The Velvet Divorce: The Dissolution of Czechoslovakia

The Velvet Divorce was the unofficial name given to the separation of Czechoslovakia into Slovakia and the Czech Republic in the early 1990s, earned because of the peaceful manner in which it was achieved.

The State of Czechoslovakia

At the end of the First World War the German and Austrian / Hapsburg empires fell apart, enabling a set of new nation states to emerge. One of these new states was Czechoslovakia.
Czechs made up around fifty per cent of the initial population, and identified with a long history of Czech life, thought and statehood; Slovaks comprised around fifteen per cent, had a very similar language to the Czechs which helped bind the country together, but had never been in their ‘own’ country. The rest of the population were German, Hungarian, Polish and others, left by the problems of drawing boundaries to replace a polyglot empire.

In the late 1930s Hitler, now in charge of Germany, turned his eye first on Czechoslovakia’s German population, and then on large parts of the country, annexing it. World War 2 now followed, and this ended with Czechoslovakia being conquered by the Soviet Union; a communist government was soon in place. There were struggles against this regime – the ‘Prague Spring of 1968’ saw a thaw in communist government that bought invasion from the Warsaw Pact and a federalist political structure – and Czechoslovakia remained in the ‘eastern bloc’ of the Cold War.

The Velvet Revolution

At the end of the 1980s Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev was faced with protests across Eastern Europe, the impossibility of matching the military spending of the west, and the urgent need for internal reforms. His response was as surprising as it was sudden: he ended the Cold War at a stroke, removing the threat of Soviet led military action against former communist vassals.
Without Russian armies to support them communist government fells across Eastern Europe, and in the autumn of 1989 Czechoslovakia experienced a widespread set of protests which became known as the ‘Velvet Revolution’ because of their peaceful nature and their success: the communists decided not to use force to hang on and negotiated a new government, and free elections were held in 1990. Private business, democratic parties, and a new constitution followed, and Václav Havek became the President.

The Velvet Divorce

The Czech and Slovak populations in Czechoslovakia had been drifting apart over the course of the state’s existence, and when the gunpoint cement of communism had gone, and when the newly democratic Czechoslovakia came to discuss the new constitution and how to govern the nation, they found many issues dividing the Czechs and Slovaks. There were arguments over the varying sizes and growth rates of the twin economies, and of the power each side had: many Czechs felt the Slovaks had too much power for their respective numbers. This was exacerbated by a level of local federalist government which had created government ministers and cabinets for each of the two largest populations, effectively blocking full integration.
There was soon talk of separating the two into their own states.

Elections in 1992 saw Vaclav Klaus become Prime Minister of the Czech region, and Vladimir Meciar Prime Minister of the Slovak one. They had different views on policy and wanted different things from government, and were soon discussing whether to tie the region closer together or split it apart. People have argued that Klaus now took a lead in demanding a division of the nation, while others have argued Meciar was a separatist. Either way a break seemed likely. When Havel encountered resistance he resigned rather than oversee the separation, and there wasn’t a statesman of sufficient charisma, and sufficient support, to replace him as a president of a unified Czechoslovakia. While politicians weren’t sure whether the general public supported such a move negotiations developed, in such a peaceful manner as to earn the name ‘Velvet Divorce’.

Progress was swift, and on December 31st 1992 Czechoslovakia ceased to exist: Slovakia and the Czech Republic replaced it on January 1st 1993.

Significance

The fall of communism in Eastern Europe led not just to the Velvet Revolution, but to the bloodshed of Yugoslavia, when that state collapsed into warfare and an ethnic cleansing which still haunts Europe. The dissolution of Czechoslovakia made a stark contrast, and it proved that states can divide peacefully, and that new states can form without the need for warfare. The velvet divorce also bought stability to central Europe at a time of great unrest, allowing the Czechs and Slovaks to sidestep what would have been a period of intense legal and political wrangling, and cultural tension, and instead focus on state building. Even now relations remain good, and there is very little in the way of calls for a return to federalism.