In one perspective, the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic, as it was
called at the time of its dissolution (1) ,
was a failure. The country did not manage to give itself a new constitution,
or to keep together as one nation-state. In another perspective, the
development of the country is a success story. Unlike Yugoslavia and the USSR,
the Czechoslovak federation broke up through peaceful negotiations. Not only
was there no violence; there was not even a threat of violence. In this
article I try to analyze the chain of events that begins with the fall of the
Communist regime in November 1989 and ends in the fall of 1992, when the two
successor states were created.
It is important to state my limitations. I do not know the language (2) . If
only for that reason, I can make no claim to scholarly knowledge of the
country and its history. In fact, my knowledge is thin even given what is
accessible in languages that I do read. The chronological narrative offered
below is based on a small number of written sources (3),
supplemented by what I learned in interviews with Czech and Slovak politicians
However, I do hope that I got the basic facts right. The more
analytical parts of the article, especially the final section, are of course
constrained by these limitations. I do not believe, however, that a
fine-grained knowledge is indispensable for sketching and tentatively
assessing some explanatory hypotheses. Also, I hope that my knowledge of
similar processes in other countries in the region (4) and
of constitution-making at other times and places (5) -
can to some extent compensate for my lack of familiarity with Czechoslovakia
I shall proceed as follows. In Section I, I provide a very selective survey
of the history of Czechoslovakia from 1918 to 1989, organized to make sense of
what happened after 1989. In Section II, I cover events between the events of
November 17 1989 that triggered the downfall of the regime to the first free
elections in June 1990. In Section III, I consider the dual efforts of writing
a new constitution and of keeping the country together during the two years
for which the first parliament was elected. In Section
IV, I discuss how the
elections of June 1992 created a political situation in which the break-up of
the country, from possible and plausible, became probable and inevitable. In
Section V, I briefly explain some aspects of the constitution-making in the
two new republics. In the final Section VI, I adopt a more systematic
perspective, surveying a number of explanations that have been offered for the
break-up of the country and commenting briefly on their validity.
Section I - selective survey
of the history of Czechoslovakia from 1918 to 1989
The Czechoslovakia that emerged after the end of World War I was an
artificial creation. Although both Slovakia and the Czech lands (Bohemia and
Moravia) were parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire and had similar languages,
they had very different historical trajectories.
Whereas the Czech lands
belonged to the Austrian part of the empire, Slovakia had for a thousand years
been under Hungarian domination. In 1918, the Czech lands were much more
advanced economically. About two thirds of the population were engaged in the
secondary and tertiary sectors, whereas in Slovakia two thirds were employed
in the primary Sector.
Also, religion had a much stronger place in Slovakia.
Altogether, Slovakia was a traditional society, based on the respect for
hierarchy and authority, a country that unlike the Czech lands had not yet
undergone the traumas of modernization. Of the 13.4 million inhabitants
counted in the 1921 census, about 3.5 million lived in Slovakia, including a
Hungarian minority of 700,000.
There was also a large German minority (about
3.2 million), mainly concentrated in the Czech lands. In 1989 the Czech lands
had a population of about ten million and relatively few minority members,
virtually all Germans having been deported after 1945. Slovakia contained
about 5 million, including an Hungarian minority of about 600, 000.
Under the constitution of 1920, the country was organized as a unitary
state without any federal elements. The (predominantly Czech) political
leaders believed that only by 'assimilating the Slovaks under a common
umbrella of "Czechoslovakism" could they be safeguarded from Hungarian
clutches' (7) ; at
the same time, they feared that recognition of Slovak autonomy could set a
precedent for similar demands by the German minority. Parliament, elected by
the proportional method, was bicameral.
President Thomas Masaryk, although
elected by the parliament and endowed with limited formal powers, had
exceptionally large de facto powers, due to his prestige as founder of
the new state. All three elements - proportionality, bicameralism, indirect
election of the president - were incorporated in the new Czech constitution of
1992, often with explicit reference to the First Republic.
The history of the Republic from its creation to 1989 is punctuated by four
dates: 1938, 1945, 1948 and 1968.
Until 1938, Czechoslovakia was a prosperous,
democratic country. In terms of industrial production it was one of the ten
largest powers in the world. It was the only country in what later became Communist Eastern Europe that had a real history (and
memory!) of democratic self-government.
After Munich, the Czech lands became a
German protectorate (and de facto part of the German Reich), whereas
Slovakia in 1939 was organized as a formally independent state.
reality wartime Slovakia was little more than a Nazi puppet, the period still
retains symbolic significance for many Slovaks as a first exercise in
state-building. In current Slovak celebrations of their wartime regime, it is
not always easy to see whether what is celebrated is the independence of the
regime or its ideology.
The Third Republic (the Second Republic lasted from October 1938 to March
1939) was founded in 1945. The first parliament was elected to write a new
constitution, which was adopted in May 1948, three months after the Communist
coup d'État of February 25.
The details of that constitution have
little interest today, except with regard to the system of 'asymmetric
federalism' that was adopted. In addition to the federal parliament and
government, Slovakia had its own parliament (National Council) and government;
no such arrangement existed in the Czech lands (8).
similar asymmetry existed within the Communist party. There was a Slovak
Communist party, a Czechoslovak Communist Party - but no Czech Communist
Party. Although intended as a concession to Slovak nationalism, the creation
of these asymmetrical structures turned out to have the same effect as many
other political concessions, whetting the appetite for independence rather
than satisfying it (9).
The first consequences appeared in 1968, with the Prague Spring. It is
often said that the Slovaks, in this period, put 'federation before
democracy'. Although that claim remains controversial, it seems true that 'the
impetus for federalization was almost exclusively Slovak' (10) .
In the new constitution that took force on January 1 1969, the federal
structure of the republic was asserted in two ways. On the one hand, the
asymmetry was eliminated by the creation of a Czech National Council.
other hand, and more crucially, the federal assembly was made bi-cameral, with
an upper house (House of Nations) divided into two-equal size Czech and Slovak
sections. Ordinary legislation needed a simple majority in each of the two
houses. In some cases, designated in the constitution, legislation required a
simple majority in the lower house (House of the People) and in each section
of the upper house; constitutional changes needed three fifths majorities in the same three
instances. This implied that one fifth of deputies to the upper house could
(if concentrated in one section) block all constitutional changes. Although
elaborated before the Soviet invasion in August 1968, the new constitution was
passed after the invasion and with Soviet approval. In this connection two
claims have been made.
First, in the absence of the invasion the creation of a
federal structure would have led, sooner rather than later, to Slovak
secession. Second, the temporal coincidence of the invasion and the adoption
of the new constitution was widely interpreted as a sign of Soviet imposition
of the constitution. In this perspective, the Soviets approved the
constitution only because they saw it as a useful tool for a policy of
divide-and-conquer. For many Czechs, this aspect of the origin of the 1968
constitution severely reduced its legitimacy.
Within the strict Communist framework imposed by the Soviets, the
constitution was, of course, a mere sham. Neither the principle of the
sovereignty of parliament nor that of a separation of powers has any reality
when the Party has all real authority. The federal structure was also a mere
caricature, as shown by the fact that the Czech and Slovak National Councils
regularly passed identically worded legislation (11) .
In any case, most of the concessions to federalism were taken away by a new
constitutional reform in 1970. Yet the federal framework mattered profoundly -
after 1989, when it was used to promote, and sometimes to block, new
legislation. The 1968 Czechoslovak constitution may be a unique example of a
text that came into life only after death - after the abolition of the regime
whose affairs it was supposed to regulate. I shall return to this question
After the Soviet repression, the reformers within the Communist
party-predominantly Czech - were dismissed. Among the people who took their
place were a disproportionate number of Slovaks, including the new Party
Secretary Gustav Husak. Thus in addition to the largely symbolic victory of
federalism, the Slovaks gained participation in power. As part of the 'reward'
for their comparative loyalty in 1968 was a disproportionate investment in
Slovakia, they also gained some economic advantage, at least in the short run.
Section II - events between
November 17 1989 that triggered the downfall of the regime to the first free
elections in June 1990
The proximate cause of the downfall of Communism in Czechoslovakia was
the brutal repression of student demonstrators on November 17 1989, followed
by a wave of mass protests that ultimately also reached the factories. The
more remote cause was the series of regime transformations in Poland, Hungary
and East Germany that, besides serving as a model and an inspiration, had the
crucial effect of signaling that the Soviet Union was not going to intervene.
The actual transition was effectuated through the vehicle of the Round Table
Talks between the regime and the opposition (12)
. Actually, there was not one Round Table, but two.
More or less
simultaneously with the discussions between the regime and Civic Forum in
Prague, regime officials and members of Public Against Violence (the Slovak
counterpart of Civic Forum) were meeting in Bratislava. The outcome of both
discussions was the formation of coalition governments. The Slovak Communists
managed, however, to maintain a stronger position in Slovakia than their
counterparts in Prague. Many negotiators from the opposition now reproach
themselves for having been too timid in pushing for change and for having
chosen compromise rather than confrontation. Also, the Bratislava leadership,
unlike the Central Committee in Prague, was not personally compromised during
the November demonstrations.
The Slovak Communist Party got rid of the worst
people, and was able to maintain not only its organizational structure but
also its property (the Slovak ex-Communists are today the richest party in
Slovakia). Later, the Slovak Communists in the Federal Parliament played a
consistently obstructive role, as 'constitution-wreckers' and
The Central Committee leaders in Prague were more completely and more
rapidly demoralized. As in Poland and Hungary, not only the party leaders but
the opposition as well were surprised by the sudden collapse of the regime.
The only obstacles to radical and swift reform came from Civic Forum itself.
Havel and his associates deliberately pulled their punches-asked for less than
they could get-in three crucial respects: in their insistence on the principle
of legal continuity, in their respect for Slovak sovereignty, and in their
choice of electoral system. I shall address these issues in turn.
The first problem the reformers faced was how to implement their reforms.
The decision was made at the Round Table to work with the existing parliament,
purified of its most obnoxious members. Between one third and one half of the
deputies either resigned or were forced to step down, and were replaced by
members of Civic Forum and of the satellite parties of the Communist party,
which had carried out an internal house-cleaning in the days following
November 17. Some Communist deputies were also replaced by other Communists.
The replacement was carried out within strictly legal forms, using as a
precedent the procedure by which the reformers had been forced out of
parliament after the 1968 invasion (13).
This is one application of the principle of legal continuity.
A more important application arose out of the fact, explained earlier, that
the reformers found themselves saddled with a constitutional framework that
gave strong veto powers to the Slovak minority in parliament. A Slovak group
of 31 members of the upper house - representing one fifth of that house and
two fifteenths of the population in the country as a whole (14) -
could block any constitutional change. This perverse situation was the outcome
of a triply favorable treatment of the Slovaks. First, they had equal numbers
of representatives in the upper house with the numerically larger Czechs.
Second, a majority was required in each of the two sections of that house, not
in the house voting as one. Third, constitutional changes required a qualified
majority. Combining the first and the second or the first and the third of
these principles would have been well within the range of normal
constitutional procedures. It was the combination of all three principles - in
fact, of the second and the third-that gave unusually large powers to the
In this situation, Civic Forum might have been justified in rapidly pushing
through a constitutional bill to change the mode of voting in parliament. They
could have appealed both to substance and process: to the exorbitant nature of
the Slovak veto and to the illegitimacy of the 1968 constitution. Although
some Czech politicians made moves in this direction (15) ,
they were met with strong Slovak opposition. As an overriding goal of the
leaders of the Civic Forum was to avoid any actions that might cause or
perpetuate social division, no further steps were taken.
The problem might perhaps have been defused at an earlier stage. In the
first time after November 17, Civic Forum was quite active in Slovakia. In the
Civic Forum headquarters in Latema Magica (Prague) there was a map of
Czechoslovakia with the geographical distribution of the Civic Forum
committee, showing that Civic Forum was active also in Slovakia, except for
Bratislava, which was dominated by Public Against Violence. Many parts of
Slovakia outside Bratislava felt greater affinity with the Czechs, and did not
want to be ruled from Bratislava. However, Civic Forum deliberately dismantled
its organization in Slovakia, recommending that its Slovak members join Public
Against Violence. 'In this way the chance... for unified political management
of the reform process in the entire country disappeared' (16) .
Consider next the decision to adopt a system of proportional representation
in the first elections. In December 1989 and January 1990 the issue of
proportional versus majoritarian (majority or plurality voting in
single-member districts) systems was much debated among Havel and his
political associates. In addition to the influence of precedents (the First
Republic had used PR whereas voting under Communism was majoritarian), Havel
was, at that time, animated by two distinct desires. On the one hand, he did
not want to exploit the dominant position of Civic Forum so that the movement
would gather all seats in parliament.
It was clear, however that with majority
voting Civic Forum would have swept the elections, as Solidarity had done for
the elections to the Polish Senate in June 1989 when they got all deputies but
one. By contrast, proportional elections would allow for the representation of
other political tendencies too, including the Communists (17) .
On the other hand, Havel was at that time notoriously opposed to the party
system (18) .
He wanted an electoral method that would allow for the selection of independent candidates. The method
which does that par excellence is, of course, the majority system.
Although systems exist - notably that of the 'single transferable vote' (19) -
which permit the simultaneous satisfaction of both Havel's desires, there is
no evidence that any of them were contemplated at the time. In the PR system
that was eventually adopted the voters were allowed to modify the order in
which the candidates were listed on the ballot, but they nevertheless had to
choose from the party list.
The remarkable fact is that in the end the decision to adopt proportional
voting was taken by the very group - Civic Forum - which had everything to
gain from adopting majority voting and which, moreover, had the power to
impose that system. One of Havel's close associates remarks that 'this
decision will be seen either as the glory or the weakness of the November
revolution: we were winners that accepted a degree of self-limitation'. From
the positive (as distinct from normative) point of view, the episode offers an
important counter-example to the proposition that political movements favor
the electoral systems that favor them (20) .
The decision to adopt proportional voting was taken in a way that had a
curious and possibly momentous side effect. When the electoral system was
discussed in a meeting between Havel and some of his associates, it became
clear that they were close to persuading him to adopt proportional
representation. To clinch the matter, one of them added that the decision was
not a definitive one: they could always change the system later. It was in
that experimental spirit that the idea of having the first parliament elected
for two years rather than four first came up. This was an idea that Havel
appreciated on other grounds too. He had been reluctant to serve as president
for four years, and this proposal would allow him to serve for two years only.
Many believe today that it was a mistake to think that the new federal
constitution could be written in two years. One centrally placed politician
also said so at the time: the constitution can be written in three months or in ten
years, but not in two years. Although he did not advocate the idea of pushing
through the constitution immediately, while a window of opportunity still
existed, he did oppose the two-year parliament. Although there were other
centrally placed actors who shared his opinion, the two-year option won out.
The argument Havel made in public - distinct from what initially may have
swayed him - was that a parliament elected in 1990 would mainly reflect the
rejection of the old regime and not allow the expression of pluralism.
In summary and in retrospect, there were three features of the 'velvet
revolution' that cast their shadow on the first democratically elected
legislature and help explain the failure to adopt a new constitution and to
keep the country together. First, the reshaping of the political system left a
strong Communist presence. This came about partly by accident (in Slovakia),
partly by a deliberate decision to adopt an electoral system that would allow
for a Communist presence in the new parliament. Second, there was a lack of
understanding of the fetters that the 1968 constitution would impose on the
reform process, and/or a lack of willingness to remove them. Third, the
decision to elect the first, constitution-making assembly for two years was
unfortunate, partly because valuable time would be taken up by campaigning
before the next elections, and partly because the compression of the time
horizon carried a risk of political overheating. These are, to repeat,
retrospective judgments, which do not carry any implication that 'mistakes'
were made at the time.
The June 1990 elections created a federal parliament dominated by Civic
Forum and Public Against Violence: 170 seats out of 300, with the Communists
and the Christian Democratic Union achieving respectively 47 and 40 seats and
three small parties 12-16 seats each. However, Public Against Violence did not
get a majority (and a fortiori not a three fifths majority) of the
seats in the Slovak section of the upper house.
Section III - the dual efforts of writing
a new constitution and of keeping the country together during the two years
for which the first parliament was elected.
The political process during the first parliamentary period was dominated
by two tasks. On the one hand, there was a massive and largely successful
effort to create the legal and institutional framework for a market economy,
and to transfer state property to individual owners. On the other hand, there
was a protracted struggle to define the division of powers between the
federation and the two constituent republics. Although the original idea had been to resolve this issue as
part of the general process of establishing a new constitution, it soon became
clear that the Slovaks wanted an immediate solution (RFE 7.12.1990).
Tripartite talks between the federal government and the governments of the two
republics took place from August to December 1990, culminating on December 12
with the adoption by the Federal Assembly of a constitutional amendment on
power-sharing (RFE 21.12.1990). The amendment went quite far in meeting
Slovak demands, including a somewhat absurd provision that the governorship of
the Central Bank would alternate annually between a Czech and a Slovak (21) .
Yet it soon became clear that it did not go far enough.
Before discussing these later developments, we should note that the tactics
adopted in the amendment struggle probably had an impact on what happened
later. Two events were crucial. First, in a meeting on December 6 1990 with
the Czech leaders, Vladimir Meciar and other Slovak leaders declared that if
the Czech proposals for changing the amendment were adopted, the Slovak
National Council would declare the supremacy of Slovak law over federal
Second, perhaps more fatefully, the Czech Prime Minister Petr
Pithart decided - 'pointlessly', according to one observer-participant (22) -
to reveal this threat in a speech to a right-wing political club, which then
pressured the Czech government to prepare emergency measures to cope with any
dangers to the unity of the country. From the Slovak point of view, this
speech could be interpreted (or at least presented) as evidence that the
Czechs wanted to split the federation. From the Czech point of view, Pithart's
revelation - and the subsequent failure to get all the Czech proposals adopted
- showed Meciar to be a successful blackmailer. The position of Pithart, who
had already been criticized as too friendly to the Slovaks, was undermined.
To understand the escalating conflicts over the nature of the federation,
it is important to know the options that were being debated, e.g. by
considering the alternatives presented in the opinion polls. In June 1990, the
- Common state, with large powers vested in central
- Common state, with large powers vested in Czech and Slovak
- Two completely independent states.
In the summer
of 1992, the alternatives were:
- Unitary state, with one government and
one parliament for all of Czechoslovakia;
- Federation composed of the
Czech Republic and Slovakia;
- Federation composed of more than two
- Separation (two completely independent
In the concluding Section, I indicate the proportions of respondents
favoring the various alternatives. There, I also explain the meaning of the
option 'Federation composed of more than two republics'. For present purposes,
the main point is to observe a gradual shift in the alternatives that were
held up against each other. Initially, the debate concerned the division of
powers between the federal and the national governments. Next, the main
opposition was between a federation (as defined for instance by the December
12 amendment) and a more loosely structured confederation. Finally, the idea
of confederation was progressively diluted so that in the end it became almost
indistinguishable from the creation of two independent states.
I shall not attempt to give a blow-by-blow account of this process, but
only sketch the main mechanisms that propelled it forward (23) .
Some of these were rooted in Czech-Slovak relations. There was a strong
element of Slovak brinkmanship, embodied in Vladimir Meciar. After Pithart had
made Meciar's threat public, he was locked into an aggressive position from
which he could not back down. Also, in the perceptions of many Czechs there
was little difference between Slovak nationalism and Slovak separatism, a
suspicion that easily became self-fulfilling. Other mechanisms were linked to
intra-Slovak relations, as Meciar for electoral purposes had to demarcate
himself from his Slovak rivals.
The separatist position was already occupied
by the Slovak National Party. The federative position was occupied by Jan
Carnogursky and his Christian Democratic Party, although with the curious
twist that in their program the federation was supposed to last only ten
years, until the time when the Czech and Slovak Republics could enter the
European Union as two separate entities (24) .
The only position left to Meciar was the confederative one. He found that a strategy
with great appeal was to pay lip service to the idea of keeping the country
together while at the same time demanding Slovak independence in more and more
domains. Thus before the elections of June 1992 he proposed the adoption of a
Slovak constitution before the federal one, the election of a Slovak
president, the creation of a Slovak Central Bank (with emission rights in the
common currency!), and even an independent foreign service.
At the constitutional level, the most notable achievement was the adoption
in 1991 of a federal bill of rights. There was a conspicuous failure, however,
to adopt a new federal constitution. The nature of the federation or
confederation was the main stumbling block. There was also failure to reach
agreement on the relations between government, parliament and the president. A
'little constitution' regulating these relations was submitted to the Federal
Assembly in the spring of 1992, but failed by two Slovak votes in the upper
The role of President Havel in the constitution-making process was complex,
and possibly counterproductive (25).
Many close observers explained his behavior in terms of his background as a
playwright. According to one, Havel lived in 'dramatic time', not
understanding that parliamentary politics takes place in 'epic time'. He
wanted long periods to be condensed into short, dramatic moments. According to
another, Havel saw himself as an actor, acting in a play written by himself.
He had no feeling of being subject to constraints. By the time he understood
how normal politics worked, valuable time had been lost. The same observers
emphasized that Havel's overall contribution to the Czechoslovak transition
was immensely positive, and that, moreover, his positive achievements stemmed
from the same character traits that in other situations made him an obstacle
to conflict resolution. Sometimes, disregard for consequences has good
consequences; sometimes, not.
When organizing a number of top-level meetings about constitutional reform,
Havel initially invited only the presidents and vice-presidents of the three
parliaments, neglecting the party leaders. When he finally came to understand
that the parties would have to play a crucial role, valuable time had, once
again, been lost. His relations with Alexander Dubcek, president of the
Federal Assembly, were not good. Dubcek may have been somewhat envious,
feeling that he was being reduced to a sideshow; or perhaps he simply was not
up to the task.
Havel's direct constitutional initiatives invariably failed, largely
because of bad tactical judgment. He repeatedly asked parliament to increase
the powers of the presidency. His constitutional draft of March 5 1991, for
instance, gave the president the right to declare a state of emergency, to
dissolve parliament, and to call referendums. Apparently, he did not
understand that such proposals, coming from the very office whose powers were
to be enhanced, were likely to meet with suspicion (26) .
He repeated the same proposals in a televised speech on November 17 1991.
Between these two proposals for constitutionalizing the presidential right to
call referendums, Havel had also tried to push a bill on referendum on
separation through the federal assembly. A petition was organized that
gathered almost 2.5 million signatures, largely from the Czech lands, and
there were big demonstrations in Prague to put pressure on parliament. Whether
or not Havel actually called the demonstrations himself - a point on which
observers disagree - they probably had the effect of strengthening resistance
in parliament to the bill. It failed when most Slovak and virtually all
communist deputies voted against it.
Section IV - how the
elections of June 1992 created a political situation in which the break-up of
the country, from possible and plausible, became probable and inevitable
During the two years of the first democratic parliament, it became
clear that the mood of the country was changing. In the Czech lands, right
wing market reformers were emerging as the strongest force. In Slovakia, left
wing forces - if that phrase can be used as an umbrella term for the
separatist, populist and communist parties - became increasingly strong. The
liberal center that had been at the core of the 1989 revolution was losing
force. To some extent, these changes were already reflected in the composition
of parliament. On February 23 1991, Civic Forum split into two groups, the Conservative Civic Democratic
Party (headed by Vaclav Klaus) and the liberal Civic Movement. Several smaller
groups also left Civic Forum to set up their own parties. The disintegration
of Public Against Violence began on March 5 1991, when Meciar founded his own
political party, later named Movement for a Democratic Slovakia.
The extent of the swing, as revealed in the elections of June 5-6 1992,
nevertheless came as a surprise to most observers. Basically the
liberal-centrist postcommunist elite was wiped out. As that elite was the only
political force with a strong commitment to a genuine federation, centrifugal
forces now came to dominate the scene. Their motivation and interaction are
further described in Section VI below. Here, I shall only give a brief
chronological story of events.
In the drama culminating in the creation of two independent states on
January 1 1993, the two main actors were Klaus and Meciar, undisputed winners
of the elections, with Havel in an ambiguous supporting role. An early sign of
what was to come occurred when Havel offered Klaus the position of federal
Prime Minister and Klaus preferred to accept the premiership of the Czech
On July 3, the day after the three governments were formed, the newly elected
federal assembly voted not to re-elect Havel as president of the country.
(Essentially he was defeated by the Slovak section in the upper house). On
July I 7, the Slovak National Council overwhelmingly approved the Slovak
Republic's declaration of sovereignty. Minutes later, Havel resigned from the
presidency, effective July 20. This was simply an act of dotting the i's and
crossing the t's: the federation was dead, and Havel wanted to have nothing
more to do with it. On July 22 and 23 Klaus and Meciar agreed on ending the
federation. Although Meciar later (in August) appeared to have second
thoughts, the Czechs remained firm.
What remained to be determined were the procedural means of attaining this
end and the 'divorce settlement' - the division of the common assets. Under
the existing constitution, secession of one republic required a referendum
among the citizens of that republic. Neither Meciar nor Klaus wanted to follow
this course. Instead, they asked the Federal Assembly to adopt a
constitutional law that, in addition to the referendum, would provide other
and (from their perspective) safer means to secession. When the bill failed by
a small margin, a surprise motion to prepare a Czech-Slovak Union was tabled and accepted. The proposal - which received the vast support of the
deputies from Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia - was probably made
only to undermine the bargaining position of Klaus in the upcoming division of
the common assets (RFE 16.10.1992).
Klaus, in fact, wanted the split to happen as soon as possible. He was
afraid that Western investors, whose interest in the Czech economy had already
started to wane as a result of uncertainty over the future of the federation,
might flee the country. Although he could have declared a unilateral
secession, he wanted the split to occur in a constitutionally acceptable
manner, both to appear as 'clean' in the eyes of the West and to prevent
Slovakia from blaming him for the break-up. Meciar, on his side, was in no
hurry. As long as the federation lasted, Slovakia could retain its share of
the federal budget and postpone the economic losses that separation would
entail. In this perspective, the proposal of a Czech-Slovak Union was simply a
procrastinating move, intended to induce Klaus to make a favorable offer on
the division of the assets in exchange for Slovak acceptance of a rapid
On November 25 1992 the Federal Assembly adopted a bill to dissolve the
federation, in spite of claims by the opposition that the country could be
split only on the basis of a referendum (28) .
In the weeks preceding this vote, Klaus and Meciar had prepared a number of
agreements on the division of the common assets and the future relations
between the two states. It was clear to everybody that the break-up was
imminent, and would happen in a reasonably orderly way regardless of what the
Federal Assembly decided. It was also clear that at this stage a referendum
could not serve any purpose. Hence a sufficient number of opposition deputies
decided to forego their opposition to the bill the third time it was submitted
to the assembly.
Section V - some aspects of the constitution-making in the
two new republics - the Czech and Slovak constitutions
During the period of the first democratic parliament, commissions had
been at work drafting constitutions for the Czech and the Slovak republic, in
parallel with the drafting of the federal constitution. The work of the Czech
commission remained at the stage of an unpublished draft, and was never
submitted to parliament (29) .
It had little influence on the constitution that was adopted on December in 1992. In contrast, the
Slovak constitution that was adopted on September 1 1992 was the last document
in a series of evolving texts, the first of which dates from 1990. This
continuity led, among other things, the Slovaks to retain the Federal bill of
rights in their constitution. The Czech constitution refers to the bill, for
reasons indicated below, but does not give it full constitutional force.
The Slovak constitution 'owed much to [the earlier] proposals; but even
more of the constitution's provisions were based on the winning party's own
conceptions' (RFE 30.10.1992). Reading the constitution, it seems to
owe even more to the need to put something together in a hurry. It is a
clumsily formulated document, with a number of ambiguities and technical flaws
. The most unusual (and unusually vague) provision is Art. 106, which allows
parliament to recall the President with a 3/5 majority (the same needed to
elect him) for 'conduct aimed to destroy the democratic and constitutional
regime'. In March 1994, pro-Meciar deputies wanted to use the provision to
remove President Kovac from office for no other reason than his criticism of
Meciar (RFE 1.4.1994). Parliament is thus placed in the strange role of
having power to elect and remove both executives, the prime minister and the
president. Although vulnerable to parliament, the president can dismiss the
prime minister on his own initiative, not only when the government fails to
retain the confidence of parliament. (This seems at least to be the most
plausible interpretation of the ambiguous Art. 102 (f).)
Not knowing much of what went on behind the scenes, I am not able to trace
specific provisions in the Slovak constitution back to the ideas or interests
of its creators. It is possible to say a bit more about the making of the
Czech constitution. It was, above all, the work of Vaclav Klaus (some people
in his entourage call it 'The Führer's constitution'). According to one
source, he told the drafters to base themselves on the 1920 constitution and
only make the minimal adjustments that were necessary. According to another,
he told them that a constitution could be written over a week-end, and then
proceeded to do so himself. But the constitution was also a result of
compromise. It needed 121 votes to be passed, but the Klaus coalition had only
105 members. An additional 12 votes from the Moravian party were obtained by
means of vague promises to do something for Moravia. Votes of former communists and social democrats were obtained by
including a reference to the bill of rights, which has a strong emphasis on
social and economic rights.
At the level of overt argument, references to the constitution of the First
Republic were used both to justify specific provisions (the creation of a
senate, PR in elections to the lower house, 1/3 quorum, 3/5 majority for
constitutional amendments) and to exclude others (the constructive vote of no
confidence). In reality, other reasons may have been just as decisive. Klaus
wanted a simple majority for amending the constitution, understandably enough
as his party had more than a half but less than three fifths of the deputies.
When formulating this demand he had no hope that it would be accepted, yet it
gave him something to give up in exchange for concessions on other issues (31) .
The actual reason why parliament did not accept the constructive vote of no
confidence certainly had something to do with the fact that this mechanism
leads to a weakening of parliament vis-à-vis government. The creation
of the senate may owe less to the precedent of the First Republic than to the
mundane facts that I now go on to describe (32) .
In general, unicameral constituent assemblies tend to create unicameral
constitutions; bicameral assemblies to create bicameral constitutions (33).
The unicameral Czech assembly created a bicameral constitution, for reasons
well stated by Jiri Pehe:
In December 1992 the Czech parliament adopted a constitution providing
for the creation of a two-chamber Czech parliament. The upper chamber - the
Senate - was to be made up entirely of Czech deputies from the Federal
Assembly after the dissolution of the federation. The parliament's decision
to create the Senate was widely seen - particularly by the media - as an
incentive offered to Federal Assembly deputies to pass a constitutional law
abolishing the federation; it was argued that without such an incentive,
deputies of the federal parliament, fearing the loss of their mandates,
would reject the law - a development that could torpedo efforts to dissolve
Czechoslovakia peacefully (RFE 12.11.1993).
If the origin of the Czech Senate was mundane, the continuation of the
story is downright sordid. As Pehe goes on to say: 'after the abolition of the
federation, the Czech parliament changed its mind'. According to many
observers, he writes: 'what had really prompted many deputies to change their
minds was the realization that, if not given new political roles in the
Senate, most former Federal Assembly deputies - their political rivals - would
disappear from the media spotlight, which would then automatically be focused
on the deputies of the existing Czech parliament'. At the time of writing
(February 1995), the Senate still has not been constituted, nor elections scheduled. The lower house has been
carrying out its duties, in accordance with the constitution.
Generally speaking, it is rare for constitutions to be designed as a
function of the private interests of the constitution-makers. Although Charles
Beard claimed that the American constitution of 1787 reflected the personal
economic interests of the framers, more recent studies have shown that the
interests of their constituencies were more important (34).
The making and implementation of the Czech constitution stands out in this
respect, as an example of blatantly self-serving constitutional design. In
addition to the stratagems described above, one may cite the unusually strong
immunity that the Czech framers granted themselves, requiring the consent of
parliament before criminal prosecution of deputies on any matter whatsoever.
'If the respective chamber declines its consent, criminal proceedings are
rendered impossible forever' (Art. 27.4). Not content with this protection, in
the spring of 1993 parliament 'adopted an amendment to the customs law that
made it mandatory for deputies to declare imported goods, but barred customs
officials from searching deputies' personal belongings, including suitcases'
(RFE 12.11.1993) (35).
When Havel refused to sign the law, parliament did not use its right to
override his veto.
Less is known about the constitutional bargaining over the presidency (36).
After Havel's resignation from the federal presidency, it was reported that he
might accept the presidency of the Czech republic if that office was vested
with more than symbolic powers (37).
In addition to direct elections of the president (RFE 31.7.1992), he
reportedly wanted a strong presidential veto and no requirement of a
counter-signature. None of these wishes were fulfilled. If we compare the
power of the presidencies in the ex-Communist countries, as measured by an index based on their formal attributions, that of the Czech presidency
falls in the lower half (38) .
It is well known, however, that the real power of the president may deviate
from the formal attributions, either because of accumulated traditions (39) or
because of the personality of the office holder. For both reasons, Havel's
real power is probably greater than is measured by the formal index. The
tradition from the First Republic according to which 'the Castle' - i.e. the
President - is heavily involved with foreign policy still lives on. Needless
to say, Havel's personal stature also enhances his influence. One may
conjecture that one reason why the formal powers of the presidency are
relatively weak is that the framers anticipated these effects.
Section VI - explaining the
break-up of the country
In this concluding Section, I return
to the question of the break-up of Czechoslovakia into two independent states,
to supplement the narrative of Section IV with a more analytical perspective.
I shall survey and evaluate six different explanations that have been
put forward to account for the break-up (40).
1. A two-member federation is inherently
It is very
hard if not impossible to identify durable federations with only two member
republics. Norway and Sweden between 1814 and 1905 do not count, because the
two countries had very few common matters to regulate. Belgium does not count,
because with Brussels the Belgian federation has three members. It is not
difficult to see why a stable federation needs at least three members. Suppose
that in a two-state federation, the two states are of roughly equal size. This
yields a potential for endless deadlock and struggle. Suppose on the contrary
that one state is substantially greater than the other. If the federal
structure is organized on the parity principle, the larger state will resent
it. If it is organized on the proportionality principle, the smaller will
resent it. On any of these three assumptions, the federation is permanently vulnerable. An external shock can easily make it unravel; and sooner
or later such a shock will occur.
The argument may also be presented the other way around. With three or more
member states, there is the possibility of shifting alliances and coalitions,
so that all states will get their way some of the time. Note that the argument
presupposes a sufficient amount of cross-cutting interests, so that different
coalitions are formed on different issues. If that condition does not hold, we
are in reality back to the two-state case.
This observation explains the
failure of the idea that was discussed in Czechoslovak political circles in
1991-92, viz. to create a three-state federation of Bohemia, Moravia and
Slovakia. There was even talk of creating a total of five or seven republics.
(These proposals were behind the inclusion of 'Federation with more than two
republics' as an alternative in the 1992 poll). The idea came to nothing,
probably because it was clear that on all important issues these smaller
republics would align themselves so as to reconstitute the Czech-Slovak
divide. Moravia and Slovakia, for instance, had hardly any substantive
interests in common.
2. Long-standing hostility between Czechs and Slovaks caused the
federation to break up (41).
Some argue that given the cultural and political animosity between the two
peoples, a divorce was inevitable. Now, it is true that after talking to
Czechs and Slovaks and reading the literature on 'the national question' in
Czechoslovakia, one can easily write down a long list of mutual recriminations
and resentments (42).
During the First Republic, the Slovaks resented the fact that they were badly
under-represented in the administration and in the army. The Czechs on their
side resented the fact that they were subsidizing Slovak development, and
perhaps even more that the Slovaks failed to be properly grateful for the
The Slovaks, needless to say, perceived this attitude as
patronizing and condescending. More generally, the Slovaks resented what they
perceived, not inaccurately, to be a Czech perception of themselves as crude,
backward and uncultured (43).
For their own part, they perceived the sophisticated Czech mode of life as a threat to religion
and 'family values'.
Later, Czech resentment was nurtured by the fact that on two successive
occasions the Slovaks were perceived as allying themselves with the oppressor.
During World War II, the Slovaks created a fascist state that collaborated
closely with Nazi Germany. After 1968, they were rewarded by the Communist
party for their relative moderation during the Prague spring.
In the first
case, the Czechs felt that they suffered more than the Slovaks; in the second
that the Slovaks, through their participation in the apparatus of repression,
were actually instruments of their suffering. Moreover, the Czechs felt that
these episodes were not simply a thing of the past. The celebration of the
wartime state showed that the Slovaks had not overcome their fascist leanings;
also, the greater Slovak resistance to 'lustration' (exposure of officials and
informers from the Communist period) showed that they did not really want to
leave Communism behind themselves.
Yet these are cultural clichés that need to be approached with caution. The
question is whether these attitudes were widespread and, especially, whether
the resentments were deeply felt. It would be easy to come up with a similar
list characterizing relations between Yankees and Southerners, and yet nobody
would argue that secession is imminent or inevitable in the United States.
far as I can see, there is little or no evidence of visceral hatred between
the Czech and Slovak peoples. I was told, although I have no data to support
the claim, that Czech-Slovak intermarriage is quite common. The 'velvet
divorce' itself was remarkably peaceful. In a poll from April 1994, Slovaks
ranked the Czech republic in first place as 'the state or group of states with
which your country should align itself most closely'. Czechs ranked Slovakia
third, after the European Union and Germany (RFE 8.7.1994).
is tempting to infer from the role of ethnic conflicts in the breakdown of the
Yugoslav federation that similar forces must have been at work in
Czechoslovakia, the inference would almost certainly be fallacious (44).
3. The breakdown of other ex-Communist federations created a model for
the dissolution of Czechoslovakia.
To see how this explanation differs
from the preceding one, we may compare two models:
Abolition of Communism
| | |
| | |
USSR Yugosl. Cz.Sl.
breaks breaks breaks
up up up
Abolition of Communism
USSR Yugosl. ------> Cz.Sl.
breaks breaks breaks
up up up
Model A represents the idea of a common causal mechanism in the breakdown
of the Soviet, Yugoslav and Czechoslovak federations (45).
According to one common variant of this model, Communism had ruthlessly
suppressed any expression of cultural, ethnic, linguistic or religious
conflicts. As soon as 'the lid came off', the accumulated tensions,
inevitably, exploded, leading to the fragmentation of the artificially created
While this picture may be valid for parts of the USSR, notably
the Baltic states, I do not believe it holds for Yugoslavia, where clever
manipulation by opportunistic leaders counts for much more than secular ethnic
hatred. Be this as it may, I have already indicated that I feel quite
confident that the picture does not apply to Czechoslovakia.
Model B suggests that when the Soviet and Yugoslav federations started to
disintegrate, for whatever reason, ideas of dividing Czechoslovakia emerged
that otherwise would not have. Once separation became conceivable, it soon
became inevitable. External events may have lent consistence and plausibility
to ideas that might otherwise have been dismissed as pipe dreams.
(personal communication) observes that the independence of the Baltic states
had a profound impact on the political elite in Slovakia. Also, the idea of a
'state treaty' between the Czech and Slovak Republics was perceived as
analogous to the 'Union of Independent states' in the former USSR.
4. Separation was everybody's second
(or a related one discussed below) aims at dissolving the apparent paradox of
a separation that takes place even though only a small minority in each
republic preferred it over an arrangement that would allow the country to
remain united. One might of course argue that separation was carried out by
Klaus and Meciar against the wishes of their populations.
Yet there is
overwhelming evidence that these leaders are very sensitive to popular moods, and in any case they do not
seem to have suffered electorally from their initiative. To this one might
respond that the counter-separatist preferences were not very intense, i.e.
that the voters simply did not care enough about the issue to punish their
leaders for going against their wishes.
It is true that by 1992 most people
cared more about how the economy was doing than about the survival of the
and that there was a general lack of civic participation (47) .
Hence the leaders could push the separation through without encountering much
resistance. (Why the leaders would want to do that is the topic of the
next two explanations). While plausible, these arguments can be supplemented
by a more fine-grained analysis of voter preferences.
In June 1990, the percentage distribution of preferences was as follows
(source RFE 5.10.1990):
Throughout Czech Slovak
Czechoslovakia Republic Republic
Common state with large powers
vested in central government 33 42 16
Common state with large powers
vested in Czech and Slovak gov-
ernments 34 30 41
Confederation 21 16 30
Two completely independent
states 6 5 8
In the summer of 1992 (after the elections), the constellation was as
follows (source: RFE 30.10.1992):
Czech Republic Slovak Republic
Unitary state with one government
and one parliament for country 38% 14%
Federation of Czech Republic and
Slovakia 19% 27%
Federation of more than two republics 18% 8%
Confederation 3% 30%
Split-up 8% 16%
In the first poll, separation is by far the least popular of all options in
both republics. (Perhaps at this stage it was in fact little more than a pipe
dream). In the second poll, a different pattern has emerged. Now, the Czechs
favoring separation are more numerous than those favoring confederation, which
is the alternative attracting the largest proportion of Slovaks. Conversely,
the Slovaks favoring separation are more numerous than those favoring a strong
unitary state, which is the alternative attracting the largest proportion of
Consider now the following three theoretically grounded propositions.
(a) When there is an option that is everybody's second preference, there is
a tendency for that option to be realized. Marx observed that when there is a
struggle between two royal contenders, the only solution they can agree on may
be a republican form of government (48).
When ex-colonial nations with tribal divisions have to choose an official
language, the language of the former colonial power may be the least divisive
solution. Because this second-best principle does not take account of the
intensity of preferences it cannot be asserted as an invariable rule, but it
does offer a convenient focal point in situations where the possibility of
misrepresenting one's preferences makes it hard to communicate their intensity
with much credibility.
(b) By extension, an option that each party (or a majority within each
party) prefers over the other party's most preferred option may come to
acquire a salience by virtue of which it emerges as the solution to the
(c) By a further extension, an option that in each group is top-ranked by
more people than those who have as their first preference the alternative that
is most frequently top-ranked in the other group may also emerge as a salient
point (49) .
In the 1992 polls, the separation option had the properties described in
(c). If those properties do in fact constitute a focal point, the distribution
of preferences may help explain the lack of strong popular opposition to
separation. Because of the speculative nature of proposition (c), I do not
attach a high degree of confidence to this explanation. Yet some variant of this story may capture important aspects of the
situation. Perhaps the Czechs preferred a no-subsidy federation to separation,
and separation to federation with subsidies, with the Slovaks ranking these
alternatives in the opposite order. In that case, proposition (a) would offer
a plausible explanation of popular acquiescence in separation.
5. The country split over the issue of market
to this explanation, the Czechs wanted separation to speed up the market
reforms and the Slovaks wanted separation to slow them down. The first part of
the argument, as stated by Jan Obrman, goes as follows. After the elections of
1992, the 'distribution of seats between right-of-center parties and
left-of-center and nationalist parties in the Federal Assembly would make
maintaining the rapid pace of economic reform next to impossible in the medium
to long term.
Because economic reform is ... Klaus' first priority, it is
undoubtedly in his interest to abandon the deadlocked federal center by
initiating Czechoslovakia's disintegration' (RFE 10.7.1992). The second
part of the argument asserts that Slovaks welcomed separation as a means of
insulating themselves from the hardships of market reform; or, perhaps more
accurately, that Meciar could play on fears of hardships to justify the
break-up. As in other post-Communist countries, resistance to reform may have
been due to myopia and to a lack of understanding that in the long run
prosperity depended on reform (50) .
The two parts of the argument are obviously in some tension. For both to be
true, the pace of reform in a united post-1992 Czechoslovakia would have to be
slow enough to frustrate the Czechs and fast enough to frustrate the Slovaks.
My impression is that there is more to the second part of the argument than to
the first. At this point, we may note that the 1968 federal constitution gives
veto power to the Czechs no less than to the Slovaks.
Because Klaus could
easily muster the required number of votes in the Czech section of the upper
house of the federal assembly, the impressive reforms achieved in 1990-1992
were, for all practical purposes, irreversible.
The question is obviously
whether there were further indispensable reforms that had to be carried out
and that would have been blocked by the Slovaks in the federal assembly.
Although it is hard to know what Klaus thought at the time, the most plausible
answer, judging from what he did later, is that he could have pursued his
policies within the federation. No major institutional reforms have been carried out in the Czech Republic. In fact, the very low rate of
unemployment in the country is mainly due to the slow and cautious pace of
reform, delaying the restructuring and dismantling of inefficient enterprises
6. The Czechs did not wish to go on subsidizing
According to this explanation, the country broke up because
the Czechs were getting fed up with the combination of Slovak demands for
Czech subsidies and Slovak nationalism. A typical report, which I heard echoed
in many individual conversations, is the following: 'On September 19 
Czech PM Petr Pithart said that the Czech government would propose that the
system whereby the Czech Republic subsidizes the economically weaker Slovak
republic be abandoned in 1992.
He emphasized that "helping a weaker partner"
would have been continued to be accepted by the Czech side as a matter of
course, but that such assistance was becoming impractical [sic] as calls for
independence intensified in Czechoslovakia' (RFE 11.10.1991).
Psychologically, the situation was perceived as similar to that of a parent
whose rebellious child is constantly coming home to ask for money, trying to
have his cake and eat it too.
There can be no doubt that such ideas played a role on the Czech side. For
Klaus himself, the Slovaks as a permanent irritant may have been more salient
than the Slovaks as an obstacle to reform. The Slovak side of the question is
more complicated. The initial impetus to separation did, after all, came from
the Slovaks who, if the Czech perception is correct, had the most to lose from
it. It is not unknown for the more prosperous region of a country to opt for
secession, but Slovakia presents the opposite picture, a 'reverse Katanga' (51) .
Why did they insist on this (allegedly) self-destructive course?
The obvious explanation is that they were threatening with secession in
order to improve their share both of power and of the federal budget. But this
answer raises two further questions. First, what would the Czechs have to lose
by secession? One response is that for most practical purposes, Prague
represented Czechoslovakia on the international scene. The prestige and
bargaining power of a country being linked to its size, a Czech republic would count for less than a Czechoslovak federation. The
Czechs, in fact, wanted to speak both for themselves and for the Slovaks (an
attitude, by the way, that greatly infuriated the Slovaks). Another response,
further discussed below, is that the Czechs might even lose in material terms.
Second, how could the Slovak threat be made credible? After all, the threat
'Your money or my life' is not one that is frequently heard on the streets.
(It might be made successfully, though, by the rebellious child referred to
above). One general reply to this question is that if a negotiator can with
some plausibility rephrase the threat as a warning, he may get away with it (52) .
(Another reply, relying on perceptions of fairness, is considered below).
trade union leader tells the manager that he will be unable to control his
members unless they get what he demands, this is formally a warning rather
than a threat. Although the manager may suspect that the leader can in fact
influence his members, he also has to take account of the possibility that the
latter may in fact be as intransigent as the leader makes them out to be.
Specifically, the leader may have deliberately raised the expectations of his
members in order to be able to say, truthfully, that he cannot control them.
Similar strategies may be exploited by a nationalist leader, referring with
regret to separatist elements that need to be bought off with influence or
money. Although I have no specific evidence that Meciar adopted this strategy,
I was told in general terms that some of his actions fall under this rubric.
Some deny, however, the premise of Czech subsidies to Slovakia. In an
opinion poll from September 1991, both Czech and Slovak citizens agreed (about
two thirds of the respondents in each republic) on the normative statement
that 'One republic ought not to have to pay for the other'. When asked the
factual question whether 'The present system favors Czechs', only 12 % of the
Czechs agreed as against 67 % of the Slovaks (RFE 31.1.1992).
Slovaks, in fact, believed that they were being exploited by the Czechs rather
than the other way around. Now exploitation and subsidization are not the same
thing. Subsidies are a zero-sum operation: the subsidizer loses what the
subsidized gains. In exploitation, though, both parties can gain compared to a
situation in which they do not interact at all (53) .
The situation is exploitative if the division of gains from cooperation is, in
some appropriate sense, unfair and unjust.
Although I have met Slovaks who say that their country was a net subsidizer
of the Czech lands, this claim appears implausible (54).
The question of an unfair division of the gains from federation is more
complicated. An ironical aspect of this issue is that many Slovaks now
complain of being saddled with the unproductive industries that were bestowed
on them as a favor after 1968.
A related aspect is the often-made claim that
Slovakia suffered because of the idealistic decision of Havel and his foreign
minister Jiri Dienstbier to cut down on the Slovak arms industry, so as not to
appear as a provider of weapons to international terrorism. (For the factual
accuracy of this claim see RFE 24.9.1993). Also, Slovaks regularly
claim that all foreign investment passed through Prague and that the Czechs
were unwilling to share it with the Slovaks.
If on balance it turned out that the Czechs gained a lot and the Slovaks
only a little by Czech-Slovak economic cooperation, the Slovaks would have a
strong case. As far as I know, the calculation has not been made. My guess is
that if it was made, that is not how it would come out. Conceivably the Czechs
might even appear as net losers, in the sense that their subsidies to Slovakia
would exceed their gains from the cooperation.
But the actual numbers are
irrelevant for the explanatory issues that concern me here and in which only
perceptions and beliefs matter. My strong conjecture is that all Czechs
believed that Slovaks gained from the federation and that most Czechs believed
that they would be better off without the Slovaks. I also conjecture that many
Slovaks thought they were being unfairly treated, but that only a few thought
they would actually be better off on their own.
Now, if you believe you are being exploited, you will first try to change
the terms of trade. If that effort fails, you may want to bring the
exploitative relationship to an end even if that will imply a loss in material
terms. If the exploitation is seen as compounded by patronizing and
condescending attitudes, your willingness to take a loss will be even greater.
If you can persuade the opponent that you are willing to take a loss for the
sake of maintaining self-respect, you may not have to take the loss because
the threat of secession now becomes credible.
Whether you can persuade him
without actually carrying out the threat is a different matter. A trade union
leader might not hesitate to call a strike that would hurt his members, if he
thought the sacrifice might provide credibility in later negotiations. A
country, by contrast, cannot break up more than once: the credibility obtained by secession would have no further
The putative explanations I have cited are
obviously quite different. Partly they operate at different levels, and partly
they appeal to different kinds of mechanisms and motivations. As stated, they
are all compatible with each other, and I believe that most of them do in fact
have a purchase on the events.
Explanations (1) and (2) are structural, aiming at identifying ultimate
background causes, rather than triggering factors. I have argued that the
first is valid, the second probably less so.
Explanations (3) and (4) appeal to the proximate normative and cognitive
conditions that facilitated the break-up. The view of other dissolving
federations served as a cognitive model. The pattern of popular preferences
may explain the lack of resistance to the aggressive leadership initiatives.
Explanations (5) and (6) aim at accounting for those initiatives, which
served as triggering causes of the break-up. I believe that the most valid
parts of those explanations are Slovak resistance to the fast pace of economic
reform and Czech resistance to subsidizing Slovakia.
The play of personalities obviously also mattered: Havel's disregard of
tactical matters; Meciar's brinkmanship and pride; Klaus' single-minded
obsession with markets. Although perhaps the most important factors, they are
also the most intangible ones.
In addition to the written materials cited below this article is based on
interviews with Vaclav Benda, Jiri Boguszak, Martin Butora, Zora Butorova, Jan
Carnogursky, Vojtech Cepl, Pavol Demes, Lubomir Fogas, Zdenek Jicinsiky, Peter
Kresak, Petr Pithart, Pavel Rychetsky, Frantisek Samalik, Jan Sokol, Milan
Sutovec, Jan Urban, Ernest Valko, Peter Zajac, and Vaclav Zak. (Here and later
names are spelled without diacritical signs). Most of the interviews took
place in June 1993 and Septemher 1994. I am grateful to all who took the time
to meet with me. Above all I am indebted to Jirina Siklova for allowing me
into her circle of friends so that I could meet some of the others. For
comments on an earlier draft of this article I would like to thank Vojtech
Cepl, Aanund Hylland, David Laitin, Bernard Manin, Claus Offe, Adam
Przeworski, Herman Schwartz, Jan Sokol, Eric Stein, Ernest Valko, and Vaclav
Zak; I should also state what I owe to David Franklin, who played a crucial
role in establishing my first contacts in Czechoslovakia in January 1991. I
would like to acknowledge the support of the IRIS project and of the Center
for the Study of Constitutionalism in Eastern Europe at the University of
Chicago Law School. In particular, I have learned immensely from many
discussions with Stephen Holmes and Wiktor Osiatynski.
(1) To avoid burdening the text with this long
name, however, I shall use 'Czechoslovakia' to refer to the country before the
(2) Or languages: although Czechs and Slovaks understand
each other without difficulty, the two languages are different enough to
create a potential for conflict, notably in the organization of the
(3) I rely heavily on the articles in the weekly survey
published by Radio Free Europe from 1989 to the present. Up to the end of 1991
this publication was called 'Report on Eastern Europe', from 1992 onwards
'RFE/RL Research Report'. In the ten I refer simply to RFE followed by
the date. I should also acknowledge my debt to a valuable book by Carol
SKALNIK LEFF, National Conflict in Czechoslovakia (Princeton University
Press, 1988). Excellent surveys of constitutional developments from 1920 to
1993 are found in Zdenek JICINSKY and Vladimir MIKULE, Das Ende der
Tschechoslovakei 1992 in verfasungsrechtlicker Sicht, Parts I and II
(Köln: Bundesinstitut für ostwissenschaftliche und internationale Studien,
1944). A useful collection of essays about the end of Czechoslovakia is
Rüdiger KIPKE and Karel VODICKA, Abschied von der Tschechoslovakei
(Köln: Nottbeck, 1993).
(4) Constitution-making in Eastern Europe: Rebuilding the
boat in the open sea, Public Administration 71 (1993), 169-217.
(5) I have studied the constitution-making process at the
Federal Convention in Philadelphia (1787) and the first French Assemblée
Constituante (1789-91) in my: Argumenter et négocier dans deux assemblées
constituantes, Revue Francaise de Science Politique, 44 (1994),
(6) A final proviso: my interviews, as well as comments on
an earlier draft of this article, show that many participants and close
observers disagree not only on matters of interpretation, but also on the
facts to be interpreted. The historical record has not yet been established.
Sometimes I have had to trust my intuitions, which are obviously fallible,
about which account sounded more plausible.
(7) Leff, National Conflicts, p.136.
(8) Later, I argue that a federation with two member
states is an anomaly; even more so, a federation with only one member!
(9) Leff, National Conflict, p.98 ff; Tocqueville,
The Old Regime and the Revolution (New York: Doubleday, 1955), 176-77.
(10) Leff, id., p. 124.
(11) It is significant in this connection that because of
what was perceived as the 'rightwing opportunism' of the Czechs, the USSR
vetoed the establishment of a Czech Communist Party.
(12) See the essays in J. ELSTER (ed.), The Round
Table Talks in Eastern Europe, forthcoming from the University of Chicago
Press. In this volume, M. Calda deals in detail with the Round Table Talks in
(13) One notorious Communist even used this fact to
object to the replacement (Zdenek JICINSKY, Ceshoslovensky Parlament v
Polistopadvoem Vyvoji [Prague: AFGH, 1993), p.62).
(14) Using the constituency of one Slovak member as the
unit, a Czech member of the House of Nations represented two units and the
House of Nations as a whole 225 units. 30 Slovak deputies equal two fifteenths
of that total. In itself, this proportion is not remarkable. For instance, a
tiny proportion of the American electorate (the voters in the thirteen least
populous states) could in theory block any constitutional change. The voters
in the smal states do not, however, have any cornmon interests (apart from
their interest in maintaining their disproportionate power) that would make
such a constellation likely.
(15) Vaclav ZAK, The velvet breakup (unpublished
(16) ZAK, id.
(17) As in Poland-but unlike Hungary (and there they
were proven wrong) the Communists in Czechoslovalllia preferred proportional
representation. Puzzlingly, however, part of the opposition to the majority
system was due to fears that it would favor the Communists. They were the only
well-organized political movement in the country, and some thought that for
this reason they might be able to exploit the majority system. I can see no
valid reason for this fear, which was probably due mainly to lack of
understanding of the properties of the various electoral systems.
(18) Later, with more experience of the political system,
he changed his mind. Perhaps one could say that nobody had played the Blum to
his de Gaulle, another notorious adversary of the party system. In November
1942 and then again in March 1943, Leon Blum (in prison) wrote to de Gaulle
(in London) to wam him against the idea that the resistance movement could
substitute for a regular parry system. After the liberation, the parties would
have to assume their normal place in any democracy (Jean LACOUTURE, Léon
Blum, Paris: Seuil, 1977, p. 486 ff.). De Gaulle got the message (Jean
LACOUTURE, De Gaulle, vol.1, Paris: Seuil, 1990, p.705).
(19) For a survey see Aanund HYLLAND, Proportional
representation without party lists, in Raino MALNES and Arild UNDERDAL (eds),
Rationality and Institutions (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1991).
(20) For two Polish counter-examples, see my
'Constitution-making in Eastem Europe', p. 207-8. Next time around, however,
Havel was somewhat less non-partisan. In his electoral bill for the 1992
elections, he proposed to divide the country into small electoral districts in
which voters would cast their ballots for individual candidates rather than
for a party ticket. The proposal was turned down by the Federal Assembly,
partly because of a suspicion that it 'was designed to ensure the reelection
of the leading figures of the "velvet revolution" '(RFE 14.2.1992).
(21) It is a commonplace in the economic theory of
Central Banks (i) that to carry out their task properly they need to be
independent of the government, and (ii) that a long tenure for the Governor is
a necessary condition for independence. See Alex CUKIERMAN, Central Bank
Stratgy, Credibility, and Independence (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press,
(22) Zak, op. cit. (Cak was Vice President of the
Czech National Council at the time).
(23) For a fuller discussion, see Eric STEIN,
Post-Communist constitution-making, New Europe Law Review I (1993),
421-75 and, especially, his forthcoming book on the breakup of Czechoslovakia.
(24) Meciar's demand for a confederation within which
each republic would have virtually all the attributes of an independent state
was one of the strange ideas launched in this period. Another was
Carnogursky's idea of the 'federation for ten years'. In my interviews with
Slovak politicians who advocated this proposal, I regularly asked the
following question 'Suppose that in a marriage, one spouse announces to the
other that he or she will seek a divorce in ten years. Don't you think that
marriage would collapse immediately? And wouldn't the same psychological
mechanism of anticipating and immediately consuming the announced divorce hold
for the proposal of a federation that is to end in ten years?' I never got an
answer that I could understand. A third convoluted idea that originated in
Slovakia was the proposal of a 'state treaty' between the two republics
(RFE 7.6.1991), a procedure that might have required the momentarv
dissolution of the federation shortly followed by its reemergence on the basis
of an agreement between the two states.
(25) For an assessment, see Jan OBRMAN, President Havel's
diminishing political influence, RFE 13.3.1992.
(26) For a discussion of such 'reactive devaluation' see
Lee Ross, Reactive devaluation and other barriers to dispute resolution,
forthcoming from W.W. NORTON in K. ARROW et al. (eds),
the Negotiated Resolution of Conflicts.
(27) For a detailed account of the post-electoral
negotiations, see Karel VODICKA, Koalitionsabsprache: Wir teilen den Staat!, i
KIPKE and VODICKA (eds), Abschied von der Tschechoslovakei.
(28) 'Ironically, most of the parties advocating a
referendum, in particular the Czech and Slovak Communists and the Slovak
Christian Democrats, had blocked the holding of a referendum in November 1991,
when, as Havel remarked, "the referendum still made sense"' (RFE
(29) Jicinsky and Mikule, Das Ende der
Tschechos1ovakes, Part I, p. 25.
(30) See Jicinsicy and Mikule, id., Part II for a
detailed discussion; also Pavel MATES, The new Slovak constitution, RFE
30.10.1992 and, especially, Pavel HOLLÄNDER, The new Slovak constitution:
A critique, East European Constitutional Review, Fall 1992.
(31) Jicinsky and Mikule, ibid., Part I, p. 26.
(32) See also Vojtech CEPL and David FRANKLIN, Senate,
anyone?, East Euroean Constitutional Review, Spring 1993.
(33) See my 'Constitution-making in Eastern Europe',
(34) Charles BEARD, An Economic Interpretation of the
Constitution of the United States, reprinted with a new Introduction by
Forrest MCDONALD (New York: The Free Press, 1986), is the classical statement
of the view that the framers were moved by their personal self-interest. R.A.
McGUIRE, Constitution making: A rational choice model of the Federal
Convention of 1787, American Journal of Political Science, 32 (1988),
483-522 finds that the economic interests of the constituencies of the various
delegates have more power to explain voting patterns at the convention than
the economic interests of the framers themselves, although the latter are not
(35) The supporters of the law argued that this provision
would prevent the executive branch from harassing lawmakers. In this
particular case, the harassing would not amount too much. We know from other
countries, though, that harassment of lawmakers by the Internal Revenue
Service can be an effective punishment and, presumably, an effective threat.
The issue of how to insulate lawmakers from such pressures without encouraging
unlawful behavior would be worth studying.
(36) For some general comments on this issue, see my:
Bargaining over the presidency, East European Constitutional Review,
Fall I993/Winter 1994.
(37) Similarly, but more successfully the first president
of Czechoslovakia, Thomas Masaryk, oblected to a draft of the 1920
constitution which would have created a merely ceremonial presidency.
(38) James McGREGOR, The presidency in East Central
Europe, RFE 14.1.1994
(39) See for instance the chart in Maurice DUVERGER, A
new political system model: Semi-presidential government, in Arendt LIJPHART
(ed.), Parliamentary versus Presidential Government (Oxford University
Press, 1992), p.147.
(40) Another list of causes, most of them of a cultural
nature, is provided by Vodicka, Koalitionsabsprache: Wir teilen den Staat!
(41) For a brief statement of this explanation, see Eric
STEIN, Musings at the grave of a federation, in Essays in Honor of Henry G.
Schermers, vol.3 (The Hague. Kluwer, 1994), 641-49. A fuller statement is
made in Stein's forthcoming book on the break-up of Czechoslovakia.
(42) See Petr PRIHODA, Tschecken und Slowaken:
Sozialpsychologische Aspekte ihres Zusammenlebens, in Kipke and Vodicka,
Absehied von der Tschechoslovakei.
(43) On these issues, see Leff, National Conflict
in Czechoslovakia, Ch. 5: Political cultures and mutual betrayal.
(44) See also, note 51 below for another unwarranted
analogy between the break-up of the Yugoslav and Czechoslovak federations.
(45) For a comparison of these three federations (with
one another and with other federally organized countries) see Vladimir, The
confederal search, RFE 5.7.1991.
(46) Zora BUTOROVA, A deliberate 'yes' to the
dissolution of the CSFR?, Czech Sociological Review I (1993), 58-72, at
(47) Martin BUTORA and Zora BUTOROVA, Slovakia: The
identity challenges of the newly born state, Social Research 6o (1993),
705-36, at p. 721-22.
(48) The Eighteenth Brumaire, in MARX and ENGELS,
Collected Works, vol. II (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1970), p. 166.
(49) This tendency will be reinforced if the fact that
(a) is more frequently top-ranked than (b) is perceived as evidence that a
majority prefers (a) to (b); if, in other words, (c) is perceived
(incorrectly) as implying (b). In an earlier draft of this article I made
exactly this erroneous inference, which Aanund Rylland and Claus Offe then
pointed out to me. I do not, however, want to cite the flaw in my earlier
argurnent as evidence for the present one.
(50) Butorova, A deliberate 'yes' to the dissolution of
the CSFR?, p.62.
(51) I disagree with Eric Hobsbawrn, therefore, when he
writes that 'the separatist nationalism of the crisis decades plainly fed on
[....] collective egoism. The pressure from breaking up Yugoslavia came from
"European" Slovenia and Croatia; and for splitting Czechoslovakia from the
vociferously "Western" Czech Republic'. (Age of Extremes: The Short
Twentieth Century, London: Michael Joseph, 1994, p.427). Although one
might argue, perhaps, that the Czechs took the last step towards separation,
the first nine steps had been taken by the Slovaks.
(52) See my 'Strategic uses of argument', forthcoming
from W.W. NORTON In K. ARROW et al. (eds), Barriers to the
Negotiated Resolution of Conflicts.
(53) Marx himself observed that in international
trade: 'the richer country exploits the poorer one, even when the latter gains
by the exchange' (Theories of Surplus-Value, vol.3, London: Lawrence
and Wishart, 1972, p. 106).
(54) Eric STEIN, Post-Communist constitution-making, p.
449, note 73 quotes a former Czechoslovak ambassador to the US as stating that
in 1991 the Czech Republic contributed 93 % of federal expenditures and the
Slovak Republic only 7 %