FROM the outside, the Czech elections appear to confirm the tide of destructive ethnic separatism now sweeping the old East bloc. Nationalist Vladimir Meciar, who personally dislikes Czech President Vaclav Havel, is elected to head Slovakia. Vaclav Klaus, a free-market Thatcherite ideologue who has been somewhat indifferent to Mr. Havel of late, is now head of the Czech lands.
The script seems already written: Havel is dumped because Mr. Meciar orders his party to vote against him prior to the July 3 presidential elections in the federal parliament; then Bratislava splits from Prague. What's left is another messy divorce in East Europe with two sides that like each other less and less.
But appearances, no matter how clear and simple they seem, are not always accurate or true. Czechoslovakia needn't break up. Affairs in Central Europe, with a war in Yugoslavia and political and ethnic maelstroms in the former Soviet Union, carry more weight today. The stakes are higher. There are both serious moral reasons and purely expedient reasons why Czechoslovakia should stay together - and why Havel should remain in office to help his country through an ethnic dark night of the soul.
Rash actions by Meciar will be felt far into the future. It is not clear his election means more than a natural Slovak desire for self-identity. Slovak polls show 75 percent want to stay in the union.
Meciar must move past politics as a game. Waving the Slovak flag may be temporarily fulfilling. But it solves few problems. A split will be expensive for both sides, especially Slovakia. Creating a banking system and a form of security for an already poor region of 2 million won't be cheap. The European Community has made it clear a severed Czechoslovakia will wait far longer to join and receive help from the EC.
There are higher principles at stake - namely, the ability of two peoples to live and work together fruitfully. This is what Havel understands so well. Havel sees that Czechoslovakia can show both East Europe and the rest of the world that it is possible to live together in a progressive civil union rather than a fractured, inward-looking state governed by petty, manipulative powermongers. This has been Havel's message from the start; the politicians of Czechoslovakia, having been given such an intellige nt and popular leader, let him go at their own peril.
Vaclev Klaus must make a deal with Meciar. Offer a Slovak foreign minister and defense minister. Give even more. It's worth it.