Few Slovaks Enthused Over Break With Czechs : Europe: Many in relatively poor republic prefer unity. But, they note, nobody asked them.


Maria Kanska summoned her two adult daughters to a family meeting a few weeks ago and warned them she was about to become a dissident.

"I told them they might want to think about getting married and changing their names, so as not to be associated with me or punished for the noise I'm going to make," the college business professor recalled. "I cannot sit by quietly and watch my country commit suicide."

Kanska is adamantly opposed to what she sees as a lemming-like rush for independence in the small and relatively poor republic of Slovakia. She is speaking out, writing letters and lobbying the few loyal federalists who are fighting a losing battle for unity and common sense.

In her activism and determination, she is out of step with most of her 5 million compatriots. In sentiment, however, she is not too wide of the mainstream.

Most Slovaks concede that they were relatively satisfied with their 74-year marriage to the Czechs and are approaching a Jan. 1 date for separation with a mixture of resignation and regret.

There's not much kicking and screaming of the type Kanska recommends, but the atmosphere surrounding this reluctant parting is one of a shotgun divorce.

Czechoslovakia's breakup into separate Czech and Slovak republics is proceeding with all civility, by negotiated agreements and decisions of Parliament and fair division of the bills and assets.

But the average Slovak plodding to work each day expresses little enthusiasm for life alone. City dwellers point to piles of evidence suggesting that they would be wealthier as part of a union. Rural Slovaks, although more susceptible to the separatist talk of their elected leaders, likewise say they would prefer to save the federation but are being forced to go their own way by arrogant politicians in Prague, the Czech capital.

A few express eagerness to put Slovakia on the world map.

But the majority of the Slovak population, which makes up a third of Czechoslovakia's 15 million citizens, say in interviews, public opinion polls and conversations with both friends and strangers that they would have preferred to stay together--but, they add, nobody asked them.

"There is no nationalities problem in this country. We just have politicians trying to create one so they can stay in power," said Lubor Zelienka, a 32-year-old private businessman concerned about the future of his snacks concession.

Zelienka described Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar and his nationalist Movement for Democratic Slovakia as masters of the bait-and-switch game.

"People voted for (Meciar's party) because he promised economic prosperity and no pain. They didn't understand that he wanted to divide the state, that this was implicit in his program," said the worried husband and father. "The movement is now clearly oriented toward nationalism and independence, but people voted out of economic fear."

Ironically, those working-class worries about job prospects and prices that were central issues during the June elections are likely to be intensified by the separation. Both the Czech lands and Slovakia stand to lose, economically, as a consequence of the split.

The Czech republic is more developed and its industries are more productive than in Slovakia, but the latter hosts the federation's best resorts and recreation spots.

Poorer Slovak areas provided raw materials and markets for Czech-made goods, a mutual dependency that allowed for relatively equal living standards.

A customs union has been negotiated to preserve most of the economic bonds, but that association is expected to erode to the detriment of both republics as the Slovak economy is dragged down by its bankrupt and backward industries.

Pre-separation agreements call for temporarily sharing the Czech crown currency for at least six months. But Bratislava, the Slovak capital, will have no independent control over the money supply, which could lead to economic crisis as income drops due to falling output and welfare costs soar apace with unemployment.

There are also incalculable emotional costs for the more than 1 million people in mixed marriages and large numbers on both sides of the new border who consider themselves Czechoslovaks, rather than one or the other.

One conflict fueling the drive for division was the debate over the pace of reform, with the Czechs keen to rapidly reorient production toward Western Europe and the Slovaks concerned that a swift transition would inflict too much social harm in the form of high unemployment, idled industries and inflation. Many of the federation's inefficient and polluting heavy industries are in Slovakia, where the jobless rate is already considerably higher than in the Czech lands.

There is also genuine resentment on the part of some Slovaks toward what they see as the arrogance of a Czech leadership that likes to remind the poorer third of the country who pays most of the bills.

Nagging differences existed, federalists concede, but they accuse Meciar of exploiting minor resentments and railroading separation through, against the will of the people.

"It is executive power that is dividing the federation, not people power," said Pavol Kanis, vice chairman of the party sheltering reform-minded former Communists. "I personally regard the division of Czechoslovakia as a geopolitical crime."

Kanis claims that the government's own polls show less than half the population supporting independence, and he says the majority wanted a referendum on separation at which they could express their views.

But a referendum to test public support for division would have tied the leadership's hands, which was why both Meciar and his Czech counterpart, Vaclav Klaus, refused to put the issue to a vote, Kanis said.

"If it's to be, let it be. This whole affair has been dragging on endlessly. Time will tell whether independence is good or bad," said Stefan Cicmanec, a 68-year-old doorman at a downtown office building. "From the beginning, I didn't like the idea of separation. But nobody asked me, and you cannot fight it any longer. It's almost a fact."

Those who say they support separation often see it as a consequence of Prague politics, not the aim of their own leaders.

"I was in favor of a coexistence of two equal states, but Prague politicians were not willing to accept this," said a retired actress, Eva Kristinova, echoing the phraseology of pro-Meciar publications. "We resent that we are continually told the Czechs are paying on our behalf. We are not beggars. We are working as hard as they are, and we will all see soon after the division who was paying for whom. We'll separate, then we will prove we are the most able."

Putting Slovakia on an equal footing with the Czechs was the campaign theme of Meciar's party, and its electoral victory was interpreted by those who came to power as a mandate for separation.

"We emerged as the strongest party, so we assume the majority of citizens have empowered us to do this," said Augustin Huska, a vice president of the Slovak Parliament and a leading member of Meciar's movement. "There is an emancipation wave sweeping across Europe, and it cannot be stopped at our borders."

Huska concedes that Slovakia is in for a tough time after separation, but he contends that the republic would be subjected to a brutal economic transformation dictated by Prague if it chose to stay within the federation.

"I'm sure there was some feeling of hesitation in the 13 Colonies at the time of the American independence movement, but that wasn't an argument for abandoning it," he said.

While the ruling party contends that the breakup has nothing to do with nationalism, intellectuals in Bratislava point out disturbing examples of political and ethnic favoritism at top levels.

University professors associated with pro-federation groups have been replaced by separatists. Leading doctors at Piestany Hospital were dismissed, and Meciar supporters were brought in. Only journalists loyal to the ruling party are invited to government press conferences.

Urban Slovaks are especially worried by what they see as an attempt by the leadership to portray neighbors as the cause of Slovakia's troubles.

Meciar and his party have suggested that Prague was responsible for saddling the Slovak republic with more than its share of failing armaments factories. But the location of such strategic industries was usually decided by Moscow during the 40 years of Communist rule after World War II, and the choice of Slovakia over the Czech lands was probably aimed at keeping them far away from Germany in the event of another conflict.

A Bitter Breakup

On Jan. 1, Czechoslovakia is scheduled to break into two parts, the Czech and Slovak republics. A majority of the people in the Slovak Republic, home to a third of Czechoslovakia's 15 million citizens, say they would have preferred to stay together.

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