The Politics of Ethnicity and the
Breakup of the Czechslovak Federation
SHARON L. WOLCHIK
As in several other postcommunist states, political conflicts based on ethnic issues clearly were among the most critical issues of the day in Czechoslovakia immediately after the end of communist rule. Although tensions between ethnic groups were not as acute as in the former Soviet Union or Yugoslavia, ethnic issues dominated the political agenda of the early postcommunist period and complicated the tasks of constitutional revision and economic reform. In contrast to the situation in parts of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, there was little likelihood that ethnic problems between Czechs and Slovaks would result in armed conflict. Nevertheless, as in the interwar period, when the dissatisfaction of Sudeten Germans and many Slovaks provided the pretext for the breakup of the republic, tensions between Czechs and Slovaks undermined the stability of Czechoslovakia's postcommunist democratic political system and were the primary factors responsible for the breakup of the Czechoslovak federation.
As in the interwar and communist periods, postcommunist Czechoslovakia remained a multiethnic state. The end of censorship and repluralization of political life that followed the collapse of communist rule in 1989 allowed the open expression of tensions among the various ethnic groups in the state. Leaders of many of these groups organized to articulate and defend the interests of their groups in ways that were not possible during the communist period. In Moravia, demonstrations in 1991 demanding greater consideration of the region's interests in the budget process and popular interest in a tripartite federation reflected the shift in Moravian identity from a secondary cultural identity to one with more direct political content. Representatives of the approximately 600,000 Hungarians and 40,000 Ukrainian/Ruthenians in Slovakia similarly organized to call for greater attention to the cultural and educational rights of these groups. 1 Activists also emerged among the Gypsy population, estimates for which vary from approximately 115,000 to more than 1.5 million individuals. 2