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Czechs and Slovaks Go Their Own Ways

Like the dissolution of a long marriage, the breakup seems unnecessary and very sad

THE brutal catastrophe of Yugoslavia has, understandably, diverted international attention away from the gentle tragedy of Czechoslovakia. In August political leaders reached an agreement to bring the 75-year political history of that Central European country to an end, to be replaced by two sovereign states - one Czech and the other Slovak.

By most measures this outcome is neither necessary nor wise. It is the result of a toxic confluence of historical irritations, economic strains, leadership personalities, political posturing, and conscious policy. Before the Czechoslovak republic passes into history, it is worth attempting to understand what happened and why.

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Vaclav Havel's "Velvet Revolution" in 1989 brought down the edifice of communist power in Czechoslovakia. In many ways, that event embodied the entire anti-communist transformation of the former Soviet empire. Led by a philosopherplaywright, staffed by artists and intellectuals, the new government was determined to reestablish political democracy, institute a market-based economy, and integrate Czechoslovakia into the West including, if possible, membership in both the European Community and NATO.

In less than two years much was accomplished. But as elsewhere, the new climate of freedom allowed expression of long simmering ethnic tensions. These are partly rooted in history (the Czechs under the Austro-Hungarian Empire were ruled from Vienna, the Slovaks from Budapest) and partly in economics (Bohemia was traditionally wealthier and more industrialized than Slovakia). Perhaps more important, there was an enduring sense in Slovakia of being regarded as slightly second class - the country cousins to

the city sophisticates. It rankled that the world referred to the nation by the shorthand "Czech" and that the Bohemian capital of Prague so greatly overshadowed its Slovak counterpart, Bratislava.

These sensitivities were manifested when the first post-revolutionary parliament began its deliberations with an acrimonious debate over the name of the country - settling finally on the cumbersome "Czech and Slovak Federative Republic."

But none of this portended an actual schism until late 1991, when political leaders in Bratislava began to talk of Slovak "sovereignty." The theme was picked up and amplified as the parliamentary elections approached. Vladimir Meciar, former Slovak premier and communist official, mounted a campaign built around populist themes and a heavy dose of Slovak nationalism. In particular, Mr. Meciar's earthy appeal exploited the growing economic distress in Slovakia compared to the relative prosperity of Czech a reas.

The federal government in Prague had adopted an uncompromising program of rapid "cold-turkey" conversion to a market economy. As part of this inevitably painful transition, many large, inefficient state enterprises would be allowed to go bankrupt. Unfortunately for Slovakia, the most prominent examples were the huge antiquated armament plants that the communist regime had located there. As a consequence, unemployment was running close to 15 percent in Slovakia - nearly five times the rate in the Czech ar eas.

Meciar skillfully exploited this growing sense among Slovaks of getting the short end of the stick. But as the political rhetoric heated up, it precipitated for the first time a serious debate among the Czechs whether the federation should be kept together. The outcome of the June election elevated partition beyond debate to the realm of a serious, even likely, prospect. No party was successful nationwide. The victor in the Czech areas was Vaclav Klaus, a former finance minister, an unabashed admirer of Margaret Thatcher, and the architect of the economic-reform program. Meanwhile, Meciar triumphed in Slovakia.

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MECIAR and Klaus share a strong-willed drive for power. And each has helped destroy the moderate political center in this electorate - Meciar from the left and Klaus from the right. In other respects, however, the contrast between them could hardly be more stark. Mr. Klaus, a brilliant but uncompromising technocrat, is most at home among the super-bureaucrats of the European Community headquarters in Brussels. He is an unusual political leader who attaches greater value to his program than to anything el se - even the territorial integrity of the state. The task that consumes him is the economic transformation of the country and its early integration into the EC. He might be described as a prototype 21st-century man. Meciar, on the other hand, is an old-fashioned ethnic nationalist with a populist touch - a 19th-century man.

Not surprisingly, when the two met after the election there was an immediate clash of egos, styles, and priorities. Meciar made a series of demands in the name of Slovak nationalism that came very close - but stopped short of - a call for political independence. Klaus responded that these demands were incompatible with either a viable single state or economic reform. Therefore, Slovakia should go its way and free the Czech lands to pursue reform unburdened.

Meciar was clearly stunned; he had intended to use the threat of separation to extract concessions. Instead, he was being given a divorce. But Slovakia is entirely unprepared for independence, and Meciar knows it.

Nor does the populace want it. The crushing irony in this situation is that majority public opinion among both Czechs and Slovaks favors preservation of a united Czechoslovakia. This feeling is particularly strong in Slovakia, as the harsh economic realities of independence come into focus. Anyone in Bratislava in July when the Meciar government issued a "Declaration of Slovak Sovereignty" had to be struck by the near absence of any public enthusiasm or celebration. In the Czech areas polls have consiste ntly shown majority support for a united federation, although that support has waned in reaction to Meciar's rhetoric.

The inability of the center to hold reflects a failure of political leadership. Missing on the Slovak side has been a leader who could represent legitimate economic and political grievances in negotiations with Prague while muting, rather than exacerbating, Slovak nationalism. On the Czech side, there has been a lack of sensitivity to Slovakia's economic problems and to that region's wounded ethnic pride. What has been needed from Prague is an approach to negotiations that is less technocratic, more stee ped in history with a greater sense of the nationhood of Czechoslovakia, more patiently determined to find an acceptable political outcome - not just an economic one.

President Havel embodied these qualities, but he was unable to control the practical course of political events from an office that had little real power beyond his own personal moral authority.

What next? No one can predict the full consequences of separation. It is clear that there will be none of the internecine carnage that has accompanied the fracturing of Yugoslavia. But the economic impact is anybody's guess; little serious analysis has been done and the imponderables are legion. At a minimum there will be economic pain. In the Czech areas it may be of short duration. Prague, perhaps the most beautiful city in the world, has already become a mecca for tourists from Europe and North Americ a. Prague's earning power plus economic reform and a possible - but by no means certain - early entry into the EC suggest an economic future analogous to that of prosperous Austria.

The picture in Slovakia will likely be much bleaker. That republic starts from a much lower economic base. Statistics aside, anyone familiar with Prague and Bratislava recognizes the sharp economic disparities between the two capitals. Already there are clear signs of a retreat of potential foreign investment from Slovakia. The situation is epitomized in the comment of a Slovak factory manager who, when asked a few months ago if he thought Slovakia would secede from the federation, replied, "We are not t hat stupid." Until recently, the Meciar leadership seemed oblivious to the economic advantages of being joined with Prague and associated with the storybook quality of the Velvet Revolution and the international standing of a President Havel.

Most disquieting of all is the potential of a Meciar-led government, faced with severe economic and political pressures, to resort to authoritarianism. Meciar and many of those around him are former apparatchiks; they are democrats neither by instinct nor training.

Tragically, a country with a special appeal and stature is being dismembered by the forces of political parochialism and technocratic purism. It is a terrible shame; something humane and hopeful has been diminished in a world that needs all the humanity and hope it can get.

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