Czechoslovakia Splits into Two Republics Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The splitting of Czechoslovakia into two republics—in a peaceful process that came to be known as the Velvet Divorce—offered a sharp contrast to the violent breakup of Yugoslavia at roughly the same time.

Summary of Event

The victors of World War I created Czechoslovakia, along with a number of other countries, out of territories that had belonged to the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire. The new Czechoslovakian state drew together the “Czech lands” of Bohemia and Moravia with the northern Hungarian territory of Slovakia. Czechoslovakia’s population thus largely comprised two western Slavic peoples, the Czechs and the Slovaks. Soon after the creation of the country, leaders of these national groups argued over the structure of the government and the relative autonomy of the two peoples. The Czechs tended to prefer a more unified state, which the Slovaks feared would be a vehicle for Czech political, economic, and cultural domination. Czech Republic;separation from Slovakia Slovakia;separation from Czech Republic Czechoslovakia;Velvet Divorce Velvet Divorce (1993) [kw]Czechoslovakia Splits into Two Republics (Jan. 1, 1993) [kw]Republics, Czechoslovakia Splits into Two (Jan. 1, 1993) Czech Republic;separation from Slovakia Slovakia;separation from Czech Republic Czechoslovakia;Velvet Divorce Velvet Divorce (1993) [g]Europe;Jan. 1, 1993: Czechoslovakia Splits into Two Republics[08490] [g]Czech Republic;Jan. 1, 1993: Czechoslovakia Splits into Two Republics[08490] [g]Slovakia;Jan. 1, 1993: Czechoslovakia Splits into Two Republics[08490] [c]Government and politics;Jan. 1, 1993: Czechoslovakia Splits into Two Republics[08490] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Jan. 1, 1993: Czechoslovakia Splits into Two Republics[08490] Havel, Václav Klaus, Václav Meciar, Vladimír

Czechoslovakia was taken over and dismembered by Nazi Germany in 1938; it was resurrected when the war ended in 1945. A Soviet-sponsored coup d’état in 1948 imposed a highly centralized Communist regime. After a short-lived popular rebellion in 1968 known as the Prague Spring, Prague Spring (1968) the Soviets reimposed strict Communist control. This time, however, Czechoslovakia was structured as a federation, consisting of separate Czech and Slovak republics. For the next two decades, dissident movements maintained pressure against the Soviet-backed regime, demanding democratic and political reforms and an end to human rights violations. The 1975 Helsinki Accords Helsinki Accords (1975) provided these groups with a link to the international community. One of the most popular and powerful of the post-Helsinki groups was Charter 77, Charter 77[Charter seventy seven] founded in February, 1977, by several hundred Czech citizens. One of Charter 77’s leaders was Václav Havel, a playwright by profession; Havel was repeatedly jailed for his activities and writings.

In 1989, Czechoslovakia decisively overthrew its Soviet-sponsored government in what has come to be known as the Velvet Revolution. Velvet Revolution (1989) The Velvet Revolution, which occurred near the end of the series of Eastern European revolutions that took place in the fall of 1989, was notable for its breathtaking speed and lack of bloodshed. Havel and other Charter 77 leaders had formed a new movement, Civic Forum, Civic Forum which placed unrelenting pressure on the Soviet-backed regime. Abandoned by his Soviet patrons, the Czechoslovak president, Gustáv Husák, Husák, Gustáv resigned on December 9. Havel was unanimously elected president by the Federal Assembly (parliament), which itself was soon replaced through free elections.

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No sooner had Czechoslovakia become free of Soviet domination, however, than the issues of state unity and Slovakian autonomy reemerged. Slovakians had always felt dominated within the federation by the more populous and wealthy Czechs. From the time of Czechoslovakia’s creation, Slovakia was less industrialized, less connected with the West, and less tied to Western capital investment. After the fall of the socialist regime, Slovakians feared that the economic reform policies pursued by the new central government would be too jarring for their more agrarian and isolated economy. The calls for Slovakian autonomy were meant to address the perceived inequality between the constituent peoples of Czechoslovakia. They also gave voice to a growing nationalist movement among Slovakians.

In an initial, symbolic move to placate Slovakian separatism, the Federal Assembly changed the country’s name to the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic in early 1990. This gesture, however, only whetted Slovakians’ appetites for further redress of the perceived injustices against them. In countrywide elections in June, 1990—the first truly free elections since the country was drawn into the Soviet bloc—parties advocating Slovakian autonomy gained considerable support. This affected the cohesiveness of the national government, and not only in the legislative branch. As president of Czechoslovakia, Havel had initially enjoyed popular support based on his political reputation as a leader of the Velvet Revolution. He was a Czech, however, and before long Slovakians began to perceive him as another manifestation of the Czechs’ domination of the country.

The Slovakian republican government, based in Bratislava, demanded greater decentralization of economic policy making. Sometimes the federal government in Prague relented, and sometimes it insisted on maintaining national unity. All the while, Bratislava increasingly postured as an independent government. In the fall of 1990, for example, it established its own “Ministry for International Relations,” implying that it developed its own foreign policies.

Slovak prime minister Vladimír Mečiar (left) and Czech prime minister Václav Klaus in Piešt’any, Slovakia, in 1997, before they began their first talks since the split of Czechoslovakia.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

There was some disagreement among the Slovakian parties as to their ultimate goals. Some promoted a looser federation, some confederation, and still others outright secession. Over time, however, the more nationalistic, separatist groups solidified power. A turning point occurred on June 5-6, 1992, when new legislative strength shifted from the parties associated with Civic Forum and the Velvet Revolution to more nationalistic parties from both republics. As a result, Vladimír Mečiar, a man firmly committed to Slovakian independence (although perhaps not secession), was elected prime minister of Slovakia. At the same time, Slovakian opposition in the Federal Assembly foiled Havel’s reelection bid. A breakup of the country seemed almost certain. On July 17, 1992, the Slovak National Council declared Slovakia an “independent country.” It was unclear what this declaration meant as a practical matter.

On the other side of the federation, Czech nationalism also was growing, largely as a reaction to perceived Slovakian insolence. In the fall of 1991, the Czech National Council passed a resolution declaring any Slovakian assertion of sovereignty unconstitutional. After Slovakia’s declaration of independence in July, 1992, however, Czech leaders formally agreed to negotiate a dissolution of the federation. Most Slovakians were taken by surprise, and not a few were somewhat worried that their brinkmanship had gone too far.

On July 23, 1992, Mečiar and Czech prime minister Václav Klaus established procedures to hammer out a “divorce” between the two republics. Subsequent discussions expanded in scope to cover the most minute details, such as the division of file cabinets owned by the federal government. By the late fall of 1992, the two sides had arrived at an agreement. The Federal Assembly approved the separation plans in November, and several dozen agreements were signed to formalize the country’s division and to establish relations between the successor states. Czechoslovakia officially dissolved into its constituent republics on January 1, 1993.

Significance

The two new states, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, or the Slovak Republic, were immediately recognized by the other countries of Europe as well as by nations around the world and received membership in the United Nations. Both later became members of the European Union. The manner in which the split played out—in a peaceful process that came to be known as the Velvet Divorce—offered a sharp contrast to the violent breakup of Yugoslavia at roughly the same time, along with some optimism concerning the aftermath of Soviet dissolution and its impact on geopolitics. Czech Republic;separation from Slovakia Slovakia;separation from Czech Republic Czechoslovakia;Velvet Divorce Velvet Divorce (1993)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bugajski, Janusz. “Central European Disputes.” In Nations in Turmoil: Conflict and Cooperation in Eastern Europe. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995. Presents an overview of political conflicts among different national groups in central Europe in the twentieth century, with particular emphasis on the immediate post-Cold War years. Includes notes and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Innes, Abby. Czechoslovakia: The Short Goodbye. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Presents an in-depth analysis of the causes and consequences of the breakup of Czechoslovakia, placing the events within the context of the history of the Czechoslovak state. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leff, Carol Skalnik. National Conflict in Czechoslovakia: The Making and Remaking of a State, 1918-1987. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988. Written scarcely a year before the revolutionary process liberated and divided Czechoslovakia, this sweeping historical account suffers from bad timing, but its detailed exploration of the nationalism that pulled at the Czechoslovakian state throughout its seventy-five years makes it indispensable for fully understanding the Velvet Divorce.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosenberg, Tina. The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism. New York: Random House, 1995. The first section of this volume presents an engaging narrative that explores the demise of Communism in Czechoslovakia and the problems that subsequently arose. Includes discussion of the Velvet Revolution. Features glossary of names and selected bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stokes, Gale. The Walls Came Tumbling Down: The Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Although written before the formal division of Czechoslovakia, provides critical background leading up to the Velvet Divorce. Chapter 5 examines the revolutions of 1989, including Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution. Chapter 6 explores the revolutions’ aftermath, including the growing split between Czechs and Slovakians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Svec, Milan. “Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Divorce.” Current History 91 (November, 1992): 376-380. Briefly summarizes the events leading up to the Velvet Revolution, with particular emphasis on economic matters. Written several months before the formal division of the country, this article concludes that Czechoslovakia’s breakup “seems all but certain.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whipple, Tim D., ed. After the Velvet Revolution: Václav Havel and the New Leaders of Czechoslovakia Speak Out. New York: Freedom House, 1991. Although compiled before the Velvet Divorce, this collection of speeches and writings by the architects of the Velvet Revolution conveys a sense of the political problems that confronted post-Cold War Czechoslovakia.

Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia

Soviet Troops Withdraw from Czechoslovakia

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