Scottish independence: Lessons from the Czech/Slovak split

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Glenn Campbell on the Velvet Divorce 20 years on
Image caption,
Glenn Campbell on the Velvet Divorce 20 years on

If breaking up is hard to do, then the Czechs and Slovaks made it look a lot easier than that 20 years ago.

Popular history records the dissolution of Czechoslovakia on 1 January 1993 as a Velvet Divorce.

"The split was really smooth" recalled the veteran journalist, Pavol Mudry, in Slovakia's capital, Bratislava.

In his view both sides achieved this by negotiating "what belongs to which country" in the months before independence.

Czechoslovakia's assets and liabilities were shared on a 2 to 1 basis, with the Czechs getting the larger slice.

The formula reflected the balance of the population, the territory and the economic clout of the Czech lands and Slovakia.

In London, for instance, the Czechs took over the embassy and the Slovaks set up their diplomatic post in what had been the ambassador's residence.

No consultation

Media caption,

Glenn Campbell looks at what we can learn from the Velvet Divorce of the Czech and Slovak republics 20 years ago.

The Czechoslovak experience has been studied by nationalist movements from Quebec to Catalonia.

In January 2013, Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond, said the formation of the Czech and Slovak republics "demonstrate that once the popular will is determined constitutional discussions can be concluded in good time".

While the Scottish government plans to hold an independence referendum, in the former Czechoslovakia the people were not consulted.

Many Slovaks thought the state was too Prague-centric and many Czechs thought they were subsidising Slovakia.

In neither country was there a popular majority for independence.

Image caption,
Slovakia's deputy prime minister, Miroslav Lajack said each case is different

The split was agreed by the Czech and Slovak prime ministers, Vaclav Klaus and Vladimir Meciar, following elections in 1992.

Agonising talks to find the central European equivalent of 'devolution max' or some other accommodation between the two nations failed.

They decided on dissolution over the heads of the public and the president, Vaclav Havel, whose Velvet Revolution overthrew communism.

Slovakia's deputy prime minister, Miroslav Lajack, said: "I wouldn't advertise it as a model. Every case is different".

Gold row

It was swift, smooth and amicable when compared with the ugly conflict in the neighbouring Balkans but that doesn't mean there were no disagreements.

Munitions were moved back and forward across the border for a couple of years and it took nearly a decade to resolve a row about Slovakia's gold reserves in Czech banks.

In Prague, the former Czech prime minister, Petr Pithart said there was an "illusion" of harmony in the early years.

Relations between the two countries were at "freezing point" he said. "The governments were accusing each other of everything".

There were economic challenges too, particularly in Slovakia, which have been highlighted by those who want Scotland to remain in the UK.

Image caption,
There were economic challenges highlighted by those who want Scotland to remain in the UK

In September 2012, the CBI's director general, John Cridland, said Slovakia's independence "cost the country 4% of its GDP in the following year".

"Slovakia was a weaker part of Czechoslovakia" explained the former prime minister, Vladimir Meciar, who led Slovakia to independence.

As post-communist countries, both Slovakia and the Czech republic introduced painful market reforms to open up their economies.

"The effects of these changes on Slovakia were heavier," said Mr Meciar.

His authoritarian style also resulted in Slovakia's near isolation in Europe until he was replaced in the late 1990s.

'European tiger'

In 2004, both Slovakia and the Czech republic joined the European Union.

By the time of the global financial crisis, Slovakia's economy was growing so fast it had become known as the 'central European tiger'.

It was tamed when the crash came and unemployment remains high but there was no double dip recession and Slovakia is recovering.

Image caption,
Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg said relations had got better

In 2013, the Economist Intelligence Unit forecasts that Slovakia's GDP will grow by 2.1% - three and a half times faster than the Czech republic.

"We are doing very well," said Miroslav Lajcak. "The Czech republic is doing well and our friendship is better than ever," he said.

The Czech foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, agreed that improved relations with Slovakia had been one of the advantages of independence.

One disadvantage he identified was a loss of influence in the world.

"The international weight of both republics together is less than the former Czechoslovakia," he said.

In Slovakia, one former minister said it was better to have gained a voice of their own.

In both countries there are those who wonder what might have been if they had found a way to stay together.

We will never know.

For better or for worse, the Velvet Divorce was irreversible and after twenty years of independence there's no clamour for Czechs and Slovaks to get back together.