THE hardball politics in Prague these days deny it, but the 1989 velvet revolution was about returning government to the people. So if Czechoslovakia is to split in 1992, it should be because its people vote to do so democratically, in a referendum, as the federal constitution and federal President Vaclav Havel call for.
Yet Vaclav Klaus and Vladimir Meciar, the newly elected leaders of the Czech and Slovak republics, seem to be deciding for themselves - over the heads of the people - to split. Two weeks of contentious talks between the two men have brought about scenario after scenario of separation.
For awhile, the demagoguing Mr. Meciar seemed the culprit. But now it appears the imperious, radical free-marketeer Klaus may be engineering the split. Mr. Klaus and his conservative allies feel the Czech lands would prosper faster without being burdened by an impoverished Slovakia whose nationalist leaders will make constant hectoring demands to be treated with more equality, and to be given more money. Yet the relatively well-heeled Czechs, who know the European Community prefers a single Czechoslovaki a, can't appear to be shoving their 75-year partners out the door.
So far, Meciar has made it easy for Klaus. He's played the role of a rabid nationalist, who opposes Mr. Havel, the most popular Czech politician. His choice for foreign minister is divisive. Klaus, hoping for a Czech backlash, plays up the image of an uncouth Slovak who wants separation.
But Meciar is clear he doesn't want a split; he wants Slovak "sovereignty" not "independence." This forces Klaus to use more open tactics: make unreasonable economic-reform demands on Slovaks, adopt "in-your-face" tactics that humiliate Slovaks who have just had their first free elections.
What's absurd is that Meciar and Klaus only got around 35 percent of the vote. Both know nearly 75 percent of their constituencies want a unified Czechoslovakia. This is why a referendum is needed as soon as possible. The EC must urge it.
On Friday, the Czech federal parliament votes on whether Havel remains president. Meciar should support him. Klaus would have to respond to such a concession in kind. Next step: referendum dates.