An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery: The Velvet Divorce

Posted on April 1, 2014


It is one of the great-unanswered questions in life. Is there life outside of planet earth? Why do we have nipples? Why did Czechoslovakia break up? Wandering around Slovakia lost and confused, you will struggle to find anyone on the street with a credible answer to this great riddle of our time. What about the Internet? Surely this encyclopedia-at-our-fingertips can answer this question? Well, kind of, except the answers won’t make much sense and won’t help you clearing it up in your head. Heck, this is a divorce that didn’t bother to consult the people of the republic on the subject of splitting up. Yes, a divorce without consulting its children, unthinkable right? Let’s get this over with.

First of all, where did Czechoslovakia come from? The ashes of the Hapsburg Empire and the will of a few great men brought these two nations together, despite never previously existing as a coherent state. They may have had similar languages and a history of Hapsburg oppression, but the differences were noticeable from the start. The Czechs had suffered at the hands of the Austrians, the Slovaks at the hands of the Hungarians. The Czechs were economically advanced, where as the majority of the Slovaks were still agrarian. The Slovaks were staunchly Catholic, where as the Czechs had rejected the influence of the religious clergy. Still, exist Czechoslovakia did, and it did so for 74 years with only a break for World War Two and Nazi destruction.

The communist years following World War Two were dominated by Soviet shadows, but when they finally lifted in 1989 the break was referred to as the ‘Velvet Revolution’, because of the violence-free way in which it occurred. Less than four years later, this adjective would be affixed to a divorce. The events of 1989 would have a great effect on this central European federation, and an argument can be put forward that the reunification of Germany and end of the Soviet Union had as big a part to play in this Velvety-Smooth divorce as anything else.

By the summer of 1992 and the elections that would punctuate it, economic discussions had well and truly taken over Czechoslovakia. There was a quite clear disparity between the two nations in the republic. Slovak unemployment was almost three times that of their Czech neighbors. The Czech GDP was a whole 20% more than the Slovaks, and the move towards capitalism had meant that the subsidization of the poorer Slovaks had ended. The Slovaks saw the Czechs as domineering though, lording over the Slovaks. They pointed out the republic’s name as evidence enough; Czechoslovakia, although many internationally used Czech as the catchall title for its citizens. The two populations were quite obviously drifting apart, but total separation just three years after throwing off the Soviet yoke? Nah.

The population didn’t really care for separation either. In a poll taken in September of 1992, just 37% of Slovaks and 36% of Czechs favoured the split. Students were polled on tension in the republic, and 88.8% responded that they considered there to be no tension at all. If a split was forthcoming, nobody bothered to tell the citizens of Czechoslovakia. It was a big country, an important country. They had stood up to the Nazis in World War Two, stood up to the Soviets in 1968. Czechoslovakia was a symbol of resistance. Throughout the entire country, only the right-wing Slovak nationalists were demanding independence. Vladimir Mečiar and his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) used this to their advantage, mobilizing pockets of discontent in pursuit of an electoral victory via the power of rhetoric. They were successful. 37% of the Slovak vote was their, and Mečiar was installed as Prime Minister of Slovakia.

In the Czech republic a center-right coalition of Civic Democrats and Christian Democrats won with 30% of the vote, and Vaclav Klaus of the Civics was their candidate for the PM position. Klaus was heavily economy-minded, keen for the preservation of a federal state and preferring the creation of two independent states as opposed to a coalition. He saw the Slovaks as a drain on the economy. He wasn’t entirely wrong, as the Slovaks were reliant on a now-completely inefficient heavy industry. Klaus felt that getting red of Slovakia would boost the Czech economy. On June 7th, Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel made moves to name Klaus as his prime minister, but Klaus would turn this down in favor of staying PM of the Czech republic alone instead. Thus the negotiations with Vladimir Mečiar began in earnest.

The negotiations moved quickly, and Havel himself was aware of their speed. He had no interest in overseeing the end of Czechoslovakia, so on July 17th 1992 he resigned from his position as President. Czechoslovakia had lost the last uniting symbol between its two nations. Six days later, the decision was made by Klaus and Mečiar to split the country into two. Surely the population should be consulted? Well, no real common ground on a reason for the split could be agreed upon, so the federal assembly decided to go ahead without a referendum. All parties have since admitted that a referendum would have rejected the split.

On August 26th 1992 at a meeting in Brno, supposedly under a Sycamore tree, December 31st was decided as the day the split would take place. All that was needed to do now was to finalize new constitutions, all that awfully boring stuff that no one outside of politics really cares about. Heck, it was the failed attempts to agree on a new constitution that had assisted the push to splitting. There had been fairly little ethno-geographic overlap between Czechs and Slovaks, with a relatively small number of intermarriages, so not much protest was put up in the republic itself. It can legitimately be argued that the reason the Velvet Divorce was so peaceful was because no one in the country cared too much about it. The entire thing screamed of politicians attempting to make history just to say they did.

New Years Eve arrived, and with it the end of Czechoslovakia. Crowds welcomed in the New Year and the new independence in Bratislava’s main square. Flags waved passionately and a band blasted out the national anthem. Bratislava was a capital once more. Slovakia entered a new era, one of an independent state. It had only experienced something vaguely similar once before, and that was more about Nazi interests than Slovak ones. The Czech and Slovak parliaments had succeeded in forcing people to live in independent states that they hadn’t actively sought themselves. As journalist Theodore Draper’s analogy perfectly sums up, Slovakia knocked on Czech’s door without wanting to knock it down, only for Czech to open up the door allowing Slovakia to fall through. It was no one’s divorce, no one’s revolution, no one’s liberation, no one’s freedom.

What of Slovakia in their newly independent world? Well, the whole thing begun unraveling fairly swiftly. Mečiar and his nationalism swiftly took over. Slovakia was declared a nation of Slovaks, meaning the sizable Hungarian and Roma minorities were left to suffer. Institutionalized discrimination became the norm. State-approved segregation meant the vast majority of the Roma leaving the country in 1997-98 for asylum elsewhere. Mečiar himself had become a dictator of sorts, only one who succeeded in only in fostering enough disgruntled feeling for a population to band together to get rid of him. By 1998, he was gone.

Economically, independence for Slovakia was a struggle as well. Despite what was expecting with the shaking of the Czech domination, it just flat out didn’t improve. Industrial output had dropped to less than 1%, and the HZDS were widely criticized for failing to prepare adequately for independence. The newly independent state took on a weak currency, declining trade profits, a taxation system in dire need of reorganization and a state budget that couldn’t hope to cover its costs. Slovakia initially looked east for help, but they found an east still in ideological transition too busy looking in the mirror or at the floor. Eventually they looked back west, but the damage was arguably done.

So why did Czechoslovakia split up? One can only assume it was truly because most were tired of writing such a long country name on their address forms. That and because other ex-communist nations were splitting up and they wanted to give it a go.

‘We want it to turn out well, but it won’t. We are optimists! But it will have a bad end’