Czeching Out: Border Slovaks Return Home

U SABOTU is an unremarkable little village on the Czech-Slovak border. But here, on one of the least tense of all the new boundaries in Eastern Europe, the regional blight of ethnic disputes has finally surfaced three years after the "velvet divorce" between the two countries.

The villagers of U Sabotu are disputing whether they belong in the Czech Republic or Slovakia.

In the old days of Czechoslovakia, the border ran through the village's center, even dividing streets. But that border was irrelevant, and many locals say they did not even know which side they lived on.

When Czechoslovakia split and the village became part of the new Czech Republic on Jan. 1, 1993, the majority Slovaks protested, and now it seems their desire to be Slovak citizens will be met. Under a new deal struck between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, U Sabotu will become part of Slovakia in exchange for the majority-Czech village of Sidonia.

The issue seems straightforward. An ethnic head count reveals twice as many Slovaks as Czechs in U Sabotu. But the question of the village's status has gone beyond the numbers game. Since the division of Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic has won Western praise for its rapid privatization and political stability. More significantly, it is attracting foreign investment and leading the race for membership in the European Union.

On the other hand, Slovakia has lagged economically. Its government, led by populist Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, has been the target of Western criticism about its democratic and human rights record. Diplomats have suggested that Slovakia's problems could rule it out of early EU membership.

THE economic and political gulf between the two states may explain why the residents of U Sabotu are split 5O-5O over which side of the border they wish to live on. Joining the 38 ethnic Czechs in the pro-Czech camp are a dozen or so rebel Slovaks who have become minor celebrities in both countries for refusing to choose along ethnic lines.

These Slovaks say the relative affluence of the Czech Republic is reason enough to stay out of Slovakia. "We simply want to stay in the Czech Republic. It is a better place to live," says one rebel Slovak, Jozef Maracek.

But their wishes seem unlikely to be fulfilled. The new border, which has taken three years to be agreed on and is now outlined in 2,000 bilateral documents, has already been ratified by Slovakia and is due before the Czech parliament this month.

The furious Czech villagers have lodged a petition with the Czech constitutional court to try to halt the move. On the other hand, many of the Slovaks are delighted. Those who work in Slovakia have been caught in a nightmarish tangle of red tape that has caused endless problems with insurance, health care, and personal documents.

There is some good news for the renegade Slovaks, too, who have had to endure the taunts of their loyalist Slovak neighbors. The Czech government has said it will compensate all those who registered their opposition to the switch - regardless of whether they are Czech or Slovak. A family of four will receive up to $100,000 - more than enough to build a house on the Czech side of the new border. Those Slovaks who stayed loyal to their homeland will have to make do with a new Slovak passport.

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