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THE WORLD FROM...Czechoslovakia

Slovaks expect the world to welcome their independence bid, while Czechs view unity as factor for stability in Europe

By Francine S. Kiefer / June 17, 1992



CZECHS and Slovaks have completely different views on how the world might react were their country to break into two independent republics.

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In Prague, the Czechs expect the rest of the world might share feelings similar to their own: sadness and disappointment, mixed with grave concern over spreading nationalism in Europe.

Both President Vaclav Havel and Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier have been great advocates of the federal state. In the words of Mr. Dienstbier (whose party did not clear the 5 percent hurdle to enter the newly elected federal parliament), Czechoslovakia must hold together as a "factor for stability" in Europe.

These dissidents-turned-statesmen view the potential split in geopolitical terms. They worry that if the Slovaks launch out on their own, it will only strengthen the nationalist trend in Europe and drag the continent down into narrow-mindedness and, possibly, more ethnic violence.

The leading Slovak nationalist parties promise a nonviolent parting, but the Czechs aren't so sure this is how things would play out and point to the friction between Hungarians and Slovaks. A large Hungarian minority lives in Slovakia, making up about 10 percent of the population. The Hungarians may suddenly panic if they feel threatened by an autonomous nation of Slovaks, who resent their centuries-long domination by Budapest under the Austro-Hungarian empire. The Slovaks call the Hungarian minority's fears groundless, and promise equal rights under the law if Slovakia gains independence.

Of course, how the European Community would react to a split is of paramount importance to the Czechs, who are eager to move quickly ahead with economic reform. Their goal is to become a member of the EC, but would separation prolong their entry? Czechoslovakia won associate EC status last December, but an EC source in Brussels says that the associate status "might be subject to revision" if the country splits.

In Bratislava, the Slovaks hope the world would rejoice in their ability to exercise the right to self-determination. The Slovaks speak confidently about gaining their own seat in the world's leading democratic organizations and their own "star" in the EC flag. They see Europe as interconnected pieces, even if they turn out to be tiny pieces. "Is the rest of the world democratic? If it is, it will recognize us. This is the right of nations," asserts Jozef Prokes, chairman of the Slovak National Party, wh ich gained 8 percent of the Slovak vote in the June 5-6 elections.

The Slovaks, however, seem to have forgotten there is a big difference between recognition by the West and acceptance by it.

The EC has been able to keep Turkey at bay for five years. If the EC perceives economically depressed Slovakia to be in the second tier of East European countries (such as Romania and Bulgaria), it is unlikely to rush to usher the Slovaks in.

And what about Western aid for Slovakia? Vladimir Meciar, the ex-Communist winner in Slovakia, wants to slow down reforms. He is keen on deficit spending to prop up Slovakia's mammoth industrial complexes until they can be turned around. These are not concepts likely to appeal to the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund.

The Slovaks, unfortunately, are between a rock and a hard place. Since the "Velvet revolution," Prague's financial and economic policies have favored the Czechs while hurting the Slovaks. Independence will allow the Slovaks to pursue policies that best suit them. But countries can't create successful policy in isolation. By unhitching themselves from Prague's star, the Slovaks may find themselves alone in the universe.