Sorting Out Foreign Ties, Minority Needs

Even as Czechs and Slovaks are heartened by their speedy agreement on division of assets, difficult tasks remain

CZECHS and Slovaks are ending a 75-year marriage their neighbors thought would last forever. The federated Czech and Slovak republics voted last September to become separate countries starting Jan. 1. But, as one senior official notes, the property settlement involves much more than the unusual houses, TV sets, and record collections.

"This is a divorce. Thank goodness there are no kids," says Karel Kovanda, a senior Foreign Ministry official in the federal government who is playing a key role in implementing the dissolution. In a Monitor interview, Mr. Kovanda, a Czech, sizes up the task of dividing up those assets and obligations related to global relations.

Treaties, loans, and foreign aid. Czechoslovakia has 2,000 bilateral and 800 multilateral agreements with governments and private organizations around the world.

In the case of treaties, such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the two will become separate signatories. Loans will have to be renegotiated separately. In the case of aid programs, Kovanda says it will be up to donor nations to decide how to reapportion financial and technical assistance. He predicts that most assistance will go to Slovakia, the poorer of the two republics.

Diplomatic facilities. The federation has more than 80 embassies around the world, all staffed on the 2-to-1 ratio between Czechs and Slovaks that prevails in the federation at large. Kovanda says the two countries will separately decide where to maintain a diplomatic presence, then split embassy property on the basis of the same formula.

Czechoslovakia has recently undertaken a merger of its ministries of foreign affairs and foreign trade in a reflection of the primacy of economic issues. On Jan. 1, the combined ministry will split again, along geographical lines.

Foreign investment. Several billion dollars in foreign capital is invested in Czechoslovakia, mostly in the Czech Republic. Roughly 80 percent of it is from Germany and is concentrated in Skoda, the largest automotive and heavy-machinery manufacturer in the federal republic. Kovanda says investors may initially be nervous about the separation, but predicts that once they see "that [the Czech Republic] is stable and predictable they will come back.

"Our instability has a foreseeable resolution," he adds. "The split is a peaceful process, and the Czech Republic is totally committed to a market economy."

The United Nations is expected to admit both nations to membership in January. Meanwhile, Kovanda says, "eventual membership in the European Community is the No. 1 foreign policy objective of the Czech Republic. I assume it will be the same for the Slovak Republic, too."

In other cases this century, conflict has resulted when nations have divided - notably India and Pakistan in 1947, Britain and Ireland during the 1920s, and Vietnam during the 1950s.

Kovanda says a more hopeful precedent was set in Scandinavia, where Norway and Sweden parted ways in 1905 after nearly a century as a unified state.

"Eventually Norway, and Slovakia, got to the point that they wanted an internationally recognized identity," says Kovanda. "In both cases, it was a nonnegotiable demand."

Czechs and Slovaks lived for generations under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian empire. They were merged into a separate state in 1918 under treaties that formally ended World War I. Though ethnically and linguistically different, Czechs and Slovaks might have remained united indefinitely, Kovanda suggests, had it not been for the forceable imposition of Communist rule starting in 1948.

Under the Communists, Slovakia enjoyed a relative degree of prosperity, but it was an artificial prosperity not linked to market forces. When communism collapsed, the Slovaks were unable to compete in the marketplace, their standard of living fell, and resentment toward their more prosperous Czech brethren increased.

"Without Communist rule, there would have been more natural economic development in Slovakia," says Kovanda. "Slovaks would have had less need to assert themselves, and the pressures to split would therefore have been less." Kovanda says in the heady days that followed the collapse of communism he did not see the "slightest chance" that Czechoslovakia would be divided. Now, he says, separation is inevitable. Although the new nations are likely to coexist peacefully, Kovanda worries about the implications

on the new Czech Republic of Slovakia's treatment of its huge Hungarian minority.

Motivated by the surge of nationalism that led to the break up of the federation, Slovaks are now taking steps that limit expressions of Hungarian identity, even as the Hungarian government in Budapest hints at a yearning to free Slovakia's "captive" minority. Any unrest that might result from this potentially explosive situation would not be in the interests of the Czech Republic, Kovanda says.

Meanwhile, the Czechs have their own, if less severe, minority problem. Gypsies, descendants of dark-skinned Caucasians who migrated from India to Europe 700 years ago, have long been a pariah cast in Czechoslovakia. Gypsies were sent to concentration camps by the country's Nazi occupiers; those that survived were forced to give up their itinerant lifestyle by the Communists. Czech leaders now have the task of defining a new place for Gypsies in a nation where prejudice against them remains strong. Gypsi es won the right to establish their first party after the so-called Velvet Revolution of 1989, but have not elected any representatives to parliament.

"Gypsies are going to be something of a litmus test of the republic's concern for human rights," Kovanda says.

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