PRAGUE – If Scotland says yes to independence in Thursday's referendum, there might be a lesson to learn from the amicable split of Czechoslovakia on Jan. 1, 1993. Known as a "velvet divorce," the breakup was nothing like the secessionist wars that raged in Yugoslavia. It was as peaceful and smooth as the 1989 Velvet Revolution that threw off oppressive communist rule in Czechoslovakia, and is considered a success even by its opponents.
Czechoslovakia was formed from two parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which died in the flames of World War I in 1918. It was a stable democracy between the two world wars, then fell victim to Hitler and turned communist after World War II.
At the root of the breakup were differences over political and economic reforms following the end of four decades of communism. While the Czechs heartily endorsed the quick transformation to a market-based economy, the Slovaks preferred slower change. Slovakia, a less-developed region of 5.4 million, was hit hard by Prague's market-oriented reform drive; the 10 million Czechs suffered less. Both nations agreed to split their country's property on a 2 to 1 ratio. Although the breakup went smoothly, the absence of referendums left a feeling of ambiguity for many.
Slovaks wanted to keep the common currency but differences in their economies meant that the monetary union collapsed after just five weeks. After Feb. 8, people had four days to place all their money in the banks and Czech or Slovak government stamps were placed on the banknotes. The entire operation went smoothly and is now considered an example to follow.
The national flag became a minor issue after the Czech Republic decided to continue using the flag of Czechoslovakia. The national anthems were less problematic: the stanza in Czech from the federal anthem became the Czech national anthem and Slovaks took the Slovak part, to which they added one more stanza. The federal coat of arms was used in the same way: the lion now forms the Czech one while Slovakia, a Roman Catholic stronghold, retained its double cross.
Vaclav Havel, a dissident playwright who led the anti-communist Velvet Revolution, initially was opposed to the separation and resigned as the country's president in July 1992, but acknowledged 10 years later that "it is a good thing that it happened. Czechs and Slovaks may be closer today than ever before." Today, both countries have flawless relations and are close allies in the borderless EU and NATO.
The economic disaster predicted by many for Slovakia didn't come. After wasting several years under authoritarian Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, it made free-market reforms to become the EU's fastest growing economy and adopted the euro in 2009. The more Euroskeptic Czechs don't have it yet.