Second Thoughts on the Parting of Czechs and Slovaks

THE die, it seems, is cast. Before the year is out Czechoslovakia's two Czech lands - Bohemia and Moravia - and Slovakia will go their separate ways.

How beneficial this will be to either side is open to many questions, but on the face of it, the Czechs are better equipped to go it alone.

The European Community calls it "sad," which, given Czechoslovak history, it certainly is. But apart from bland words about preferring to deal with a single Czechoslovakia, the Community has made no attempt - as it did earlier in Yugoslavia - to suggest that partition is not the best way to eliminate perceived inequalities.

There has been so little real concern that this central European democracy, created 73 years ago, has still seemed that "far off place about which we know little," which is what Britain and France said when they excused surrendering it to Hitler in 1938. "It seems to be our fate, as if history did not intend us to survive," comments an unhappy Czech friend, a member of a generation reared in a state designed to unite Czechs and Slovaks.

The division of power between the Czech lands and Slovakia undoubtedly favored the Czechs. In 1918, when the country was established, and until the World War II, that imbalance furthered existing disparities in education and economic development. The Protestant Czechs and Germans of Bohemia and Moravia had already created an engineering "workshop of Europe." Catholic Slovakia lingered, agrarian and backward.

The founding fathers' dream of establishing a Czechoslovak nationality had little chance after six years of suspension of democracy through World War II, and none whatever after the communist takeover in 1948 and further Soviet suppression 20 years later.

It was a totally different Czechoslovakia that Vaclav Havel and his friends liberated in 1989, with radically different mentalities surfacing among both peoples, the Slovaks particularly. For all their high and good intentions, the new rulers in Prague's Castle failed to recognize the change until it was too late.

The June elections gave Slovak leader Vladimir Meciar's party no mandate for independence, and the party has since dressed it up as but "self-existence" in a "loose confederation." The quibbling simply exasperated the Czechs.

Most Slovaks - if asked under fair conditions - would still prefer the single state if its old anomalies were corrected. They are, in fact, to be asked, but in a Slovak referendum after the new Slovak parliament legislates a Slovak constitution later this month - all designed to inhibit a free choice.

In the last two years, both nations have stood to benefit in the long term from membership in the International Monetary Fund and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades and an "association agreement" with the EC. But all these were negotiated for Czechoslovakia with a Czechoslovak federal government.

It will now require renegotiation and adjustment as between two states; and the West will obviously prefer the Czechs' radical market reform and rapid privatization to Slovakia's reluctant approach, incorporating continued ample state intervention that is already scaring off foreign investors.

Western preferences are abundantly visible already. In Prague new office blocks bear the names of big international companies. There are few such in Bratislava. Increasingly Slovakia may be forced to rely on an "eastern" connection, with the former Soviet states.

Many Slovaks are said now to be having second thoughts. But the mood among Czechs, who all along wanted to preserve one nation has increasingly become: "Well, if they want to leave, then let them."

It probably is too late for second thoughts. A potentially stable country is thus doomed to break up, even though a majority of all its people don't want it to.

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