Czechoslovakia broke up peacefully on January 1st, 1993, while Kosovo split off of Serbia violently throughout the 1990s. Both movements were sparked by the receding communist and Soviet influence, allowing nationalism and national interests to rise to the fore once more. Clifford Geertz wrote that, ‘(states) at once alike and very different, they form a commentary on one another’s character’ (Geertz 1968:4). For Geertz an interpretive analysis was useful because states that were very similar offered commentary on each other based on their differences. Czechoslovakia and Serbia share numerous similarities. The breakups of the two states happened in the same historical period (1990s Post Communist). The two states themselves were born in very similar time frames with the Kingdom of Serbia coming into being following a war of independence from the Ottomans in 1912. Czechoslovakia gained independence following the end of World War I and the Versailles Treaty. Following World War II, both countries came under the influence of communism and the Soviet Union in the Eastern bloc.
After the fall of communism, federal Czechoslovakia remained with the Czech Republic having a 20 percent higher GDP than Slovakia. While a majority of the population wished to maintain the Union, separatist Slovak parties advocated decentralization and some independence. On 17 July 1992, the Slovak Parliament declared independence and six days later the government in Prague agreed. The dissolution of the state has become known as the Velvet divorce because of its bloodlessness. Serbia had a more painful and bloody time during the 1990s. Involved in the Yugoslav wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia, Kosovo became an issue in 1995 when KLA hostilities began. The subsequent war, largely fought from 1998-1999 would involve NATO airstrikes against Serbia who were trying to prevent the breakaway of Kosovo. This seems to be a classic case of Brubaker’s trident, with Kosovo nationalism, homeland Serbian nationalism in Kosovo and a nationalizing homeland state in Serbia. Yet this doesn’t appear in the Slovak territory breaking away from Czechoslovakia. Despite all of the similarities between the states, what variables led to violent war between Serbia and Kosovo compared to the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia?
In this analysis, we attempt to look at two factors, politics of the state and ethnic demographics and see if differences or similarities between the two cases can shed light on why the endgame was so different for the two states.
Comparing Serbia to Czechoslovakia: A case for political explanations of the (non)outbreak of ethnic conflicts?
The following short passage attempts to explain the breakout of violent ethnic conflict in Serbia and the lack of same in Czechoslovakia leading up to 1993. As explanatory model, the author proposes political factors such as the strategy of political elites, dynamics in the party system and politico-institutional setup.
Czechoslovakia (Hilde, 1999)
Party system: Voting in Czechoslovakia has not always been divided along regional political cleavages. In the period from 1918 to 1938 voting was primarily around social class cleavages. Ironically, the communist era from 1948 to 1989 led to the regional political cleaves. In the communist era, Czechs continued to occupy the most important positions in the public administration. More importantly, largely symbolic elections were being held on two levels, namely in the republic and on the federal. Consequently, a feeling of political separateness between Czechs and Slovaks developed. Thus, the patterns of self-identification along national rather than social lines were ingrained in the communist era with the two-tiered election system that de facto created a divided political system. After this Czechs voted for Czechs, Slovaks for Slovaks and even smaller minority groups formed their own parties. Around 1990, political leadership was split between the Czech Civic Democratic Party and Democratic Slovakia. The Czech party favored a strong central government and radical economic reform, while the Slovak party favored decentralization of power and opposed economic reform. Interestingly, dissolution of the federation had little support in Slovakia (between 1990-1992 it varied between 10-20 % of voters). Similarly, few Slovak parties supported independence (parties supporting independence took 10 % of voters). Instead, there was a conception that the state was controlled the Czech part of the country and Slovakia had little self-rule or little federal interest (in 1990, 95 % of Slovaks rejected the claim that the Czechs considered them as equals). This is a difference to Yugoslavia which was more marred by secessionist minorities. Instead, the Czech political leaders favored dissolution, especially by the Czech Right of the political spectrum. Increasingly, the party-system followed centrifugal tendencies (who can be most nationalist and additionally, incorporated within extremist parties). Parliament passed the bill for dissolution of the Federation on 25. November 1992.
Politico-institutional setup: The political system favored minority protection at the expense of the ability to pass new legislation. The political system was setup up to protect the Slovaks and passing legislation (especially on constitutional matters) required special majorities to the extent where 31 MPs could block in an assembly of 300. This is seems defining as constitutional change was opposed three times before the breakup of the federation.
Socio-economic differences: The difference in preferred economic path owes much to difference in the structure of the economy in the two parts of the country. The Slovak economy was based on industry and arms production which was hit with reforms in 1991 with a resulting rapid rise in unemployment, while unemployment remained low in the Czech lands. However, the two parts of the federation generally held widely different view on political matters with the Czechs favoring privatization and the political right and the Slovaks favoring the political left. Socially, there was little migration between the Czech and Slovak parts of the country and divided mass media. The isolation was arguably conducive to mobilization of regional interests. Similarly, there was struggle about symbolic equality between the Czech and Slovak parts of the country with the so-called war of the hyphen being the most obvious example.
Serbia (Gagnon 1995)
In Serbia, ethnic violence was promoted as a means for political legitimacy. The position of power of the Communist (later Socialist) Party of Serbia (hereafter referred to as SSP) was heavily reliant on perpetual ethnic conflict. Therefore, the SSP worked actively to provoke and incite ethnic conflict in order for the party to remain in power.
Historically, ethnicity has constituted the most important political cleavage in the region. This has been the case in federations such as the Ottoman, Romanov and Habsburg empires where ethnic political lines merged with religious or language lines and hence, formed politicized identities. Similarly, the Serbian national myth was defined through fight against Ottoman Turks. Fundamentally, it is about the historical construction of ethnic sentiment as political identities. In other words, ethnic conflict lines were salient to the public and consequently, it made sense for the SSP to seek public support by these means. Additionally, The SSP was widely ethnically homogeneous and thus, the strategy could be pursued without alienating significant parts of the member base. Conversely, Serbia had large regional differences in economic development, which would lead to divisions in political support if utilized.
Ethnic violence as a strategy was chosen to fend off challenges by reformists within the SSP and seal the demise of a united Yugoslavia. After the fall of communism, the main threat to the elites came through increased political participation with a degree of real influence on the distribution of political power. There were powerful movements for multi-party elections with widely supported protest rallies. In this context, only 39 % of the population was Serb and almost all non-Serbs had been alienated by Milosevic’s strategies. Therefore, it became increasingly unfeasible to win a somewhat fair election for the SSP.
The response was attempts to demonize other ethnic minorities in order to provoke violence along ethnic lines. Thereby, the SSP could discredit the ideas of both a united Yugoslavia and the claims of reformist Serb groups. The mass media were controlled by SSP and were used incite ethnic violence. Moderates and reformist Serbs were branded as traitors and prosecuted. Tellingly, when massive protests broke out for increased political participation and against the disastrous economic policies of Milosevic these were branded as enemies of Serbia who worked with Albanians, Croats and Slovenes in an attempt to destroy Serbia.
The comparison points towards the importance of the strategies followed by political parties. Hence, the comparison points to a degree of agency of the most central political actors. The choice of parties to seek nationalist popular support instead of cooperate across the political spectrum is detrimental to the political system. Additionally, the urge of political elites, if salient to the public, can lead to bloodshed.
HILDE, P. S. (1999). Slovak Nationalism and the Break-up of Czechoslovakia. Europe-Asia Studies. 51, 647-665.
GAGNON, V. P. (2009). Ethnic Nationalism and International Conflict: the Case of Serbia. Ethnic Conflict. 2, 105-138.
Comparing the ethnic demographics of Czechoslovakia and Serbia-Kosovo
One possible explanation for the divergent result of the dissolution in Serbia-Kosovo and Czechoslovakia lies in the different ethnic demographics of both regions: do the two regions have a similar ethnic composition, thereby discrediting this explanation, or does a dissimilar composition shed a tiny light on the complex process of a peaceful or violent dissolution of multinational states?
Czechoslovakia, a nation/state that was founded as a result of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, has known a remarkable transformation of its ethnic composition starting from its foundation up till its break-up in the 1990’s. Marked in the beginning by a large minority of German-speaking citizens (otherwise known as the Sudeten-Germans), the ethnic composition of the country became essentially dichotomous after the Second World War – when Germans were forced to flee – comprising of a Slovakian and Czech element, with the Czech population having a dominant majority throughout the twentieth century. Consequently, at the moment of the dissolution, the Czech population comprised around 62% of the population, whereas the Slovaks were a strong minority, with 31% identifying themselves as Slovakian. In this sense, we see a strong demographic presence of both Czechs and Slovaks, which was further symbolized by their clear territorial demarcation.
A different situation is visible in Kosovo-Serbia in the first decade of the twentieth-first century. Here too, the Second World War proved vital in transforming the outlook of the region, and most notably in Kosovo: the Albanian population, comprising 68,5% of the general population in 1948, rose steadily to 81,6% in 1991, and rose even higher the following decade, having a share of 92% in the latest census of 2011. Consequently, the Serbian minority in the region, which had a share of 23,6% in 1948, declined to half of this number in 1991, and has diminished to only 1,5% in the latest census of 2011.
So, comparing these two different regions purely from a demographic perspective, there is one clear conclusion: the Second World War and its aftermath, the Cold War, have had a remarkable impact on both regions, limiting the influence of other minorities in the regions (most notably is of course the expulsion of the Sudeten-Germans), and thus making both regions more and more dichotomous. Whether or not this demographic has had a clear impact on politics and culture, cannot be concluded from this data alone, and requires other sources.