The two main architects of the separation of Czechoslovakia 25 years ago exceptionally shared the same platform in Prague on Monday to give their version of why the dramatic move was necessary and how it played out. Not surprisingly, both the former Czech and Slovak politicians agreed wholeheartedly that history had proved them right.
Former Czech prime minister and president Václav Klaus and former Slovak premier Vladimír Mečiar met in Prague on Monday night for the first time in 19 years. And the setting was highly appropriate, the former Czechoslovak Federal Assembly building, now part of the Czech National Museum, where some of the key votes on the so-called Velvet divorce took place during the closing months of 1992.
But this debate was in no sense a verbal battle between two former political heavyweights, far from it. This was more a mutual admiration society and meeting of a two man fan club with both Klaus and Mečiar swopping compliments and agreeing that the divorce was the sole step that could have been taken and that both of them have been proved right.
The few blows that were landed were delivered from Klaus when he took exception to some of the questions from the Czech Television moderator. The 90 minute debate was broadcast live on the Czech broadcaster’s news channel, though it often turned into long historical monologue and some might have doubted whether the younger Czechs in the hall could understand Mečiar’s Slovak.
A generation on since Czechoslovakia’s split into two separate states on January 1, 1993, for many this is now history but for others it is key moment that, for better or worse, is still part of their lives and still a subject of debate and controversy. One question still often raised is whether the split should have been subject to a referendum.
Václav Klaus, the leader of the centre-right party that triumphed in the June 1992 elections in the Czech side of the country, with Vladimír Mečiar’s party gaining the most votes in Slovakia, was adamant that the situation meant there was no alternative to separation:
"The elections simply gave clear cut mandates. Discussions about anything else would have been purely artificial. I simply cannot imagine how a referendum question [on the split] could have been framed. In Slovakia it could have asked if citizens wanted to end the shared state. But on the Czech site this question simply made no sense."
And the two agreed that when the negotiations got loud and sticky, the breakthroughs often occurred when Klaus and Mečiar got away from their delegations and tried to hammer out agreements on their own.
Mečiar argued that in spite of the chaotic preparations for the new state, Slovaks approved the divorce soon after it took place.
"Elections were repeated in Slovakia in 1994 and in them a party stood for the recreation of Czechoslovakia, it won 0.8 percent of the vote."
Klaus attracted applause when he declared that developments in both countries had proved them right, although he admitted that, Slovakia in economic terms at least had done better after the split than the Czech Republic.