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The Split of Czechoslovakia: A Defeat or a Victory?

(The abstract of a talk by Jiri Pehe at the conference on “Czech and Slovak ‘Roads to Europe’ 1989-2004”, CERI, Paris, 8 November 2004)

The split of Czechoslovakia on January 1, 1993 was not entirely inevitable, but the political and economic costs of keeping the country together would have been extremely high.

The Main Reasons for the Country’s Disintegration

1. Mutual historical grievances
2. The asymmetrical nature of a two-state federation
3. Incompatible political spectrums after the 1992 elections
5. Czech and Slovak nationalism
4. A lack of democratic experience in both countries

Mutual historical grievances. The Slovaks did not embrace the concept of Czechoslovakism, which was advocated by Czech leaders after 1918. Although many appreciated economic and educational assistance that the Czech lands offered during the first republic (and before), they were critical of the patronizing attitudes of many Czech leaders and the unwillingness of Czech political elites to grant Slovakia more autonomy.

The Czechs, on the other hand, never forgot what they saw as a betrayal on part of Slovakia in 1939, when Slovakia formed a state of its own under Nazi protection. Later, the fact that after WWII the Slovaks did not show enough gratitude for not ending up on the list the defeated nations—because Slovakia was included in Czechoslovakia again—was also occasionally criticized. During the era of communism, many Czechs believed that the Czech lands were paying—through huge transfers—for the economic development of Slovakia. Many also did not see the creation of the Czechoslovak federation in 1968 favorably.

Common wisdom had it that the Slovaks were punished much less after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and that, in fact, Slovakia benefited from the invasion. The era of normalization was closely associated with Gustav Husak, a Slovak. A political asymmetry was created in the form of the Slovak Communist Party that had no counterpart in the Czech Republic.

The Slovaks, on the other hand, complained of Pragocentrism, which did not diminish even during the communist era.

The asymmetrical nature of a two-state federation. A federation consisting of two states of unequal size would be a difficult concept even for highly developed democracies. The Federal Assembly, as created by the constitutional amendment of 1968, was set up in a way that was bound to produce serious problems once the country has regained democracy.

The deficiencies of a two-state federation were suppressed by the centralized communist rule between 1968 and 1989. However, once the federal institutions were able to work in a politically free environment, they began producing problems.

First, there was initially a serious lack of clarity with regard to the division of powers between institutions on the republican level and federal institutions. Second, the upper house of the Federal Assembly—the House of Nations—could in effect block meaningful reforms.

The growing inability of the Federal Assembly to pass necessary federal laws was perhaps the most visible symbol of a growing decision-making paralysis. At the same time, power was gradually shifting from the federal government to the republican governments. The authority of the country’s president was also gradually shrinking.

Incompatible political spectrums after the 1992 elections. Soon after the fall of communism—certainly after the June 1990 elections—it became obvious that the two republics were developing different political spectrums. Slovakia’s spectrum was shifted more to the left, and Slovak political parties accentuated more openly national demands or even an outright nationalist agenda. While in the Czech Republic the Communist Party did not reform itself, and the Social Democratic Party was newly (re)created from below, the Slovak democratic left was represented by the reformed Communist Party.

In the 1992 elections, political parties that described themselves as center-right prevailed in the Czech Republic, while leftist and nationalist parties were the winners in Slovakia. It became virtually impossible to create a functioning federal government.

Czech and Slovak nationalism. Although much has been said and written about Slovak nationalism, there was also a version of Czech nationalism. The Czechs seemed to identify much more than the Slovaks with the idea of Czechoslovakia, but it can be argued that Czechoslovakia was more acceptable for them, among other reasons, because the Czechs had a privileged position in the two-state federation, in which the other nation was half the size of the Czech nation.

While Slovak nationalism was active—an expression of nation-building in a country that had not had the kind of historical experience with its own statehood that the Czechs had, Czech nationalism was defensive. In other words, while no significant Czech political parties actively strove for independence or greater autonomy, many Czech politicians were intellectually invested in the idea of Czechoslovakia in which the Czechs—by definition—are the more senior nation.

Some Czech politicians also believed that Slovakia is an economic burden for the Czechs. This version of Czech nationalism was based on the belief that the Czechs are superior—more advanced, more urbanized, and therefore, better equipped to cope with market reforms.

Both Czech politicians and the public did not abandon the traditional Czech paternalism in attitudes toward Slovakia after 1989. Some Slovak demands—for example, modifications in the name of the country—were ridiculed by the Czech media and understood as petty by Czech politicians, who did not appreciate the symbolism of such steps for the Slovaks.

Some of the most important Czech politicians, including President Vaclav Havel, did not read the situation in Slovakia well, partly owing to the fact that they, as former dissidents, maintained contacts mainly with their dissident counterparts, who were predominantly pro-federalist.

A lack of democratic experience in both countries. Perhaps the growing Czech-Slovak rift could have been solved by giving the Slovaks more autonomy, or by transforming the federation into a confederation. The Belgian or the Canadian models of coexistence (however imperfect) of two nations within one state could have been used, but problems in the Czech-Slovak relations took place at a time when there were many other pressing tasks to solve.

Also, Czech and Slovak politicians were only learning the basics of democracy. Hence, there was a natural proclivity on both sides to accelerate the process. Democratic solutions were not explored to the utmost.

The Process of Dissolution

In the end, the dissolution of Czechoslovakia was a success in terms of the mechanisms and procedures used. It was a peaceful, negotiated process that did not produce any of the upheavals and bloody conflicts we witnessed in the former Yugoslavia or some parts of the Soviet Union.

The main point of contention was (and will remain) the question of whether Czechoslovakia was to hold a referendum. It is possible today to argue that the decision not to hold a referendum was fortunate. First, in a country consisting of two nations of unequal size, one referendum, on a federal level only, would not work.

Holding two referendums, one in each republic, was also problematic, as no one seemed to know what would happen if one republic voted in favor of the country’s split and another would be against it.

There were also very different ideas about what kind of a common state Czechoslovakia should be if it survived. Public opinion and politicians were divided: some people supported the idea of a federation, some campaigned for a confederation, and others even advocated the renewal of a unitary state. There were also proposals to turn Czechoslovakia into a three-state federation, consisting of Bohemia, Moravia-Silesia, and Slovakia.

It is something of a historical achievement that the Federal Assembly in the end approved the dissolution of the federation (and itself), and that the two sides agreed on a civilized division of federal assets (and eventually) also the split of the monetary union.


The split of Czechoslovakia initially had a negative impact on regional cooperation. The Visegrad grouping was downgraded, especially as the Czechs, under the leadership of Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, began to propound the ideology of Czech exceptionalism and superiority toward other Visegrad countries.

Slovakia’s slide into a semi-authoritarian regime under Prime Minister Meciar also had a negative impact on regional cooperation, eventually forcing the three other Visegrad countries to leave Slovakia behind in their efforts to join NATO and other organizations.

It is sometimes argued that Meciar would not have succeeded in stifling democracy in Slovakia, had Slovakia stayed part of Czechoslovakia. However, that thesis cannot be really verified.

There was also a certain asymmetry in terms of international stature for the Czechs and the Slovaks after the split. While the Slovaks became more visible--a new international player (even though their reputation during the Meciar era was not good)--, the Czech Republic was viewed as a truncated Czechoslovakia, and the international stature of the country diminished.

In relations with Germany and Austria, in both of which demands were repeatedly raised by some organizations and politicians to re-evaluate the expulsion of Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia after WWII, the Czech Republic was in a much weaker position than Czechoslovakia. (This is, however, also partly true about Slovakia’s initial conflicts with Hungary over the issue of the Hungarian minority.)

The Czech Republic was also in a weaker position vis-a-vis Austria than Czechoslovakia had ever been with regard to the Temelin nuclear power plant. The international stature of the Czech Republic began to improve visibly only after the country’s admission to NATO in 1999.

Another significant downside of the split for the Czechs was the fact that the Czech Republic became almost ethnically homogenous, as the only significant minority left was the Roma. Although some 300,000 Slovaks stayed in the Czech Republic after the split, most of them were quite assimilated and never came to play the role of an ethnic minority. It can be argued that the ethnic homogenization of the Czech Republic further strengthened the traditional Czech provincialism.

Slovakia, on the other hand, became the most multicultural and multiethnic country in Central Europe. Ethnic Hungarians accounted for about 10 percent of its population, and the numbers of Roma are estimated at 300,000 to 500,000. Under the nationalist government of Meciar, Slovakia had problems with its minorities, but it seems that the need of various ethnic groups to coexist in the end contributed to improvements in Slovakia’s political culture.

What about Today?

The split of Czechoslovakia worked better for Slovakia, it seems, than for the Czechs. Many Czechs accepted the dissolution of Czechoslovakia as something of a defeat, a partial loss of their national identity.

The split has provoked a strange brand of Czech nationalism, which is a mixture of the idea of Czech exceptionalism, on the one hand, and the provincial xenophobia of a small nation, afraid of a large neighbor, on the other. Much of the anti-European rhetoric in Czech politics today is driven either by the belief that “we could do it better than Europe” or by the fear of Europe, especially Germany. The Slovaks appear to be, at least at this point, a more confident nation, although Slovakia suffers from its own version of provincialism and, lately, also the belief in its own exceptionality.

The role of the EU has been tremendously important and positive. It is almost certain that without EU integration, the story of the split could have, overall, turned out to be a failure, rather than a success, for both nations.

Conference "Czech and Slovak Roads to Europe, 1989-2004", CERI, Paris, France - 8. 11. 2004