The Death of a Nation

By Dorothy Marcic
Fulbrght Scholar
Prague, The Czech Republic

First Published: Minneapolis Star-Tribune — January 21, 1993

By November, though, we all knew it was hopeless.  On January 1, 1993, there would be two countries instead of one. Actually, as far as Slovakia was concerned, there were two countries much earlier.  They started passing their own laws and acting on them more than a month before the split.  In July, Slovakia passed a declaration of sovereignty.  We drove through Slovakia in December and there was a bright and shiny new sign announcing that we entered, “The Republic of Slovakia.”

Many of us just thought it couldn’t happen.  In November, Lubos Beniak, the editor of Mlady Svet, one of the country’s most popular magazines, even apologized in an opinion piece in Time Magazine, saying he had told many foreign journalists the country would never split.

At one point, in October, the federal assembly rejected a constitutional amendment approving the split.  Immediately, one of the major political parties came out in favor of a “loose confederation.”  Yes, we thought, the country will  stay together. Within a few days, though, ex-president Vaclav Havel, who had earlier been the united country’s chief defender, criticized the move.  He had finally come to see that the velvet divorce had gone too far to turn back.

How could such a thing happen when most people were not in favor of it?  Polls showed about 25% of Czechs and only slightly more Slovaks wanted the split.  A friend who lives in Slovakia told me he has not met a single adult Slovak who wanted the split.

Perhaps the first death pangs were sounded in April of 1990 when the name of the country was changed to “The Czech and Slovak Federal Republic.”  This was an early recognition that the new country had some independent elements.  A few months later, in September, the parliament passed a radical economic reform program proposed by then-Finance Minister (and now Premier of the Czech Republic) Vaclav Klaus.  Slovakia’s entreaties for a slower program were given scant attention.

Slovaks, in fact, have felt unappreciated and discounted by Czechs for decades.  The current complaints have centered around not being heard in the parliament and the disproportionate amount of investment going to the Czech lands (Bohemia and Moravia).  “Everything is in Prague,” was the common cry.

The real death knell sounded, though, this past June when Klaus was elected Czech Premier and Vladimir Meciar was elected Premier of Slovakia.  These two could almost not have more diametrically opposed views on economics.  Klaus is so far right he nearly out-Friedmans Milton Friedman.  Meciar, on the other hand, comes from the old Communist school and favors more state intervention and longer support of sagging industries, of which there are many in Slovakia.  It was clear from that time that the parliament would be deadlocked in arguments on how to proceed with the country’s development.

Less than two weeks later, Klaus and Meciar met to discuss forming a new federal government.  Instead, they quickly moved to the topic of a split.  Not long after, Slovakia announced its soveignty and Havel resigned as President, not wishing to preside over the death of his country.

During the next few months, there were flurries of meetings between Klaus and Meciar, who came up with a dissolution blueprint, Slovakia passed its own constitution, and plans were developed for property division.  However, the people were never asked.  In fact, it was illegal to make such a consequential decision without the will of the people.  Somehow, though, the two republics managed to by-pass holding referendums.

Again, one asks, how could such a thing happen when most people did not want it?  Partly, no doubt, many understood the inevitability of dissolution with such contrasting ideologies of the two premiers.  Also, one realizes this is not a nation where the citizens had been allowed, for more than forty years under communism, to have a voice.  In fact, those who did speak out, such as Havel, were severely punished and often imprisoned.  People are amazingly adaptive.  We learn, under such conditions, to keep quiet, to keep our ideas to ourselves.  The best thing, of course, is to even keep the ideas limited.  Its safer.  Such ways of thinking did not end when the communist government left like carpetbaggers run out of town by the citizens.  Changes as this take time.  Much time.

I stood outside in the bitter cold on New Year’s Eve.  We were in Sumperk, in northern Moravia.  Youth were sending off fireworks into the sky, running about and shouting.  At midnight about 80 of us joined hands in a huge circle and sang songs.  It was that same bittersweet feeling brought by the end of the old and the start of the new.

This year, though, it was different.  For in the space of a few minutes a country had died.  The sadness was overwhelming and I had to fight back tears.  Two women, a Czech and a Slovak, who stood near me looked at one another.  They were friends, and had shared many things, including their nation.  One of them said it all with,

“Now we come from different countries.”

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