BRATISLAVA, Czechoslovakia -- When Frantisek Hutka arrived here 55 years ago in the capital of Slovakia, all but five of the mailmen were Czechs.
And that was just the beginning.
"There were Czechs everywhere, in all the offices," said Mr. Hutka, who became the sixth Slovak mailman in town.
To the fiercely proud Slovaks, being dominated by the Czechs is a sore point.
It is a point that even today threatens the stability of Czechoslovakia, a country of 15.7 million people struggling to overcome the ravages of 41 years of Communist rule.
Mr. Hutka was encountered in the heart of this provincial city, on his way down Slovak National Uprising Square to play chess with cronies at a government recreation center.
He is a roly-poly 80-year-old whose light blue eyes sparkle and laugh even when he says vicious things about the Czechs.
And he had a lot to say. For example, he paused in Slovak National Uprising Square to accuse the Czechs of cowardice. The square commemorates the Slovak uprising against the Nazis in 1944.
"The Czechs didn't do it," he said. "We contributed to the liberation."
Of course, the Czechs have a stinging retort: The majority of Slovaks prospered under the Nazis, and they were the only people in Europe who paid the Nazis to take local Jews away.
The antipathy between Czechs and Slovaks is rooted in 1918, when the Republic of Czechoslovakia was formed. The Slovaks thought they were entering into an equal partnership, a federal government in which two semi-autonomous republics shared power.
Instead, they found that the Czechs, who outnumbered them 2-1, controlled the government and the economy. Slovaks were treated like illiterate, poor country cousins, which, in a sense, they were.
When the two peoples merged, the Czech lands were more economically developed and the Czechs were better educated than the Slovaks, who inhabited a largely agricultural region.
The Czech version of events is that they had to control the post office and other civil services in Slovakia because there weren't enough well-educated Slovaks to do the job.
Mr. Hutka remembers things a bit differently.
He was one of nine of children from a poor family, but he learned Morse code and the operation of the telephone system, skills that qualified him to work in the developing urban world.
The Czechs say that both during the First Republic, which lasted from 1918 to 1939, and then under the Communists from 1949 to 1989, they poured billions of crowns into the Slovak economy to make it more industrial.
The Slovaks concede that the Czechs invested money in Slovakia, but insist that for years the Czech-dominated central government in Prague took all the profits.
"They wouldn't be where they are now if they didn't have Slovakia," said Mr. Hutka.
The dispute heated up in December when the Slovak regional premier, Vladimir Meciar, threatened virtual secession unless the federal parliament passed a power-sharing law that had been negotiated by the Czech and Slovak regional governments.
President Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright-turned-politician, responded by telling the Federal Assembly that he needed special, temporary powers to keep the country together.
The assembly managed to pass a power-sharing law that is acceptable to all sides, at least for now. It gives Czechs and Slovaks more control over their regional economies and more responsibility for their respective budgets.
But Mr. Havel's request for more presidential power is apt to face stiff opposition in the legislature from Slovak representatives, many of whom advocate the creation of an independent Slovakia.
The separatist Slovak National Party seems to be in decline, but even middle-of-the-road Slovak parties such as the Christian Democratic Movement, which is part of the current Slovak government, advocate Slovak independence before the country enters the European Community.
"We were a Slovak state during World War II. We had a very good time then. There is no reason why we couldn't do it again," said Mr. Hutka, referring to the Slovak puppet state created by the Nazis in 1939.
Mr. Hutka, who was born in Bastra Bystra in 1910, remembers the war period well, because all the Czechs were removed from the postal service and he was promoted to postmaster.
"The Czechs don't want to recognize that these six years were successful," Mr. Hutka said.
"They try to press their hegemony. They don't want to give Slovaks any rights."
Not everyone crossing Slovak National Uprising Square on a cold December afternoon shared Mr. Hutka's views.
"It's baloney. It's nonsense. Slovakia can't exist without the Czech land. The economies are just too intertwined," said Eduard Ryba, a 32-year-old engineer who was carrying home Christmas presents for his children.
Eva Paskova, a 42-year-old civil engineer, said she didn't believe the Slovaks could survive without the Czechs. But she agreed that there was a long history of Czech discrimination against the Slovaks.
"I don't mind Czechs," she said, "but they don't like Slovaks."
The antagonism between Czechs and Slovaks seems puzzling at first. Both are Slavic people, and their languages are almost as close as American and British English. Both were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the start of World War I.
But a stop in their respective capitals reveals some differences.
Prague, capital of both the Czech republic and the federal government, is a city of Gothic splendor that reflects its past glories.
Under Charles IV, Prague was the majestic capital of the Holy Roman Empire.
Today it is a city of 1.2 million. Like Rome, it is built on seven hills and split by a winding river, the Vltava, which is spanned by 16 bridges.
Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, has been known for much of its existence by other names.
For 1,000 years, it was controlled by the Hungarians, who called it Pozsony. The Germans and Austrians called it Pressburg.
It has a small, charming old town area, much of it built in the 14th century, flush on the bank of the Danube River. It has a history going back 2,000 years, but the glories in its history were those of other people -- the Romans, Celts and Hungarians. Today it has a population of 430,000, and everyone seems to want to assert the Slovak identity.
Religion also divides these people. Slovaks like Mr. Hutka are largely Roman Catholic, while the Czechs tend to be rather nonreligious, although nominally they are a mixture of Catholic and Protestant.
Even here there is bitterness.
The Czechs equate the Slovaks' Catholicism with support for the fascists during World War II. The Slovaks equate the Czechs' virtual atheism with support for the Communists.
There has been a series of disputes between Czechs and Slovaks in the 13 months since the Communist government fell, some rather comic.
One of the first was the "hyphen fight." Like other countries emerging from Communist control, one of the first things Czechoslovakia did was change its name, which had formally been the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.
It was proposed that the country be called the Czechoslovak Federal Republic. But the Slovaks wanted it called the Czecho-Slovak Federal Republic, giving equal weight to both groups.
The Czechs objected because "Czecho" as a word is ungrammatical. The compromise was the unwieldy "Czech and Slovak Federal Republic." People joke that the name is so confusing that at soccer matches, people will think there are three teams on the field.
It hasn't all been humorous.
There was a recent dispute over the division of profits from the oil and gas pipelines from the Soviet Union that pass through Slovakia into Czech lands.
The profits were divided up by the regional governments on the basis of population -- which meant two-thirds went to the Czechs and only one-third to the Slovaks.
The Slovaks complained that, since most of the pipeline was on their territory, they should get a larger share of the profits.
Following a dramatic televised speech by Mr. Havel Dec. 10, a compromise was worked out to divide the profits equally.
But no one seriously expects the troubles to end there. The Czechoslovaks will be writing three new constitutions sometime in the next 18 months: one for the federal government, and separate ones for the regional governments in the Czech and Slovak republics.
And there are bound to be tensions emerging from the transition from a centrally controlled economy to a free-market economy.
The Czechs seem to be in a better position to withstand the shock. They have a technologically advanced economy that produces finished industrial products, such as cars, machine tools, specialty steels and equipment.
The Slovaks produce more raw materials, as well as basic steel products, chemicals and armaments. The Slovaks have 80,000 people employed in the defense industry, most making tanks and armored vehicles, and Slovak economic officials expect that only 6,000 of those jobs can be saved.
In contrast, the Czechs have only about 35,000 people working in the defense industry, many making small arms and precision instruments for which there is expected to be continuing demand.
When the economic problems hit, Mr. Hutka doubts that the country's current leaders will treat the Slovaks any better than he thinks the Communists did.
"The present representation is doing nothing. They have no other goal than to get as much advantage as they can for themselves," said Mr. Hutka.
"The trough is the same, only the pigs are different, and these pigs are more clever than the previous pigs."