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The Friendly Split of Czechoslovakia was a Precondition for the Future Stability and Prosperity of Both States

English Pages, 12. 4. 2017

Many thanks for giving me a chance to address this distinguished audience on such an interesting topic. I want to say quite resolutely at the very beginning that I don´t pretend to be an expert when it comes to creating or breaking up the existing states, the secession of regions, provinces or nations, the separation of countries or other similar topics. I have “only” the unforgettable and very personal experience with being in charge of dividing one country, my own country, Czechoslovakia, into two parts. Plus, I do have a – hopefully solid – background in economics and a relatively long career in politics in very top positions.

In Barcelona, in this extraordinarily beautiful city, I was only twice. Last time 18 years ago. My first visit took place in May 1993, four months after the split of Czechoslovakia. I came here as a Prime Minister of a newly created state called the Czech Republic. It was before the age of internet and to my great regret I wasn´t able to find the text of my speech here after 24 years but I found a report in a Czech daily with the headline that I was “criticising the protectionism of the European Community”. I also said that the trade barriers of the EU countries represent “a direct threat to the success of Velvet Revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe”. That was the dramatic problem for us in this very moment. I couldn´t find what I said about the split of Czechoslovakia.

As some of you may know, I have a very unique experience with managing the – both for us and for the rest of the world unexpected – separation of Czechoslovakia into two parts, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which took place on the 1st January, 1993. We completed this manoeuvre in a very short period of time – between parliamentary elections in June 1992 and the end of December the same year.

This historic event is – for us, for the people in my country – already a part of history, not an issue of the present day. It has practically no relevance for any of the two newly established countries now. This is something I dare say quite resolutely. This issue doesn´t exist anymore, it is taken for granted. I speak about it only abroad.

Our separation is generally considered a good and successful case, but I feel obliged to raise a question (or a warning) about the possibility and meaningfulness of attempts to formulate general theories about how the states are created and/or liquidated. All such cases are unique and unrepeatable. It is very similar to marriages and divorces.

I am not a theoretician of secessionism or separationism, I am neither an advocate nor an opponent of such processes. Nevertheless, I have to admit that I am sometimes considered to be one. In the last twenty five years, political leaders of countries like Catalonia, Scotland, Flanders and Quebec approached me repeatedly asked for advice. I usually disappointed them. I always told them that I did not plan, prepare, propose or propagate the separation of my own homeland.

There is a personal story behind it. Due to the fact that my wife is a Slovak, we spent most of our holidays with her family in Slovakia. I was more informed about Slovakia than an ordinary Czech and I have never had any anti-Slovak prejudices. I felt quite happy living in Czechoslovakia and the idea of splitting the country had never come to my mind till the beginning of the 1990s. At that moment the Slovaks started talking about it. The specific situation which developed after the fall of communism and my high political position in the country at that moment forced me to deal with it, to accept this idea and to carry out the inevitable split.

The split was indeed inevitable. I don´t dare to compare our case with yours. I am not an expert on the very colourful and long history of Catalonia, on the history of your continuing fight for independence, on its historical successes and failures. But I do see, respect and understand the ambitions of the Catalonians to be a free and sovereign country, not just a region or a province in another state. This I take as a starting point.

We, the Czechs, also have had a rather complicated history, a relatively strong and widely respected sovereign state in the Middle Ages, but, after that, three centuries as an involuntary part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the end of the First World War, the new state – Czechoslovakia – was created. One of its parts, Slovakia – unlike the Czech part – had never had its own state before. Our predecessors established a unitary state in 1918 which was transformed into a federation in 1968.

The totally new situation came after the fall of communism in November 1989, when all kinds of human aspirations that were long decades hidden and suppressed rose to the surface – the independence of Slovakia was one of them. Our further coexistence with the Slovaks in the free Czechoslovakia lasted only three years. The breaking point came in the fully free and democratic parliamentary elections in June 1992. Slovakia elected a parliament practically without any supporters of the continuing existence of our common state.  

We – it means responsible politicians on both sides – resolutely rejected the idea of a non-cooperation. We – on both sides – very quickly came to understand one important thing. We felt obliged to avert chaos, anarchy and growing hostility among initially friendly people, dangerous spontaneous processes with their unexpected and unknown dynamics.

We didn´t want to experiment with any non-standard solutions. People like me did not and do not believe in third ways, in utopias of any kind. We laughed at the suggestions of some of our compatriots to aim at creating “new models of sovereignty”. There are no new models of sovereignty; sovereignty either is or it is not.

The same is true about the new models of sovereignty propagated by means of the current Orwellian eurospeak in Europe these days. The individual EU member states – especially after the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties – to a very high degree lost their sovereignty. All the talk about new models of sovereignty is a wishful thinking of some people, conscious and intentional lie of the others.

People like me accepted the fact that the Slovaks wanted to be alone. We understood that they wanted to have their own sovereign state, not to be just part of Czechoslovakia. We, the Czechs, accepted that we did not have the right to block such an ambition. This was absolutely crucial. Much different from Spain, much different from the current EU. We – on both sides – understood that the split had to be fast, friendly and generous, that there had to be simple macro-rules for dividing all kinds of common assets and liabilities, and that we had to do it ourselves, without letting any foreigners to quasi-help us, which means to intervene. It was important that it was done before our entry in the EU.

The developments in Yugoslavia at that time (and I am similarly afraid of the developments in Ukraine now) confirmed that we made a very shrewd decision. The split of Yugoslavia and especially its form was in my understanding provoked more from abroad than from the inside. The international community failed at this moment in a tragic, irresponsible way. The Czechs and Slovaks were happy that they avoided such a development.

It should be stressed that what we carried out in Czechoslovakia 24 years ago was a voluntary and organized separation. Both of these adjectives were important. Only some of our domestic political adversaries were – for party politics – against it. Their names are irrelevant now, the evolving historical processes were much stronger than the voices of one or another individual.

The consequences of our peaceful separation, of our friendly divorce, have been positive for both countries. It led to the continuation of a maximum of cooperation afterwards, to the prolongation of the existence of the customs union and the free-trade zone. In contradiction to our original plans and intentions, we were not able to keep the monetary union – the Czechoslovak crown outlived the liquidation of the political and fiscal union only by six weeks.[1]

Our experience suggests that it is administratively and even economically relatively easy to dismantle a monetary union. I am sorry the EU politicians don´t want to hear it. They should pay attention to the title of a recent article in a Canadian monthly: “Saving the Euro by Opening the Exit Door.” But going into this debate would be a topic for another meeting. I am absolutely sure that the secession of some countries from the European monetary union would be a victory for them, as well as for the rest of us.[2]

With the benefit of hindsight, I am more and more convinced that the split of Czechoslovakia was a right decision and a success. I have not yet discovered any details (not to speak about substantial things) which could have been done conceptually better. Not everything was without disputes but the split of a country is not a chess game or an exercise in applied economics or any other social science. I do believe that both our basic strategy and its general framework were correct. The history has proved it.

What I understood much more with the passage of time was the fact of the inherent instability and frailty of the old Czechoslovakia which I didn´t feel strongly enough in the past. This is – probably – a message especially for the non-Catalonians in Spain. Czechoslovakia more or less freely and smoothly functioned only in the first 20 years after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when the Czechs and Slovaks felt a genuine joy of finally being free and sovereign after three centuries of being deprived of their statehood in the context of the Habsburg monarchy. The Czechoslovak Republic for the first time collapsed in March 1939 under the attack of Hitler and we, the Czechs, underestimated the importance of the fact how rapidly and spontaneously the Slovaks used this special moment to declare their own Slovak State.[3]

For long four decades, communism succeeded in prohibiting everything, including the thinking about national sovereignty and authentic national identity. To do so requires an elementary degree of freedom which we did not possess then. In that era, I always assumed that I lived in a coherent and stable unitary state and was surprised in the late 1960s, in the era of the so called Prague Spring, that Slovaks asked for a federalist solution. Our main preoccupation in Prague at that moment of radical departure from the Stalinist model of Communism was political democracy and a deep-going economic reform. The Slovak ambitions were, however, different and we once again underestimated them.

The same story was repeated 20 years later. After the fall of communism, the Czechs were satisfied with the task to accomplish a fundamental systemic change – the move from communism to capitalism and free society. The Slovaks wanted more. They wanted independence. We were surprised again, but I understood very rapidly that the split of Czechoslovakia was inevitable and that blocking it would have been wrong. Czechoslovakia was a heterogeneous entity and its split made both successor states more homogenous which is always an advantage. It helped to create one “demos” in both countries which is a precondition for efficient manageability of the country, as well as for the functioning of its democratic arrangements. Something what is missing in the EU now.

This brings me to the EU. I don´t believe in the possibility of creating one authentic entity out of 28 (or finally perhaps 35 or 40) European countries. I also reject the dreams about the possibility to have an authentic democracy at a continental level. I would be very much in favour of a looser integration, of an entity called something like The Organization of European States which is an idea advocated in my book “European Integration without Illusions”, published in the last years in eight European languages.[4]

The EU context has substantially changed the debate about secession and separation. It changed the ruling paradigm. The old model of thinking was based – at least since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 – on states and their interactions, both friendly and unfriendly ones. It created the basis for parliamentary democracy and civic rights.

The new model, the EU model, is based on the preference of the continental unification, on the suppression of nation states and on the elevated importance of regions. It will inevitably bring the end of parliamentary democracy, the beginning of global (and eventually subglobal, e. g. continental) governance, and the victory of human rights over civic rights. That is, however, a different debate.

Let me stop here. What I presented here is an outline or a summary of my position. I hope you see in it at least something relevant for your discussions. I wish you success in your endeavour.  Thank you for your attention.

Václav Klaus, Speech at Palau de la Generalitat, Barcelona, April 11, 2017. Some parts of this address were used in my earlier speech at the conference ”Qualified Autonomy and Federalism versus Secession in the EU and its Member States“, Eisenstadt, Austria, February 26, 2014

[1] The Czech Republic has been using the same currency – the Czech Crown – until now, Slovakia entered the Eurozone in 2009.

[2] Klaus, V., “Looking at Europe and Its Stagnating Economy from Prague”, speech at the International Atlantic Economic Conference, Marriott Hotel, Milano, March 13, 2015.

[3] I should also mention that I always say that I was born in Czechoslovakia which is actually not true. In fact, I was born in Protektorat Böhmen und Mähren. (Protectorate Bohemia and Moravia.)

[4] „Evropská integrace bez iluzí“, Euromedia, Prague, 2011 (in Czech). There are also English, German, Italian, Bulgarian, Danish, Russian and Polish editions.


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