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Czechs and Slovaks

AS conflicts among Yugoslavia's south Slavs have fractured the state, so in Czechoslovakia divisions between the two west Slav nations are widening and threatening the survival of the federation. Although frictions between Slovaks and Czechs do not threaten to erupt into destructive violence, they will seriously complicate the country's political and economic progress. While Slovaks grope to find their national identity, the Czechs are growing impatient with endless political skirmishes that could impedethe country's development. It now seems certain that a national referendum will be held to ascertain whether the majority of citizens favor federation or separation between the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia and the Slovak republic. But the exact wording of the plebiscite has still to be decided and will engender fresh conflicts. A simple yes-no response will only beg the question of what kind of federal arrangement is to be pursued and how much power in defense and fiscal policy is to devolve to the two republican governments . Expressing their rediscovered national consciousness, Slovak leaders consider it essential that a "state treaty" be signed between Prague and Bratislava prior to the adoption of republican and federal constitutions. But there are serious problems with the content of any agreement: whether it is an interstate or intrastate treaty, and whether Slovakia has the right to secede if a treaty cannot be ratified. The debate on the future of Czech-Slovak relations has radicalized the political scene in Slovakia and distracted attention from the pressing challenges of privatization and marketization. The most pro-federalist and pro-market movement, the Public Against Violence (VPN), which won last year's elections, has fractured and lost considerable popular support. The remaining parties are either confederalists or outright separatists, differing largely on the timing of the divorce. Even Jan Carnogursky, the mod erate Christian Democratic prime minister, recently asserted that Slovakia would gain independence by the end of the decade. Although his main intention was to avoid a damaging split in the party over Slovak autonomy, the statement caused consternation in Prague. Slovakia's reawakening should be interpreted as a positive development; and even national independence, if it is the will of the majority of Slovaks, should not be condemned nor undercut. But an equally important concern is what comes after statehood, and whether a stable political system will emerge to tackle the republic's mounting economic problems effectively. The current indicators are not encouraging. Political parties remain small, fluid, based on personalities, and without distinct economic progr ams. Inter-party coalitions are likely to be provisional and unstable. Moreover, the preelection climate (general elections are scheduled for mid-1992) is not conducive to deep reform, as politicians may be unwilling to lose popularity by implementing tough economic policies. Slovakia is already bearing the brunt of the country's swelling unemployment rate, currently estimated at nearly 6 percent, twice that of the Czech lands, while foreign investment is only trickling in. Slovakia has inherited a skewered economy from the communists, geared toward heavy industries and arms production, where plant closures and extensive layoffs are likely to hit the hardest. Growing unemployment and the absence of job alternatives will in turn fuel both populist and separatist sentiments, an d could trigger conflicts with the large Hungarian minority. Rumors persist of a communist-nationalist alliance that could command substantial support in upcoming elections. The stance of former premier Vladimir Meciar, who recently broke with the VPN to form his own party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, will be crucial in deciding the republic's direction. He appears to be tilting toward the retention of a predominantly state-controlled economy. But his charisma could still become an asset if it is hitched to a program of market reform. SLOVAK citizens appear to be confused and apprehensive over the unpredictable post-revolutionary developments. Fear of economic hardship, suspicion about Prague's motives, and uncertainty over the wisest political choices could increase public susceptibility to leaders pledging easy and unrealistic solutions to complex problems. But the populist temptation will merely delay the marketization process, deter crucial foreign investments, and even isolate the country from the European mainstream. Slovakia is not Slovenia. While Slovenia has undertaken significant strides toward a market economy and is gearing itself toward integration with its West European neighbors, in Slovakia the full restoration of capitalism has been obstructed and the democratic system remains underdeveloped. Nonetheless, the secession and international recognition of Slovenia could act as a catalyst for the Slovaks. Prague in turn may grow tired of endless inter-republican squabbles and decide to cut its losses with Bratislava. A leader of the Civic Democratic Party, the most popular grouping in the Czech lands, disclosed that if Slovakia acts as a brake on capitalism and European integration, Prague would seriously consider separation. It is not Slovak aspirations toward statehood and national independence that the West should oppose, as every nationality must have the right to self-determination. It is the damaging currents of state socialism and populist intolerance haunting some corners of the post-communist world that should be discouraged and countered. To assure a democratic and market-oriented future, Slovakia must be assisted in its economic and political transformation. The recent opening of a US consulate in Bratislava and an Agency for International Development office in Prague will help, by helping to channel public and private involvement and investment. But above all, Slovak sensibilities must be understood and the republic cannot be treated as a mere appendage of the Czechs.