ONE views the current messy divorce proceedings between the Czechs and Slovaks with more than a little sympathy for the Slovaks. That is, for the 5.2 million Slovak people who are about to become the real losers in what their leaders tell them is independence and sovereignty. In fact, Slovak separation from the Czech lands, which have subsidized up to 70 percent of the Slovak share of the federal budget, guarantees that poor Slovakia will rapidly get poorer.
Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, an extreme nationalist, seems to be waking up to the economic implications of the divorce he negotiated with Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, a radical free-marketeer, last July. Mr. Meciar is now siding with Mr. Klaus's Czech opposition in the almost-defunct federal parliament in an attempt to renegotiate Czech and Slovak relations. But it may be too late. Even former federal President Vaclav Havel, who advocated the enlightened dream of Czech founder Thomas Masa ryk (a Slovak) for a multicultural federal state in the heart of Europe, now opposes union. Slovak politics lacks civic grace.
The divorce came out of the election of Meciar and Klaus last June. Neither man got more than 35 percent. But they immediately took their "mandates" to the extreme and negotiated a split. They disallowed a referendum on a breakup, though 60 percent of the people opposed the split.
Klaus demanded go-fast market reforms that would eliminate state subsidies - impossible for Slovakia. Meciar wanted go-slow reforms and subsidies in a new confederation. Meciar's contentious and arbitrary style made it possible for Klaus to appear reasonable in pushing for a split. Now Czechs will move quickly toward the European Community. The Slovaks, who for centuries were kept poor and powerless by the Hungarian Magyars, have their freedom. But freedom, for Slovaks, is just another word for nothing l eft to lose.
It is a sad story, all too understandable in the context of East Europe's new nationalism. The European Community and the United States ought to ensure the tale does not become tragic. Both must push hard for conditions that ensure the Czech break-up is slow and equitable.