Czechoslovak Split Nears But Public Resents Plan

Many say leaders went too far in dividing nation, urge referendum

`THERE will be no big bang," announced Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus recently as he explained how Czechoslovakia's fate is being negotiated.

As the country prepares the ground for a peaceful separation, frustration with the political process is running high and voices calling for a national referendum are growing louder. In interviews on the streets of Prague, "stupid" is the most commonly used word to describe the imminent breakup of the 74-year-old federation.

The two political parties that emerged triumphant in the country's June elections have been negotiating almost continually over the country's fate since then. Vladimir Meciar, and his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, won June elections on a ticket promising looser confederation and slower economic reform.

In the Czech Republic, the Civic Democratic Party, led by former Finance Minister Vaclav Klaus, garnered overwhelming support with an election program favoring a strong federation run out of Prague, as well as rapid economic reform.

After emerging from elections the undisputed leaders, Mr. Klaus and Mr. Meciar sat down several times behind closed doors to craft future Czech-Slovak relations. But when Klaus, a hard-nosed economist, faced nationalist (and former heavy-weight boxing champion) Meciar, they found they had little in common. Agreeing to a breakup

In the last round of negotiations between the two parties on July 23, Meciar and Klaus emerged in the early morning with a plan to divide the federation. The most contested point was in the economic sphere where no consensus could be reached on a common currency.

The two managed to agree on "future cooperation" in the spheres of economy, defense, foreign policy, and civil issues, specifics of which are to be negotiated. But they also vowed to push parliament (the Federal Assembly) to adopt a law specifying the means to dissolve the federation by the end of September.

While the proposal to split the country is only an agreement between two political parties, the past two months have demonstrated that what the parties decide is essentially law, a fact that has angered many citizens.

"The breakup is stupid," says Vaclav Rychtera, a technician from Prague. "The split will be against the interests of both republics and will slow down the economic reform."

There are increasing calls for a referendum, although on three occasions the federal parliament has rejected demands for one. Both pro-federal and independence-minded parties support a referendum, as did 80 percent of those polled in the Czech and Slovak republics in the first week of July by the Institute for Public Opinion Research, an independent federal institute.

The Federal Constitution specifies that the only way to dissolve the common state is through referendum. To dissolve the state without a referendum, parliament must muster a three-fifths majority to amend the Constitution.

"The fate of this state is in the hands of citizens, not political parties," said Alexander Dubcek recently, the Slovak famous for his role in the 1968 Prague Spring. Mr. Dubcek, leader of the pro-federal Slovak Social Democratic Party, as well as a range of political forces, says the elections did not reflect a popular mandate to divide the state, since this objective was stated by only one extreme nationalist party from Slovakia. The two leading political parties, Dubcek and others say, have exceeded t he mandate given them. Dubcek's words carry weight since he has been discussed as a potential candidate for the post of Slovak President.

"The referendum should have happened a long time ago when [President Vaclav] Havel first proposed it," says Lilka Leszkwoba, a former ballet teacher from Prague. "I never expected the split to happen like this, but I wish it would happen as quickly as possible because we are losing our [international] reputation."

In danger is the country's recently completed association deal with the European Community. To everyone's great disappointment, EC representatives have said the agreement will have to be renegotiated after a split.

Havel began calling for a referendum last winter, but his proposals were rejected by parliament. By the end of June, before resigning as president, Havel stated that a referendum is not just the only constitutional method by which to split the country, but "also the only moral method, because ... on such a fundamental matter, citizens have the right to express themselves." Denying a referendum

Both negotiating parties have argued that a political solution instead of a referendum would lessen the problems with a successor state. They have also said it may be impossible to stop the momentum toward a division. Although Klaus has repeated that he does not rule out a referendum, he has said "it would more likely complicate our life" and called those demanding a referendum "childish." Meciar, on the other hand, says he supports a referendum, but only after parliament specifies how to divide federal property.

At present it appears likely the two parties will draw up legislation to end the federation without a referendum by the Sept. 30 deadline. Both parties combined have the three-fifths parliamentary majority to pass any proposal they agree on. It is possible they will negotiate a deal sometime later to cooperate on economic, defense, foreign policy, and civil matters. Parties out of touch

Still, it appears the two leading parties may be out of touch with their constituencies. Only one-quarter of Czechs and one-third of Slovaks would vote to secede, a July poll reported.

Meanwhile, there has been a noticeable surge in Czech nationalism with vocal grass-roots campaigns for an independent Czech Republic following the elections. Compared to sentiment in January, three times as many Czechs now favor an independent state. This position is often expressed by Czechs who feel the country has been bogged down in a constitutional swamp with the Slovaks for the past two years.

"The breakup should happen as soon as possible so that we can be free from Slovaks," says Mirek Kvapil, a construction worker from Karlovy Vary, near Prague.

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