PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia — "They started it," Stefan Klemens said, "now let us finish it."
Klemens, a 50-year-old delivery truck driver, had just stood in line for 20 minutes Friday in Prague's fabled Wenceslas Square to sign a petition. In effect, the petition says to the Slovak republic, lately flirting with the idea of putting an end to the 74-year-old Czechoslovak state: "Go ahead. Get lost!"
The petition, drafted by a grass-roots group calling itself the Czech Initiative, actually puts it more delicately than that, noting that Slovaks and Czechs are developing along opposite cultural paths--the Slovaks toward old-style "Eastern" (read Communist) tendencies, the Czechs toward a Western-style, free-market democracy.
"Look reality in the eye," the petition says. "The situation in our federation is critical."
The petition urges support for President Vaclav Havel, under attack from Slovaks who are promising to block his reelection by the Federal Assembly next month.
The petition-signing effort has drawn a steady crowd for the past two days, suggesting that what some political figures worriedly predicted--a growing Czech backlash against the Slovaks--may be happening.
A sampling of opinions in the crowd made it clear how fed up some Czechs are with the escalating threats from Vladimir Meciar, a former Communist who heads the leading Slovak HZDS party (Movement for a Democratic Slovakia), to press for independence--or, if not independence, something so close to it that Slovakia would require its own seat at the United Nations.
Talks between Meciar and Czech leader Vaclav Klaus, whose Civic Democratic Party was victorious in the Czech side of last weekend's elections, have made little progress after long meetings last Thursday and again Monday. Another session is set for Sunday in Bratislava, the Slovak capital.
Privately, officials on the Czech side are predicting that Sunday's meeting will be equally fruitless.
They also say they are not happy about the Czech Initiative, saying they need an atmosphere of order to proceed effectively and that a growing backlash of Czech nationalism could make an agreement harder.
Out on Wenceslas Square, however, most of the petitioners were voicing the tension and anger that the Czech negotiators do their best to disguise.
"Look, we have no problems with the Slovaks," Iva Nemcova, 62, said as she waited in line below the statue of King Vaclav (its base decorated with a pair of portraits of Vaclav Havel). "But they voted for a former Communist in their elections--Meciar--and he does not want to take Slovakia the way we want to go. I think we should not be made to wait for them. If they want to keep to the old ways, let them go."
"Yes, we don't need them," interjected a man in the line in front of her. "We don't need them. They have been draining the Czech treasury for years. I say, 'Good riddance.' "
Meciar has been insisting that Havel has to go as president, an attitude that may stem from a Havel speech before the elections cautioning voters against choosing politicians with "easy answers" or who "only seek power for themselves." Havel did not name Meciar in the speech, although he may, indeed, have had him in mind.
Meciar's demand for Havel's replacement was a source of much of the anger among the petition signers Friday.
"Havel is our president--a president the whole world can be proud of," said Ivan Sutec, 37, a teacher. "Why should we allow some apparatchik like Vladimir Meciar to turn him out? It is nonsense."