The 1993 split has been viewed as a peaceful rarity amid civil unrest and revolutions in many former Soviet Union countries, while many Czechoslovakians didn’t support it. What lies behind the divorce dubbed as ‘velvet’, and is it fair to paint it in a positive light?
“In terms of human life, 30 years spans a generation,” said Slovakia’s president Zuzana Čaputová in her New Year’s speech, drawing a parallel with the 30th anniversary of the country’s birth. On 1st January 1993, the two nations constituting Czech and Slovak Federative Republic quietly decided to go separate ways.
The public opinions
“According to the polls released at the time, the people of Czechoslovakia didn’t want its dissolution,” explains political analysist, Grigorij Mesežnikov, who moved to the Slovak part of the federation from Russia in 1981.
Mesežnikov spent the last night of 1992 in Bratislava, concerned rather than excited about what was soon to come.
“I was, and still am, a federalist at heart. Other people living in Bratislava felt the same way,” he says, pointing out that those who celebrated the split on the streets, drinking champagne straight from green glass bottles, were in a minority.
However, recent polls suggest that attitudes and emotions can change in 30 years. In Slovakia, the number of people who believe the dissolution was beneficial is marginally higher than of those who disagree.
Similarly to the Slovak polls, the pro and against groups in Czechia are almost identical in size (though a slightly different question was posed). However, in this case, more Czechs believe the dissolution wasn’t the right decision.
“It’s a shame we split up,” concludes Mesežnikov. The surveys suggest many of his contemporaries who experienced the spilt perceive it rather negatively, while the younger generation either agrees with it or doesn’t hold any opinion at all.
Czechoslovakia officially became a federation after the end of World War II in 1945. The 1993 dissolution was an outcome of a political agreement forged between the prime ministers of Czechoslovakia’s two constituents – Václav Klaus representing the Czech side, and Vladimír Mečiar for the Slovaks.
The division started in the summer of 1992 with Czechoslovakia’s second free parliamentary elections since its peaceful departure from the Soviet Union in 1989. Mesežnikov explains that “the results led to the situation in which two irreconcilable political parties came to power.”
In the Slovak part, Mečiar’s HZDS with its manifesto centred around the idea of confederation was elected. The Czechs opted for Klaus’ ODS, a party which called for a tighter federation or two separate independent countries. Czech historian, Jan Rychlík, agrees with Mesežnikov, suggesting the dissolution became inevitable after the elections.
Rychlík spent Czechoslovakia’s final night in Holíč, a Slovak birthplace of his wife located four kilometres from the Czech borders. Many of the locals had worked in the nearby town of Hodonín, present-day Czechia, so the mood there was “sombre, because no one knew what would happen next.”
After rounds of heated negotiations, the declaration of independence of the Slovak nation was adopted by the Slovak parliament, followed by the signing of an official dissolution agreement in Bratislava. Six months later at the start of 1993, the deed was completed. However, the citizens didn’t get the chance to have their say in a referendum.
This is where Mesežnikov and Rychlík disagree.
“Everyone who voted for HZDS by extension voted for the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, whether they realised it or not,” says Rychlík. “The same goes for the Czechs who cast their vote for ODS.” He believes the people of Czechoslovakia were given the opportunity to decide – and that’s what they did in the elections.
According to Mesežnikov, “when people voted for HZDS or ODS, it didn’t automatically mean they were supporting the dissolution.” He says the parties agreed to disagree because they were aware of their differences.
“The Czechs supported the continuation of the liberal economical reforms and strenghtening of democracy, whereas the Slovaks opted out for a nationalist, semi-authoritarian party, refusing the reforms introduced by Klaus.”
He also believes that it was these contradicting approaches which led Mečiar and Klaus to decide the country’s future behind closed doors, rather than in a public referendum. “They were afraid of the referendum, because they didn’t know what to do if the people of Czechoslovakia officially showed they wanted to stay together.”
The majority of Czechs and Slovaks believe it was their right to decide in a referendum. According to the poll done by Median, 86% of respondents in Slovak Republic and 76% in Czechia maintain this opinion.
The Velvet Divorce
Despite the absence of a referendum, the dissolution is often painted in a positive light as peaceful, without bloodshed and victims. Extending the rosy sentiment of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, many call the end of Czechoslovakia a Velvet Divorce. “The reason why it’s often described this way is the period in which it happened: there was a war raging in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union was, not very peacefully, falling apart,” says Mesežnikov.
What he considers the most commendable aspect of the post-breakup transition is the way it was logistically handled. “Thanks to the Czechs, the division of the shared property and our currency was technically very well executed.”
There are two possible explanations for the smooth breakdown of the federation into two independent countries. In Rychlík’s opinion, there were no disputable matters between the new countries, which wasn’t the case in the ongoing conflicts in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.
Moreover, “the border between Czech and Slovak Republic is one of the oldest boundaries in Europe, dating back to the 12th century,” he continues. “In Czechoslovakia, it was used to divide the Slovak and Moravian parts. It was obvious that there would be no changes to the border if the federation split.”
Mesežnikov adds that the dissolution couldn’t be anything but peaceful due to the closeness between Czechs and Slovaks. “Out of all EU nations, I think that the Czechs and Slovaks are currently the closest ones,” he explains based on the report published by the Institute for Public Affairs, a think-tank he co-founded. When asked about what nation was the closest to them within the Visegrad Group and the EU in general, both Czechs and Slovaks picked each other.
Although many of those living in Czechia and Slovakia consider the day they bid farewell to their shared country the right step forward, they continue to call one another brothers. Even when remembering the 30th anniversary of the history-changing December night, both governments and the countries’ presidents celebrated it together.
In her opening speech at this event, Zuzana Čaputová summarised the Velvet Divorce in one sentence: “Despite going our separate ways 30 years ago, friendship and togetherness connect us until this day.”
Feature photograph taken by Jef Kratochvíl.