Their homeland was split in two 20 years ago, but political and economic ties between Czechs and Slovaks remain tight and many insist they feel as if they still live in the same country.

On the emotional level, I still think the split weakened both countries a lot

“I still keep thinking about us as Czecho­slovakia,” said Marek Odrobina, a Slovak-born lawyer living in Prague since the Velvet Divorce.

Czechoslovakia, founded in 1918 after World War I brought down the Austro-Hungarian empire, split on January 1, 1993, just over three years after shedding its four-decade communist regime.

Propelled by Slovak separatists and orchestrated by then Prime Ministers, Czech Vaclav Klaus and Slovak Vladimir Meciar, the split was peaceful, just like the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

Yet 20 years on, many feel bitter about the way the federation was transformed into the Czech Republic, with 10.5 million people, and Slovakia, a nation of 5.4 million.

“It was too easy, and the people didn’t really take part in it,” says Slovak-born film director Fero Fenic, who lives in Prague.

“On the emotional level, I still think the split weakened both countries a lot,” the 61-year-old said in fluent Czech.

Marian Lesko, chief pundit at the Trend weekly in the Slovak capital Bratislava, said Slovakia had lost “a broader country, two-thirds of it, which gave it seriousness and influence within central Europe”.

But he said that, at the same time, “the country alone will now take credit for good things and blame itself for bad things, so it has an opportunity to grow up as a society and state”.

As independent countries, both the Czech Republic and Slovakia joined the EU, in 2004, while Slovakia also entered the eurozone in 2009.

They are also in Nato, though the Czechs stole a march by gaining admission in 1999, while Slovakia was part of the alliance’s 2004 expansion. Both have moved towards prosperity, but like many former Soviet bloc countries, they have a way to go before shaking off the Communist legacy.

The break-up was driven by politicians, without a plebiscite, critics say. “Politicians understood that if they can split the country without a referendum, they have huge powers,” observed Slovak-born journalist and writer Martin Simecka.

“Since that time, we have had what we call corrupt systems, and they govern our countries without any scruples,” he said.

Graft has been a persistent problem – Transparency International’s recently published corruption perception index for 2012 put the Czech Republic in the 54th place in the world and Slovakia 62nd.

Still, Odrobina sees the split as “beneficial to both countries”.

“Each has its specifics and it’s good that each can go its own way,” said the 39-year-old, whose entire family has swapped the western Slovak spa town of Piestany for Prague.

“I haven’t regretted it once – also because our relations with Slovakia allow me to go back any time,” Odrobina added, also speaking fluent Czech.

Fenic, meanwhile, explained that the split calmed simmering tensions between both parts of the federation. Slovaks had long felt slighted by Prague.

Since the break-up, both “have been able to focus on themselves”, he said.

In October, the two Governments held their first joint meeting since the split, pledging to boost cooperation.

With the Czech Republic hit by recession and Slovakia keen to maintain rosy economic growth, Prague and Bratislava vowed to cooperate in backing nuclear energy, in the defence sector, oil and gas supplies and freight rail-way transport with a view to consolid-ating spending.

They even pondered a return to a joint football league.

With the two languages being mutually intelligible, Czech and Slovak students can choose universities in either country, while popular music bands criss-cross the border to perform.

The ‘Velvet Divorce’

Key events in the diplomatic history of the Czechs and Slovaks since the collapse of the communist eastern bloc, which led to their split into two separate countries two decades ago:

November 1989: The fall of the Berlin Wall heralds the collapse of both the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc of countries allied with it. In Czechoslovakia, where a major revolt against the system had taken place in 1968, the events in Germany stoke demands for change.

December 29, 1989: Vaclav Havel, a playwright and former dissident, is elected President of Czechoslovakia, capping a process that becomes known as the “Velvet Revolution”. The demise of the old regime increases long-standing strains between the Czech and Slovak parts of the Czechoslovak federation.

January 1, 1993: Break-up of Czechoslovakia into two independent countries: the Czech Republic with its capital in Prague and Slovakia with its capital in Bratislava. The Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, follows a pro-Western line and adopts conservative free-market policies. In Slovakia, the Government of Vladimir Meciar remains closer to traditional communist policies.

1998: Under Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, Slovakia starts to follow a more pro-Western route.

March 1999: The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland become the first former eastern bloc states to join the West’s military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato).

March, 2004: Along with six other former eastern bloc countries, Slovakia also becomes a Nato member.

May 1, 2004: The Czech Republic and Slovakia, along with seven other former eastern bloc countries including Hungary and Poland, join the EU.

January 1, 2009: Slovakia adopts the EU’s common currency, the euro. The Czech Republic remains outside the eurozone.

November 2009: After holding out for several years against the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, which he sees as infringing on the Czech Republic’s sovereignty, President Vaclav Klaus finally gives his agreement, allowing the treaty to come into force.

June 2010: In the Czech Republic, a conservative coalition Government under Petr Necas forms.

December 18, 2011: Death of Vaclav Havel.

March 2012: Elections in Slovakia bring a left-wing Government to power under Robert Fico, who had steered the country into the eurozone in a previous term.

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