National rivalries trouble Czechoslovakia

July 31, 1991

By Peter Annear

Since the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution of November 1989, there has been increasing debate over nationalism among the Slovak people, about one-third of the country's 15 million population. In the second of a series, PETER ANNEAR looks at economic factors behind the national frictions.

One cause of differences is Slovakia's unique history. In the view of Slovak MP Ivan Laluha, a member of the now-dissolved Obroda reform Communist group and an expert on Slovak political history, Slovakia has more cultural and economic links to the Ukraine and the Soviet Union; the Czechs have the same sort of links with Germany. Today, the USSR represents buying power for textiles, weapons and other major Slovak products while Prague looks to the markets of western Europe.

Early in the northern spring, I took a trip to Bratislava to investigate.

Lying a midnight-to-dawn train trip away from Prague, the Slovak capital seems to many remote from the nation's capital. Vienna is a mere 60 kilometres west, and Budapest 250 kilometres south. As Czechoslovakia's second-largest city, Bratislava accommodates half a million people and one-sixth of Slovakian industry, mainly engineering, metallurgy, chemicals and rubber fabrication.

This Danubian city was the Hungarian capital for nearly three centuries, the monarchy's government sitting in Bratislava's ancient castle, which overlooks the city from a ridge rising above the river to the east of the Old Town. A Hungarian minority in the far east of the republic remains as a legacy of 800 years of Magyar rule.

From the 18th century, Bratislava was also the centre of a Slovak national movement against the Magyars. But Slovakia only ever achieved any sort of "independence" from 1939 to 1945 as a Nazi vassal state.

As Hitler's troops occupied the Czech lands on the night of March 14-15, 1939, the Slovak Congress, with Nazi support, declared independence under president Jozef Tiso, a priest who led the ruling Slovak People's Party after the death of its founder, Father Andre Klinka, at the age of 74 in 1938.

Extremists

Tiso's irksome role remains an issue, especially his responsibility for the "solution" of the "Jewish question". Before the war, Czechoslovakia was home to 360,000 Jews, a community with

a thousand-year history. Now, fewer than 7000 remain. Some 58,000 Jews were deported from Slovakia to Germany between March and October 1942. Few survived. No other unoccupied country at the time carried out such deportations of its own accord.

Sentenced as a war criminal, Tiso was executed in Bratislava in 1947. On March 14, 1991, Slovak National Unity, whose aim is an independent Slovak state, erected a cross on his grave in the Martin cemetery, where a crowd of 2000 heard federal parliamentary deputy Stanislav Panis praise Tiso's "merits for the Slovak nation".

Fortunately, the Tiso current is a small minority in the Slovak political movement. Panis was denounced for his fascistic sentiments.

As light snow fell on a cold spring morning in late March, I watched a lone stalwart of Slovak sovereignty set up a stall in Slovak National Uprising square, which commemorates the 1944 revolt against the Nazis. Shouts of "Down with Prague" and "Independence" had echoed around the square when tens of thousands crammed it earlier that month, after which a number of disparate nationalist groups had launched a declaration of sovereignty.

Three days later, federal president Vaclav Havel, who had stated the break-up of Czechoslovakia had to be seriously considered — as long as it was carried out constitutionally — provocatively attended a smaller ultraright protest on the anniversary of the formation of Tiso's quisling state. Predictably, the crowd jostled and abused him, a scene Havel's minders (who want to paint the national movement as extremist) undoubtedly regarded as good evening viewing on Prague's TV news.

But support for the extremists has declined. While votes for the largest separatist group, the Slovak National Party, tumbled from 14% in last June's federal elections to only 3.2% in November local elections, the drift went not to the troubled, ruling Public Against Violence (VPN, the Slovak sister to Civic Forum) but to the moderately nationalist Christian Democrats, and to the former communists in the Party of the Democratic Left (SDL).

Old regime

In Bratislava there has been less of a forced march away from the traditions of the previous 40 years than is evident in Prague, and many of the symbols of Communist rule remain. Red Army bridge still spans the Danube. You can still drink coffee at the Iskra cafe. Leninska Street still leads down to the old town. The parliament of the Slovak republic is found on October Square.

The lesser concern to rename city streets may be explained by the attention the former regime paid both to Bratislava's development

and to the industrialisation of Slovakia — though there was good and bad in it.

Among recent memories is the progressive part played by Slovak demands for parity in economic and social development in the rise of democratic sentiment during the 1968 Prague Spring, evidenced by the emergence of a Slovak, Alexander Dubcek, as the leading representative of the Communist Party reformers. Even though it was crushed, 1968 forced the pro-Soviet Husak regime to give more attention to Slovakia's economic development.

Since the Velvet Revolution, the social and economic gap between the country's two halves has widened, both in fact and in the public consciousness, as a result of the government's privatisation program.

Unemployment is now double in Slovakia what it is in the Czech republic. And the industries which will suffer most because of privatisation, especially heavy industries including armaments, are located in Slovakia, putting a further 80,000 to 100,000 jobs at risk.

Two economies

New priorities are now needed for Slovak industries, Slovak industry minister Jan Holcik said in an interview with Green Left Weekly in Bratislava. The current economic problems are the result of "Velvet Revolution confusion", he said. Holcik is a leader of the liberal Democratic Party.

"We have two different economies, Czech and Slovak. The Czech economy has more finished goods and accounts for almost all Czechoslovak exports. Before the second world war, Czechoslovakia was known all over the world as one of the most industrially developed countries in Europe, but this development remained mainly in the Czech republic."

Holcik said problems arose from Slovakia's closer trade connections with the Soviet Union. "The finished products of Slovakian industry are placed earlier in the productive process than Czech goods [less value added], and were largely directed to the USSR; now this trade is destroyed.

"Eighty-five thousand workers now face the very difficult problems of retraining or unemployment. Our tanks [the highly regarded TS-Martin] were very good and they were exported to local [socialist] countries. But now we see after the Gulf War the tank is not a very good investment because one rocket is able to destroy a million-dollar tank.

"The exclusive emphasis in the past on developing heavy industry in Slovakia — steel, aluminium, chemicals — will have negative effects for some time. This industry depends on the

import of a very large volume of raw materials, incurs high energy costs and has very bad effects on the environment."

Holcik said there had been little effort to reduce pollution in the past. "Our chemical industry relies 100% on imported crude oil, which now totals 6 million tonnes annually, 100% of our natural gas is imported, and most raw materials are imported 100%.

"While Slovakia's sovereignty and its policies are not respected, we think the popular nationalist pressure will exist. We could say the federal [Civic Forum] government is now representing the former unitary communist system. We know that our federative republic must exist, but the priority is to have two equally developed republics — similar, not completely equal, because capital cannot know borders."

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