Farewell, tormented land, and rest in peace: As Czechs and Slovaks complete their 'velvet divorce', they are finally choosing a future for themselves, writes Zdena Tomin

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Do you remember Czechoslovakia, the far-away country of which you knew so little - and then, from time to time, so much? This young country, founded in 1918 on the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian empire, has heard its fate lamented at least three times. In 1938-39, when, betrayed by the same great powers which attended its birth, it fell to Hitler. In 1948, when, at least half-betrayed by the Western allies, it succumbed finally to Stalin's evil empire and thousands perished in Communist prisons. And in 1968-69, when, after the brief Prague Spring, it tried to break out of the Communist mould and fell to Brezhnev's tanks.

The Western media showed unarmed civilians defying the tanks in their thousands, but no one came to help. In January 1969, when the young student Jan Palach burnt himself to death in protest against the defeatism and indifference spreading across his country, it was too late. The clock of Czechoslovak history had stopped. Thereafter, the banned playwright Vaclav Havel and his fellow dissidents in Charter 77 made headlines now and then when put in prison or beaten up by the secret police.

Twenty years after Palach's self-sacrifice came the 'Velvet revolution'. All the best qualities associated with Czechoslovakia and its people were displayed: non- violence, tolerance, humour even in defiance, keen intellect, a preference for the theatre of the absurd over mass hysteria. On the balcony above Wenceslas Square in Prague, Alexander Dubcek, a Slovak, stood shoulder to shoulder with Mr Havel, a Czech. Students were joined by workers. Not a shot was fired; Communism collapsed. The playwright became President, and the velvet nature of this rapid change became a symbol of hope for all Central Europe.

Do you remember Czechoslovakia? Of course you do. Now start to forget it. One minute after midnight this Friday it will be no more. Only three years after the 'velvet revolution' has come the 'velvet divorce'. The map of Europe must be changed once again. In the west of what was Czechoslovakia will be the Czech republic of 10 million inhabitants: Czechs, Moravians and Silesians. In the east will be the smaller Slovak republic of five million inhabitants, mainly Slovaks but with a large - and worried - Hungarian minority. For the time being, as long as the tariff and currency union lasts, the border between the two republics should remain free and open. Thereafter it will be a full state border: checkpoints, customs, border guards. For me, as for anyone born in Czechoslovakia, this is still difficult to imagine, even if the split itself has been accepted as 'inevitable'. But was it? One thing is clear: this time no outside aggression is to blame, no lack of national solidarity. If the demise of such a young and capable country is to be lamented, then it must be as an act decided by the Czechs and Slovaks themselves.

Yet rather than a decision, it was perhaps a political accident resulting from the fog of turbulent times. Or simply the outcome of a nervous card game, in which the Slovaks brandished their independence card and the Czechs called their bluff. But they were politicians, all of them - calls for a referendum by both peoples went unheeded. The Slovaks, spoken for by their Prime Minister, Vladimir Meciar, still blame the Czechs for not understanding their genuine grievances against the unitary state and their concept of a loose confederation, and for virtually forcing them out. Czech politicians, including the Prime Minister, Vaclav Klaus, point out that, as a result of this year's elections, Slovakia went to the left and the Czech republic to the right, towards a swift and strict transition to a market economy. The two nations' politics and economies thus became incompatible and the split inevitable.

Mr Havel says so, too, these days. He tried to preserve the federation, but he was not re-elected by Slovak members of the federal parliament and resigned as Czechoslovakia's president. However, there is little doubt that next month he will be elected the first Czech president by the Czech parliament. Mr Havel may no longer be so universally liked and admired as before - many lament his transformation from a jeans-and-jumper reluctant president into a solemn figure with a seemingly permanent ambition to be president - but there is still no one else who enjoys such standing at home and such popularity abroad.

For others there are more crucial things to feel sad and angry about: Czech culture, for example, which seems in danger of being swamped by Western products, often past their sell-by date. The main Boxing Day feature on Czech television this Christmas, six days before the historic date, was an old Benny Hill show, followed by an old American serial. Czech film-makers, long celebrated throughout the world, have no money to make their own films. That is the market economy, they are told.

It is unlikely that there will be dancing in the streets of Prague on New Year's Eve, but people are relieved. All things considered, it has been a decent divorce, and what is wrong with a small but neat Czech republic? There are smaller states in Europe and, what the heck, we will be better off without the Slovaks.

The Slovaks are more likely to celebrate. Their economic future may be less assured, but having their own indisputable statehood for the first time ever fills them with joy and pride. Will there be two small gardens of Eden in place of one badly spoilt paradise? Who knows?

Together with my fellow Czech and Slovak Europeans, I would like to pray: 'Hurry into being, integrated Europe of a myriad regions, ruled by the golden thumb of subsidiarity, where no state need assert itself by building yet another set of borders. Farewell Czechoslovakia, and thank you for not exploding into another Yugoslavia. Best of luck, Czech and Slovak republics, and never let hatred come between you. Amen.'

The author is a novelist, was spokesperson for Charter 77 and is Prague correspondent of the Czech section, BBC World Service.