Czech Republic and Slovakia
25 Years After the Velvet Divorce
Czechoslovakia split into two independent states a quarter of a century ago. It never would have happened if the people had decided. What kind of relationship do the Czech Republic and Slovakia have today?
In light of the tempestuous attempts to gain independence that we are witnessing now, the dissolution of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic (?FSR) 25 years ago was almost exemplary, going just as smoothly as the revolution against the Socialist government just a few years earlier. However, if we take a second look we see there is room for a more ambivalent assessment. It is true that the majority of the population was never in favor of this divorce. The split was based neither on efforts at emancipation on the part of the Slovakian people nor on an irreconcilable attitude between the people on either side of the country. The shared country ultimately failed due to the participating political elite’s inability and lack of will to create a constitution or a treaty on the relationship of the two republics. The protagonists – the prime ministers of the two republics, conservative Václav Klaus, later president of the Czech Republic, and Slovakian national populist Vladimír Me?iar – had fundamentally different ideas of how the state should be constructed and what form its economic transformation should take. In July 1992 negotiations began to shift from what form the shared country should have to how to split the country in a controlled way. Yet if a referendum had been held, this split never would have occurred.
Much in common despite going different paths
Ten years after the dissolution, most of Slovakia and the Czech Republic had accepted the situation; today that acceptance is even more widespread. Their shared history remains indisputable – even if assessments of it sometimes cause controversy – as does their shared cultural proximity, which is expressed in their language and their passion for their national sport, ice hockey. At the same time, they are anything but bitter. Quite the contrary, there is a great deal of mutual trust. In fact, according to a study by the IVO Institut in 2016, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have by far the greatest mutual trust of all the Visegrád states. Around 80 percent of those surveyed considered the other country to be a reliable partner. Similarly, they continue to maintain very familiar and friendly relations and show a high level of mutual interest, which can be seen in the figures for cross-border visits, for example. In short, Czechs and Slovaks are now getting along better than they ever have. Slovak sociologist O?ga Gyárfášová, a coauthor of the IVO study, comes to the same conclusion, saying you could call the two states the “most amicable of divorced couples.”
The two states did not have a level playing field when the dissolution took place in 1993, however. The Czech Republic quickly completed its democratic consolidation and had a functioning state with established institutions, corresponding know-how and a homogeneous society. In addition, it was the only country in Central Europe to modernize early on. Slovakia faced much more significant challenges as a new state. It modernized sluggishly, had a heterogeneous society and was the only country in Central Europe that had never had sustained historical experience as an autonomous state. On top of this, its consolidation stagnated due to the authoritarian regime of Vladimír Me?iar (1994-1998). In the 2000s, however, Slovakia began an impressive catch-up process and has since been posting growth rates that are among the highest in the EU, earning it the name “Tatra Tiger.” For 2015 and 2016 as well, the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Social Governance Indicators (SGI) indicated strong economic growth of over three percent, leading to falling unemployment and a stronger budget. However, as the authors of the Slovakia country report point out, serious problems remain in the fight against corruption and in the education and healthcare sectors.
Integration needs and EU skepticism
Although the Czech Republic and Slovakia have been EU members since 2004, the two of them have had different policy orientations in this regard. Under Prime Minister Václav Klaus (1992-1998), the Czech Republic followed a path of slow harmonization with the EU – always emphasizing its autonomy. When Klaus was the country’s president (2003-2013) he even adopted a decidedly Euro-skeptical course. By contrast, Slovakia’s elite and its general public both viewed European integration as an important issue following the Me?iar regime’s less-than-friendly stance towards the EU. For instance, Slovakia was the first post-socialist accession country to introduce the euro (in 2009). Regardless of their party’s policy color, Slovakian governments wanted to be perceived as good Europeans. This did not change until the refugee crisis.
Migration policy became a catalyst for the cohesion and visibility of the Visegrád Group. This regional organization, which has existed since 1991 and comprises members Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, was united in its rejection of the EU’s management of the refugee crisis, and most of all it was united – across party lines – against how refugees were to be distributed. Right-wing populists Orbán and Szydlo stood shoulder-to-shoulder with social democrats Sobotka und Fico, who is frequently characterized as a left-wing populist. All four demanded rigorous protection of EU external borders and rejected an open-door policy. Observers saw Victor Orbán attempt to use the Visegrád Group as a platform to mobilize support for his Euro-skeptic policy. And yet the unity induced by the migration crisis should not overvalued. For instance, these countries were ultimately not unified when the European Council voted on the distribution of refugees in September 2015: While Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia (as well as Romania) voted against the decision, Poland voted for it. Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico even brought charges against the decision before the CJEU. There is a lack of commonalities in other areas too. After parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic, for example, Fico, of all people, was quick to point out that ‘Slovakia has become a pro-European island in the region.’ In fact, a new line of conflict is indeed crystallizing between the four states, with one camp for constructive cooperation on the European path of reform with France and Germany while the other is turning away not only from the European path but from the path of democracy and the rule of law. Slovakia has clearly positioned itself with its will to remain anchored in the heart of Europe; the Czech Republic’s path is still unclear.