Future of Czechoslovak Union Turns on Prospects for Economy

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

SIX months ago, the breakup of Czechoslovakia appeared imminent. President Vaclav Havel, pleading with his fellow citizens not to be tempted by the East European split-up fad, was met here in Slovakia by jeering, egg-throwing crowds of Slovak separatists.

Since then, however, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the atrocities of the Yugoslav war have had a sobering effect on the debate. Now "there is a more workmanlike approach" to the issue, observes a Western diplomat in Prague.

It is still impossible to gauge what will happen to Czechoslovakia. For every pessimist who believes the country will go the way of the Soviet republics, there is an optimist who says economic interdependence and international pressure will keep the Czechs and Slovaks together.

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Most politicians and analysts believe the outcome of federal and regional elections in June will determine whether the country stays together or not.

If it comes to a split, they say, it will be legal, democratic, and hopefully peaceful. And if it splits, they add, there will probably still be a good deal of cooperation between the two republics.

"The development in Czechoslovakia will not be the same as in Yugoslavia," says Vladimir Meciar, by far Slovakia's most popular politician. In an interview, Mr. Meciar said he advocates Slovak sovereignty and a "loose confederation" of the Czech and Slovak republics. He, as well as Slovak premier Jan Carnogursky, want international recognition for Slovakia.

Leading politicians agree that nationalism is not really the dividing wedge, as is the case with the Serbs and Croats in former Yugoslavia.

The two neighbors have never warred with each other, though they have quite different histories. The Czechs had their own kingdom and nobility since the 10th century, although they were ruled from Vienna for nearly 400 years.

The Slovak lands were for centuries an agrarian region under the thumb of the Hungarians. They never had a nobility and never were autonomous, except for a brief period when Slovakia became a puppet Nazi state.

The two regions first came together as a country in 1918. They have similar languages and culture.

"The problem between Czechs and Slovaks is not so much national, but more economic," says Pavel Hirs, general secretary of the Czechoslovak Socialist Party, a center-left party born in 1897 to counterbalance Marxism.

Meciar points out that the economic policy followed in Prague has resulted in a Slovak unemployment three times higher than that in the Czech republic. One reason for this was the shutting down of the arms industry, which was located in Slovakia.

Jozef Baca, foreign secretary of the Christian Democratic Movement, complains that the key federal ministries are led by Czechs.

Both Mr. Baca and Meciar want to prevent the "majoritization" of the country - in which the Slovaks would always be outvoted by the Czechs in national politics by virtue of the fact that the Czechs outnumber them two to one.

The Slovaks, says the Western diplomat, have "legitimate" concerns, adding that simply the location of the federal capital in Prague, which is also the capital of the Czech republic, leads to a Czech perspective on national issues. The Czechs, he adds, can also be patronizing.

CZECHS become defensive when asked if Slovaks are not treated as equals. "I don't think the inhabitants of Slovakia were damaged by the creation of the Czechoslovak Republic in the year 1918. On the contrary," says Jan Kasal, vice president of the Czech National Council, or parliament. Between the wars, explains Mr. Kasal, Czech teachers helped establish the Slovak language and culture in Slovakia. During the communist years, it was the Slovaks who held the key Party positions and brought industry to Slo vakia. Even now, he says, the Czechs are basically subsidizing the Slovaks.

Still, like most Czech politicians, Kasal strongly favors a federation. Splitting up would devastate the Slovak economy, could threaten the large Hungarian minority in Slovakia, and throw Czechoslovakia's 1,200 international treaties into question. The European Community has already warned against a split.

Czechs accuse Slovak politicians of "irresponsibly" whipping up the sovereignty issue. Polls show that a large majority of Slovaks favor a federation, and the extreme nationalists in Slovakia are losing support. In January, the right-wing Slovak National Party slipped to 10 percent in the polls from 13 percent in November.

Wanting to capitalize on this mood, President Havel has tried to push through a referendum on the breakup question. But so far his attempts have all failed.

The popular wisdom here is that nothing will be settled before elections in June, when the man to watch will be Meciar. Slovakia's prime minister from mid-1990 to April 1991, he has the highest approval rating in Slovakia, at 47 percent. Meciar says that if he were to win the elections, he would put a referendum to the Slovakians with a list of five different kinds of government to choose from.

Egon Lansky, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a Slovak himself, echoes the prevailing opinion among Meciar's opponents when he says: "During [Meciar's] very short political career, he has already held all the possible standpoints on all the possible issues. He'll follow any position that will bring him to power."

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