The Economist: The impact of Czechoslovakia’s split

January 4, 2017

A quarter of a century ago, as international attention focused on the bloody conflict in the Balkans, another multinational European state quietly split in two. The “Velvet Divorce”, the name given to the splitting of Czechoslovakia on January 1st 1993, echoed the bloodless Velvet Revolution that overthrew the country’s communists in 1989. It suggests the partition was amicable. In fact, only a minority of citizens on both sides—just 37% of Slovaks and 36% of Czechs—supported breaking up. Vaclav Havel, a revolutionary icon who was president of Czechoslovakia at the time, was so discouraged that he resigned rather than preside over the split. While raw nationalism fueled the conflict in Yugoslavia, economics and inept leadership were the prime causes of Czechoslovakia’s haemorrhage—a dynamic that presages the struggle for independence in contemporary Catalonia.

The two peoples had experienced separation before. Even when both groups were part of the old Habsburg empire, the Czechs were governed from Vienna and the Slovaks were administered by Hungary. Czechoslovakia itself was carved out of the Austro-Hungarian empire after the first world war. During the second, Slovakia declared independence and formed a Nazi-allied puppet state while the Czechs endured direct occupation by the Germans. After the communist takeover in 1948 the Czech lands, once the industrial heart of Austria-Hungary, benefited from the regime’s emphasis on heavy industry. But redistributive state policies sought to spur development in the more agricultural and mountainous Slovak territories. By 1992 Slovak GDP per head had closed to three-quarters of the Czech figure. Still, the animus created on the Czech side by these payments, and on the Slovak side by the perception that their fate lay in the hands of Prague bureaucrats, was exploitable by ambitious politicians. While Mr Havel remained the global face of postcommunist Czechoslovakia, a federalised political system saw a pair of powerful domestic operators—Vaclav Klaus, the Czech prime minister, and Vladimir Meciar, the Slovak premier—emerge…