The Brexit fiasco reminded me of a few events in recent history of Slavic nations, events that happened shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain – the breakups of former federate states from the eastern bloc. I am going to talk a bit about two of them, one of them is very typical and one of them is very atypical.
The first one I want to mention is the breakup of former Yugoslavia. I am no expert on this (I am no expert on anything), but from the outside it has followed up a fairly typical pattern. First multiple nations with historical tensions and grievances against each other were held together in one state where they were all supposedly equal, but in reality some were more equal than others. There was a lot of religious and national diversity, but it was separated not integrated diversity and so the tensions and grievances remained and bubbled under the surface. When the grip of communist regimes over their countries started to falter, nationalism and religious fanaticism started to rise their ugly heads in all of them, which quickly escalated into armed conflicts and full-blown wars, in Yugoslavia with genocide included. It is unlikely the wounds of this recent conflict will heal in foreseeable future as those ancient grievances got exacerbated and embedded in the minds of new generations. Even I know personally people who got displaced from their home country by this conflict, despite having had the luxury of not even being close to a military conflict my whole life.
The second breakup I want to mention is one that I have lived through – the breakup of former Czechoslovakia into two separate states, Czechia and Slovakia. This one was very atypical. It started differently – after the WWI when nation states were being formed, Czechs and Slovaks have voluntarily decided to form together one state, Czechoslovakia. An attempt was made to officialy blend them into one “Czechoslovak” nation, but this never took really hold – it was clear the two nations have their own distinct languages and cultures, and they retained them.
It was not all roses. Slovakia was significantly less developed both culturally (lower literacy) and economically than Czechia from the onset, and thus it was more rural and poorer. Unfortunately it remained poorer throughout the whole time the two nations shared one state (which was several generations with short disruption during WWII), because Czechs were a majority and power was concentrated in Prague. This has led to development of understandable resentment and nationalist tendencies among Slovaks, who wanted to take the reigns of their land into their own hands. And so they did. But not through revolution, or armed conflict, but through purely peaceful political means. Elected leaders of the two countries got together, discussed things, agreed on a separation, some money was exchanged, some treaties were signed, not too enthusiastically hard customs border was added and that was it. Most inconvenienced were people who lived along the border, who sometimes had to traverse the border on a commute to-from work, but nobody got actually hurt.
From what I know from history this is pretty rare, and my personal opinion about reasons for why this happened thus are:
1) One important factor here is the voluntary nature of the union in the first place.
2) Lack of historical conflict between the two nations. There was no past history of conflicts between the two nations anyone could remember, none whatsoever. Within the Austro-Hungarian Empire under Habsburgs, Czechs main grievance was against Germans (to which I will return in future musings) and Slovaks against Hungarians.
3) There was no religious fanaticism or even strong dividing religious identity involved. Technically both nations were predominantly catholic, but Czechs attitude towards religion could best be described as “meh” for almost a hundred years by that time, and Slovaks, whilst being more religious than Czechs, were no wannabe-crusaders either.
4) The party that initiated the dissolution – Slovaks – did not hold the economic majority. So Czechs had no economical incentive to hold onto the Slovak state. Quite the opposite, it was felt that it would be Slovaks who lose, so if the want to go, they should be left to do so..
I am not sure what conclusions can be drawn from this, or if any can be drawn at all, but I think both cases are worth remembering.