A Visit to Europe's Great Divide

Five years after Czech- Slovak split, the two are haves and have-nots.

In this tiny hamlet of 90 souls, tucked away among forested hills in the heart of what was once Czechoslovakia, a kind of bloodless ethnic cleansing has taken place.

Fallen wooden slats expose the darkness of vacant barns. Modern villas fronting well-tended gardens lie next to shuttered cottages where chickens root among abandoned vegetable plots.

"There's no life here anymore," laments longtime resident Bogdana Horackova. "This used to be such a happy spot."

Things weren't always this way.

Historically, the village was proudly Czech, but during the 1950s and 1960s, the Communist regime allowed newcomers from neighboring Slovakia, such as Ms. Horackova, to move in. Speaking similar, mutually intelligible languages, the two groups integrated quickly, and intermarriage was common.

"We weren't Czechs. We weren't Slovaks," insists Horackova. "Just Czechoslovaks."

But when the two countries negotiated their international border after the breakup of Czechoslovakia on Jan. 1, 1993, U Sabotu was ceded to Slovakia, and a border post went up at the end of High Street.

That border is coming to stand for a growing divide between the former federation partners, and former village neighbors.

After receiving compensation benefits from the Prague government last summer, most Czechs used the money to move to the Czech Republic.

These days, U Sabotu's permanent residents, such as Horackova, are almost entirely Slovak. "I have to say I envy them," she says. "It's all about money, isn't it?"

Slovak envy isn't confined to U Sabotu. While the Czech Republic last year was invited to begin talks on NATO membership and on joining the European Union (EU), Slovak applications to both bodies were dismissed.

"In Slovakia's case, the train is off the track at the moment," says Geoffrey Harris, a European Parliament official who advises prospective new members.

Critics say the Slovaks have only themselves to blame. In the five years since the breakup, Slovakia - under Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, a blunt-talking former Communist-era bureaucrat - has gained a reputation as Central Europe's bte noire.

Unemployment stands at 15 percent, three times the rate in the Czech Republic, and foreign investment has dwindled to a trickle.

"Slovakia? It's a basket case," snorts London-based investment analyst Rod Benniger. But, he adds, "It shouldn't be. It has low labor costs. It's located right next to the biggest markets. But until the government goes, no one will touch it."

Until recently, by contrast, the Czechs were viewed as the success story of Central Europe, as state enterprises were rapidly privatized.

Over the past 12 months, however, the "Czech economic miracle" has lost its luster. Insider trading scandals and lax regulation have scared off investors and sent the Prague Stock Exchange into a slide.

Prague-based banking consultant Mark Rooney says, "The Czechs thought 'laissez faire' meant just that - 'do whatever ... you want.' " A party-financing scandal prompted Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, the chief architect of the economic reforms, to resign Nov. 30. Ailing President Vaclav Havel has named a technocrat to lead an interim Cabinet until early elections are held June 19.

With the Czechs bogged down in economic mire, many Slovaks wonder why their erstwhile partners are still on the fast track to Western integration while Bratislava has been left out in the cold.

"There's a feeling that the Czechs have received preferential treatment," says Jonathan Stein, an analyst with the Institute for East-West Studies, a Prague-based think tank. "It's like, 'how come the Czechs are the golden boys?' " says Mr. Stein.

The answer, observers believe, lies in the Czechs' heightened sense of political culture - and friends in high places. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was born in Prague. President Havel, a former dissident, charms world leaders wherever he goes.

"The Czechs are good at selling themselves," says Stein. "They're good at telling the West what it wants to hear."

When a mass exodus of Slovak and Czech Gypsies to Canada and Britain won worldwide attention last year, for example, Czech politicians humbly promised to clean up their act. Mr. Meciar, by contrast, declared that the only way to deal with Gypsies was with "a long whip and a small yard."

Such lack of finesse will likely cost the Slovaks in the years ahead. At the moment, the U Sabotu border is manned by easygoing guards who wave locals through without checking documents. Pretty soon, though, it could form part of a new Iron Curtain separating Europe's haves from the have-nots.

"There's a huge problem involving the free movement of people," concedes Georgios Zavvos, the EU representative in Bratislava. "At present there are something like 400,000 foreigners working legally or illegally in the Czech Republic - mostly casual workers from Ukraine and Russia."

Says Mr. Zavvos, "That's OK for now. But as the Czechs get nearer to the West, we can expect them to start shutting out the East. And that includes Slovakia."

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