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Velvet divorce: 25 years later, it's a reason for pride

Exactly 25 years ago, on August 26th, 1992, Czech and Slovak prime ministers Václav Klaus and Vladimír Mečiar, the winners of the elections, reached the agreement that they would peacefully dissolve Czechoslovakia.

On that day, pictures such as this one by the well-known adventurous photographer Mr Jef Kratochvíl of Brno were (mostly illegally) taken in the garden of Villa Tugendhat in Brno, Moravia, one of the pioneering gems of Europe's modern functionalist architecture (which I find just a little bit prettier than the similar communist concrete-block architecture of the late 20th century but let me avoid criticisms here).

At that time, most Czechs would probably prefer the continuation of Czechoslovakia that they identified with. Most Slovaks either wanted some independent state or a much looser union, a confederacy of a sort, that was considered a messy third way by the elected Czech political elite. At any rate, as Václav Klaus mentioned today, they had the unusual window of opportunity to do something that wouldn't be possible today – because the European Union would try to "ban it" with all possible tools.

Germany had lots of its problems after the unification, there was a war in Yugoslavia, tension in Russia etc., so everyone was willing to give Czechs and Slovaks lots of room to rearrange their statehood. And as we know today, it was a clear success.

You know, a peaceful dissolution of a country is something that sounds as a borderline oxymoron. The United States of America failed to peacefully dissolve some 150 years, and so did Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and many many others. When someone wants to secede or divide a country, it is expected to lead to huge tensions, problems, and a conflict.

Well, now we have at least one clean counterexample. Especially now, when we look at the messy, slow, ineffective, and often malicious negotiations about the Brexit, I am increasingly certain that the dissolution of Czechoslovakia must be viewed as a unique example, as something that nobody else has ever been capable of doing, something that everyone who wants to split a country should study as the basic textbook material.

OK, so what was going on? First, we must understand that Czechs and Slovaks were nearby but for most of the second millennium, they lived in sufficiently different conditions.

Sometime in 9th century, some two centuries after Slavic tribes came to Central Europe, Czechs and Slovaks were basically united in the Great Moravia, a medieval version of Czechoslovakia. However, 100 years later, Czechia already started to establish itself as a very stable kingdom that would belong to the Holy Roman Empire and evolve as a part of the broader German and/or Austrian civilization. On the other hand, Slovaks quickly became a stateless Slavic-language-speaking minority within the Kingdom of Hungary. Slovakia would only be "in the same state as us" as long as the whole Kingdom of Hungary was controlled by the Hapsburg House as well.

For many centuries, Czechia was cultural, civilized, and soon to be industrialized, Slovakia was underdeveloped, lacking the official language, and agricultural. A significant fraction of Czechs would think of German speakers as their bosses while it was the Hungarians who played the same role in Slovakia. Only in the 19th century, Slovaks started to identify themselves as a nation – something that could have its nation state on a sunny day in the future – and they decided what the rules of the official language should be. Up to that moment, Slovaks' speech was a continuum of dialects that had to be identified as dialects of Czech because that was the only written, cultural language they could understand if they tried.

In 1918, when Austria-Hungary split, Czechoslovakia was created as a unitary state whose main ethnic group is the Czechoslovak nation. That was a matter of interpretation. One nation, two nations – the "right" answer may be bent, of course, and it was bent because of a very good reason. The Czechoslovak nation had a clear majority in the new country of Czechoslovakia – while the number of ethnic Germans was just some 3 million – and this relative uniformity was considered a good thing by Woodrow Wilson and other important Western politicians who gave the green light to Czechoslovakia.

But you could still see two nations if you wanted and it became important in the late 1930s. Slovaks were much more likely to be alienated by Czechoslovakia – which was unavoidably a "Greater Czechia" to one extent or another, as countries with dominant and more advanced parts usually are – and Hitler used the Slovak nationalism as one of the main tools to destroy Czechoslovakia. During the Second World War, Slovaks had the only independent nation state in their history (before 1993).

Czechoslovakia was restored as a unitary state in 1945. In 1968, mostly independently of the Prague Spring (but I think that the Prague Spring made it more possible to change the administrative divisions as well), Czechoslovakia became a federal country composed of two republics. After the 1989 Velvet Revolution, Slovaks suddenly got much more freedom to discuss the independence or relationships with Czechia again and new tensions and ideas arose.

Between 1990 and 1992, many Czech and Slovak politicians had to fight in the Hyphen War. (There exists a metawar about how to call the Hyphen War: Czechs call it the Dash War because we refuse to distinguish Dashes and Hyphens. These are still more amusing conflicts than the genocide in Yugoslavia, right?) Should the country be called Czechoslovakia or Czecho-Slovakia? Note that Czechoslovakia was the name of the "First Republic" between 1918 and 1938 (as well as the country between 1945 and 1989) while Czecho-Slovakia was the name of the "Second Republic" that existed for half a year between the 1938 Munich Treaty (German annexation of the Sudetenland) and the March 1939 occupation of Czechia. For these reasons, Czechs would clearly prefer Czechoslovakia. Slovaks preferred Czecho-Slovakia, despite the fascist-tainted image, but e.g. the Slovak National Party that was a key force behind the Slovak independent was tainted by fascism in other respects as well so who cared.

So the country was actually called Czechoslovakia in the Czech language and Czecho-Slovakia in the Slovak language. This was still not satisfactory for some, especially Slovaks, so the name was changed to the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic. The name may have sounded OK in English. But in Czech and Slovak, it had to be written with capital letters ČSFR which violated the rules of Czech as well as Slovak grammar because only the first word of such names should be capitalized (that would be terrible politically because Slovaks would still get a smaller letter than the Czechs LOL). But who cared about grammar... And so on. ;-)

Fine. All these things became irrelevant in June 1992 when elections took place. Right-wing ODS of Václav Klaus won in Czechia, the left-wing emotional HZDS of former boxer Vladimír Mečiar won in Slovakia. The different results highlighted that the parts of Czechoslovakia are thinking as two nations, mostly independently, and politicians had to figure out what to do with it. To keep the federal country would mean lots of imbalances, need to deal with the secessionist movement etc.

Although it was "very likely" from the elections – and in July, the Slovak parliament declared the independence – the process was only "officially confirmed" at the Czechoslovak level on August 26th in Brno. Even though Slovakia was the main driver of the dissolution, the Czech negotiators were much more ready for the talks, they made sure that certain things couldn't be stolen or questioned, and they authored most of the treaties etc.

What mattered weren't technical details. What mattered was that Klaus and Mečiar had some very good chemistry, they were really working together, and they were bound to politically benefit from a problem-free dissolution of Czechoslovakia which they did, indeed. For that reason, they could trust the words of each other, even without signatures. And everyone could be very generous.

So all the buildings and immovable assets were divided according to the place – the border between Czechia and Slovakia was completely clear (some trade of 2 villages notwithstanding) because it had been the border between Austria and Hungary in the Habsburg Empire, and it was recently known as the border between the two parts in the federal state (that has existed since 1968). And all the movable assets were divided by the 2-to-1 ratio. Note that the ratio of populations wasn't even precisely 2-to-1, of course. But you wouldn't know whether the population and not e.g. area should be the key and all these things were close to the 2-to-1 ratio. So this was an example of the generosity that was everywhere.

You may imagine that even this coefficient, 2-to-1, could become a reason for terrible verbal conflicts if not wars if the two sides weren't willing to be generous. One side could have fought for 1.9, the other for 2.1, and 5% of the population could be killed in the war to settle this problem, thus providing you with a good estimate of the error margin for the number 1.9-2.1. But no conflicts like that were even remotely possible. The two sides weren't trying to obsessively fight for every crown of the Czechoslovak assets. They were primarily working together in fairly dividing the federal state.

Six weeks after the new countries began to exist, on January 1st, 1993, the currency had to be split as well, due to the dynamics of a self-fulfilling prophesy that started to devour the agreed upon currency union. Some people started to be afraid of the possibility that the currencies could be split as well, which would leave them with Slovak crowns if they kept them in Slovakia. So they were moving the cash to the banks on the Czech territory, not to record this loss. So Slovak banks were running out of cash for that reason, and that's why a solution had to be found, and the solution was indeed the split of the currencies. The split was totally smooth and problem-free as well. Again, such an event could be considered a borderline tautological nightmare but it wasn't one.

Slovakia did much better than expected by most. Also, the Slovak currency (they started at parity) was at most 20-25 percent weaker than its Czech counterpart. Many people had predicted the exchange rate to soon become 2-to-1 or worse. These days, the Slovak GDP per capita is just some 5+ percent lower than the Czech GDP per capita. The Czecho-Slovak gap has shrunk tremendously from 1918, indeed. Slovakia did very well after the Velvet Divorce despite the fact that it lost the subsidies – the financial transfers within Czechoslovakia were mostly going from Czechia to Slovakia, of course.

I want to emphasize that this success of Slovakia in particular has disproved some prejudices that most Czechs had believed at some point. And the lesson one should learn from this story is way more general.

Well, between 1990 and 1992, Czechs mostly considered Czechoslovakia as "obviously our country", attempts to split it were "obviously stupid", and those who promoted it had to be "dumb" or some "fascists" etc. Slovakia would be in deep trouble without us, we would often say and hear. We would have the pre-1918 image of an underdeveloped Slovakia in front of our eyes. But were these prophesies right? They weren't provably right – the poor agricultural Slovakia was an image of the distant past that isn't necessarily equal to the future.

With hindsight, today, we know that these slogans meant to mock, bully, or intimidate Slovaks were totally wrong. Slovaks' abilities were misunderstood and understated – they were misunderestimated, as George W. Bush would put it. Slovakia was a smaller nation and had even a detectably lower GDP per capita. And a much shorter history of its statehood and culture and official language and industry. But for some reasons, none of these things really mattered.

So sometimes during 1992, most Czechs were gradually transformed from the "arrogant older brothers" who would repeat how lousy the Slovaks were and how hopeless their future would be without us; to pragmatic people who say that if the independence really seems such a widespread dream in Slovakia, they simply have the right to get it and they should live for their money according to their rules. We didn't really care much, we decided, and we were already getting tired of some of the characteristic Slovak points and formulations, anyway. Klaus has played a key role in this transformation – both his shining pragmatism and his having a Slovak wife could have helped.

Some Czechs wouldn't get rid of the "Czech supremacy" even after August 26th when the plan for the Velvet Divorce was signed by both sides. Václav Havel resigned as a president to protest the dissolution of Czechoslovakia – well, he didn't have a problem to become the president of the new Czech Republic from Day 1, however. ;-) Havel's resignation actually did help things. Mečiar and Havel really hated each other and Mečiar demanded that Havel couldn't have any power up to the last day of Czechoslovakia. Some other Czech (or other) politicians could find this condition way too ambitious – needless to say, for Klaus, it was another nice cherry on the pie and a formality. ;-)

Many of these sentiments were somewhat amusingly and insightfully sketched in the last episode of the Czech Century series: Let Them Go. Before they discussed the dissolution itself, Mečiar asked Klaus to block Havel from presidency by the end of 1992, Klaus agrees. And because Havel has tried to create some compromising materials against Mečiar, Mečiar also wanted his folks to control the Czechoslovak intelligence in the rest of the year. Klaus asked: "Is it this important for you?" Mečiar said "Yes." – "So in that case, I agree with it."

I don't know whether these dialogues are historically accurate but I bet they're at least very close to the accurate dialogues and the general message is correct. These turned out to be incredibly smooth, pretty much affable negotiations – especially if you compare them with the seemingly big and messy event that they were planning.

Last 11 minutes on the F1 [federal] channel of the Czechoslovak television, on December 31st, 1992. The ethnic Czech acting president of Czechoslovakia Mr Stráský and the ethnic Slovak boss of the Czechoslovak Parliament Mr Kováč, later a Slovak president, said some words. At 8:35 in the video, kids beautifully sing the Czechoslovak anthem at the Charles bridge for the last time. At midnight, F1 became ČT2, the second Czech public program, starts with the Czech anthem (whose theme is surprisingly similar as the first part of the federal anthem a minute earlier) and within a year, these TV frequencies were taken over by Czech TV NOVA (stock ticker: CETV), the post-communist Europe's first serious commercial TV station. The music following the female host's emotional, propaganda-style New Year monologue (dedicated to the genuine change that took place at that moment) immediately following the midnight was less formal. ;-) By the way, I am shocked by YouTube. At the beginning of this video, there's some music I used to play on the piano. I couldn't remember what it was. My first guess was Schumann's Dreaming. But that wasn't it. However, YouTube immediately offered me a Zdeněk Fibich's composition among the 3 top related videos and it's the right one! Are they really so similar? Or did YouTube know that I was watching to Fibich inside the F1 video above? I believe that Fibich's composition had a name. Can you help me: What was it? Update: Oh, I see, I think it was simply called a "Poem" (these 4 letters) there when I played it 30 years ago. The memory is cleaning itself but not so quickly. ;-)

Well, after 1993, Mečiar became a sort of an authoritarian prime minister of Slovakia and he was a target of European criticisms that are somewhat analogous to those against Viktor Orbán. I didn't become a real fan of Mečiar. It was only my Slovak American friend Ms Zuzana S. who started to convert me to some more friendly relationships towards Mečiar and his voters in New Jersey in the late 1997.

But I really want to emphasize this point: I do remember how it feels to be a part of a group think that is widespread in the bigger nation or a self-described stronger part of a union among the two. I know what it means to repeat slogans saying that the other side is lame and its future is hopeless because they're smaller and therefore dumber, less productive, less defensible, and other things. In most cases, it's just group think and there exists no evidence to support such things.

There really isn't any reason to think that a smaller country will do worse than a bigger one. There isn't much correlation between a country's current GDP and its growth rate, either. And so on, and so on. So all these tricks trying to abuse the other nation's small size into arguments that the dissolution is a suicidal idea for the smaller nation are just logically flawed and, in some sense, nasty. They may be repeated by lots of mindless parrots because the larger nation – e.g. Czechs in this case – is larger, so it has more room for parrots, too. But their large number doesn't make their bird opinions any more valid.

I am hearing (and reading about) the same kind of arrogance from the European Union and its fans all the time.

The pro-EU brainwashed fanatics love to say that the U.K. is doomed without the EU. And they love to say similar negative things about the Visegrád Group, post-communist or Eastern Europe in general, and others. You won't survive without the European Union! And you're so poor and dependent on the bigger part. And you surely can't afford to pay a fine for the refusal to Islamize your territory, and so on, and so on. Well, all such comments are just piles of junk. There isn't any rational reason to think that the U.K. or Czechia or the Visegrád Group or the whole post-communist Europe should be doomed outside the European Union. This is nothing else than a trash talk that is characteristic of sports events or wars – there is almost nothing factually meaningful about them.

And if the U.K. and/or others end up being in some trouble, it may be just due to some deliberate and hostile policies by the "bigger side", in this case represented by Brussels, Berlin, and Paris. And in most cases, both sides actually pay for such hostilities. But folks in Western Europe, you should ask: Should I actually try to hurt the U.K. or Czechia or Visegrád or post-communist Europe? Shouldn't I be, let me dare to say it, a nice and constructive person or politician or party or nation or commission instead? ;-)

In Summer 1992, quarter a century ago, most Czechs started to seriously think about an analogous question and they arrived to a clear answer: No. We shouldn't try to hurt Slovakia. It's not in our interest. It is obvious that Slovaks are different in some respects than we are. They will realize that we're still the pair of two closest nations you can find in Europe – and the prime ministers emphasized that today – but the differences exist and are obvious, too. So let them live according to their flavor of the values and ideals! When you like or respect your sibling, you don't demand him to be identical to you, either, do you? Well, the Verlinde brothers could be exceptions.

Slovakia has gotten this opportunity and it has proven its viability. Things are really fine on the Czecho-Slovak border today. Why can't Brussels and London try to emulate similar processes, with the same generosity, mutual respect, and pragmatism? Britons' opinions about Europe and its and their future are statistically different from the opinions of Macron's or Merkel's voters. Don't you realize, folks in the continental Western Europe, that if you're completely unable to tolerate this different, something is seriously wrong with you and the political system based on the people like you? Well, you should realize it because it's the case.

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