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Superiority Complex

Unlike the Slovaks, the Czechs' easy ride since the Velvet Divorce has led to hubris before Europe.

by Katerina Safarikova 4 July 2012

In the dog days of summer 1992, Czechoslovak leaders began the negotiations that led to the separation of the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic into two independent states half a year later. The so-called Velvet Divorce was quick and peaceful, a model for countries facing a similar challenge.


But the immediate post-divorce years couldn't have been more different for the Czechs and Slovaks. Their respective journeys inspired – or, for the Czechs, largely reinforced – national self-images that are driving Bratislava and Prague down starkly different paths today, 20 years since that fateful summer and at a moment of peril for postwar united Europe.


For the Czechs, not much changed after their state was cut by a third. They kept their currency – renamed “Czech crown” from “Czechoslovak crown” – their capital, Prague; their president, the internationally beloved Vaclav Havel; and their habits. As one witness to those times put it, some Czechs might not have even noticed the split because it was decided in parliament, not by referendum, without incident.


The Slovak story is very different, and very dramatic. On 1 January 1993, the dawn of independent Slovakia, Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar reshuffled the executive board of a popular opposition daily newspaper. In the coming months, public broadcasters, controlled by Meciar loyalists, became state mouthpieces. Members of the communist-era Czechoslovak secret police received public posts, hard-line communists took power, and society split into two hostile camps, one pro-Meciar and the other opposed.


A cold civil war escalated over whether the new state would be a liberal democracy or a totalitarian regime like Belarus. It peaked in 1995, when the Slovak intelligence services abducted the son of the Slovak president, a vocal Meciar opponent, leaving him beaten and unconscious on the Austrian border. Suddenly, Slovakia was a rogue state in the eyes of the international community. NATO and the European Union scratched the country off their waiting lists.


Things changed in 1998, when Meciar’s party lost parliamentary elections to a handful of new opposition factions. The Slovaks quickly caught up with the steady economic and political transformation in the Czech Republic and other new regional democracies, and joined NATO and the EU in 2004. The world took notice of the turnaround, especially Slovakia's commitment to tough market-oriented reforms like its flat corporate, income, and value-added tax. 


The lesson for the Slovaks, then, of the post-divorce era was that they can be their own worst enemy. As my Respekt colleague Milan M. Simecka points out, the Slovak opposition was largely mobilized by Meciar's reaction to criticism by NATO and the EU. "If the West doesn’t want us," he liked to say, "we will look east.”


Seeing their prime minister leading them astray, Slovaks realized that perhaps the greatest threat to their freedom, rights, and prosperity was home-grown. And they have stuck close to Europe ever since because, as one Slovak poet wrote, "only Europe can save us from ourselves.”


Slovaks value their place in the EU, believing this allegiance is the most powerful line of defense against a neo-Meciar. For Slovakia, "standing alone” is not an option. That's why it adopted the euro and has followed Brussels' lead during the euro zone crisis, contributing billions to the EU bailout fund to aid teetering economies like Greece. (Though Prime Minister Robert Fico said 3 July that Slovakia's patience for bailouts is running thin.)


With no recent memory of any threat to their well-being, the Czechs see their place in Europe differently. Public opinion surveys show that Czechs feel secure both at home and geopolitically, while Czech politicians see our western allegiance, through NATO and EU membership, as natural and unshakable because, well, we have always belonged to the West. The communist era was just a blip.


This sense of entitlement comports with the notion of "Czech exceptionalism," so to speak, that is as baseless as it is beloved by Czech politicians. We have a political and cultural pedigree, the haughty trope goes, from Tomas Masaryk to Franz Kafka to Vaclav Havel. We have our “golden hands,” or Czech resilience. We have the world's best beer. And so on and so forth.


As a result, we take NATO and EU membership for granted. The Czechs don’t feel the need to be a loyal partner that gives as much as it gets – we think our Western allies should be grateful that we've deigned to join their clubs.


The Czechs are hubristic before Europe. President Vaclav Klaus, whom many hailed as a "hero" for refusing to fly the EU flag outside the castle during the Czech EU presidency, owes much of his popularity to his fervent euro-skepticism. Unlike Slovakia, the Czech Republic hasn't adopted the euro, and many politicians dream of standing alone in Europe like Switzerland. Indeed, as the euro zone crisis has escalated, Prague has frequently rebuffed Brussels.


Today, the Slovaks and Czechs are allies, NATO and EU members both. But ideologically they have grown apart since their amicable divorce. At a time of crisis when Slovakia and many other EU members realize the need for further integration, Czech leaders are turning away from a politically and economically united Europe. Another divorce might be on the horizon.

Katerina Safarikova is a reporter with the Czech weekly Respekt.

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