LONDON: Secession can be a bit like breaking a biscuit: crumbs everywhere and two pieces that don’t seem quite as appealing as the original.

Czechoslovakia’s “velvet divorce”, approaching its 20th anniversary, probably serves as the best example in post-war Europe of a relatively smooth parting of the ways. Whether it can serve as a template for Catalonia is another matter.

“No divorce is a particularly happy experience but it’s part of life and this one has worked out well,” says Michal Zantovsky, the Czech ambassador to the UK, who was at the heart of the talks as spokesman and adviser to the Czechoslovak president, Vaclav Havel, in 1992 when dissolution was being hammered out by Prague and Bratislava.

“For Vaclav Havel, it was a very sad thing. He thought of it as his personal failure because he invested enormous energy into trying to keep the country together. Later he recognised the split had worked out reasonably well and that most Slovaks and Czechs were reasonably content,” he said.

The split came about for a range of reasons, though mainly due to historical grievances between the Czechs and the Slovaks that were arguably exploited by the political leaderships of both nations, which lacked democratic experience due to their long communist legacy.

While the Czechoslovak partition is widely seen as a model of how to divide a country peacefully, Abby Innes, a lecturer at the London School of Economics and author of Czechoslovakia: The Short Goodbye, argues against using it as the template for other dissolutions. “I think it's a partition rather than a legitimate and mandated separation,” she says. “It's not a model you'd want to see copied, most particularly in a democracy.”

Describing the split as a “process manufactured by ruthlessly pragmatic Czech rightwing political forces and abetted by a populist and opportunist Slovak leadership”, she says the main problems were that separation was favoured only by a minority of people in both republics and it was never democratically mandated. The whole procedure “revealed the deep weakness of the post-1989 federal parliament and the constitutional order”, she says. Zantovsky recalls the practical headaches of deciding who got what, just like the average divorce but rather more complicated.

“There were myriad sticking points,” he said. “Dividing the sports teams for one, though that proved easier than other things such as dividing the assets of the central bank, the weapons and munitions of the army, the currency and the embassies. In late 1992 I went to Washington as the last Czechoslovak ambassador, and three months later I had to divide the embassy and became the Czech Republic’s ambassador. For a while we shared the same embassy building with the Slovaks, until they got their own property. They in turn kept the UN properties in New York.”

The guiding principle to the division process was two-thirds to the Czech Republic, one third to Slovakia, based on the proportion of territory to population.

But, added Zantovsky — who is married to a Slovak — while he is happy the division worked out for Czechoslovakia (“both countries have done well and relations between them are very good”) he would not, he said recommend any other country follow the example.

“There are inevitably real downsides when a country is two-thirds or a third of its former size,” he said. “It's obviously not as big or influential as it was before. And on a personal level, there's still a lot of nostalgia for the country we grew up in and considered our own and liked very much. So it's not all just a bed of roses.”

By arrangement with the Guardian

Updated Nov 20, 2012 08:42pm

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