Czechoslovakia Won't Be Rebuilt on Symbols

By Owen V. Johnson. Owen V. Johnson teaches journalism at Indiana University and is president of the Slovak Studies Association. | The Christian Science Monitor, May 22, 1990 | Go to article overview

Czechoslovakia Won't Be Rebuilt on Symbols


Owen V. Johnson. Owen V. Johnson teaches journalism at Indiana University and is president of the Slovak Studies Association., The Christian Science Monitor


THE velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia has meant the end of communist rule and influence, but it does not mean a return to the pre-communist system, under which the state played a major role in directing economic and cultural change. Since 1918 Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Gypsies, Ukrainians, and the members of the other nationalities of Czechoslovakia have looked upon the government as a kind of "Uncle Jan," to resolve all of their complaints. The demands of a modern market economy will change that.

Unfortunately, the discussion over the name of the country, the "hyphen debate," which tied up the new Federal Assembly in Prague for three months, is a bad sign for the future political health of the country. With the hard economic decisions deferred until after the June elections, issues of national feeling and identity have come to the top of the agenda.

Slovak politicians have vied with one another over who could be the most Slovak, who could be the most insistent that the country's name be spelled with a hyphen. They argued that early state documents prove that the original name of the country was the Czecho-Slovak Republic, and that interwar Czech politicians, following the model of Bismarck in Germany and Cavour in Italy, plotted to change the name in order to create a unitary, Czech-oriented republic.

The vocal Slovaks ignored the massive commitment which the Czechoslovak government made to secondary-school education in Slovakia in the interwar period to help overcome Slovakia's social and cultural backwardness, and in the process contribute to the strengthening of Slovak identity. They ignored the extensive investments, not always wise ones, that the communist regime lavished on Slovaks.

They were insensitive to the Czech antipathy toward Slovaks for, Czechs said, placing national interests over democratic interests in 1968 at the cost of the Prague Spring reforms. They didn't take into account Czech resentment that Gustav Husak, the Communist Party leader during the years of "normalization," is a Slovak.

Resolution of the discord between the two nations, who speak sister languages, will not be easy. Asked in a recent poll which nation was privileged during the last 20 years, 68 percent of Czechs said the Slovaks. To the same question, 71 percent of Slovaks answered that the Czechs were favored. The lack of contacts between Czechs and Slovaks in the dissident movement which has produced the present Czech and Slovak leadership bodes poorly for future understanding. …

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