“Geopolitics has never witnessed such an amicable separation. Even though Czechoslovakia no longer exists, there remains a symbol of courageous resistance and sensible conflict resolution as both countries have evolved as neighbors, each paving their own paths.”
January 1, 2018 marked the 25th anniversary of the peaceful split and separation of Czechoslovakia into the sovereign nation-states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It is one of those quirks of history that a Velvet Revolution was associated with a smooth transition from Communism to Democracy.
The Velvet Divorce—the name given to the splitting of what was an Eastern bloc country firmly in the camp of Communism—echoed the bloodless Velvet Revolution that overthrew the country’s communists in 1989. To appreciate the complexities of the eventual split, it is important to understand the historical and political developments that took place.
Czechoslovakia became a nation-state after World War I, when it became independent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Following its division and partial incorporation into Nazi Germany until the end of World War II, it became a part of the East European Soviet sphere. Due to post-World War II chaos, the democratic president at the time, Eduard Benes, was forced to hand over power to the communists on February 25, 1948.
In the famous Prague Spring of 1968, massive reform swept through the Czechoslovakian government, with Alexander Dubcek at the helm. Although modest compared to Gorbachev’s own 1980s reform in the Soviet Union, human rights and a free press were encouraged, and civil society flourished.
This was too much for the Soviet regime of the time, and in August of 1968, Warsaw Pact troops invaded. Mass nonviolent civil resistance by Czechs ensued, which increased the cost to the Soviets of their occupation and stalled their complete control for about eight months.
Ultimately, in the aftermath of the 1968 invasion, the most repressive of the East European regimes were installed, and the pre-invasion reforms were swept away, leaving severe restrictions on economic activity and education, as well as free speech, even in comparison with neighboring communist countries. Between 1945 and 1989, 250,000 Czechs were imprisoned for political acts, 243 were executed, 3,000 died in prison, camps or mines, 400 were killed trying to cross the border, and 22,000 were sent to forced labor camps.
What Happened in November 1989?
November 17, 1989 set in motion the Velvet Revolution, which led to the peaceful overthrow of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. Around 15,000 students gathered in Prague to honor the memory of Jan Opletal, a student murdered by Nazi occupation forces and a symbol of Czech resistance. The Communists had granted permission for a procession that would end at the national cemetery at Vyšehrad. However, the march did not break up there, and despite instructions from the police, the students continued on into the center of downtown Prague toward the symbolic Wenceslas Square to voice their opposition to the anti-reform policies of the Communist leadership.
As the march neared the center of Prague, more and more people joined it. The unarmed students were hemmed in by the police, who began brutally attacking them. Around 600 of the demonstrators were injured. Although the record remains murky, apparently one of the security force officers posing as a student demonstrator feigned martyrdom, and a rumor spread that the police had killed one of the protestors, fanning the flames of outrage.
Many Czechs were shocked by the police’s brutality. The following day, students at universities in the capital declared a general strike and were soon joined by actors from Prague’s theaters. On November 19, Civic Forum was established, becoming the voice of the protesters and a partner in dialogue with the Communist regime. The road to democracy had begun.
The 1989 Velvet Revolution
Following that brutal police crack-down on an unarmed student demonstration in Prague on November 17, thousands of people took to the streets, asserting their desire for change. A week after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with East Germany, Poland, and Hungary already firmly set on the road to democracy, it was clear that the Eastern Bloc was crumbling.
The fall of the Iron Curtain ended nearly half a century of a divided Europe, changing the political map of the Old Continent and indeed the world. It marked the beginning of a new era for millions of people. During those tumultuous days, the eyes of the world were on the former Communist Bloc, with people around the world glued to their TV sets watching history in the making.
Only 11 days after November 17, 1989, when riot police had beaten peaceful student demonstrators in Prague, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia relinquished its power and allowed the single-party state to collapse. By December 29, 1989, the Velvet Revolution, led by the non-violent coalition Civic Forum, transformed Vaclav Havel from a dissident playwright into the president of a democratic Czechoslovakia.
With the post-communist federal government in its infancy and the political chaos that took place, the calls for two separate countries gained momentum, primarily in political circles. This was due to differing agendas, incompatible political developments and the lack of a clear common political direction. The newly elected president Vaclav Havel was firmly against any breakup. In fact, the majority of the population at the time was also against such an idea. In a country-wide poll from 1992, only 37% Czechs and 36% of Slovaks favored division and dissolution.
Politicians such as Vaclav Klaus, from the Czech side, wanted a tighter federal system or outright dissolution. Vladimir Meciar from the Slovak side favored a confederate system likened to that of Belgium. After multiple meetings and the failure to arrive at a common solution, Klaus and Meciar decided, along with their respective political advisors, that it was best for their countries to part ways and agreed to dissolution. This was a decision made exclusively by the “parental political authorities.” Soon after, Czech president Vaclav Havel resigned, seeing the decision as something that should not have happened and not something he was willing to be part of.
As is the case with most divorces, the “children” were not consulted. The split was now complete, without a referendum, without having asked the people if this was the direction they wanted to take. The lack of a referendum is, in retrospect, a commonly discussed and disputed point among the general public and many politicians. Perhaps it could be said that at the time at which these decisions were made, the simplest solution to growing problems was to divide and to determine each other’s future separately and without any violence. The question is whether the decision was the right one.
The Way Forward—Then and Now
Czechs and Slovaks did and do share a common bond. The historical partnership and mutual enrichment cannot be disputed. With the dissolution, many felt deprived, and many thought that it was not the right direction. Even after the dissolution of the state was decided, public opinion polls continued to show that a majority of Czechoslovaks preferred that the country remain as one.
In the early 1990s, as I traveled for several weeks throughout Eastern Europe, I encountered somewhat different perspectives on this “velvet divorce.” One person that I met on a train outside of Prague told me she had no regrets about the dissolution of the country of her birth and what had happened. She spoke Czech, Slovak, Russian, German, and a “little bit” of English, and with a mixture of German, English, and a dash of Russian, we managed a conversation! When I asked about the division of the country in 1993, she was most animated.
She was born Czech, her mother was Czech, and her father Slovak. Under communism, her parents applied for apartments, and finally one came through in Bratislava. The division of the country divided their family. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t move to Prague in those days, because they would have been treated as foreigners. She wasn’t happy with the situation in Slovakia. She said her salary was low and taxes were high. Because she spoke Czech, she was offered a job in Prague but refused, saying she wouldn’t leave Bratislava. Slovakia is an independent country, with a distinct history and culture, and of that Slovaks are very proud.
Even though she was born Czech, she insisted that the Slovaks had been ripped off by the Czechs, taking in more revenue than disbursing and that no one in Slovakia had second thoughts about the “velvet divorce.”
Another person I met, who was an ardent opponent of the breakup, told me that Czechoslovakia, as conceived by its first president, Tomas G. Masaryk, was a united nation with Germans, Jews, Czechs, and Slovaks, among others. As a new country, Czechoslovakia held onto its democratic institutions, even as other nations drifted towards fanaticism.
“The Germans were expelled after World War II, and most of the Jews were killed by the Nazis. Culturally, this was a tremendous loss. The Slovaks were for us,” she said. As the woman lit a candle at Wenceslas Monument in Prague that memorializes the Czech and Slovak nations’ becoming a federation in 1918, she recalled with wistful reflection the 75 years under the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a bond that survived a world war and 40 years of Communism. “Czechoslovakia was something special,” she said.
Today, developments seem to show that relationships between the Czech Republic and Slovakia are in fact better than ever before and at a level that only a few other countries can draw parallels to. The Czech Republic and Slovakia currently enjoy a relationship that should be the envy of any two neighboring countries. The two countries engage in joint infrastructure projects and provide joint military units for NATO operations.
Now both the Czech Republic and Slovakia are members of NATO and the EU. The role of the EU has been tremendously significant and positive. It is almost sure that without EU integration, the story of the split could have turned out to be a failure rather than a success for both nations.
Geopolitics has never witnessed such an amicable separation. This velvet divorce might not have been the most democratically orchestrated event in history. Even though Czechoslovakia no longer exists, there remains a symbol of courageous resistance and sensible conflict resolution as both countries have evolved as neighbors, each paving their own paths.