20 years ago next year, there was a Velvet Divorce.
Before that, there had been a Velvet Revolution. It occurred in 1989, and was a largely peaceful process wherein the central European nation of Czechoslovakia disengaged from Soviet hegemony. The world looked on in admiration as bloodshed was avoided … and then its attention was diverted to other matters.
Meanwhile, as communism was being deposited into history’s dustbin, subsequent events within Czechoslovakia illustrated that merely escaping the clutches of the Warsaw Pact would not be sufficient to resolve cultural and structural deficiencies inherent to the Czechoslovak state. A second discussion began.
Hence, the Velvet Divorce in 1993. The marriage had lasted more than seventy years, through very troubled times.
Czechoslovakia had come into existence only after World War I as one of the new countries created from the collapse of Austria-Hungary. To better make a case for independence, leaders from Bohemia and Moravia (the Czech lands) and Slovakia forged an alliance and pushed for one inclusive state, concluding that self-determination according to the ideals of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points might occur among separate cultural entities so long as the parties agreed to the union.
In spite of a prevailing view of Czechoslovakia as a model interwar democracy, there proved to be numerous snags between Czechs and Slovaks. Both are Slavs, and they speak languages that are similar, though not entirely the same. They’re much alike, and also not. As indigenous populations within the Austro-Hungarian empire, Czechs and Slovaks might be said to have been raised quite differently. The Czech lands were administered by Austria’s ruling ethnic Germans, and the Slovaks by Hungary – and Hungarians are neither Slav nor German, and came late (late 1800’s) to the power-sharing game within the empire itself.
Bohemia and Moravia became industrialized early in the 19th-century, and were the empire’s manufacturing hub. Imperial rule was bureaucratic, and yet more relaxed there. Concurrently, Slovakia was rural and agricultural from the start, and the Hungarian administration considerably more restrictive.
Even after World War II, when Slovakia was belatedly industrialized, the Soviet-model factories built often were outmoded at birth, serving mostly to produce heavy armaments for East Bloc military use. The Slovaks were dealt some bad hands, and played some hands badly. The point is that formative experiences among the Slovak and Czech peoples were quite different.
In short, when the Wall came down, fissures in the Czech-Slovak marriage became visible and bubbled to the surface. Unity against a common enemy no longer sufficed to inculcate togetherness. Throughout the country, there were high emotions ranging from regret, sadness and disappointment to hostility, chest-thumping and bravado. The situation among these peoples in a formerly united country genuinely might have been said to resemble the atmosphere of a crumbling marriage.
There was a desperate need for cool heads, counseling and compromise, lest the split become final. There were dire predictions of disaster.
No one stepped forward. The Czech lands and Slovakia went their separate ways.
And almost nothing bad happened.
In fact, many good things happened.
It really was Velvet.
Two decades later, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are doing as well as most European countries, and better than several others. Of course, political, social and economic issues within these two nations are many and varied; Czech politics can be comically Italianesque, and Slovak relations with Hungary tend to be strained. Neither country does particularly well with its minority populations of Roma (i.e., gypsies). But significantly, these Czech and Slovak problems have next to nothing to do with each other.
At the time of the Velvet Divorce, it often was asked why Czechs and Slovaks would ignore the superior economies of scale afforded by national unity. Why would they duplicate governmental and economic functions when there were only 10 million people altogether living in Czechoslovakia?
Because: The overlay of unity was shown to have been artificial, and the combined functions of one state never adequately addressed the regional difference and needs of two. Czechoslovakia proved to have been a shotgun marriage all along. Now it is not, and since the divorce, the formerly married parties generally get along just fine.
Amazing, isn't it? It makes you think separation might actually work the same way in other places, too.