Federalization—The Path to Demise

15. 3. 2017

Usually it is smaller nations that break loose from large empires and supranational states to go their own way. The separation of Czechoslovakia in 1990–1992 is a rather untypical case.

Although the former state of Czechoslovakia can hardly lay claim to a lengthy chapter in the history of European federalism it does deserve a few lines. They might form part of a chapter entitled “The Demise of European Federations.”

To begin with, we need to explain how centralized Czechoslovakia came to be transformed into a federation, since this process was at the root of much of what was to follow, albeit not quite in the way envisaged and planned by the federation’s creators.

From the very moment Czechoslovakia was established in 1918, relations between the Czechs and the Slovaks and their respective share in governing the country had been problematic, and the problems only intensified with time. The unequal weight carried by the two nations did not lend itself to an easy solution. The more numerous, economically more developed nation of the Czechs, inhabiting an area further to the West, had ruled the country from their capital from the very beginning, taking this arrangement for granted in a half-witted way that had irritated even the most fervent adherents of Czechoslovakia among the Slovaks. Until the eve of World War II Slovakia had been in the position of a legally incapacitated eastern province, a fact masked by the notion of a “Czechoslovak people”, which held that the Slovaks were just the eastern branch of a unified nation rather than a nation in its own right.

Since in the Czech experience linguistic definition plays a key role in defining nationhood, Czech society happily accepted the claim that the differences between Czech and Slovak languages were no greater than those between the regional German dialects in a unified Germany, and that this fact provided irrefutable evidence of the existence of a unitary Czechoslovak nation. That, at least, is how those Czech linguists who undertook this comparison would have it. Of course, arguments of this kind held little sway with the Slovaks who regarded themselves as a distinctive nation by dint of their Catholic faith and/or everyday culture.

The Czechs governed Czechoslovakia using this convenient ideology and by force of their general dominance until 1938. They first engaged seriously with Slovakia when they felt threatened by how Hungary, Poland, Germany and the Soviet Union—simultaneously, although each in its own way—began to exploit growing Slovak discontent. In the autumn of 1938, following the Munich Agreement and the forcible annexation of the Czech borderlands, Slovakia gained autonomy without much debate, accepting Adolf Hitler’s offer to enter the war as a Nazi satellite nine months later and declaring Slovakia’s independence as German troops invaded the Czech Lands.

After 1944 the Slovak communists, brought to power by the westward advance of the Red Army, strove to maintain a degree of independence in the resurrected Czechoslovakia. Yet the autonomous Slovak policy of the early post-war period proved to be just a transitional phase between the independent Slovak state and renewed Czech centralism, this time under the banner of communism. In the 1950s Slovak autonomists ended up in the courts: one was hanged following internal purges while others spent years incarcerated on charges of “bourgeois nationalism.” This is a summary of events that preceded the moment in 1968 when Czechoslovakia was quite unexpectedly and hastily transformed into a federation.

The Surprising Czech Approval of Federalization

Haste is the keyword in this context. The term federalization first emerged in public in the spring of 1968, and by the autumn of the same year the radical constitutional transformation of the country was passed by parliament, after very limited debate among both experts and the public. The student of history poring over documents of the period will be hard pressed to find much direct evidence to support the statement by Slovak writer and leading communist official Ladislav Novomeský that Czech society responded to the idea of the country’s federalization—one of the key Slovak goals of the Prague Spring— ”with indifference, distrust, indeed defiant resistance”. The quote comes from an article written in April 1968, before anything had been decided, at the time when events were only gathering momentum. In it Novomeský argued that federalization offered Czechoslovakia as a whole the chance of a new beginning and warned against “the Slovaks‘ happy acceptance being asymmetrically reflected in feelings of bitterness on the part of the Czechs.” However, this is exactly what was to happen soon afterwards.

Following the invasion of Czechoslovakia on 21 August 1968 it turned out that, unlike most other emancipation policies in the Prague Spring, the call for federalization did not fundamentally contradict the Soviet government’s ruling doctrines. On the contrary, the Soviet Union, being at least in theory an exemplary socialist federation, the Soviet politburo regarded the Leninist way of resolving the national issue as a claim of a different order from those for the freedom of expression or the raising of the Iron Curtain. The occupiers demanded that the leadership of Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party put an immediate and resolute end to every other aspect of liberalization except for federalization. Perhaps they wanted to avoid appearing entirely negative, and at the same time they were likely to welcome the chance to drive a wedge between the Slovaks and the unified resistance of Czechoslovakia‘s population against the occupation, whose strength after 21 August 1968 had caught them off guard.

In a way, it was the Czechs’ consent that was more surprising than the Soviets’. What was it that made the Czechs in the communist party leadership—where the Slovaks, of course, never constituted a majority—suddenly consent to the idea of turning the traditionally centralist state into a federation? A reconstruction of their way of thinking will immediately demonstrate that a number of factors—in fact, given the context of the time, all the factors—were in favor of this decision.

First of all, in those days the subordinate position of Slovakia was considered to be a Stalinist distortion of Czechoslovak socialism and the persecution of Slovak communists a Stalinist crime perpetrated by Czech hands. Thus a decisive and fundamental remedying of the situation became a key point on the agenda of the belated de-Stalinization pursued during the Prague Spring. Furthermore, the Slovak contribution to the emergence of Prague Spring and to the defeat of the former Communist Party leader, Antonín Novotný, was still fresh in everyone’s memory. The leadership also had to take into consideration a negative factor, the palpable distrust on the part of the Czech public, although that was not a serious counter-argument. Socialist governance was, after all, a progressive mission, and it was particularly in terms of tricky issues of calibrating the relations between the Czechs and the Slovaks that the men of Prague Spring were able to proceed with a sense that they were pushing for a wise, though unpopular, solution, one that would not have stood a chance under a different political system. Surely a decision forcibly imposed in an enlightened way, a solution pushed through in the teeth of tradition and prejudice, was the very essence of socialist dictatorship?

To legitimize the establishment of a federation as a historical settlement between the Czech and Slovak people—to use the rhapsodic language in which the project was presented at the time—it was necessary to obscure the fact that this was a decision taken by a narrow circle within the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia‘s top leadership. However, in the twentieth year of the dictatorship of the proletariat, where were they to find suitable representatives of the Czech people to give their blessing to this internal agreement? The idea of parliament electing this kind of representative body, named the Czech National Council—which is what happened—relied on utilizing every available procedure while, at the same time, demonstrating their limitations. Of course, the Slovak side also lacked the legitimacy to sign agreements “in the name of the people,” although in practice this was less significant since in the case of a resounding success of the kind reached by the Slovak negotiators legitimacy does not tend to be scrutinized back at home. Besides, one might say that a man like Gustáv Husák, who again found himself in the highest echelons of politics, chairing the governmental federalization commission, had a justifiable claim to this role, having suffered political imprisonment in the 1950s: we ought not to forget that he had been indicted, among other things, specifically for defending the interests of Slovakia.

The final shape of the federalization treaty was approved by the Czechoslovak parliament three months after the Warsaw Pact invasion. The vote was held, symbolically, on 27 October 1968, the eve of the 50th anniversary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia. Mainly for formal and tactical reasons, what was under discussion was not a new constitution but rather a constitutional bill on the Czechoslovak federation, even though this change meant the de facto demise of the state as it had been known. As of 1 January 1969 two new republics, a Czech and a Slovak one, each with its own citizenship, parliament and government, came into being on the territory of the previously united country. Formally they were subordinated to federal bodies, such as a federal government with its administrative apparatus, the President and parliament, in one of whose chambers both national republics had an equal number of votes, something that would later play a significant role. One thing that in 1968 was not touched by federalization— due to an explicit Soviet veto—was the real power structure, namely the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.

It is worth recalling the sober words spoken before the vote in parliament on 27 October by Čestmír Císař in his capacity as representative of the Czech nation (Chairman of the Czech National Council), a role he had been assigned by the Communist Party, but which he and other participants came to identify with: “A number of unfavorable circumstances, including its belated establishment notwithstanding, the Czech National Council strove to fully understand the plan drawn up by the special governmental commission on the basis of proposals from Slovak bodies, and to inject into it some of their own views, which it believed to be valid. We are fully aware that the task was far too complex and the deadlines for completion too tight for it to succeed completely… It is, therefore, not surprising, that the Czech public is only now beginning to arrive at a political understanding of the issue.”

It would be only a slight exaggeration to add that another 22 years would pass before the Czechs managed to arrive at the understanding Čestmír Císař referred to, at which point a combination of new circumstances and new actors resulted in fresh entanglements.

To sum up the events of 1968, parliament, still in shock from the invasion, approved a constitutional transformation of Czechoslovakia into a federation, thus meeting the key Prague Spring ambition of the Slovaks. With the establishment of a Slovak Republic nothing of substance could ever again occur in Czechoslovakia without Slovak representatives‘ approval. The law on the newly-established federation stipulated that any significant change of policy or constitutional rules had to be approved by the federal parliament by a prescribed two-thirds majority; furthermore, one of the houses of parliament, whose job was to safeguard equal rights of the Czech and Slovak Republics, required the simultaneous approval by two-fifths of the Czech and three-fifths of the Slovak votes.

This fact was partly rejected and partly ignored by the Czechs who at that point were overwhelmed by too much bad news, and thus very little changed in the day-to-day business of governance. For a further 20 years the country was de facto ruled by leaders of the unified Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.

However, what reached a previously unprecedented level was the Czech aversion toward the Slovaks, who around that time—in social anthropologist Ladislav Holý’s pertinent observation— took over from the Germans in the thankless role of “the other”, against which the Czechs defined themselves. The Slovak language formed a ubiquitous part of the best Czech political cabaret of the writer-actor duo Jan Vodňanský and Petr Skoumal even before Gustáv Husák became the first and last Slovak to ascend, as President of Czechoslovakia, to the seat of Czech kings, Prague Castle. In his capacity as President he started to speak Czech, albeit with a strong Slovak accent, providing the Czechs with one of the few emotionally charged political experiences of the two post-invasion decades. To the Czechs, unaccustomed to foreigners speaking their language with a foreign accent, he sounded hilarious. Yet nobody realized that for Husák the Czech language brought back memories of the years he spent in Czech jails in the 1950s and that his gesture had a meaning completely different from an attempt to adopt the majority language of the inhabitants of Prague.

The Hyphen War and Iron Force of Emancipation

Few of the consequences of federalization were fully apparent before November 1989. The political system as well as public life, paralyzed to the point of lifelessness, ensured that some of the key provisions relating to the oversight of federal policy by representatives of both republics in the Federal Assembly remained a dead letter. On the other hand, during the 20 years before the Velvet Revolution, the Slovak Socialist Republic and Bratislava as its capital acquired a genuine and visible new lease of life. A side effect of Slovakia’s increased autonomy was the fact that Czech and Slovak society began to move apart, something that had been continuously pointed out by a number of commentators.

It was not until the spring of 1990, in the context of the so-called hyphen war (i.e. the Slovaks demand that the country’s name be written Czecho-Slovakia, trans.) in the Federal Assembly that it started to dawn on the population of the Czech Lands that Czechoslovakia had really become a federation. The emerging Czech political class as well as the general public had to take a crash course on live TV in rules as to how significant decisions were to be made in Czechoslovakia. How did this come about? The new President, the Czech Václav Havel, suddenly arrived in the Federal Parliament demanding an immediate vote approving a change in the name of the country and state symbols. The revolutionary leader, barely a few weeks in office, had got used to always getting his way thanks to his charisma, and was not expecting any obstacles from parliament. Havel wanted to drop the word “socialist” from the country’s name, leaving just Czechoslovak Republic. This was when it became clear that Havel’s charisma did not always work, and especially not with the Slovaks and when it came to adjusting their relations with the Czechs. Havel as well as the Czech public—in those days viewer ratings for live broadcasts from parliament matched those of top sports events—thus realized that without Slovak approval (or, to be precise, without the approval of three-fifths of the House of Nationalities of the Federal Assembly, elected in the Slovak Republic) nothing would ever happen in Czechoslovakia.

However, much more was at stake than just the country’s name, which following protracted rows was eventually changed to “Czech and Slovak Federative Republic.”The new Slovak representation wanted as many powers as possible to be transferred from the federal to the republic level. As early as the spring of 1990 some Czechs started voicing the opinion that the Slovak demands could never be satisfied in any way, driven as they were by iron forces of emancipation that wouldn’t be appeased until full independence was reached—and if the Slovaks were not aware of this, the worse for the whole country.

The Czechs and the Slovaks found themselves in a stalemate. The country could no longer function properly in its current form and nobody seemed capable of negotiating a new form. Discontent with the inherited state of affairs soon became tangible on both sides. Part of the new elites with roots among anti-communist dissenters, led by Václav Havel, invested their authority in attempts to achieve a mutually acceptable reform of the federation. It was obvious that their hopes were not bearing fruit and that their efforts would not bring long-term results, weakening their influence and resulting in the crashing defeat of the main post-dissident party in the 1992 election.

The Czech politicians who emerged victorious from the 1992 election were well aware of this. However, this was only one of the reasons they were in such haste to engineer the demise of the federation. A concern was growing in the Czech Lands that the excessive constitutional rights enjoyed by the Slovak representatives posed a threat to Czech strategic interests, including their particular conception of economic, foreign and security policy. Another concern was linked to lustrations, as some Czechs were panicking at the idea that key decisions would have to be taken jointly with the Slovaks, represented by the winner of the Slovak election Vladimír Mečiar, whom the Czech press consistently portrayed as the epitome of all the dangers of transition: the influence of the State Security and of Russia, as well as the rejection of radical reforms.

It was at this point that the issue of legitimacy of the 1968 federalization of Czechoslovakia started to play a crucial role. It turned out that the federation did not enjoy great loyalty among the Czech public and politicians. Sociological research showed that the idyllic Czechoslovakia to which most Czechs would pledge their allegiance, was the interwar state, centrally governed by the Czechs. The federalized Czechoslovakia could not count on that level of loyalty. And neither could its institutions. This was illustrated by the way the institutions were sometimes referred to by Czech politicians when they got carried away by polemic fervor: for example, Pavel Rychetský, a prominent dissident lawyer and Deputy Prime Minister in the post-1989 federal government, referred in a televised debate to the House of Nationalities of the Federal Assembly by the Russian term Soviet natsionalnostey. This was a very powerful and effective way of delegitimizing the institution as a communist invention and Russian colonial import. This happened well before Václav Klaus exploited the situation and the limited room for manoeuver of his Slovak counterpart, to lead the Czech Lands out of the federation.

One might say that the hopes of the Czech co-creators of the 1968 federalization—for the reform opening new prospects for a cohabitation of Czechs and Slovaks in one state—had been dashed. What the federalization did was lay foundations for an orderly separation, which would make use of an established institutional infrastructure.

The history of European federalism has thus been enriched by a new model that could be summed up as follows: A state edifice needs to be proportionate and balanced if it is to remain sustainable even when the ideological and geopolitical context in which it came about has changed, something that, as we know, has recently been happening with great frequency. A partnership can come to an end not just when the partner who did not enjoy sovereign rights gains independence but also when the dominant partner rejects the obligations which, after a while, it begins to regard as excessive.

Tomáš Zahradníček

Tomáš Zahradníček is a Czech historian and journalist. He works at the Institute of Contemporary History, Czech Academy of Sciences.

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