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What Divides Czechs from Slovaks?


The birth pangs of developing a multi-party system for majority rule threaten to be even more agonizing in Czechoslovakia than in Poland.

Poles lack only a government, seven months after their first free vote. Czechs and Slovaks may lose their whole country.

The good news is that Prague's parliament is not as splintered as its Warsaw counterpart. Czechoslovakia's second free election this June -- the first one two years ago was basically a referendum in which everyone voted to kick out the Communists -- gave a workable plurality of 34 percent to economic reformers in the Czech lands to the west.

However, in the Slovak lands to the east, where the election was contested by an almost entirely different set of parties, it simultaneously gave a workable plurality of 37 percent to nationalists whose program is diametrically opposed to that of the Civic Democratic Party, which won in the west.

The bad news, therefore, is that the country now threatens to split up after 70 years and that the political center has been gutted.

Finance Minister Vaclav Klaus, now the Czech victor, and Vladimir Meciar, the Slovak winner, talked for 10 hours Thursday without resolving their differnces. They meet again today, but so far their contacts have looked more like skirmishes than negotiations.

To begin with, Mr. Klaus, the leader of the Civic Democrats and father of stringent free-market reform, is determined to continue his anti-inflation, pro-export, sink-or-swim privatization. Mr. Meciar, by contrast, wants state subsidies to preserve jobs in inefficient smokestack factories in the weaker economy of Slovakia. This puts him and his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia well to the left of Mr. Klaus, along with the Communist successor parties, which made a surprisingly good showing of 14 percent in the election.

Mr. Meciar now plans to form a minority government with the toleration of the ex-Communists; in the future even a coalition is not ruled out, since the moderate Christian Democrats did too poorly to give him a viable coalition in the center.

In the second major dispute, Mr. Meciar wants Slovak autonomy. He has avoided going as far as the more radical nationalists in the campaign, who called for full independence -- and got only 7 percent of the vote. But he is demanding a separate Slovak constitution and a "treaty" to regulate economic and security relations between the 5 million Slovaks and 10 million Czechs.

The Czechs find this preposterous after 70 years in which they were the senior political and industrial partner to the rural Slovaks. Some Czechs even suspect the Slovaks of wanting to return to the kind of nasty ultra-right nationalism that prevailed during the brief independence Adolf Hitler gave them in the 1940s.

From their point of view, however, many Slovaks resent being lorded over by the know-it-all Czechs. They say it was bad enough when Slovaks emerged from centuries of Hungarian rule after World War I, only to come into a united Slavic country under the rule of the Czechs, the long-time bureaucrats of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The situation only got worse, they say, under the highly centralized one-party rule of the Communists. And, they conclude, Czechs should acknowledge there has been inequality and make amends.

The third argument between Mr. Klaus and Mr. Meciar -- about Vaclav Havel, the playwright-dissident suddenly turned president of Czechoslovakia in the "velvet revolution" of 1989 -- follows from the second. Mr. Klaus says Mr. Havel must continue in office as the Czech's most popular symbol of the post-Communist spirit. Mr. Meciar says he must go, as the indefatigable campaigner for Czechoslovak union and the warner against politicians with "dictatorial tendencies."

Here Mr. Meciar holds the high cards; he can easily block Mr. Havel's relection in July by the two chambers of the Federal Assembly. Besides, it is not clear how committed Mr. Klaus really is to Mr. Havel. Mr. Havel is Mr. Klaus' only significant political rival in the Czech lands, and Mr. Havel, although officially non-partisan during the campaign, was considered closest to the Civic Democratic Forum, which has sparred with Mr. Klaus over several issues, including economic policy.

The Forum failed to win the 5 percent minimum needed to get into the parliament, and thus contributed to the evaporation of the center in the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia. One of the party's chief campaigners, Deputy Foreign Minister Jan Palous, speaks of the "unfortunate polarization" in both left-right and Czech-Slovak confrontation as the middle disappeared.

Is a bargain now possible in which Mr. Klaus would dump Mr. Havel and soften his free-market precepts in Slovakia in return for keeping some kind of federation.

Optimists point out that common sense favors continued union. Disunion would not lead to war as in Yugolavia, but it could mean economic suicide for Slovakia, which for 70 years has depended on transfers from the richer Czechs. Because of these pocketbook issues, in fact, the majority of Slovaks, while they favor more autonomy, oppose actual disunion, according to opinion polls. The talk now beginning of holding a referendum on the issue thus hints at compromise.

Optimists also say that both Mr. Klaus and Mr. Meciar are realists who have the politician's drive for power; they would therefore bend their principles to exercise the power they can wield only in cooperation.

Pessimists argue, on the contrary, that Mr. Klaus' personal arrogance and Mr. Meciar's mercurial unpredictability are an impossible combination.

They note that quite a few Czechs would be only too happy to say "good riddance" to the Slovaks and shuck their annual outlays of $500 million for the east. The Czechs could then enjoy unhindered their own favorable location next to the German economic machine, their production of almost three-fourths of the country's GNP in official figures (and probably more in reality) and their inflation rate of less than 3 percent (compared to 11 percent in Slovakia). And they could sail on, as many expect, to surpass the Hungarians in the near future as the leaders in attracting Western investment.

"If Klaus and Meciar do get together, it won't last very long," predicts one Czech pessimist.

Nobody ever said democracy would be easy.

Elizabeth Pond is a Catherine T. and John D. MacArthur Fellow in Central Europe.

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