Going It Alone

AT midnight on Dec. 31 the Czech and Slovak peoples usher in both a new year and their own independence. It is hard to know just how to characterize the end of a relatively successful 74-year experiment in peaceful ethnic relations in the middle of Europe. But this Thursday night, the idea of any wild celebrations in Prague and Bratislava seems sad indeed.

In light of the friction and disunity in Europe today, it is hard to view the separation of Czechs and Slovaks as virtuous - an extension of the democratic urgings of 1989. There's nothing particularly noble about the breakup. It comes from hardheaded calculations by ambitious nationalist leaders on both sides. The peoples, particularly the 5 million Slovaks who do not yet have the infrastructure needed to compete in Europe, will pay the price for this "freedom."

That 30,000 Slovaks have now applied for Czech citizenship, while almost no Czechs have opted for Slovak citizenship, tells the story. As the new spokesman for Vladimir Meciar's government in Bratislava said this week, perhaps not realizing the irony in his own statement: "Now we will be free to make our own mistakes." While true, this is not exactly the kind of political rhetoric one wants to stand up and wave flags and banners about.

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Czech leader Vaclav Klaus's comments about his sorrow over the breakup seem unconvincing. The radical free-market reforms he demanded of Slovakia last June and July were guaranteed to force the Czech partners out. And while in recent negotiations with the Slovaks Czech officials have been behaving like well-scrubbed Sunday schoolers, with the former acrimony laid aside, this is too easily read as eagerness to please gatekeeping European Community states.

The real test lies ahead. How quickly and how equitably will the Czechs switch to their own currency, which they have already printed? Will they make it difficult for Slovaks to work in the Czech lands by instituting exclusionary work permits? As their former partners struggle to survive, will the response of the Klaus government be, "Tough luck"?

The Meciar regime in Slovakia seems difficult to love. The nationalist rhetoric is ugly, press freedoms have been brutally cut, opportunism is rife. Most serious, the Slovak constitution has not adequately addressed the minority rights of the 500,000 Hungarians living in the new state.

Still, Europe must keep Slovaks from falling into dangerous new patterns of hate and crime in the East - for everyone's sake.

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