Few cheers as two new states are born

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The Independent Online
At midnight tonight, the Czechoslovak state will cease to exist. In most of the country - or rather, the two new Czech and Slovak republics that will take its place - the event will be greeted with something of a whimper: an inevitable, but not very welcome, consequence of the rise of nationalist sentiment throughout Central and Eastern Europe after the collapse of Communism in 1989.

Many Czechs and Slovaks can still scarcely believe it is happening and are fearful of what it will bring. Were it not for the fact that tonight also marks New Year's Eve many may well not have bothered to stay awake for the birth of the two new countries.

'It is all extremely sad,' said Sophia, a pensioner in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, who, at 83, is old enough to remember the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918 and the last time Slovakia was nominally independent - as a Nazi puppet-state in the Second World War. 'We made a great mistake breaking away then, and this time it will be even worse.'

In Slovakia, by far the smaller and economically weaker of the two, fears focus on escalating prices, cuts in social benefits and the spectre of mass unemployment hanging over its numerous and hopelessly uncompetitive heavy industrial plants. Having railed against bossy big brother in Prague for years, Slovaks will now have to face the chilly reality of making it alone without any fallback support in the form of hand- outs from the federal budget.

'We may now be independent, but it will soon become obvious that we are totally dependent on the stronger Czech economy,' said Tomas Haladny, a journalist with the now defunct Czechoslovak National Radio. 'We are like small children playing with fire: we will have to burn outselves to find out just how hot it really is.'

In an attempt to sound a more upbeat note, a gun salute in Bratislava's Slovak National Uprising Square at midnight will mark the lowering of the Czechoslovak flag for the last time and the raising of its Slovak replacement. Fireworks will explode and the new national anthem - including the line 'Slovaks come alive' - will be sung.

Although the country's leaders are hoping for a good turn-out, if they are anything like the proclamation of Slovak sovereignty in July, tonight's celebrations will be muted. According to recent surveys by Bratislava's Institute for Central European Studies, only 27 per cent of Slovaks are actually optimistic about independence, with the rest feeling pessimistic or simply confused. 'It is clear there is no real support for this division, but on the other hand there has been no effective opposition against it,' said Lora Butorova at the Institute. 'If people really felt strongly about it, they would have taken to the streets to protest.'

As it is, Czechs and Slovaks, while resentful of the fact they were never asked in a referendum for their opinion, quickly came to see division as inevitable following elections in June which brought the populist nationalist Vladimir Mechiar to power in Bratislava.

To the astonishment of many, Mr Mechiar and his Czech counterpart, Vaclav Klaus, reached agreement on how to carve up the federation with almost indecent haste, and within weeks of their victories the fact of separation had become a fait accompli.

On paper, the two men have indeed secured what appears to be a 'velvet' divorce. All federal property and the army have been divided on the ratio of two to one (reflecting the respective Czech and Slovak populations of 10 and 5 million), while a customs union and, at least initially, a currency union will cushion the impact of what could otherwise have been a traumatic break.

'We've managed it all in a civilised and fair manner - indeed it could even become an example for other European countries wanting to split,' said Roman Kovac, Slovakia's Deputy Prime Minister, only half-jokingly. 'We have shown that the break-up of a state does not always have to end in bloodshed, as in Yugoslavia.'

But, as Mr Kovac and all those involved in negotiating the split are only too aware, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

For Czechs, many of whom still feel a nostalgic attachment to the country created by the philosopher-statesman Tomas Garrague Masaryk from parts of the Austro- Hungarian empire after the First World War, the future looks relatively rosy. Mr Klaus, now freed from the blocking power the Slovaks had in the federal parliament, is expected to press ahead with his ambitious privatisation programme, forcing the country's economy through its market reform paces.

While the Czechs have clearly got their sights set on early membership of the European Community, the Slovaks run the risk of joining the likes of Romania in a 'second tier' of Central and East European states which are not perceived in the West to be progressing quickly enough towards democracy and a market economy.

Leading article, page 24