Policy Papers


The break-up of Czechoslovakia and Scottish independence

Kieran Williams |

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Executive Summary

  • The smooth, quick division of Czechoslovakia at the end of 1992 is invoked by advocates of Scottish independence as evidence that amicable separation is feasible. But dissolving a federation is very different from removing part of a union that would continue.
  • The major issues that would need to be settled in negotiating Scottish independence (division of assets and liabilities, borders, defence and currency) would entail much more demanding talks than those that terminated the Czechoslovak federation.
  • While peaceful, the division of Czechoslovakia took longer than is often claimed, and was preceded by far-reaching devolution that had already granted most of the powers of statehood to the constituent republics.
  • While some Czechs and Slovaks initially favoured a diluted sovereignty akin to that proposed by the Scottish National Party, they were forced by events to accept full independence.

Czechoslovakia's past – not the future of Britain?

Among the many ways in which Scots are being encouraged to vote in September 2014 for independence is by reference to the relatively smooth, amicable dissolution of Czechoslovakia twenty years ago. As Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), told the Foreign Press Association in January 2013: ‘International precedents – especially the establishment of the Czech and Slovak republics, and the reunification of Germany – demonstrate that once the popular will is determined, constitutional discussions can be concluded in good time’.

While few doubt that Scotland could stand as a separate country or that the grant of independence could be successfully negotiated, the Czechoslovak precedent should not be used as reassurance. First, it did not occur ‘once the popular will [was] determined’. Second, to perceive the negotiations as taking a few months of 1992 (‘in good time’) ignores the much longer process of dissolution. Third, the questions that had to be settled as part of the ‘constitutional discussions’ in 1992 were very different from those that would concern Edinburgh, London and Brussels should 2014 produce a ‘Yes’ vote.

As political scientist Karen Henderson points out, dissolving a federation is very different from removing part of a union that would carry on without it. Where there are similarities, they lie in conceptions of independence advanced by the SNP and certain prominent Czech and Slovak politicians in different periods. In the Czech and Slovak cases, these ideas of independence, which entertained the use of a shared or foreign currency, combined military command, and an imported or shared head of state, were quickly superseded by events and had to yield to more conventional ideas of state sovereignty.

No clear mandate

Even before the vote is counted in Scotland, contemplation of independence is very different from the end of Czechoslovakia in a crucial respect: there was no referendum to ascertain the popular will either before the dissolution, or after (to ratify the split, as some wanted). Czechoslovakia had held a general election in June 1992, but the majority of votes went to parties committed to a common state. The meaning of that common state ranged so widely, from very loose confederation to centralized federation, that the election result could be seen as tacit consent to its termination. But the one million signatures on a petition insisting on a referendum in the hope of derailing the break-up should not be forgotten; and a separate, earlier appeal, ‘For a common state’, was endorsed by 300,000 Slovaks. Czechoslovakia was dissolved by act of the federal assembly on 25 November 1992, but only after two failed attempts and by only two or three votes – the precise count is unknown, owing to great confusion as to how many members were officially present in the hall.

In fact, pressure to split the Czechoslovakian state arose from unsuccessful attempts to form a federal governing coalition by the largest Czech and largest Slovak parties, which differed not just on constitutional but also on economic policies. They concluded that it would be easier to divide the country than divide portfolios. It would be as if, after an inconclusive election, such as in May 2010, the Conservatives try to form a coalition government with the Scottish Labour Party. On discovering they could not reconcile their manifesto promises, the two parties decide that the best solution would be to release Scotland from the union and allow the Conservatives to govern the rump UK with a majority in Westminster.

A nine-year process?

While progression from the decision in June 1992 to end the federation to amending the constitution in November was swift, it was the culmination of two years of negotiations over the division of powers between the two constituent republics (each with its own legislature and government) and the federal centre. Through agreements in 1990, Slovakia had already achieved ‘devo-max’, allowing it to set up its own Ministry of Foreign Relations. On 22 May 1991 the Czech Republic’s legislature discussed in closed session preparations for the break-up of the federation. Furthermore, much remained to be tidied up after January 1993, including the exact delineation of the border (1996), arrangements for citizens of one republic to attend university in the other (1998) and to acquire dual citizenship (July 1999), and final settlement of the federal central bank’s assets (November 1999). Considered as a whole, the division of Czechoslovakia took nine years rather than a few months.

This brings us to important and contentious issues in negotiating dissolution or separation. More than ten years ago, law lecturer Jo Eric Murkens wrote that: ‘The main issues to be resolved [would be] defence, borders and division of assets and liabilities’. These issues, plus currency, would require extensive and potentially vexing deliberation between London and Edinburgh (leaving aside matters of European Union and NATO membership). In Prague and Bratislava, however, they were agreed mostly by following simple rules.

Division of assets & liabilities

The Czechs and Slovaks followed the common default rule of equitable proportion. Since the Czech Republic had approximately twice the population of Slovakia, a 2:1 ratio was applied to moveable assets and liabilities. Fixed assets, such as government buildings or state-owned enterprises, went to the republic in which they were located. A Commission of Final Settlement was established to work out the details of matters that did not lend themselves to simple assignment, such as the gold deposits of the central bank (Slovakia made a separate claim on several tons that it said had once belonged to the Slovak state that was nominally independent under German tutelage during the Second World War; they were delivered under the 1999 deal.) As Czechoslovakia had accumulated little debt, both republics were content to shoulder a proportionate share of it. In the case of Scotland, by contrast, there could be huge disagreement over whether the UK, as a continuing state, should bear the entirety, or whether to link it to another matter, such that Scotland would take on some of the debt in return for continued use of sterling. Such bargaining did not feature in the Czech-Slovak talks.

Defence

Having been heavily militarized by participation in the Warsaw Pact, with conscription and a sizeable military industry in both parts of the federation, the Czech and Slovak Republics assumed that they would have their own armed forces, subject to limits imposed by post-Cold War treaties on conventional forces. In a year, from October 1992, they divided federal military facilities and equipment according to the default rules for fixed and moveable assets. An exception was made for the MiG-23 fleet, in which Slovakia had no interest, so as compensation they took half the MiG-29 fleet. Mutual access to archives, including intelligence files, was also arranged, with extensive photocopying permitted. Officers were allowed to choose where to remain, on the provision that they committed to citizenship of that country: 85% - 90% of 8,600 Slovaks in the Czech Republic, and of 2,580 Czechs in Slovakia, chose to stay on. The Army of the Czech Republic thus started out with an officer corps that was 18% Slovak, and its Slovak counterpart was 15% Czech.

By contrast, independent Scotland would have to decide what it wanted as a defence force: would it be primarily naval, to protect Scottish interests in the North Sea and Arctic, or a rapid-response ground force that could contribute to far-off multinational missions? How would it fit into the NATO command structure and strategic concept (in 1992 a distant objective but not an immediate concern for the Czechs and Slovaks)? Would it negotiate defence and intelligence cover from the UK for a transitional period? Should it lease to the UK ongoing use of Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde (with or without Trident)? Foreign nuclear arms were not a concern to Czechoslovakia in 1992-93; the only warheads on its territory had been Soviet, placed in 1961 and removed 30 years later.

Borders

While Scotland and England have a settled land border, there is the question of where it runs along the wider continental shelf in open water, as this has consequences for oil revenue claims. It is also unclear what sort of border crossing regime, if any, would operate between Scotland and the rest of the UK. While Slovakia would have been happy to keep its border with the Czech Republic lightly guarded (and insisted on the right to work in the other republic without a permit), the Czechs were driven to demand stronger controls owing to Germany’s threat to return unsuccessful asylum seekers to the nearest safe country through which they had traveled; the Czechs in turn pressed the Slovaks to tighten up their Ukrainian frontier, while limiting the places where people could cross the Czech-Slovak line. It took until June 1994 to work out a variable regime, which was exceptionally relaxed for Czechs and Slovaks (those over 16 with a national ID card) and a normal state line for nationals of other countries. In any event, such matters were neutralized by the joint accession of the republics to the Schengen area in 2007.

Currency

The release of policy papers from the UK Treasury and the Scottish Government taking opposing views of the feasibility of a currency union indicate that an independent Scotland’s use of sterling rather than its own money would require very extensive negotiation. There may also have to be parallel talks with Brussels about whether Scotland would have to commit to eventual adoption of the euro. For the Czechs, there was no question that separate currencies would eventually replace the Czechoslovak crown, forcing the Slovak side to abandon their preference for a joint currency issued by separate central banks. It was a matter of trying to minimize disruption to trade by operating a transitional currency union.

Transitional is key: the currency union was not expected to be sustainable beyond June 1993 owing to the different pressures on the respective economies, but knowledge of that prompted banks, firms and individuals to hoard cash in Czech banks and convert to foreign currency in anticipation of devaluation of the Slovak crown. In January 1993, as both central banks saw their foreign exchange reserves disappearing, the two governments agreed to uncouple, with the currency union ending after only 38 days in operation. The changeover to separate currencies went very smoothly, re-enacting the stamping of Austro-Hungarian imperial banknotes in 1919 for use within Czechoslovakia until they could be replaced by new national notes. It should be remembered that, at the end of 1992, the Czechoslovak crown was not fully convertible, and was thus less exposed to global markets than sterling is today.

By contrast, while agreement might be difficult, a currency union of some sort between Scotland and the rest of the UK could theoretically function well.

Similar conceptions of sovereignty

The willingness to keep sterling and the British monarch as head of state reflects an SNP conception of independence that bears a strong resemblance to the ‘sovereignty’ favoured by Michal Kováč in1992, who went on to become the first president of Slovakia the following year. Like Salmond, he was an economist with experience in banking, and was attracted to the idea of confederation, a group of states that are allied to form a political unit in which they keep most of their independence but act together for purposes such as defence. While some, such as Slovak Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, might have been bluffing to extract concessions from the Czechs, Kováč took the idea seriously, and with economist Augustin Marián Húska and future foreign minister Jozef Moravčík began to draw up articles of confederation in 1991. Assuming the two republics to be technically sovereign states, the proposed treaty envisioned a mini-Maastricht union with common currency managed by a system akin to the United States Federal Reserve, but resting on separate Czech and Slovak central banks. The two republics would have been represented separately within the EU after accession, and the states would have operated their own armies under a joint command. Both republics would have had a president, rotating as president and vice-president of the confederation.

When Kováč showed a draft of this treaty to a Czech counterpart during coalition negotiations after the elections on 5-6 June 1992, the Czech rejected it outright, as then did the whole Czech team, which insisted either on federation or separation. (Not all Czechs were hostile: the current Czech president, Miloš Zeman, then a social-democratic legislator, pushed in autumn 1992 for a union similar to that favoured by Kováč and about one-third of Slovaks.)

In the early twentieth century, the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Masaryk, embraced an idea of independence very similar to that espoused by Salmond today, but like Kováč saw it overtaken by events. At the outset of his international campaign for an ‘independent Bohemia’, as first outlined in October 1914 to the sympathetic British academic Robert Seton-Watson and then in a 1915 memorandum for circulation in UK policy-making circles, Masaryk asserted that ‘Bohemia is projected as a monarchical State; a Bohemian Republic is only advocated by a few Radical politicians’. Either ‘the Allies could give one of their princes’ (Danish or Belgian, as a Dane would go down well with the German minority) to sit on the throne, or there could be a personal union with Serbia’s King Peter serving as head of both states, especially if Masaryk’s dream of a Serbo-Bohemian land corridor were realized. A Russian duke would have been popular, and Bohemian politicians reportedly wished their kingdom to be formed in ‘full accordance with Russia’, since Masaryk assumed that the new state’s security would depend on a long-term Russian military presence. As for currency, Masaryk said in 1914 that ‘informed opinion in Bohemia’ favoured adoption of the franc, as it would be well received by West European states and, at the time, acceptable to Russia.

Given Masaryk’s deep knowledge of Balkan politics, it is not surprising that his original idea of Bohemia’s constitution resembled that of the Serbian or Bulgarian kingdoms of the nineteenth century (with their dinar and lev pegged to the franc through the Latin Currency Union). The First World War, the overthrow of the monarchy in Russia and revolution of 1917, and a more republican mood in Bohemia resulted in 1918 in a provisional constitution very different from the one Masaryk had sketched to Seton-Watson four years before. Like Kováč in Slovakia 75 years later, Masaryk found himself the president of a more fully independent country than he originally expected or, perhaps, wanted.

Indy-max versus postmodern statehood

The Slovak and ‘Bohemian’ examples of 1918 and 1993 show that to become a state at those times entailed assuming complete independence – ‘indy-max’. Were it to happen for Scotland in 2016, according to Alex Salmond’s timetable, it might not have to; independence could come with much fuzzier boundaries, a ‘postmodern statehood’ (in political scientist Charles King’s words) relieved of a few burdens, but also with a sovereignty diluted by global forces that twenty years ago could be kept at a distance.

This difference raises the question of what independence affords that could not be satisfied by autonomy within an elastic union. If we reflect on twenty years of independence, what have the Czech and Slovak Republics been able to do that they could not have done had they still been yoked in federation? While Slovakia was governed by the controversial Vladimír Mečiar (1992-98), the government was free to end the vetting of bureaucrats for ties to the Communist-era secret police (‘lustration’) and to opt out of a planned second wave of privatization of major enterprises by vouchers issued to citizens to acquire shares. There is evidence, however, that the majority of Slovaks wanted the latter, and perhaps both, policies to continue. Since 1998, the two countries have converged on most major goals, such as membership of the European Union, NATO (both countries moved from conscription to professional armies) and the World Trade Organization, with concomitant constraints on their policy choices. The only major divergence in foreign policy has been over Kosovo, which Slovakia has not recognized. Slovakia has attracted significant foreign direct investment, in part by following policies that also readied it to adopt the euro in 2009.

But herein lies the greatest paradox of the end of Czechoslovakia: independence was used by the Slovaks to adopt policies more neoliberal than those advocated by the Czechs in the early 1990s – policies which at the time were resented by Slovaks for allegedly inflicting greater hardship on them – and to surrender the monetary control for which Slovaks had ached. Independence has thus come to mean not so much the freedom to make policy (as Slovaks may have assumed in 1992) as to choose the terms on which to relinquish it.

Conclusion

Advocates of Scottish independence are justified in looking for inspiration to the small nations that gained theirs after the dissolution of the socialist-bloc federations two decades ago. Slovakia is especially relevant, having a similar population to Scotland’s 5.3 million. But the success of countries such as Slovakia in consolidating their statehood is distinct from the process by which they achieved it, and the questions that would have to be settled to grant Scotland independence would require far more bargaining than did the splitting up of Czechoslovakia. However, if Scottish separation occurred after a referendum produced a ‘yes’ vote, those talks would also be underpinned by a more explicit popular mandate than did the elite dismantling of Czechoslovakia.


Further Reading


Dědek, Oldřich, et al. (1996), The break-up of Czechoslovakia: An in-depth economic analysis. Aldershot: Avebury.

Haughton, Timothy, et al. (2013), Two decades on from the break-up of Czechoslovakia: Departures, diversions and destinations. Centre for European Policy Studies Commentaries.

Henderson, Karen (2002), Slovakia: The escape from invisibility. London and New York: Routledge.

King, Charles (2012), ‘The Scottish Play’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 91, Issue 5, pp. 113-124.

Murkens, Jo Eric (2002), Scottish independence: A practical guide. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Rychlík, Jan (2012), Rozdělení Československa 1989-1992. Prague: Vyšehrad.

Seton-Watson, R.W. (1925), ‘President Masaryk in Exile’, The Slavonic Review, Vol. 3, No. 9, pp. 609-621.

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