Czechoslovakia Velvet Divorce

The Czechoslovakia Velvet Divorce

It’s one of those historical quirks that the Velvet Revolution was associated with a smooth transition from Communism to Democracy but not so many people heard about the Velvet Divorce.

villa tugendhat with pasted pictures of vaclav klaus and vladimir meciar
Meciar on the left, Klaus on the right

January 1st 2018 marked the 25th Anniversary of the separation of Czechoslovakia into the sovereign nation states of Slovakia and the Czech Republic. It’s a common question during the walking tours to be asked when did the country split. Less common is the question of how and why it came to split. This is a story of two characters:

Václav Klaus – Head of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), Federal Finance Minister, Czech Legislature member
Vladimir Meciar – Head of the Movement for Slovak Democracy (HZDS), Slovak Legislature Member

The Geographical Background

At the beginning of 1918, Slovakia existed only as a region of Hungary that contained the majority of a people with what was called Slovak ethnicity. Czech was then made up of the two main regions of Bohemia to the west and Moravia to the east. With the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hungary was basically cut to pieces along ethnic lines and the ethnic region of Slovaks joined with the Czech regions to become on October 28th 1918, Czechoslovakia (curiously Slovakia recognises October 30th). The actual Slovakian border was not defined until the Treaty of Trianon in 1921. The new Czech border also formally incorporated previously ethnic German speaking areas of Silesia (north-east Czech) and the Sudetenland (in German, the territory of the Sudet mountain range).

The Political Background

In 1968 at the time of the Prague Spring, Czechoslovakia was a country unified both geographically and politically. Nationally, delegates would be elected to serve in a Prague-based National assembly. However in 1969 the political union was broken with the introduction of the Czechoslovak Federation (CSFR) so from then on you had the Czech Federation and the Slovak Federation both with their own political legislatures called National Councils. One providing the President, the other providing the Primeminister (Premier) whilst over both with the decision making power was the Communist party. National power was concentrated at the Federal Assembly building in Prague (later the Radio Free Europe building) above Wenceslas Square next to the National Museum. The Czech National Council was based at what is now the Czech Parliament building.

The 1989 Velvet Revolution

If you put the demonstrations and protests to one side, the outcome of the Velvet Revolution was primarily to remove the Communist party from power and install a democratic government. This government would have to be made up of the two separate federations and largely one political party encompassing everything from far-left to far-right collectively called the Civic Forum. Cutting out the communist party meant that the two national legislatures would begin taking their own decisions laying the groundwork for the Velvet Divorce.

1992 Elections

By 1992 the Civic Forum had split into smaller parties that reflected their politics and nationwide parliamentary elections were held in June of that year. The result of those elections was that the Czech Federation dominated by the ODS and Václav Klaus was moving to the right whilst the Slovak Federation was moving left under the HZDS and Vladimir Meciar. Nobody had a majority so Václav Klaus became the person to find a way forward. He has always said that he entered into negotiations in good faith but found a Slovak Federation that was clearly focused on a separation with a desire for it’s own National Bank, Armed Forces and Foreign Policy.

The End Comes Quickly

In the mind of Václav Klaus this was a straightforward decision. Splitting from the smaller, poorer, politically opposite part of the country made sense. By July 17th only a month after the elections the Slovak Assembly voted for Independence and on the 23rd the Czech negotiators ratified it with the border defined as more or less what was present in 1918. On August 26th the famous “meeting under the tree” took place between Klaus and Meciar in the garden of the Villa Tugendhat. The Czech President Václav Havel, powerless to prevent it, resigned in protest saying that he would not preside over the split although he was elected first President of the Czech Republic. There was no referendum. It was a smooth transition and hence, the Velvet Divorce.

A Surreal Moment

So on New Year’s Eve in Prague 1992 as people celebrated the coming year, on the stroke of twelve came an event never before witnessed. Two National Anthems were played. First the Czechoslovak Anthem played for the last time and immediately after it the new Czech National Anthem.

On January 1st 1993 the Czech Republic and Slovakia were born. Both Václav Klaus and Vladimir Meciar became Primeminister (Premier) of their respective countries and later, President.

The Czech Republic kept the old Czechoslovak flag and if you want, you can also call us Czechia.

Picture Credit: Cesky Rozhlas (radio.cz)