Czechs and Slovaks head for 'velvet divorce'

Issue 

By Peter Annear

PRAGUE — Leading Czech and Slovak politicians agreed on a formula that will divide the Czechoslovak federation into two independent republics, during discussions that culminated on June 17. The agreement is the result of voting in June 5-6 elections that gave right-wing parties control of the Czech republic and left and nationalist forces control of Slovakia, while no party won influence across the federation.

It is not clear, however, that the outcome meets the wishes of most people in Czechoslovakia. Opinion polls show that a big majority in both republics prefer to remain united.

Nonetheless, the negotiations have inflamed nationalist sentiment in the dominant Czech Republic, where more than 50,000 citizens recently signed a petition seeking a referendum on Czech independence if Czech demands were not met.

As a result of the agreement, Vaclav Klaus, leader of the Czech-based Civic Democratic Party (ODS), decided not to assume the position of federal prime minister but instead to install himself as premier of the Czech republic alone. The flamboyant Vladimir Meciar, leader of the Movement For a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), will be the Slovak premier.

This leaves the federal government virtually powerless over the political, economic and social affairs of the two republics, and it will probably assume the role of a caretaker overseeing the dissolution of the common state. ODS deputy leader Miroslav Macek described the role of the federal government as organising a "velvet divorce", only three years after Czechoslovakia's so-called Velvet Revolution.

The agreement came after the third round of talks between the ODS and the HZDS. But the talks remained deadlocked on all basic issues, and both sides admitted the chances of breaking the impasse were minimal.

Meciar was quoted as saying the federal government would now function as if there were a confederation, except for some adjustment to the area of foreign affairs (the Slovak side has demanded a greater say in foreign policy). Klaus replied that he was "not so optimistic".

Under the agreement, leading posts will reflect parity between the two republics. Thus, the chairperson of the parliament will be a Slovak, though current chairperson Alexander Dubcek is to be replaced by HZDS deputy leader Michal Kovac. If the prime minister is a Czech, the foreign minister will be a Slovak. The ministries of the interior and defence, and finance and economics, will be similarly divided.

Hard line by Klaus

Klaus, who leads the largest single force in parliament, had been nominated by President Vaclav Havel to begin negotiations on the formation of a new federal government. But Meciar told journalists on June 14 that Klaus' chances of doing that depended

on how willing he was to meet the HZDS half way. It appears that did not happen.

ODS spokesperson Jiri Schneider said Klaus' decision to shift his attention to the Czech republic alone was to ensure "that the election results in the Czech republic will not go to waste and that the transformation of society and the economy will continue in the way the voters have chosen". He overlooked the fact that the ODS won only a third of the vote in the Czech republic.

The Czech lands account for 66% of the Czechoslovak population, more than 70% of national output, 80% of foreign trade and 95% of foreign investment. While the west, and the European Community in particular, have made noises in favour of maintaining the federation, it is clear they would come behind an independent Czech state.

Novy Slovak, published in the Slovakian capital, Bratislava, earlier commented that the Czech politicians represented by Klaus were doing their best to create the impression that the Slovaks are breaking up the common state. It said that unreasonable demands for preserving the privileged status of the Czech economy at the expense of the Slovak economy were the biggest obstacle to a rational coexistence of the Czechs and Slovaks.

"We went neither to Brno nor to Prague [the sight of negotiations] willing to dissolve the common state", Meciar told the Slovak Republic News Agency after initial negotiations. "We are only pushing through such a form of coexistence that would be beneficial for the common interests of Czechs and Slovaks."

The HZDS argued for replacing the existing federation with a confederation of two sovereign states, which was also described as a defence and currency union. But Klaus rejected the idea of a confederation out of hand and demanded either a speedy resolution of outstanding differences or the dissolution of the common state.

Economy

The biggest differences are over the administration of the economy. Though the HZDS is committed to the privatisation and liberalisation of the Slovak economy, it seeks a much more gradual transition than the ODS proposes to carry out in the Czech lands.

The HZDS has considered suspending the federal government's mass coupon privatisation scheme, which it believes favours specific interests, and plans to introduce various alternatives, including support for management buy-outs, leasing of state-owned plants by private interests and employee share ownership schemes. It would provide more state support for Slovak industry, including easier loan facilities to small entrepreneurs and state aid to bankrupt enterprises.

The HZDS wants both to attract more foreign capital to the Slovak republic and to exercise a stricter control over capital entering the country. It wants a separate Slovak central bank and the right to issue currency in some form (perhaps just a separate

printing of a common currency). It would support a common federal monetary policy, but has differences over responsibility for taxation, customs and price policies.

Havel

While the ODS and the rightist Czech parties had supported Havel's desire to continue in the post of federal president, Meciar targeted Havel for special criticism, saying the HZDS would not support his re-election because of his evident opposition to the Slovak party. Havel had called for voters not to support nationalist parties.

In the course of the campaign and the subsequent dispute over the common state, Havel moved to the right, making a firmer alliance with the ODS and Klaus, his long-time rival. "I want to assert the continuation of the courageous economic reforms for which our country has opted ... which, according to my firm convictions, are the only path to the recovery of our crumbling economy", he said in a post-election weekly broadcast.

"I'm not going to pledge my allegiance to the constitution of a state that may not exist in half a year" he said. "I will not be a clerk in charge of dismantling something". He claimed he would rather be defeated by a vote of the HZDS than give in to demands that compromise his principles.

Both KSCM (Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia) leader Jiri Svoboda and Alexander Dubcek, leader of the Slovak Social Democratic Party, emphasised that neither the ODS nor the HZDS had a mandate to decide upon the destruction of the federation. The future of the federation should be decided by the appropriate legislative bodies once they met, Svoboda said.

The KSCM and other leftist parties in Prague expressed their support for the HZDS in negotiations, particularly with regard to parity representation for Slovaks in federal bodies.

But other left-of-centre parties in the Czech republic came behind the ODS, including the Prague-based Czechoslovak Social Democracy and the centre-left Liberal Social Union. Both supported Klaus's attempts to form a federal government.

The Czechoslovak Association of Employers and the Czech and Slovak Confederation of Trade Unions issued a joint communiqué against the HZDS idea of a loose union between the republics and agreed that only a federation accommodating all national interests was acceptable, preferring a split otherwise.

The chance now exists to address specific economic and social problems in the Slovak republic, including high unemployment, falling wages and the erosion of pension entitlements. The HZDS promised it would take care of these problems; now it is to be seen what the Meciar leadership can do to overcome them.

Moreover, Slovakia's 600,000-strong Hungarian minority has cause to be concerned following antagonistic remarks by Meciar and other HZDS politicians, who claim the Hungarians are a privileged section of the population.