20th anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s ‘Velvet Divorce’ approaches

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Jan. 1 marks the 20th anniversary of the “Velvet Divorce” separating the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but two natives of the former Czechoslovakia say the date in the European nation will likely be as low-key as the first day of independence.


Marcel Oravec, 28, has spent the past year in the U.S., working first as an accountant and then assistant controller at Washington Penn Plastics. Joining him for the holidays was Livia Vyhlidalova, 25, a student in marketing and strategic management at Comenius University, a venerable institution of higher learning in Bratislava, the Slovak capital.


For those with an intimate knowledge of the so-called “old country,” Oravec hails from Spisska Nova Ves, while Vyhlidalova is from Sered, outside Bratislava.


Though both were mere children 20 years ago, they’ve been cognizant over the years that Slovakian independence has not supplanted New Year’s Day in importance.


And if they were spending Jan. 1 in Slovakia, the sole marking of events two decades ago would likely occur in the form of news stories like this one, or through televised documentaries.


“I remember a little bit, but I like history,” said Oravec, who was nearly 9 when the countries split.


“I think there are people who feel very strongly about the separation,” Oravec said.


“A lot of them think it was better when we were together,” Vyhlidalova said of her parents’ and grandparents’ generation. “Nowadays, it is not a big deal that we are separated.”


Czechs and Slovaks were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was dissolved by World War I. A pact known as the Pittsburgh Agreement forged the two Slavic ethnic groups into a nation, which also witnessed a severing during World War II. Soviet occupation maintained Czechoslovakia as a member of its Eastern Bloc until the fall of Communism in 1989 began restructuring the map of Eastern Europe.


Unlike the violence that beset the power shift in Romania and the ethnic conflicts that resulted in genocide and war in the Balkans, the establishment of separate governments in Slovakia and the Czech Republic went as smoothly as their “Velvet Revolution” of 1989.


So why did the eastern and western sides of the country go their separate ways?


Oravec noted there was a Slovak parliament and Czech parliament even before the breakup, and the population of Czechs was significantly larger than that of Slovaks. Although Czechs and Slovaks speak separate languages, they can understand each other. And during the decades of unification, it became common for branches of families to live in either region.


“Slovak politicos felt, OK, maybe we are not as important to them as we would like to be. We are not like partners, you know? I think that started some negotiations,” he said.


There was no referendum on breaking away, and Oravec said, “Ordinary people did not want the split. They saw no reason.”


Vyhlidalova said people got new passports, and in 2009, Slovakia began using the Euro as their currency as the economies of Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain faltered.


The Czechs, however, stuck with their currency, the crown. “Now they are smiling,” Vyhlidalova said, her expression mirroring her choice of words.


“It helped Slovakia a lot,” Vyhlidalova said of the breakup. “A lot of companies were located in Prague. In Slovakia, there was agriculture.”


But the separation necessitated economic growth in Bratislava and elsewhere in the country.


Slovakia’s largest industry had been firearm and armament manufacture for the former Soviet Union, including a subterranean manufacturing facility that offered protection in case the Cold War turned into a hot war. Rather than Jan. 1, Vyhlidalova and Oravec pointed to Sept. 1, Slovak Constitution Day, as the focus of their country’s independence.


On Sept. 1, 1992, the Slovak Constitution was officially adopted and signed by soon-to-be Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar.


Vyhlidalova said she can recall her family visiting their mountain retreat in honor of the holiday.


“My uncle was really, really into politics and he adored Vladimir Meciar,” she said. “We were lighting a bonfire for independence, and I can remember it was, like, ‘Wow!’” Meciar was the standard-bearer for the Slovak Democratic Party. His counterpart was the late playwright Vaclav Havel, who was both the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic.


“We just woke up on the first of January,” Oravec recalled. We were Slovaks, and they were Czechs. Maybe there were some that were really celebrating.”


David Doellinger, a former Pittsburgh resident who became an assistant professor of Eastern European Studies at Western Oregon University, recalled spending New Year’s Eve 1992 in National Uprising Square in Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital, with about 50,000 other people.


“Slovak flags were flying everywhere,” he said in a 1993 interview with the Observer-Reporter. A display portrayed the infant republic as a doll and Czechoslovakia as a coffin. A giant screen flashed the numerals 1993 and the word, “Slovensko,” the name of the new nation in the Slovakian language.


“Joyful Slovaks launched bottle rockets and firecrackers. Complete strangers pressed handfuls of souvenir lapel pins and pretzels upon Doellinger, who was doused in champagne and shivered in the cold,” the story said. He also recalled a church group staging a candlelight vigil, singing mournfully to mark the end of Czechoslovakia.


“It is estimated that close to 100,000 (Slovakians) came to this area looking for work and a chance for a better life,” according to the website GlobalPittsburgh.org. “Metropolitan Pittsburgh has 105,525 descendants of Slovaks, making it the number one city in the world for people of Slovak heritage outside of Slovakia itself.”


A historic marker in Pittsburgh commemorates the founding of Czecholslovakia in what is known as either the Pittsburgh Pact or the Pittsburgh Agreement on May 31, 1918.


According to the 2009 American Community Survey of the U.S. Census, there were approximately 801,000 people of Slovak heritage living in the United States.


Of these, 43 percent reside in the northeastern states, with Pennsylvania ranking first among those with Slovak ancestors.


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