The Velvet Divorce

September 1 st 1995

Three Years Later

With the approach of yet another Quebec referendum, it is appropriate to examine the experience of other nations that have faced similar crises and found durable and amicable solutions. One of these, the so-called "Velvet Divorce" which led to the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, is especially compelling, given the similarities between the Czechoslovak and Canada situations and the peaceful manner in which they achieved it.

The Historical Context

While the union of the Czech and Slovak peoples was never a particularly happy one, it did nevertheless have its advantages, for it offered Slovaks release from a thousand years of Hungarian domination and gave Czechs the independent state they had long sought. Still, the very different histories, cultures, and stages of economic and social development of the Czech and Slovak peoples made future conflict likely and planted the seeds of the resentment that would dog Czechoslovakia throughout its history.

For instance, at the time of union, Czech society was highly urbanized and cosmopolitan with a long history of industrialization and technological sophistication. And in spite of the brutal re-catholicization that followed the Thirty Years' War, the essence of the Czech soul remained remarkably Protestant.

On the other hand, Slovak society was largely agricultural and its culture was devoutly Roman Catholic, very traditional, and quite conservative. These differences worked to the advantage of Czechs and allowed them to dominate national institutions. This dominance combined with the higher standard of living enjoyed by Czechs became a constant source of resentment for Slovaks.

However, many Czechs also harboured resentment toward Slovaks whom they saw as holding them back from even greater success. Such grievances would provide fertile ground for the growth of Czech and Slovak nationalism following the fall of Communism. And while this did not make a break inevitable, it did nevertheless create a climate of mutual distrust and irritation that would facilitate the events that were to follow.

And even where there were similarities, these were not necessarily happy ones. For instance, both possessed large national minorities such as the ethnic Germans in the Czech Lands and the Gypsies and ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia that occasionally precipitated conflict between Czechoslovakia and its neighbours and contributed to the political instability of this new country.

The Communist Era

The post-World War Two period saw new initiatives aimed at enhancing the cohesiveness of Czechoslovakia. A first—and highly controversial—step involved the expulsion of some national minorities, in particular, the huge German minority associated in the minds of many with the German occupation of the country.

Following the Communist coup, government policy became committed to reducing the economic disparity that existed between the Czech and Slovak regions of the country. As part of this, the government invested heavily in Slovakia during the 1950s and 1960s which led to the creation of many new enterprises in Slovakia—especially in heavy industry—and the building up of the region's infrastructure. And while this did reduce economic disparity (the Slovak share of national income rose from 19 per cent in 1948 to 24 per cent in 1960 and eventually to 27 per cent in 1970), it had the unintended effect of increasing the resentment felt by many Czechs toward their Slovak brothers and sisters.

Slovaks also benefitted politically during this period, in particular as a result of the Constitutional Act of October 28, 1968 which established Czechoslovakia as a federal state in which Slovakia—in theory at least—was to enjoy more say over its own affairs.

The Velvet Revolution

The overthrow of the communist government ushered in a new phase in Czech-Slovak relations, especially as economic reforms and changes in external trade following the collapse of the Soviet Union began to damage living standards. As the economic pain increased, the political landscape also changed and the anticommunist movements that had cooperated reasonably well until then—the Czech Civic Forum and the Slovak Public Against Violence—fragmented into a number of political parties.

It was during this period that two strong-willed individuals came to dominate Czechoslovak politics—Vaclav Klaus, leader of the Czech, pro-market Civic Democratic Party, and Vladimír Me_iar, head of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia. The uncompromising approaches of these two leaders would be a major factor in the split to follow.

The Velvet Divorce

Pressure for more Slovak autonomy began to increase as Slovak voters showed strong support for those parties advocating Slovakia's right to self-determination. However, such support did not necessarily mean that most Slovaks actually wanted total independence. Moreover, while Slovak politicians might demand more autonomy—or even threaten separation—most probably did not have a detailed picture of just what this would entail. And while many Czechs were growing impatient with seemingly endless Slovak demands, few—at least initially—viewed "divorce" as the solution.

Unfortunately, a number of incidents conspired further to undermine trust between Czechs and Slovaks. These included the acrimonious debate on changing the country's name, the sabotaging of the presidency of Vaclav Havel by Slovak deputies, and the rough treatment received by President Havel by Slovak extremists at an official ceremony in Bratislava and subsequent similar treatment of Slovak Deputies by Czech nationalists.

At the same time, many Czech reformers—including the Czech Prime Minister—concluded that real and rapid economic reform was impossible as long as the Czech lands were joined to Slovakia since Slovak Deputies would refuse to permit any reforms that might threaten Slovak jobs and industries.

And while the Slovak National Council did in fact adopt a declaration of Slovak sovereignty, this was probably meant more as a pressure tactic than an actual move toward total independence. However, the indecent haste with which Czech Prime Minister Klaus offered them full independence suggests that he may not have been totally distressed at such a prospect.

In the end, political negotiations were concluded and ratified by the Czech and Slovak Parliaments in late 1992 under which the country's assets, debts, and military were split based on the population of the two groups—two-thirds to the Czech Republic and one-third to Slovakia.

The Fallout from Independence

Few Czechs were distressed by this divorce since many felt that the less prosperous Slovakia represented a drag on Czech economic progress. Subsequent events suggest that this may indeed have been the case since within a year the Czech economy had put most of the negative economic consequences of separation behind it, had privatized large segments of its economy, and was seen as possessing the most promising economy of the former Communist countries of East and Central Europe.

This trend has continued to the present and will likely gather even more strength in the future. At present, unemployment in the Czech Republic is low, inflation is falling, the currency is stable, economic growth is running at a rate of 4 per cent plus, and there was actually a budget surplus in 1994.

Sadly, the Slovak situation has not been as successful. Unemployment and inflation are high and are only now starting to improve. Heavy-handed government interference in the economy, political instability, and a very slow pace of privatization continue to hamper economic recovery and discourage the foreign investment so badly needed if Slovak industries are to modernize and seek new markets.

Fortunately, the Slovak situation is also finally starting to improve, for it predicted that this year will see a budget deficit of less than 3 per cent of GDP, inflation below 10 per cent, and an unemployment rate of 14 per cent (compared with an inflation rate of 22 per cent and a 15.1 per cent unemployment rate one year after independence). Most encouraging, the GDP is expected to grow at a very brisk rate of 5 per cent this year.

Still, politics remain a problem for Slovakia and the new coalition government headed by the somewhat quixotic Vladimír Meiar brings together an unlikely marriage of an ultra-nationalist, right-wing party with a far-left neo-communist party. The fact that this neo-communist party was put in charge of the Ministry responsible for privatization shows the paradoxical quality of this new government.

Lessons for Canada

The similarities between the Canadian situation and that which existed in the former Czechoslovakia are compelling—and chilling given the final resolution of the Czechoslovak crisis. In both cases, there has been a tendency for the minority partner to feel disenfranchised and disadvantaged and so demand that the central government reduce disparities and grant greater autonomy. At times, this call has included threats of separation.

As in the Czechoslovak situation, Canadian federal government efforts at reducing economic disparities have enjoyed considerable success. The paradox, of course, is that this success has neither diminished the sense of grievance felt in Quebec nor the demands for autonomy or outright independence. And as happened earlier with the Czech people, citizens of English Canada now seem to be developing what can best be described as "donor fatigue."

The "Velvet Divorce" offers a number of important lessons for anyone concerned with Canada's perpetual constitutional crisis. The first one relates to the strength of nationalism as a force in history. Clearly, many peoples conclude at some point in their histories that nothing short of actual statehood will suffice. And when this happens, some nations rush boldly into independence. However, there are other cases (and Slovakia seems to be such an example) where nations almost accidentally stumble into independence—often before they are fully prepared for it.

There is a real possibility that this fate could face Quebec as well—if not this time, then perhaps during some future constitutional crisis.

A second lesson relates to the fallout from separation. The clear lesson from the "Velvet Divorce" suggests that the impact of separation depends largely on how well each party is prepared for it and what policies are pursued following separation. For, while it is true that the Czech economy was in more robust shape than that of Slovakia at the time of separation, it is equally true that the policies followed by the Czech Republic and the patience and willingness to sacrifice shown by the Czech people ensured that the pain of divorce would be short lived. Slovakia, on the other hand, seems neither to have been totally prepared for the pain to come nor to have had a well-thought out plan for dealing with the inevitable dislocation.

Finally, it is clear that many historical events quickly take on a logic of their own and slip out of the grasp of those who seek to control or use them. In both Slovakia and Quebec, citizens who did not support separation voted for parties whose main policy plank was independence. The underlying logic for such seemingly paradoxical behaviour may be that voters were betting that they could use these parties to squeeze further concessions from the central government without actually having to separate in the end. If this was the bet, many Slovak voters clearly lost it.

It remains to be seen whether a similar fate awaits Quebec.


Paul Malvern is an Ottawa-based consultant.