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The Role of Ethnic Nationalism in the Breakup of Czechoslovakia

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The Slovaks and Czechs are ethnic relatives who share a common ancestry dating back to the Great Moravian Empire of the ninth century. But from the tenth century they took different paths. The Slovaks were integrated into the Kingdom of Hungary and remained a part of Hungary for more than a thousand years until 1918. The Czechs, however, remained independent until their defeat at the hands of the Austrians in 1620. The Slovaks, meanwhile, struggled to keep their identity under Magyar rule and revived their national consciousness on the basis of their language in the 1840s. But their hopes for autonomy were dashed and in the two generations after the Austro-Hungarian Compromise (1867) they were systematically marginalised (Mason, 1998).

The Czechoslovak state came into being in 1918 and was the product of a tactical alliance which made geopolitical sense at a time when empires in central Europe were collapsing.

‚ÄúWithout the Slovaks the Czechs would have been a minority in their own new state. For the Slovaks political union with the Czechs offered a chance to escape from Hungarian rule. The existence of a sizeable multi-national Danubian state in 1918 was seen by both Czechs and Slovaks as the best protection from revisionist claims by Germans and Hungarians against the post-war settlement‚ÄĚ (Mason, 1998).

The split of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic took place in the background of the war in Yugoslavia and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. However due to lack of adequate information in the west then about the Czech-Slovak dispute; it was misrepresented as a resurgence of secessionist nationalism in post communist Europe (Leff, 1997).

The split, which came to be known as the Velvet Divorce, was as a result of the failure of the new regime to deal with two issues simultaneously, that faced it after the fall of communism. The two issues were:

  • finding a new model for the common Czech and Slovak state
  • reforming the economy and the whole society away from the socialist model (Hilde, 1999).

After the 1992 elections, the struggle over the preferred way pitted Vaclav Klaus of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) which won elections in the Czech lands. They gave a condition of a Czech-Slovak state with a central government and radical economic reforms or no state at all. On the other hand was Vladimir Meciar leader of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), who were sceptical of reform. The two political leaders succeeded in blocking the referendum that had been called for by President Vaclav Havel and thus forced a breakup. On 25th November 1992 Parliament passed the Law on Dissolution of the Federation, ending the 68 years of existence of the Czech and Slovak state. This was actualized on 1st January 1993.

Reasons Given for the Split

Many people and scholars in the west gave different reasons for the Velvet Divorce. One of the reasons was economic, referring to the different economic structures of the two entities (Dedek, 1996). The Slovak side had heavy industries which were built in the socialist era but were more badly hit by the post communist reforms than the Czechs were. Sociological reasons were also advanced which stressed the different world views of the average Czech and Slovak. They referred to the impact of the last 20 years of communism, also known as the normalization era. This was the period in which the Czechs and Slovaks could evaluate the post communist changes. They held different views of the post communist situation, on the costs and benefits of the Federation and on the way forward. These divergent views were reflected in the different political preferences of the two sides which led to a difficult political situation after the 1992 elections.

Another reason advanced was the constitutional set up. The Law on Federation which was passed in 1968 provided for a minority veto in the Federal parliament to prevent Slovaks from being ruled by the Czech majority. This meant that constitutional and other important laws had to be passed by special majorities. The implication was that 38 out of 300 MPs could block important legislation while 31 deputies from either republic could stop a constitutional amendment (Hilde, 1999). Because of the many problems in the post communist era, this veto led to the breakup.

Regardless of the factors that have been used to explain the Velvet Divorce, all views use the term ‚ÄėSlovak nationalism‚Äô to explain why the breakup took place. They have portrayed it as ‚Äúthe glue that holds together all the other factors‚ÄĚ (Hilde, 1999). Without nationalism, the economic issues, different social preferences and the minority veto issue would not have led to the split.

The Slovak nationalists demand for a separate state was not popular. But the demands for a revision of the terms of the common Czech and Slovak state were popular in Slovakia. Most Slovaks felt that the existing state was dominated by the Czech and the Slovak needed a more equal and visible position and more political self rule (Hilde, 1999). Since secession was not a decisive political force in Slovakia, it meant that the split was not as a result of Slovak struggle for independence. Instead it was the rejection of the common state by the political leaders of the Czech majority that caused the breakup. Slovak nationalism only helped to trigger the rejection in Czech lands. The Czech saw the increasing demands for enhancing Slovak status and autonomy as an obstacle to the stabilization of the domestic situation and the success of economic reforms. The Czech seemed to value the return to Europe over the preservation of the Federation. The Czech political right had abandoned its support for a common state and after the 1992 elections became the driving force behind the breakup (Hilde, 1999).

Slovak Nationalism

The fact that there was popular Slovak support for a revision of the Federation implied that most Slovaks saw themselves as separate from the Czechs both culturally and socially. During the first Czechoslovak Republic from 1918 to 1938, state wide political parties got more support than ethnic or regional parties did. This, however, changed after the elections in 1946 in which only regional political parties were successful. Almost all Slovak politicians now demanded more autonomy for Slovakia. This was due to the disillusionment with the inter-war regime’s failure to solve Slovak problems and also the partly positive experience of independent Slovak existence between 1939 and 1945. All this meant that there were two separate political nations within Czechoslovakia.

The communist era (1948-1989) furthered this division in political identity. The communist leadership promoted Slovak culture further reminding the Slovaks of their different history and identity. In 1969, the Czechoslovak Federation was created which left power in the hands of the Czechoslovakia Communist Party. But the new constitution provided for a fairly decentralized state. This increased the political division since parliamentary elections were now conducted for both the Republic and Federal parliaments.

The domination of the Communist Party ended after the collapse of the socialist regime. The multi-level system of political participation, i.e. at both the federal and the republic level, together with the minority veto provisions led to a de facto division of the state into two political systems. Hence, in the elections for both the federal and republican parliaments, the Czechs voted for Czech parties and the Slovak for Slovak parties. State-wide parties did not succeed in these elections and no single party held parliamentary seats in both Czech lands and Slovakia.

Another reason for the increasing division was the lack of exchange of information and views. This was particularly the case with the mass media. There was a virtual information barrier with very little cross republican flow of newspapers and publications. All the above created an atmosphere conducive for mobilizing regional interests and propagating nationalist ideals.

Types of Nationalism

Secessionist Nationalism: Secessionism has no history in Slovakia. The establishment of an independent Slovakia republic in 1939 was due to external pressures and not local agitation for secession. In the post communism era, only a minority supported the idea of an independent Slovakia. Opinion polls conducted between 1990 and 1992 indicated that only 10%-20% of Slovaks supported it. Very few political parties also supported secession. Despite the lack of support, several influential groups such as the Slovak Nationalist Party (SNS), Matica Slovenska, exile groups and groups in the Catholic Church pushed for secession. In the 1990 elections the SNS secured 13% of the national votes to become the third largest party in Slovakia. This gave them the forum to force the secession debate onto the national political scene. Their electoral success motivated other political parties and politicians to copy their nationalist appeal.

Autonomist Nationalism: However, the demand for a revision of the Czechoslovak Federation was widely supported by the Slovak population and politicians. The reason for these demands were

  • the use of nationalism to mobilize political support
  • the desire to enhance equality and visibility. This desire was just symbolic.
  • Demand for increase in the power of Slovak political bodies. This was because they wanted to abolish the centralized system of the communist era and they believed that regional and local administration was better placed to solve local problems. They were also concerned over the effects of federal policies in Slovakia.

Reasons behind the Drive for Autonomy

Equality and Visibility: Slovaks widely believed that the Czechs dominated the federation. Opinion polls conducted in 1990 revealed that 62% of Slovaks felt that the Czechs did not consider them as equal partners in the federation. They also felt that there was an imbalance in development and employment in federal administrative bodies. However the biggest facet in the demand for equality and visibility was in symbolic values. This was evidenced in the ‚Äėhyphen war‚Äô of 1990. Following the collapse of the socialist system, there was a need to change the name of the federation from the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. Havel, the then President, proposed merely the removal of the word Socialist only. This drew protests from the Slovak members of the federal parliament who instead supported ‚ÄúCzecho-Slovak Republic‚ÄĚ implying an equal status for the two republics. This was, however, rejected by many Czechs who felt that the hyphened name had been used for the Second Republic of 1938-1939. A temporary solution ‚ÄúCzecho-slovak‚ÄĚ without a capital S elicited even more controversy. A compromise Name ‚ÄúCzech and Slovak Federal Republic‚ÄĚ was arrived at after two months. This struggle over the hyphen indicated Slovak‚Äôs desire to be equal with the Czechs and to be more visible to the world (Martin, 1990).

Another example of Slovak feeling of less visibility was the establishment of the Slovak Ministry of International Relations in 1990 to enable Slovakia market itself better internationally rather than through the Czechoslovak Foreign ministry. The 1968 Law on Federation allowed both republics to have their own constitutions but which they never did during socialism. After the collapse of communism, both federation and republic politicians were faced with the uphill task of agreeing on three new constitutions i.e. the Czech, Slovak and Federal constitutions. The bone of contention then became the hierarchy of the constitutions and whether a pre-constitution treaty should be signed as a basis for the new federation. The federal and Czech side wanted the federation to be the bearer of sovereignty and the federal constitution to be passed first while the Slovaks demanded that a state treaty between the two republics be signed first. They wanted the treaty to have an equal status with the federal constitution.

Devolution of Power: The drive to increase the political power of Slovak republican bodies had both popular and political support. This was in reaction to over-centralization during communism and the feeling of the central administration’s insensitivity to Slovakia’s problems. In August 1990, an agreement on a new decentralized decision making system was reached and the clamour for devolution subsided. But the impact of the federal reform programmes worsened in Slovakia leading to a demand for control over its economic policies. This is because the Slovak economy was more inclined towards heavy industry and arms production and was thus more vulnerable to the cuts in state subsidies that followed the reforms. As a result unemployment rates were high in Slovakia but relatively lower in the Czech lands. Slovak industry was also suffering from other federal policies especially the decision to cut arms exports to the third world. This was unpopular in Slovakia which had 70,000 arms production related jobs. Most of Foreign Direct Investment was also being directed to the Czech lands. Because of all these, the Slovaks interpreted the reforms as another result of Czech domination.

For Slovakia, the socialist era had meant industrialization, urbanization and improvement in living standards. Because they felt that the federation had refused to make provisions for their difficult situation, there was more pressure on the Slovakia government to take more control over its economic policy.

The Rise of Populist Nationalism

Most of the demands put forward by the Slovaks were a genuine attempt to correct the imbalances that existed. However, more Slovak politicians begun to use the nationalism issue more due to populism than due to the issues that had been raised. The growth in populist nationalism was more pronounced in March to April 1991 political differences led to the ousting of Meciar as the Slovak Prime Minister. In a game of wits, Meciar changed his stand and became a nationalist supporting a vague confederation. His party’s opposition to economic reforms together with Meciar’s popularity led to a rise in the support for nationalism. The stand of many Slovak political parties over the nationalism issue became so radical and unrealistic with time. They demanded a separate Slovak seat at the UN, a separate Central Bank, a separate Slovak president, superiority of the Slovak constitution over the federal constitution among other things. They wanted all this within the ambit of a continued common state yet some of these demands were not compatible even with a confederation.

Reaction of the Czechs    

 The demand for a revision of the state was not supported by most Czechs. While most Slovaks had a separate political and cultural identity from the Czechoslovak one, most Czechs did not. Their political identity was more of federal.

Revision of the Union: With regard to a revision of the union, most Czechs rejected some of the demands made by the Slovaks. In particular, they did not like the demand that a treaty signed between the two republics be recognized as a treaty between two sovereign states. This would have meant that the federation be resolved first, symbolically, before being reconstituted afresh.

Czech domination of the common state: The Czechs felt that the Slovaks were being ungrateful in the face of all the assistance they had accorded them throughout the century. In spite of an agreement reached in 1990 where each republic was to have its own budget, Czech subsidies to the Slovak republic still continued. The Czechs felt that this should now stop. The Czechs felt that the Slovaks were blaming them for their own failures.

Devolution and Economic reforms: Most Czech politicians opposed devolution in areas such as foreign affairs and the economic policy. They felt that devolution was going to complicate the economic reform process. The popularity of the tough economic reforms in the Czech lands was partly due to relatively low levels of economic hardships and unemployment as compared to Slovakia. A very negative view of the socialist era in Czech lands further increased the popularity of political and economic reforms.

Political squabbling in Slovakia coupled with other events, such as the physical attack by Slovak nationalists on President Havel‚Äôs entourage in Bratislava, led the Czech to view them as a political and economic liability. The quick breakup of Czechoslovakia was accelerated because the Czechs, who initially supported the federation, felt that they had had enough of Slovak demands. But it took place because it was the politicians who wanted it and not the people as revealed by opinion polls. Most people on both sides didn’t support the velvet divorce but never had an opportunity to vote on it in a referendum.

The Czech right, which had come to power in the 1992 elections, felt that separation was the only solution, despite the feeling of most Czechs. They claimed that giving in to the Slovak demands would lead to a deformation of the Federation beyond what was in the interest of the Czechs and would also stall economic reforms (Hilde, 1999).¬† In July 1992, the Slovak National Council passed its declaration of sovereignty. This was just a symbolic act which wasn’t intended to formally end Czechoslovakia. However, it provoked the resignation of Vaclav Havel as federal president.

The Czech right, however, had a further interest in ending the union. This was out of the fear that the Slovak left and nationalist parties would cooperate with the Czech left opposition. The fear was proved right when they combined to defeat the proposed Law on Dissolution in the Federal parliament. Instead they passed a resolution calling for fresh talks on a Czech-Slovak Union. Attempts to find a solution were blocked by the French right, the ODS, who wanted either a strong union or separation.  With no hope of an agreement for co-existence, the HZDS were forced into an agreement dissolving the union.

In the process that led to separation, the Slovaks initially pushed for greater autonomy while the Czechs resisted. The Slovaks never sought for a complete separation. The Slovak leadership did not want to hold a referendum, because they were not sure they would gain popular support. Instead they began proposing a confederal option in which the Czechs and Slovaks would each have sovereignty within a loose union.

In September 1992, the Slovak National Council voted to adopt its own constitution. But the Slovak leadership was still interested in a relationship that was less than complete separation.

Even though the Slovaks had declared their sovereignty and adopted their own constitution, they did not consider this to constitute a separation. But these actions convinced the Czechs that the federation had come to an end.

Once the decision to split the Union was made, the negotiations proceeded at a fast pace. Within four months, thirty- one agreements including one establishing a currency union had been signed. Efforts by the Slovaks to push for a new confederation of Czechs and Slovaks with shared citizenship and shared defence policy were rejected by the Czechs.


From the foregoing, it is clear that the Slovak nationalists were not for secession but for autonomy. They believed that the presumed Czech domination of the state and the effects of economic reform necessitated a re-look at the union but not separation. Most Slovaks were in agreement about the need to change the federation and the need for the federal government to consider their special situation while carrying out economic reforms. The economic reforms were, however, quite popular among the Czechs. This, together with their opposition to Slovak nationalism drew the two republics further apart. The Czech political right, which was in power at the time of the dissolution, considered the political situation in Slovakia to go against its political goals. After the 1992 elections, the Federal assembly was not able to perform its functions due to the minority veto laws. It was then that the Czech political right lost interest in preserving the union. The Czech right took advantage of the Slovak nationalism and blamed the Slovaks for the dissolution of the federation.

The Velvet Divorce was not as result of Slovak secessionism. Instead it was the stand of the Czech right, which put economic reform, stabilization and  a quick return to Europe ahead of the preservation of the Union that led to the split. The breakup was therefore as a result of the Czech right promoting Czech national interests above the federation’s interests. It can thus be safely said that it was Czech national interests as opposed to Slovak national interests that lead to the Velvet Divorce (Hilde, 1999).


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  2. Dedek, O. (1996). The Breakup of Czechoslovakia: An Indepth Economic Analysis.
  3. global economics ltd. (n.d.). Retrieved April 30, 2010, from www.globaleconomicsltd: www.globaleconomics.org
  4. Hilde, P. S. (June 1999). Slovak Nationalism and the Breakup of Czechoslovakia. Europe-Asia Studies , 51 (4), 647-665.
  5. Hrobsky, M. (2000, December 27). Retrieved April 30, 2010, from www.radio.cz: http://www.radio.cz
  6. Innes, A. (2001). Czechoslovakia:The Short Goodbye. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  7. Leff, C. (1997). The Czech and Slovak Republics: Nation versus State.
  8. Martin, P. (1990). The Hyphen Controversy. Radio Free Europe/RL , 14.
  9. Mason, J. W. (1998). Slovakia’s Long Road to Democracy. History Today , 48.
  10. Stein, E. (1997). Czecho/Slovakia:Ethnic CONFLICT;Constitutional FISSURE; Negotiated BREAKUP. Ann Arbor.
  11. Ule, O. (1996, September 30). Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Divorce. East European Quarterly .
  12. Wolchik, S. L. (94). The Politics of Ethnicity in Post Communist Czechoslovakia. East European Politics and Society , 1. 
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