The Velvet Divorce at 30: How Czechoslovakia did what others couldn’t
Exactly 30 years ago this Sunday, as Yugoslavia was slouching towards Europe’s ugliest bloodletting since World War II, another Slavic hodgepodge state a few hundred miles to the north did something nearly unprecedented in modern history: It broke up … peacefully.
As best anyone can tell, Czechoslovakia is the only country to have dissolved itself without bloodshed since Norway split from Sweden in 1905.
In fact, the greatest act of violence that attended the Czechoslovak breakup may have been on the ice: The Czech hockey team thrashed Slovakia 7 to 1 in their first meeting as independent countries a year later.
So how did Czechoslovakia’s uniquely peaceful split happen, and why?
Czechoslovakia was an odd concoction to begin with. Created from the ashes of the Austro-Hungarian empire at the end of World War I, the country united two peoples who spoke similar Slavic languages but had little common history.
The Czech lands were the wealthy industrial heart of the Habsburg empire, ruled directly from Vienna, and heavily influenced by Germany. Slovakia, meanwhile, was smaller and more rural and had been dominated for centuries by Hungary. Czechs were known for their beer and bread dumplings. Slovaks would show up to a party with plum brandy and goulash.
But the victorious Allied powers in 1918 wanted an economically viable, majority-Slavic state to balance out the sizable German and Hungarian minorities that lived within the Czech and Slovak borders, and so in October of that year “Czechoslovakia” was born.
Things weren’t always smooth. During World War II, Germany dismembered and occupied the “Czech” half of the country, while Hitler granted the Slovaks a Nazi-backed puppet state of their own. Under communism, which began in 1948, many Czechs didn’t like the new regime’s disproportionate investments in modernizing “backward” Slovakia, while the Slovaks bristled at Czech paternalism and resented being ruled from Prague. Although everyone watched the same – mostly Czech – Christmas movies and rooted for the country’s brilliant ice hockey and soccer teams, a true “Czechoslovak” identity never really took root.
“Czechs and Slovaks lived very different histories,” says Czech-born historian Jacques Rupník, a director of research at Sciences Po in Paris, “and they had very different perceptions of that history – so it wasn’t easy to shape a common project for the future.”
After 1989, urgent questions about that future arose. A federal system that had been largely meaningless under one-party rule suddenly became an existential problem for a democratic Czechoslovakia. How much autonomy would each part of the country really have?
In June 1992, national elections produced two very different leaders whose ambitions made the split-up inevitable. Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus was a headstrong nationalist who wanted to ram through free-market economic reforms as fast as possible. His Slovak counterpart, Vladimír Mečiar, was a left-wing populist who sought broad sovereignty within a federal state but wasn’t quite sure how much of the communist system he really wanted to shed, or how fast.
Where was the famous Václav Havel in all of this? The dissident playwright who became Czechoslovakia’s president after leading the “Velvet Revolution” in 1989 resigned in June 1992 rather than preside over an increasingly unavoidable split that he, like most Czechs and Slovaks at the time, personally opposed. That left things entirely to Klaus and Mečiar.
"They didn't have the same reasons or motives for the split," says Jiří Pehe, a political analyst and former adviser to Havel who now heads the Prague campus of New York University, "but in the end they colluded, there was a synergy between the two men."
When compromise on the question of Slovak sovereignty proved impossible, Klaus was content to cut the Slovaks loose in order to advance his economic reform program more quickly. Mečiar, for his part, was only too happy to get his own state. After 74 years, the marriage known as “Czechoslovakia” ended in an amicable divorce.
There were some Kafkaesque quirks that followed. For a few years, some sections of the border were unclear, and there was the Moravian farmer whose house ended up in one country, while his barn was suddenly in another. But this was nothing compared to the bloodletting that consumed Yugoslavia in those years.
Why was Czechoslovakia able to avoid the fate of Yugoslavia? After all, both countries were Frankenstein states that rose out of the World War I peace talks.
The biggest thing, says Rupník of Sciences Po, is that in Czechoslovakia neither national group had a large, deeply rooted minority on the other side of the new border. As a result, there were never complicated questions of minority rights that ended up fueling conflicts elsewhere in the collapsing Eastern bloc.
In addition, there were no sectarian or religious divisions between Czechs and Slovaks, most of whom are Catholics if they practice any religion at all.
But personalities and leadership also mattered. “It’s no small thing,” he says, pointing to the Serbian ultra-nationalist president who died on trial for war crimes committed during the Yugoslav conflict, “that Václav Havel was not Slobodan Milosević.”
Three decades later, the two countries – both EU members since 2004 – enjoy close economic, political, and cultural ties. Polls show that Czechs and Slovaks see each other as their closest allies. A recent border spat between the two countries over migration was remarkable only for how rare any frictions of this kind are these days.
But in some ways, it was the breakup itself that made this bonhomie possible, says Michaela Krsková, who has served since 2021 as Slovakia’s first Chief Innovation Officer. “We always felt like the suppressed, repressed younger brother of the Czechs,” she recalls, “and I think that feeling was just going to get worse and worse with time.”
Havel himself ended up worrying about the same thing, says Rupník, who served as one of his advisers at the time. “He was against the split, but he later said that if Czechoslovakia had continued, this question of the relationship between Czechs and Slovaks would have completely poisoned the politics of the newly democratic state.”
Today, the breakup is seen differently on each side of the border. Polls show Czechs, who dominated Czechoslovakia culturally, politically, and economically, are more likely to see January 1, 1993, as the end of a good thing, while Slovaks view it as the beginning of a better one.
In part, Krsková believes, that’s because it gave the Slovaks the chance, and the challenge, of building their own independent country.
“It was like, ‘Ok we’re on our own now,’” she says. “It was a kick in the butt that Slovakia needed to get its act together and develop its own identity. And that’s something that we’re still in search of – maybe that’s our task for the next 30 years.”
But for all the success of the Czech-Slovak divorce, something important has been lost, says Zuzana Kovačič-Hanzelová, a prominent Slovak journalist who is from a mixed Czech-Slovak family.
After three decades of more limited exposure to each other’s languages and cultures, younger Czechs often don’t understand or speak Slovak anymore.
“We still love each other, and that’s pretty unique,” she says, “but it makes me sad every time I’m in Prague and I have to order coffee in Czech instead of just speaking Slovak.”
There are still traces of disorientation on the Czech side too, says Pehe, of NYU Prague. Even after all of this time, Czech politicians are still in some ways adjusting to the reality that while the Czech Republic is the successor state to Czechoslovakia, it's a smaller, less populous country, with a more diminished international standing.
"But I guess it's the fate of all of us from Central Europe," he says, "that some of the countries were born in do not exist any more."