THE simmering issue of separation between the Czech and Slovak Republics got hotter this month when President Vaclav Havel, a Czech, was spit on by a crowd in the Slovak capital of Bratislava. The incident was ugly, and it may arouse some dormant anger in the Czech population to match that of the aggravated Slovaks. But the incident should not be overplayed. The freeing of Czechoslovakia in 1989 heightened previously repressed nationalist passions. The legitimate grievances of the Slovaks should receive more attention, and they will. The tendency of Czechs to dominate Slovaks economically and politically must fade. The Havel government rightly blocked munitions shipments from Slovakia, but can't recompense Slovakian workers. Divisions between republics - from TV blackouts between them, to the fact that Mr. Havel ha s few Slovak advisers in Hradcany Castle - must be resolved.
On sober second thought most Slovaks (and Czechs) should realize there's little to gain from a political separation and much to lose. The two groups are intertwined - 600,000 Slovaks live in the Czech state. Some 60 percent of Czech firms are tied to Slovak labor and markets. Disentanglement would be a total mess.
The idea of autonomy may seem heady to some Slovaks. But Slovakia itself has little history as a political culture, compared to Bohemia with its centuries of civil tradition and its statehood in the 20th century. What would Slovakia build on? Autonomy sounds nice as an abstract answer to all problems. Creating a country from scratch is another matter.
Moreover, there are few national leaders as sensitive as Vaclav Havel to issues of minority justice. Havel recently declared ``preposterous'' the notion that Slovaks are somehow suspect ``because they desire to express their national identity.''
The Czech president may have gone too far recently by starting a referendum movement allowing Slovaks to vote themselves out of the federal union. He wanted to make a democratic point. But Havel in fact doesn't want Czechoslovakia to break up. A fractured state stands less chance of entering the European Community, a needed step and one favoring both groups.
A steady, continuing policy of inclusion will get Czechoslovakia past its current divisiveness.