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Czecho/Slovakia: Ethnic Conflict, Constitutional Fissure, Negotiated Breakup

Eric Stein
With a Foreword by Lloyd Cutler
Copyright Date: 1997
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    As the clock struck midnight on December 31, 1992, Czechoslovakia, the only genuine democracy in post-World War I Central-Eastern Europe, broke up into two independent successor states. This book explores the failed search for a postcommunist constitution and it records in a lively style a singular instance of the peaceful settlement of an ethnic dispute.

    For more than three years after the implosion of the Communist regime in 1989, the Czechs and Slovaks negotiated the terms of a new relationship to succeed the centralized federation created under communism. After failing to agree to the terms of a new union, the parties agreed on an orderly breakup.

    In the background of the narrative loom general issues such as: What are the sources of ethnic conflict and what is the impact of nationalism? Why do ethnic groups choose secession and what makes for peaceful rather than violent separation? What factors influence the course of postcommunist constitutional negotiations, which are inevitably conducted in the context of institutional and societal transformation? The author explores these issues and the reasons for the breakup.

    Eric Stein, a well-known scholar of comparative law and a native of Czechoslovakia, was invited by the Czechoslovak government to assist in the drafting of a new constitution. This book is based on his experiences during years of work on these negotiations as well as extensive interviews with political figures, journalists, and academics and extensive research in the primary documents. It will appeal to historians, lawyers, and social scientists interested in the process of transformation in Eastern Europe and the study of ethnic conflict, as well as the general reader interested in modern European history.

    Eric Stein is Hessel E. Yntema Professor Emeritus, University of Michigan Law School. He previously served with the United States Department of State in the Legal Advisor's Office. He is the author of many books and articles on comparative law and the law of the European Community.

    eISBN: 978-0-472-02187-1
    Subjects: Political Science, History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-xiv)
  3. Foreword (pp. xv-xvi)
    Lloyd N. Cutler

    I first met Václav Havel in the summer of 1989 at his country cottage outside Prague when our former ambassador to Czechoslovakia, William Luers, and his wife Wendy took us along on a visit to the Havels. Even then—only four months before the Velvet Revolution—Havel thought it would take at least five years before the Communist regime would fall.

    Shortly after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and Havel’s election to the presidency, he asked me to put together a group of American and West European constitutional scholars to advise on the drafting of a new Czecho-Slovak constitution. One...

  4. Acknowledgments (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. Preface (pp. xix-xx)
  6. Abbreviations (pp. xxi-xxiv)
  7. A Framework (pp. 1-10)

    I have written this book in the twilight of my professional career. It is in one respect a record of an episode in the ageless learning process, a story of a lawyer’s brush with contemporary nationalism, and his effort to grasp the elusive underpinning of that complex phenomenon. It centers on the clusters of people in former Czechoslovakia because of strong personal reasons—and also because I thought that the failed search for a constitutional framework in that country, one of the troubled “ethno-territorial”¹ groupings in Western and Eastern Europe, merited an inquiry.

    I began writing on this subject in...

  8. Prologue
    • I The Setting (pp. 13-22)

      I observed the early negotiations for a new Czech-Slovak constitution from the vantage point of the international advisory group I mentioned in the preface.¹ The first object of the consultations was the draft federal constitution prepared under the direction of the then procurator general of the Czech Republic, Dr. Pavel Rychetský, an intelligent lawyer. In 1970, Dr. Rychetský had been dismissed by the Communist regime from his assistantship at the Charles University Law Faculty in the course of the “normalization” following the suppression of the 1968 “Prague spring.” Thereafter he worked as a lawyer with various organizations. He was one...

    • II The Asymmetry of the Czech and Slovak State (pp. 23-34)

      The 1960 Constitution,¹ substantially amended in 1968, remained in force after the revolution although modified by a series of postcommunist constitutional laws.² The 1968 amendment introduced a federal scheme embracing two component units, the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. In reality, the federal aspect proved at best an administrative division, at worst a hollow sham, but it led to an increase of Slovaks in the bureaucracy. The task faced by the constitution makers was to conjure up a new document in the context of conditions that, in the aggregate, would respond to the interests of the two component Republics...

    • III The Threshold Issues (pp. 35-54)

      A constitution being the highest in the hierarchy of norms, a crucial question facing a constitution maker is how much of the country’s law should be given constitutional status and, as a corollary, what should be the modality of modifying it.¹ Dahrendorf illustrates the dilemma: “Whatever is raised to [the constitutional] plane is thereby removed from day-to-day struggle of normal politics … the line is drawn between rules and principles which must be binding on all, and differences of view which can be fought out within these rules.”² President Havel told the Federal Assembly that in his opinion “our future...

  9. First Act
    • IV The Negotiations for Devolution (1990) (pp. 57-86)

      Amid the avalanche of transfonnation measures facing the Federal Assembly, the change in the name of the state would have seemed to pose the least of the problems.¹ Yet—with the benefit of hindsight—the episode becomes significant: first, as the herald of unexpected things to come; second, as an insight into Vaclav Havel’s early presidency; third, as a testimony to the role of symbols; and last, but not least, as an example of “ignorance”² contributing to an ethnic conflict and posing a psychological barrier to an understanding.

      In his first address to the Federal Assembly on January 23, 1990,...

    • V The June 1990 Elections and the Changing Scene (pp. 87-102)

      The first free national elections held under the system of proportional representation¹ in June 1990, proved to be in effect a “plebiscite” sanctioning the rejection of the Communist regime. The two movements that carried the revolution were the victors. In the Czech Republic, the Civic Forum obtained the majority of all votes (53.2 percent) followed by the Communist Party (13.5 percent), the Christian Democratic Union (8.7 percent), and the Moravia-Silesia Movement (7.9 percent). The outcome in Slovakia was similar, but the Public against Violence, although first with 32.5 percent, did not do as well as its Czech counterpart, the Civic...

  10. Second Act
    • VI Negotiations on a ʺTreatyʺ (Winter–Spring 1991) (pp. 105-122)

      Early in February 1991, Alexander Dubček, chair of the Federal Assembly, had in his hands six drafts of a federal constitution submitted by different political parties.¹ This presumably did not count the proposals offered by President Havel (which embodied the power-sharing law of December 1990 and the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms of January 1991) or the several chapters approved by the Assembly’S own Constitutional Committee. The committee’s text, however, did not contain the crucial power-sharing section. That subject, which the Czechs had hoped was “settled” by the adoption of the 1990 law, was reopened a few weeks later,...

    • VII Slouching toward Bethlehem (Summer–Fall 1991) (pp. 123-138)

      A series of extraneous events impinged upon the attitude of the negotiators although the impact could not be gauged with any degree of precision.

      The initial opposition of the European and U.S. governments to a fragmentation in former Yugoslavia and the outbreak of violence there strengthened the supporters of the common state.² The reversal of the stance of the international community and the prompt recognition of the new states carved out of Yugoslav territory was invoked by the Slovaks, including Dr. Čarnogurský and Vladimír Mečiar, as a precedent in support of the Slovak claims.³

      In May 1991, the Czech National...

    • VIII The Presidentʹs Call to Arms (Fall 1991–Winter 1992) (pp. 139-154)

      Like the federal government, President Havel viewed the deadlock as a crisis situation requiring his intervention. He was presumably encouraged by the success of the campaign “for a common state,” which had obtained more than two million signatures, most of them, however, in the Czech lands. So this time he decided to launch a direct appeal to the people, urging them to support his initiative with their deputies. Speaking on November 17, 1991, he recalled that as early as January of that year he had published his own proposal for a federal constitution, “betting on a dialogue and a political...

    • IX Back to the Republicsʹ Legislatures: The Last Hurrah (February 1992) (pp. 155-176)

      In January 1992, while the Federal Assembly was in the process of decimating the president’s program of constitutional reform, preparations were made for the next phase of the negotiations between the National Councils’ presidia.

      The Slovak National Council approved a draft of the treaty, which according to a Slovak Christian Democrat spokesman was “the first time in the history of Czech and Slovak coexistence, excluding the years under Communism, that Slovak politicians had come to a unified position.” Significantly, according to this text, it was the two Republics that were to be parties to the treaty.¹

      Plaudits were heard from...

    • X Onward to the Elections (Spring 1992) (pp. 177-194)

      The 1990 elections were in effect a people’s referendum on the rejection of the Communist regime with little doubt about the outcome and some 96 percent of the eligible voters taking part. In the 1992 elections, on the other hand, it was not “the people” but the individual voters who had to choose from 40 parties (13 more than in 1990) offering a confusing profusion of mostly similar platforms.¹ A commentator (with obviously elite tendencies) wrote that it was “almost a cruel joke that literally everyone has the right to decide on the fate of the nation, including those who...

  11. Third Act
    • XI The Lion v. the Unicorn: The Breakup (Summer 1992) (pp. 197-226)

      Shortly after the elections,¹ President Havel called on Vaclav Klaus as the head of the “victorious” party² to form a new federal government and formulate a governmental program. In pursuing this charge, Klaus met with Vladimír Mečiar, his Slovak counterpart “victor,” in the first of the six fatal rounds of negotiations that in the end went far beyond the original mandate.³

      The encounter took place on June 8 in the Moravian capital of Brno. The locale was a villa built in the early 1930s for a local industrialist after a design by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the last head...

    • XII The Deed Is Done (Fall 1992) (pp. 227-250)

      Late summer and fall of 1992 were marked by frantic political activities in the federal as well as the Republic institutions.¹ Day after day, politics—constitutional politics—dominated the first pages of the press while the public watched with a mixture of bewilderment, concern, resignation, and ultimately some relief at the prospect that the seemingly endless negotiations might finally come to an end.

      After the failure of Vaclav Havel’s candidacy, the newly organized Federal Assembly went through the motions of attempting to fill the vacant top office of the rapidly vanishing Federation. Lack of interest manifested by mass absences and...

    • XIII Back to the Federal Assembly: Facing the Opposition (Fall 1992 Continued) (pp. 251-270)

      Since the first federal program approved by the Assembly had expired on September 30, the federal government was obliged to ask the Parliament to approve an extended program for the period ending December 31, 1992. This request offered the opposition on the left and extreme right an occasion for an unrelenting attack on the coalition government, marked by acrid personal interchanges.¹ The thrust of the opposition criticism was the charge that the government had proceeded against the will of the people and in disregard of constitutional norms and Assembly responsibilities, presenting it with a fait accompli of the termination of...

  12. Fourth Act
    • XIV Constitutions for the Independent Republics (pp. 273-298)

      Although the two Republics were authorized to adopt their own basic instruments by the 1968 Federal Constitution,¹ neither took advantage of this empowerment for more than two decades. I delineated earlier the efforts by the commissions appointed by the Republic parliaments, but during the two years following the 1989 revolution their drafts failed to reach the stage of parliamentary consideration.

      Some eight drafts appeared in Slovakia and the work accelerated greatly when the adoption of a constitution² became the apex of the election program of the Movement for Democratic Slovakia. After the elections of June 1992, an expert group led...

  13. Epilogue
    • XV An Overview: Some Answers and Some Reflections at the End of the Day (pp. 301-342)

      In the opening pages of this book, I quoted Donald L. Horowitz’s question about the source of ethnic conflicts: is it “cultural difference” or “ignorance or realistic divergence of interests?” I would conclude from the Czech and Slovak story that both cultural differences and ignorance are indeed the core of the conflict and the cause of the separation—along with significant subsidiary factors closely connected with, if not actually derived from, the cultural differences. I shall return to the divergence of interests promptly.

      In the second chapter of this book I dealt with the relationship between the Czechs and Slovaks...

  14. Annexes
    • Annex I. The International Conference, Bratislava, June 1991 (pp. 345-354)
    • Annex II. Constitutions and the World (pp. 355-364)
  15. Selected Bibliography (pp. 365-378)
  16. Index (pp. 379-386)