Slovakia: life after the velvet divorce

Why the former Czechoslovakian state, which gained its “Velvet Divorce” from the Czech Republic in 1993, is one of Europe’s quiet successes.

Art regeneration: Viktor Hulik's 1997 street-level statue of "Cumil the Peeper" in Bratislava
Art regeneration: Viktor Hulik's 1997 street-level statue of "Cumil the Peeper" in Bratislava

On New Year’s Day a small, mountainous European country of just over five million people celebrated its 21st anniversary as an independent nation. Since independence, it has enjoyed some of Europe’s highest growth rates, with strong inward investment encouraged by low taxes, and has become an active member of the European Union, stoutly defending its own interests.

The country in question is Slovakia, known until its “Velvet Divorce” from the Czech Republic in 1993 as the smaller, less developed and weaker part of Czechoslovakia. Now it scores higher in almost every economic indicator.

A model for the Scots, as we contemplate independence for our own mountainous land of five million souls? Well, it would be wrong to see too many parallels. But as a Scot living in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, for the past three years, I see the experience of this country’s separation from the Czech Republic as pretty positive. The strongest testimony to this is that a large majority of both Czechs and Slovaks – who overwhelmingly opposed the split at the time (there was no referendum) – now believe it was for the best. Re-creating Czechoslovakia does not even register as a political issue. More than that, Czechs and Slovaks appear to get on better now than they did when they shared a country, constantly bickering as they did (just like the Scots and English) over whether one “subsidised” the other or “dictated policy”.

In conversations with Slovak politicians and observers, I have heard the same upbeat point again and again: “We have grown up politically. We don’t have anyone else to blame any more. We are responsible for our own decisions.”

The experience of Slovakia’s re-emergence as a state certainly dispels some of the myths surrounding Scotland’s likely fate after a Yes vote. Even though the “divorce” was rushed through in a matter of months, allowing little time for negotiations (which the Scots are told would be fiendishly complex), Slovakia was admitted to international institutions such as the World Bank and IMF from day one, and became a member of the United Nations after just 19 days. Czechoslovakia was not a member of the European Union at the time but both new countries went on to join the EU in 2004, and it was Slovakia, not the Czech Republic (previously seen as economically more vibrant), that was first to adopt the euro, in the days when that was a mark of respectability.

It is odd to see the Scottish independence debate so dominated by economics – often reduced to the banal question of whether Scots might be a few hundred pounds better off after independence. There are much more fundamental issues, in my view, that colour many Scots’ attitudes to Westminster – matters of democracy, national identity, culture and (let’s be frank) that big chip we have on our shoulder.

It was something similar that led to the collapse of Czechoslovakia three years after it emerged from communism in 1989. Just as Scotland time and again gets a government in London that it didn’t vote for, so the Slovaks used to feel ignored and patronised by Prague. I remember coming to Bratislava in 1991 to report on what was being called “the Hyphen war”. Thousands of Slovaks marched in the streets to champion the somewhat improbable cause of inserting a hyphen into the country’s name: “Czecho-slovakia”. But that was just a strange expression of a much deeper need. The Velvet Revolution had ushered in a Czechoslovakia where the divisions between the two nations became more apparent than they had been under the communist state.

According to the sociologist Olga Gyárfášová, many Slovaks were apprehensive about the fast-track-to-capitalism reforms being proposed in Prague – a fear that the leaders of a growing Slovak nationalist movement could exploit. Gyárfášová says the “Czechoslovak nation” was a fragile construct anyway which began to disintegrate as soon as the glue of the communist system evaporated.

Ján Carnogurský, a communist-era dissident who became prime minister of the Slovak part of Czechoslovakia in 1991, then voiced a thought that seemed shocking at the time – that Slovakia should “have its own little [European] star”. His immediate successor, the nationalist Vladimir Meciar, went further, doing a deal with the Czech prime minister to split the country without even consulting the public in a referendum. Opinion polls showed that 67 per cent of Slovaks and 78 per cent of Czechs were against the split, but it went ahead anyway from 1 January 1993.

The initial upheaval was immense, with border posts going up, customs barriers, separate currencies and passports – all things the Scottish government hopes to avoid – plus a complex exercise in political arithmetic as Czechoslovakia’s real estate, from embassies to tanks and aircraft, was divided up to reflect the 2:1 ratio of the new countries’ populations.

At first, many Slovaks felt orphaned rather than empowered. The EU condemned Meciar’s government as authoritarian and reactionary, pursuing backward-looking economic policies. Unemployment soared. The Czech Republic was accepted into Nato five years before Slovakia and powered ahead in the race to join the EU. Slovaks had to wait until the late Nineties, when they elected a reforming, democratically minded government, before they were invited to apply for EU membership.

But after this rocky start Slovakia took off, and hasn’t looked back. The country joined Nato in March 2004, and the EU – simultaneously with the Czech Republic and several other central European countries – two months later. Foreign investors such as Volkswagen, Samsung and Deutsche Telekom, attracted by a low 19 per cent flat tax rate, saw it as a prime location. Being in the Schengen area brought an end to border controls and passport checks. In 2007, just before the global crash, Slovakia had the highest growth rate in the EU (10.5 per cent). Within a short time it met the criteria to join the single currency, and on 1 January 2009 fireworks and concerts marked its spectacular entry into the eurozone. For a tiny country that had once looked like the poor man of Europe, these were big, brassy badges of honour.

Despite the global recession and continuing high unemployment, Slovakia, one of only four former communist countries to have joined the eurozone, remains one of Europe’s success stories. Its economy is growing while that of its “big brother”, the Czech Republic, is contracting. National wealth – per capita GDP – has soared from just 50 per cent of the EU average 12 years ago to 76 per cent today. It is the world’s biggest car producer per head of population.

That is some achievement for a country most people would find hard to place on the map (“Was it part of Yugoslavia?” – “Er, no, that’s Slovenia!”). By contrast, Scotland is a ready-made international brand. From whisky to golf, bagpipes to kilts, the Edinburgh Festival to Braveheart, everyone around the world knows something about Scotland.

Perhaps that is why I could find few Slovaks who, despite their own successes, would positively urge Scots to follow suit. František Šebej, a veteran politician who leads the foreign affairs committee in the Slovak parliament, asked me why we needed it. Well, I began, we are a nation with a different identity . . . Šebej laughed: “Exactly! You are a nation, you have your identity! So what do you need independence for?”

Like most others, Šebej agrees that independence has transformed political life in the country. “The Slovak intelligentsia and political class got a chance to mature. We do not have anyone to point a finger at, to make excuses, so that’s kind of a good thing.”

But although he sees no way back, he regrets the break-up of Czechoslovakia because it had “more clout in the world” than tiny Slovakia.

A recent prime minister of Slovakia, Iveta Radicová, would take issue with the notion that her country lacks clout. One of her first acts when she entered office in July 2010 was to refuse flatly to contribute €816m to an emergency aid fund for Greece, on the understandable grounds that she simply could not sell the idea to her own people. Slovaks are immeasurably poorer than Greeks and most object strongly to the idea of their own country, which abides by every comma in the single-currency rulebook, contributing billions to dig Greeks out of their self-inflicted mess.

With her blond hair and feisty views, Radicová quickly became compared to an earlier, British prime minister who “wanted her money back”.

Slovakia did agree to a later eurozone bail-out for Greece, but Radicová, now a sociology lecturer, is adamant that her little country made a big difference. “We put on the table three conditions: involvement of the private sector, changes in the Stability and Growth Pact, and an automatic sanction system,” she says. “It was Slovakia that put these on the table. And they were accepted.” She points out that new EU voting mechanisms, due to come in this year under the Lisbon Treaty, will ensure that small countries are less likely to be swamped at EU ministerial gatherings.

Though there is no hankering after the restoration of Czechoslovakia, there is, I sense, a little nostalgia for the bigger nation that Slovakia used to belong to. The downside of independence is the country’s “smallness”. Slovak television seems parochial; the gene pool of talent is that much smaller. Slovaks still watch Czech TV as well as their own, and love Czech songs, comedians and films. Prague, they tell you with some regret, was a great place to have as your capital city.

The split has not driven Czechs and Slovaks apart; rather the opposite. Many thousands of Czechs still live in Slovakia, and vice versa. Czech climbers throng the mountain paths and ski slopes in the Slovak Tatras – and Slovaks endlessly josh about “yet another group of stupid Czechs lost in our hills”. Ice hockey is the national sport and matches between the two ignite the same passions as Scotland-England football games. Yet there is not even a hint of bitterness. Recently the Czech and Slovak equivalents of Britain’s Got Talent got together again for a series of Czecho Slovakia’s Got Talent, with one presenter from each nation and plenty of benign rivalry. (Note, however, the stubborn use of two separate words in “Czecho Slovakia”.)

Most importantly, the acrimony that dogged the old country has vanished. “The Czechs always used to complain that they were ‘paying’ for us, and we used to complain that they were bossing us around. Not any more,” says Gyárfášová. “Now we trust each other more. We get on better than ever.”

And she adds a thought that seems most relevant to the case of Scottish indep­endence. “If separation hadn’t happened it would always be on the agenda – it would be a problem that would never go away,
and would overshadow all other problems. At least we don’t have to think about it any more.”

Angus Roxburgh is a former BBC foreign correspondent