Slovakia rues high cost of its 'velvet divorce': A year after Czechoslovakia split, Bratislava envies its old partner, writes Adrian Bridge

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The Independent Online
WHEN the Czech and Slovak republics came into being exactly one year ago tonight, cynics on both sides warned that, for all the talk of it being a civilised 'velvet divorce', the break-up of the old Czechoslovak state was bound to end in tears.

In the event, they were right. But nearly all the tears shed over the past 12 months have been in Slovakia, economically by far the weaker of the two new states, and, ironically, the one which pushed hardest for the split.

'My grandmother still weeps over the way in which our republic was destroyed,' said Zuzana Betrovska, a music student in Bratislava. 'And she is not the only one.' With unemployment already at 14 per cent - and rising - privatisation almost stagnant and almost no foreign investment coming in, the leadership in Bratislava can only look on with envy at its counterpart in Prague, presiding over what is commonly hailed as the most successful economy in Eastern Europe.

In stark contrast to the Slovaks, whose economy is based on outmoded heavy engineering and arms factories, the Czechs have a stable currency, a stable government and, at 4 per cent, one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe. But while many Slovaks would like to turn the clock back, hardly any see that as realistic.

'A lot of us would love reunion, but the Czechs do not want it now. They can see they are far better off without us,' Ms Betrovska said. 'We made a very great mistake when we broke away, but now it is too late. We have to pay the price.'

Although Ms Betrovska says she still enjoys good relations with Czech students at her college, she can already discern a shift in attitudes as the differences between the two countries become more marked and the value of the Slovak crown - originally on level pegging with its Czech equivalent - continues to fall. 'A year ago we were equals, citizens of the same country. Now we sometimes get the feeling that the Czechs begin to look down their noses at us. We have sort of become second-class.'

Czech feelings of superiority, certainly in the economic sphere, are hardly surprising. Recently the Czech Republic became the only former Warsaw Pact country to receive a good credit rating from Moody's, an international agency that assesses credit risk. In a report by the Deutsche Bank, the country was described as having 'the best development potential of all countries in Eastern Europe'.

Jan Urban, a leading former dissident in Czechoslovakia, said: 'The first anniversary of the split has prompted . . . comparisons between us and they certainly show us in a favourable light. On the Czech side, there has been a strong feeling of self-congratulation.

'But there are still many mixed feelings. Not many Czechs actually wanted the split and some still regret it. When we look at the map, we see that we have become smaller. Particularly given the political and economic weight of Germany, we feel more vulnerable.'

There is a fear that the Czech Republic may experience more economic hardship. While some predict that the Slovak economy may have bottomed out, the unemployment rate could double to 8 per cent next year as loss-making Czech industries are forced to close down. 'The dramatic part of the transition is over,' conceded Vaclav Klaus, the Czech Prime Minister, who likes to model himself on Margaret Thatcher. 'From now on, it will be back to the grey everyday work.'

Czechs would like the West to open markets more to Czech goods and Nato to open its doors to the 'Visegrad' four, which includes Poland, Hungary and Slovakia.

----------------------------------------------------------------- The two economies one year on ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1993 Czech Republic Slovakia Population 10 million 5.3 million Unemployment 4% 14% Inflation 20% 25% GDP Has remained static Fell by 5% The dollar Czech Crown 29.4 Slovak Crown 33.9 -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photographs omitted)

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