniec was told that the European Community wanted no conflict in the area and if the Danube were diverted, the EC would consider it a very serious breach of understanding. He had gone to Germany prepared to talk about the problem of transferring Czechoslovak agreements with Germany and the EC to the Czech republic, but the issue of Gabcikovo had caught him completely off guard and the Czech government was embarrassed.

It later came out that the federal foreign minister, Josef Moravcík, a Slovak and a member of Meciar’s HZDS party, had been given a diplomatic note warning of the German stand, but had neglected to inform anyone on the Czech side about it. Zieleniec walked into a trap.

It all seemed like good fun until a few days later, when the Slovaks defied international opinion by starting the final phase of diverting the river, threatening a major conflict with Hungary, and outraging European public opinion.


In October, the roads winding through the local vineyards of the Small Carpathian hills northeast of Bratislava are dotted with roadside vendors selling burciak, a murky yellow liquid drawn from the must of still fermenting grapes. Burciak is sweet and lethal; it goes straight to the head, and gives you a quick, nasty hangover. One winegrower told me the drink is popular because the Slovaks are an impatient people, and cannot wait to taste this year’s wine. As I spent time among the Slovaks this fall, I couldn’t help thinking how their drinking habits were emblematic of their present political leaders. They had knocked back the wine of freedom and become drunk on it before it had matured into proper democratic institutions.

In Slovakia, many people seemed to have a hangover, or at least exhibit that contrite but clear-eyed view of the world the morning after. The Slovaks have far fewer illusions about the consequences of the impending split than the Czechs, because they know—or believe—that in the short run they will suffer the greater losses. Most of the federal institutions, including the Central Bank, are in Prague, which means that no matter how fair the division of real estate and software may be, Slovakia will necessarily start life as an independent state, poorer and weaker, with a woeful shortage of expertise and trained personnel. Most Slovaks believe that the economy will take a turn for the worse, that foreign investment will drop, that privatization will slow down, that bankruptcies and strikes will become chronic and unemployment rise above its present level—which ranges from about 7 percent in the large centers to almost 20 percent in outlying regions. People are skeptical that the common currency will last more than six months into 1993, after which they foresee a Slovak crown slipping to about a third of its value in relation to the Czech crown. Even worse, they expect a huge brain and brawn drain to the Czech lands, or simply to the West. They are worried about a possible conflict with the 600,000 ethnic Hungarians living in Slovakia. Their deepest fear is of a clash with Hungary itself, most probably over the Gabcikovo dam project.

Politically, they see the democratic gains of the last two and a half years being whittled away in favor of an authoritarian, centrist regime run by the man who is now both premier and acting president. Not only does Meciar’s party have a majority in the Slovak parliament, he also has effective control over the Slovak National Party, so that he is now only one seat short of commanding the three fifths majority necessary to change the constitution. He has made himself acting president and thus is commander in chief of the army, with the power to declare martial law. He has gradually been bringing institutions like Slovak Television or the State Control Commission (a watchdog committee), once responsible to parliament or multiparty commissions, under the direct control of his cabinet, and he has been replacing people in the universities, the health service, and the public administration with HZDS loyalists.

On the surface, this is not particularly sinister—certainly no more, or no less, than many of the things Klaus and ODS have been doing to consolidate their power in the Czech lands. To a degree, this is what political parties do when they win elections. But many Slovaks see it differently. Miroslav Kusý, a former dissident who was deeply involved in the post-1989 changes in Czechoslovakia, calls what is happening in Slovakia a “counter-revolution.” If the Velvet Revolution was democratic, pluralistic, federal, and aimed at dismantling Communist totalitarianism, then Meciar’s rule is autocratic, monistic, separatist, and aimed at dismantling the Velvet Revolution. The Slovak novelist Martin Simecka points out that Meciar’s government, and the Slovak parliament, contains both former Communists from the 1980s and people like Meciar himself, who as a reform Communist spent the Seventies and Eighties in political limbo. “What is interesting,” Simecka said, “is that they are now on the same boat and are setting up the same kind of system they knew intimately, either negatively—because they were its victims—or positively, because they were the ones who carried it out. But they all know how that system works.”

The most persuasive evidence of Meciar’s autocratic ways is his treatment of the press. The large Danubia printing company has the only equipment in Bratislava capable of handling the print run of the large dailies. Privatized by the former government, it has recently been renationalized on the grounds that a monopoly in private hands is more dangerous to society than a monopoly under “public ownership.” Last year, because he felt that some Slovak journalists were sullying the image of Slovakia abroad, Meciar encouraged the formation of a rival union of journalists “for a truthful picture of Slovakia.” His views on freedom of the press are that “the public has the right to be informed,” and if journalists and the media cannot regulate themselves to this end, the state must do it for them. The Slovak constitution adopted late this summer does not permit censorship, but the new press law bristles with restrictions, including a clause that requires copy quoting public officials to be submitted to them for authorization before publication.

Virtually every newspaper that has been critical of Meciar (the Slovak press is more consistently critical of him than the Czech press is of Klaus) is under some form of pressure. Slovenský Východ (The Slovak East), a cash-poor opposition paper published in Košice, was recently evicted from its editorial offices by a new, well-heeled daily backed by some large local construction firms close, at least so I was told, to HZDS. Smena, one of the most popular dailies in Bratislava with a circulation of over 100,000, has run into official snags trying to convert itself into a joint stock company with foreign backers. Meciar has led the attack on Smena, arguing that it overstepped the bounds of fair comment by running news of his election victory in June with a black border around its front page, as though it were a funeral announcement. The foundation that now publishes the paper recently had six representatives of the present Slovak government appointed to its eleven-member board of directors.

Meanwhile, newspapers close to the government have been mounting nasty attacks on politicians, writers, and journalists whose names are associated with the first democratic government after 1989 and who have been vocal in their criticism of Meciar. An editorial on September 1 in Slovenský národ (The Slovak Nation) signed by one Tomáš Koren was a classic piece of totalitarian invective, a genre not seen in these parts since the demise of communism. “These castaways from the leaky raft of the former coalition,” the author writes, “have quickly gathered forces after their fully deserved defeat…and [are now] swarming over the Slovak countryside like cockroaches, hiding in the trenches of a fake democracy, vomiting up the stinking remains of their boundless hatred whenever they open their mouths…. Their names have become symbols of shame and treachery….” And so on.

The most vivid example of the old ways of the new government is the case of Trnava University, established last spring under new legislation on universities that guarantees their independence from the state. Its mandate is to teach the humanities, the social sciences, health care, and pedagogy, all on a non-Marxist basis. An acting rector, Dr. Anton Hajduk, was appointed by President Havel in May and set about hiring a staff and making preparations for the official opening in October.

The trouble started in July, when the new HZDS minister of education, Dušan Slobodník, began pressuring Dr. Hajduk to resign because he did not have the proper academic qualifications for the post, being neither a “docent” nor a full professor. Dr. Hajduk, with the backing of his academic senate, refused to resign. Slobodník turned for a ruling to the federal prime minister, Jan Stráský, who was also acting federal president. Stráský was head of a coalition government with HZDS, yet as president he was expected to be above party politics. His ruling was worthy of Solomon: he declared the original appointment of Dr. Hajduk to be a “legally void act,” then turned around and said that while as president he had the power to appoint university rectors, he had no power to dismiss them.

Each side in the dispute was emboldened by this reply. Minister Slobodník went personally to Trnava to turf out the recalcitrant rector. When local police refused to help him, Slobodník found a locksmith and personally changed the locks on the rector’s office. In late September, the ministry froze the university’s bank account, appointed a separate board of governors, and announced that the “real” Trnava University would be open by mid-October. But on registration day in October only three students showed up to register. The rest, over two hundred, registered with Dr. Hajduk.

I went to Trnava on the first day of lectures. At the front of a makeshift conference room the students, most of them young women, sat on rows of folding chairs and listened eagerly while Dr. Hadjuk’s staff stood up and introduced themselves. The very plainness of the room, its bare walls, the smell of fresh paint, the cheap furniture, seemed to belie the importance of the moment. The country was being taken apart, but not only was life going on, people were attempting to create something new, despite official disfavor.

At a press conference afterward, as Dr. Hajduk outlined in tireless detail the legal minutiae of the battle with the HZDS government—a weary litany of letters, telephone calls, appeals to the university community, to politicians, to the international community, to the constitution, to civil rights, to the very principle of legality itself—I felt a sense of déjà vu. This was precisely the kind of dogged fight that had drained the energy out of so many in the dissident movement under the Communist regime. The larger principles—academic freedom, or simply freedom itself—had been ground down into particles: thick dossiers of correspondence, curricula vitae, press clippings, protests, petitions. This kind of campaign was supposed to have died with communism, yet here it was again. Once more, the law was being used as a weapon in power struggles, rather than as a guide to action, or a standard of justice.

But it was not a complete return to the old days. At the end of the press conference, Dr. Hajduk announced that a foundation had been set up. The university was going to declare its independence from the state in the time-honored way, by fund-raising, at home and abroad.

While I found little support for Meciar among federally minded Slovaks I talked to, I did find a good deal of understanding, if not sympathy, among foreign business people and diplomats living in Bratislava. An American investment banker who has lived in the country for the past two years said he thought the Slovak scene was driven by “the politics of envy”—envy of Czechs. There were valid reasons, he said, why HZDS wanted sovereignty for Slovakia. The large munitions, chemical, and other factories that are now such a burden on the economy were built under the Communists with federal loans that in some cases were still being repaid. Nowadays, 90 percent of foreign investment into Czechoslovakia stayed in the Czech lands and Slovakia got the leftovers. To attract that investment, Slovakia had to be able to offer incentives that differed from Prague-based policies. The banker talked about what people in the business call “the hotel theory of investment”: the city with the best hotels gets the money. There are more good hotels in Prague than in Bratislava, so investors go there, get hooked on the beauty and the greater dynamism of Prague, and never look any further. “There may be more opportunities in Prague,” he said, “but there are better deals in Bratislava.”

Some Slovaks, former Communists, told me about the constant frustration that existed in Bratislava before 1989. All the power was concentrated in Prague, but there was little communication. Branches of federal ministries in Bratislava, for instance, had no telephone contact with Prague except at the department head level. The federation only worked from the top down, which for many Slovak administrators meant that it wasn’t working at all. Meciar was able to find a voice for those frustrations, which may help to explain why there are so many old Communists in his movement. It’s not just because it was their last chance at the power, but also because they saw an opportunity to right an imbalance that frustrated them deeply.

If this is true, it could mean that the desire for Slovak autonomy represented in HZDS, and indeed across a broad spectrum of the Slovak scene, was not primarily nationalistic, but a reaction to an administrative imbalance, something the Slovaks were never able to correct while communism was still in place.


A new act in the drama opened with the return of Václav Havel to public life in October after an absence of slightly more than two months. The occasion was the launching of his new collection of speeches, entitled Dear Citizens, and, at the same time, a celebration of his fifty-sixth birthday. It was held in his old theater, the Theater on the Balustrade.

Two days before, a crisis had erupted when the Federal Assembly had turned down a constitutional amendment, proposed by ODS and HZDS, that would have made possible the legitimate dissolution of the federation by parliamentary decree, without necessarily holding a referendum. Having defeated that bill, the parliament then turned around and passed a motion, sponsored by the left-wing parties and supported by HZDS, to study the possibility of a Maastricht-type union between the Czech and Slovak republics. It was a blow to Klaus, and he reacted angrily. He accused the parliament of being “undignified” and spoke darkly of a threat to the entire post-1989 democratic process. Then he forced Meciar into a private meeting, and when they emerged, Meciar promised to drop HZDS’ support for the union idea. The separation train was back on track.

It was in this atmosphere that Havel launched his book. His press conference that evening, which I watched on television, had an atmosphere reminiscent of the Velvet Revolution, with Havel huddled over a microphone in front of an audience of friends, well-wishers, and journalists, answering their questions. Many of the questions were political, and Havel was prepared to answer them. His comments on the current crisis flirted with the idea that a quasi-unconstitutional solution might be necessary. Observing that states do not usually come into being or break up according to constitutions anyway, he said the Czech parliament should pass a resolution that all means of coexistence with the Slovaks had been exhausted, and the Federal Assembly should simply confirm that Czechoslovakia had broken up “on the basis of a decision made by both republics, and wish them the best of luck.” Thus, he said, the Federal Assembly would, in “a sort of a kind of a way” legalize the “actually existing (reálné) division” of Czechoslovakia.

The bombshell that evening was Havel’s suggestion that the first president of the new Czech republic should be elected not by the Czech parliament, but by direct popular vote. “In electing the head of the Czech state,” he said, “citizens would in fact be electing a new state.” The will of the citizens ought not to be bypassed, and direct presidential elections would be a more appropriate form of “referendum” than a referendum itself.

It was an astonishing statement. It showed how deeply disturbed Havel was by the failure to hold a referendum, and how closely he now identifies himself (for he could have been thinking of no one else) with the new Czech state. It was an apparent retreat from the principle he defended as Czechoslovak president, the notion of statehood based on intellectual and spiritual values rather than on an ideology of national identity. It was this, as well as his courage, his eloquence, his gentle manners, his modesty, and his defense of a higher kind of politics, a “non-political politics,” that won him the admiration and love of people far beyond the borders of Czechoslovakia. Havel represented something that people of good will everywhere could identify with. But now even some of his closest friends were asking how he could expect to represent effectively those values as president of the Czech republic when he had failed to do so as Czechoslovak president?

More to the point, people were wondering if he could do so with Václav Klaus as prime minister and ODS as the most powerful political party. Klaus needs Havel to legitimize the new Czech state both at home and abroad, but he does not want him as a political rival. That is why Klaus and ODS have come out strongly against the direct election of the new Czech president, arguing that it would create a “second center of power” and would raise “serious fears about the fate of democracy in the Czech Republic.” Klaus wants Havel beside him, but on his own terms.

On November 16, Havel officially announced that he would let his name stand for the post of Czech president. The struggle over how that president will be elected has not yet been resolved, but regardless of the outcome, if Havel does become president, his relationship with Klaus will not be an easy one. Both men insist that they see eye to eye on fundamental questions, but there remain deep and probably irreconcilable differences between them—not just differences of personality and temperament, but of political ideas and of vision as well. Sometime in September, when his “velvet divorce” began to fray, Klaus began taking refuge in appeals to Czech patriotism, to the tradition of St. Wenceslas, to a sense of “belonging” to the Czech nation. Havel’s appeals are consistently to ideas of citizenship based on civic ideals, the very antithesis of ideals based on nationality. He and Klaus appear on the same platform, but the foundations of that platform are dangerously unstable.

The Velvet Revolution was like a medieval morality play with Havel as the Good Angel. This new drama—the drama not of divorce but of the emerging Czech state—is more like one of Havel’s own plays, dark, modern, absurdist, where truth is relative and the hero is confused and tormented by ambiguities. If Havel does return to the Castell of Perseverance, he will no longer be wearing bright, burnished armor and riding a white horse.


What kind of marriage was it? Was it a relationship of love? Or was it just convenience that kept the Czechs and Slovaks together? Did the idea of the Czechoslovak nation have any roots in history? Or was it merely a political fiction, a pragmatic ideology born out of a need to counterbalance the large German and Hungarian minorities when their marriage was formalized in 1918? There are no undisputed answers to these questions, but one thing is certain: over the past seventy-four years, the Czechs and Slovaks have mingled their lives with each other, far more than, say, the French and English in Canada.

There are no precise figures about the number of actual Czech-Slovak marriages, but some say there are as many as half a million. (Václav Klaus has a Slovak wife, and often cites this fact as evidence that he is not acting out of any malice toward the Slovaks.) Count the children of these marriages and you have a large part of the population that are, by blood and marriage, true Czechoslovaks. The feeling of kinship is strongest, I would guess, along Slovakia’s western boundary with the Czech republic. Intermarriage here seems to have been more intense than elsewhere, and during the Second World War many Slovaks, who were slightly better off in their quasi-independent state, would risk their own safety smuggling food across the border to their friends and relatives in Moravia.

These common ties may not have been strong enough to stop the present divorce, though without a referendum we will never know. They cannot be entirely broken by official separation, however, and they will have a strong effect on the quality of future relations between the two republics.

At the moment, the Czechs—more than the Slovaks—are looking inward to discover sources of a renewed identity in their own history and traditions. The irony is that even as they do so, pressures are being brought to bear on both nations to maintain close ties with each other, and with their immediate neighbors. The Visegrad Triangle—Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia—is seen in Brussels as the keystone of the European Community’s policy toward Eastern Europe. The future of the Association Agreements between the EC and Czechoslovakia—the treaties that foreshadow full membership—will depend on how successfully the Czechs and Slovaks can maintain their newly negotiated customs union. Even as they carve up the federal state, Klaus and Meciar’s ultimate objective must be rapprochement. No long-range Czech interests can be served by the pauperization of Slovakia, nor can Slovak interests profit from destabilization in the Czech lands.

As one diplomat in Prague said to me this October: “It looks to me very much as though the Czechs and Slovaks are getting divorced only to go on living together in common law.”

So is it over, or isn’t it? I talked to Miroslav Kusý the day after the constitutional amendment on the dissolution of Czechoslovakia was defeated. Kusý is a former Slovak dissident, and now he is one of many who disagree with the common opinion that it’s too late. “Klaus says the federation is practically dead,” he said with a hint of scorn in his voice. “Why, that’s just not true. What is a dead federation? Yugoslavia before the state of war existed there—that was a dead federation. Yet when people from Yugoslavia come here, they ask, ‘Where’s the breakdown?’ They don’t see any of the signs they know from their own country. On the contrary, here the shared economy is still working, and some economists are saying it’s already bottomed out and there are signs of recovery. What doesn’t work are the things that, by the will of the winning parties, were killed at the federal level, deliberately made moribund, frozen. Those are the things that don’t work.”

For others, like Martin Simecka, it is over, and there is a deep sadness in that. “It’s fascinating for me how quickly the Czechs have withdrawn from the Slovaks and retreated into themselves. This is not just statistical—I mean from the 80 percent of Czechs who wanted to maintain the common state four months ago to the almost 50 percent who want to separate now—it’s even happening among my [Czech] friends. I can feel—how shall I put this?—a loss of interest. I don’t hold it against them, I’m merely observing that this is so. Even Slovak politicians—nationalist politicians—are shocked at how quickly the Czechs have been able to turn their backs on Slovakia and focus on building their own statehood.

“The situation here is truly paradoxical and absurd, absurd that the whole process is taking place beyond our control, absurd that in essence, two people call each other up on the phone and divide up the country, that people can’t change a destiny they set in motion by casting their ballots last June. And the paradox of my situation is that I’m a federalist, not just in relation to the Czechs, but because as a way of organizing a world so full of variety, it’s an idea that has a future. And yet in this situation I can’t be a federalist in the concrete sense anymore because there is no more concrete entity to apply my idea to, because the federation is disappearing, vanishing, dead. So that one idea—not just a Czechoslovak idea but a worldwide idea—has collapsed, at least for the moment, and paradoxically, all I can wish for now is a Slovak state with a human face, a democratic Slovak state. Which is a difficult operation because the Slovak state as an idea is historically related to an undemocratic regime. It feels like a surgical incision in the brain. I can only say: If this is how it is, then let there at least be democracy here.”

This Issue

December 17, 1992