PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia — As they awaited a resumption of talks over the fate of the Czechoslovak federation, at least a few voices on both sides of the Czech and Slovak divide expressed guarded hopes Wednesday that a final split may be avoided.
Some of the strongest skepticism about the wisdom of the threatened breakup came from the Slovak press, where some commentators argued that the 37% of the vote won by the leading Movement for a Democratic Slovakia Party (HZDS) in last weekend's parliamentary elections should not be interpreted as a "mandate to smash the federation."
Still other political figures and commentators argued that the economic consequences of an outright political divorce would be dire for the Slovaks, already hard hit by unemployment and a major industrial recession.
Slovak leader Vladimir Meciar, head of the HZDS, is to meet today for a second round of talks with prime minister-designate Vaclav Klaus, whose reform-minded Civic Democratic Party led the voting in the Czech lands in the weekend elections.
A first meeting between Klaus and Meciar and their aides ended early Tuesday morning with a particularly pessimistic assessment from the Czech side: Klaus and his aides said Meciar had presented a serious plan for breaking up the federation.
Klaus described the plan as "consistent and coherent," by which he meant that he did not believe Meciar was merely bluffing. The comment was significant, because many Czechs have assumed that the Slovak stance was a bargaining tactic to win more power in the federation.
Now some Czechs are saying that Klaus, by appearing to take the Slovaks at face value, is playing a tough game of poker himself and is hoping that the Slovak side will look "hard reality in the face," as one observer put it.
"I think it is significant that they did not talk about details at all," said Jan Sokol, one of the most highly regarded members of the Czech Federal Assembly, whose party, the Civic Movement, lost badly in the elections.
"The details, after all, are enormous and very difficult," Sokol went on. "We will see after the next one or two meetings between Klaus and Meciar, but I think there is still a big poker game going on. And I do not think there will be a split. I think there will be a compromise, although it may be a while in coming."
Milan Sutovec, an outgoing member of the Slovak Federal Assembly delegation, was more gloomy, in part, he admitted, because his Civic Democratic Union Party was also clobbered in the elections.
"I'm not sure if an outright split is what they (Meciar and his allies) want, or if it's high-level blackmail," Sutovec said. "But it may not matter at this point because some processes may have been started that they can no longer control. It's like a person jumping out of a 10th-story window and then deciding, as he passes the seventh floor, that he doesn't want to do it anymore."
A wide range of commentators argued that Slovakia would have a difficult time standing on its own economically. One Slovak newspaper said Wednesday that the republic would immediately lose about half a billion dollars in direct federal subsidies.
Sutovec agreed. "The disintegration of the state would have fatal economic consequences for Slovakia," he said.
In an interview in his office in the Federal Assembly, Sutovec opened a report on industry in Slovakia and pointed to a graph depicting the decline of the heavy arms exports from Slovak factories. The graph showed output plummeting from 1989, the year of the anti-Communist revolution, to projections for the current year. While he said the actual numbers were confidential, the drop was of a magnitude "from 1,000 units a year to 30," he said, and amounted to an economic disaster.
As an independent state, Slovakia would be effectively without a border to the West, he noted, and it would be a "state created on a state principle rather than a civic principle, a state which has a huge (800,000) Hungarian minority, which will likely adopt the same stance as the Slovaks have."
If the federation remains together, Sutovec said, he could envision a stable economic transition, with reforms "going forward more or less smoothly."
But "if the federation is smashed, I don't see how Slovakia can go forward, how the currency will remain stable, how inflation will be controlled."
"In addition, Czech and Slovak industry are interconnected. Czech industry buys Slovak products, not necessarily because they are better but because they are cheaper. But maybe it would be easier and cheaper for the Czechs to buy aluminum sheets not from Kosice in East Slovakia but just across the border in Germany or Austria. Do you realize that in all of Slovakia there is not a coffee cup, not a pencil, produced? All of that will have to be bought with hard currency."
Virtually all of Slovakia's electricity is produced in the Czech lands. On the other hand, virtually all of the crude oil the Czechs receive comes through pipelines across Slovakia.