Velvet Divorce was 25 years ago

A conference looked back at the split and its lessons for today

The split of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia took place Jan. 1, 1993, in what has been called the Velvet Divorce.

Next year also marks 100 years since the establishment of Czechoslovakia, and the breakup, as a result, isn’t getting much attention, although it has had a lasting impact.

Anglo-American University (AAU) held a one-day conference to look at the legacy of the split.

Czech diplomat Štefan Füle said that when the country split up, he was faced with a choice of being a Czech or Slovak diplomat, and was one of a handful of people who had not made a choice as the deadline approached. He was based in New York and saw the issue as a distraction. Eventually, he chose the Czech side.

He sees several reasons for the success of the split. The first was that politicians promised there would be no impact on the average person’s life. “They were able to deliver on that promise. There was no limitation of travel. There was nothing artificially dividing these two emerging countries,” he said.

Frameworks and a values-based approach were provided by the European Union, he added.

The lessons learned from Czechoslovakia can be applied when Serbia and Kosovo join the EU, he stated.

Another reason was that people were able to see the implications of the split before it happened. With other issues such as the current Brexit, once the train is in motion there is no way to stop it. With the split of Czechoslovakia, there were ways to stop the process if people chose to do so.

The timing was also helpful. Both the Czech Republic and Slovakia joined the EU at the same time. With former Yugoslavia, the countries did not all join at once, and there are volatile issues between the EU members, Slovenia and Croatia, and the non-members.

Educator Oľga Gyárfášová of Comenius University in Bratislava pointed out that in the early 1990s, Slovakia was looked on as am ugly duckling or a weak student when it came to developing from a post-communist society into a democracy, especially compared to the Czech Republic. Many found it hard to believe that Slovakia would join the EU and NATO in 2004 at the same time as the Czech Republic.

Now it is one of the countries that has done the least backsliding in political terms, she said. One reason she cited was that all of the governments since the 1990s were coalition governments, which made one-sided policies difficult to implement.

The sense that Slovakia was a success in integrating into the EU has also encouraged the country to deepen its ties to the bloc. It has also implemented the euro, which ties its economy to other EU countries. The Slovak economy is highly dependent on the EU’s single market, with exports being a big factor.

The public perceptions of changes after the end of communism were very different in both countries, and structural conditions were very different.

The leaders of both countries, Václav Klaus and Vladimír Mečiar, also had very different perceptions of the economic transformation, and led their countries in different directions,

Slovakia in EU rankings is currently number one in production of cars per capita, but in last place for efficiency of public administration and public spending. These areas still need to be reformed, she said. “I do not see the reformers who will take them and change them in the next few years,” she said.

In some areas, the Czech Republic also has some catching up to do. The Czech Republic lags behind the rest of Europe because its education system is too rigid, and does not identify people with talent. People are rewarded more for their education levels than for their skills in the workplace, educator Michael Smith. This leads to losses of productivity. “The educational system along with overregulation and corruption continues to be a major restraint on Czech competitiveness,” he said, adding that there was a mismatch between skills and the labor market.

One of the more interesting discussions looked at the current efforts in Catalonia to split from Spain, contrasted with what happened in Czechoslovakia.

Antoni Ferrando, an academic scholar from Spain, compared the situations. “People like the dialogue and the nonviolence of the [Velvet] Divorce,” he said, adding that university groups interested in Catalan independence took to Czechoslovakia for inspiration.

He said that the Czech politicians and policymakers have taken the stance that Catalan independence is a completely internal issue for Spain to deal with and that the referendum is not valid. This stance has been reflected in the Czech media as well.

“I don’t know if they are aware or not, but they have become useful idiots of the Chinese government,” he said. China has asked the European Parliament for the same consideration over Tibetan independence that Spain receives over the Catalan question, meaning that it should be considered an internal matter. This creates a paradox where the Czech mainstream press including publications such as Reflex and Respekt, which are supposed to represent the legacy of Havel, are helping China, he said,

He compared a statement by President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy that there was no referendum on Catalan independence to the “newspeak” of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

He concluded by pointing out that in the 1990s, the Czechoslovak Constitution did not include the right to secede, but the politicians at that time and the Constitutional Court had the will to let the breakup happen. Spain’s Constitution also does not have provisions for a region to exit.

He also said that while in theory, Catalonia has some autonomy in practice it does not exist since much of the process is one-way, leaving Catalonia without much real voice.

Czech diplomat Füle pointed out the EU by not getting involved was following international law. “When [the European Commission] called it an internal matter, it was not a message to forget it. It was not a message that we don’t care. It was a message that the balance between those very important principles of international law needs to be addressed by the people inside the country and not by those outside,” he said.

Real estate investor Milorad M. Mišković compared the breakup of Yugoslavia with that of Czechoslovakia. He claimed that difference between Czechs and Slovaks was greater than the difference between Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, Macedonians, and Albanians. “Serbs definitely love and like everybody in our surroundings,” he said, despite the conflicts in the 1990s.

“Yugoslavia was [like] a European Union. You may look at Yugoslavia and say it was an artificial country [but] we in Yugoslavia had a European Union in miniature,” he said.

He also gets emotional when people ask when Serbia will join the European Union. “We are part of Europe, let me say that,” he added.

The country had a “tough divorce” he said, not only due to religious and ethnic differences but also to outside influences. He pointed to Croatia declaring independence while Serbia and Croatia were in the midst of negotiating a federation. Someone “gave them a wink” to do that he said, without specifying which outside power he meant.

Czechoslovakia was different for many reasons. There was not a problem concerning ethnicity, as minorities account for a small percentage of the population. The Czech part of Czechoslovakia is the most atheistic in the world, so there was no real religious conflict either.

He also maintained that Czechoslovakia likely had “warm advice” from abroad on how to divorce without conflict so that nobody would pay the price. “Yugoslavia paid a big price. … I am still very proud today I come from Yugoslavia. This mish-mash in Yugoslavia is a beauty,” he said, adding that he loved all the groups that made up Yugoslavia because he shares the same values with them. Talking about Croats and Serbs, he said: “We like the same music, we speak the same language. We have the same values … so nobody will divide us,” he said, adding that he hopes the remaining countries of former Yugoslavia enter the EU at the same time.

Related article:
Czechoslovakia to celebrate 100th anniversary in 2018 - Prague.TV, 23.11.2017

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