Asked to compare Czechoslovakia's Velvet Divorce two decades ago to today's separatist tendencies in Europe, Slovak MEP Eduard Kukan says separatism alone cannot lead to the creation of a state.
Are we at some point of acceleration in history? There was such a point in 1989 with the collapse of the Berlin wall and then we saw a lot of things happening including in Czechoslovakia, your country, splitting peacefully in two, 20 years ago [1 January 1993]. Today we are in the middle of a huge crisis and against this background we hear more and more of separatism. Do you have a sense of déjà vu?
Yes. You mention acceleration of history, the fall of the Berlin wall was such a thing. It was followed up by many changes, many fast changes in the former Soviet bloc, including the change of the regime, including the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia.
But that revolution was another acceleration factor for the developments in Czechoslovakia. It brought something that not everybody expected: the division of the country. It was not in the minds of the people after the Velvet Revolution, but it so happened and democracy, which was a new thing for the population, brought the discussion about the issue. It ended with the division of the country.
So the issue now, as you mentioned, is that there are more voices of separatists heard in different places. I think that we are in a situation when acceleration of history can take place again. It somehow brings more ground for populists or separatism etc. Indeed, it is a kind of déjà vu.
You were the last ambassador of Czechoslovakia at the United Nations, and the first ambassador of Slovakia to the world organisation, so you were in a good position to observe the developments. Isn’t there something particular with the Czech and the Slovak example, the fact that both sides have been so relaxed about starting separate lives? It doesn’t look the same for other regions. I’m thinking for example of Spain. Madrid cannot even imagine that a part of its territory would become independent …
Well, it depends on the concrete situation in those countries. Czechoslovakia is not a typical case because if we look back at history, there were no big problems between the two nations.
Once each of them is on the same ground, on the same basis. Once they have been masters in their own house, there is no reason for them looking at the development of the two nations historically to cultivate negative feelings about the other. In the countries which you mentioned, I think the situation is different. There is much more animosity, there are a lot more negative feelings and that’s what makes more sensitive the whole situation. And much more complicated.
Slovakia was a success, in fact the country which was rural has developed and modernised a lot; it joined the euro before the Czech Republic or Poland. But still Slovakia is one of the EU countries that doesn’t accept the independence of Kosovo [together with Cyprus, Greece, Romania and Spain]. This is probably due to the existing tensions with Hungary. Isn’t there a kind of contradiction there?
I don’t think it is because of the tensions with Hungary. A very small part of the decision not to recognise the independence of Kosovo was, I would call it, due to wrong behaviour of the Hungarian national minority in Slovakia. There have been problems with them. They are complaining that their rights are not fully guaranteed. And the leaders of the Hungarian coalition party stated before the independence of Kosovo: “We are going to watch carefully what Kosovo is going to get and then we shall behave accordingly.”
That was not a very helpful statement. It was used by many Slovak politicians. But the most important factor why not to recognise Kosovo was that we thought that it was possible to reach a solution that would be acceptable to both parties. We thought that with the efforts of the international community, if there was a heavy-weight negotiator, that it was possible to resolve those 5% of the issues, because they were [saying] at the time that 95% of the issues were already resolved…
So the most important reason is that we are against the solution which was forced on one of the participants in the negotiations. I think that the existence of Kosovo and its development as an independent state will decide the position of all non-recognisers.
Again, taking your country as an example, it is generally recognised that splitting Czechoslovakia was the right thing to do. But any further split of Slovakia, if a separatist movement would push for it, would be wrong?
These are different things. I wouldn’t call separatism the division of Czechoslovakia, although the Czechs wanted it more than we did. And again I can only repeat that there was mutual agreement about that kind of solution. There was no referendum, OK, but the pertinent law was adopted by the parliament, by the votes of both Slovaks and Czech deputies at the time.
Separatism cannot lead to creation of state. The right to self-determination can, but not separatism. And I don’t think that the Hungarian national minority living in Slovakia is wishing to secede or to join Hungary. I simply do not believe it. Sometimes their positions are ambivalent, and that’s why many politicians are suspicious about them.
Slovakia can be seen as a country that is strongly pro-European and the Czech Republic is seen as the most eurosceptic - probably after the British. How about that?
In Slovakia we became an EU member because it was the wish and the desire of the population. This was strongly influenced by the political developments. In Slovakia after the independence, we got the very authoritarian Prime Minister Mr [Vladimír] Mečiar [prime minister from 1990 to 1991; 1992 to 1994; and 1994 to 1998] who was slowing down the development of the country regarding the EU, NATO and so on and so forth.
Economically we were doing quite OK, but the deficit of democracy or a too autocratic form of government naturally created the mood in the country that “we want to go to Europe, we want to become a member of the European Union”.
That’s why we got the very strong mandate for the government of [Mikuláš] Dzurinda who succeeded Mečiar in 1998 [and served to July 2006]. And that’s why there was such a big support for the European Union. An in Slovakia practically all the politicians since then were supporting Slovak EU membership, supporting the strengthening of our role in the Union and joining the eurozone. So it’s a natural continuation of the development since then.
In the Czech Republic, it was different. It’s known that President [Václav] Klaus is not a Europe optimist, it’s an understatement.
Slovakia, after the fall of the Mečiar government, is really very stable. It has a consistent way of development and way of attitude towards the European Union. In the Czech Republic, it’s different, but I think that most important thing is the role of the politicians. But these are two independent countries and they are developing in a different way.
In the European Parliament, also because of your diplomatic background, you are highly specialised in the Western Balkans. The most difficult case appears to be Bosnia and Herzegovina. Do you think that this country can survive as an entity, without splitting?
Well, I was there last week, so I have a fresh experience from what you are saying. Bosnia and Herzegovina, given the construction of this state, is a very difficult country to govern. The question, whether it can survive, or can it have a viable development is very, very pertinent. There are not many optimistic signs coming from the country that this would be possible.
We are all trying - I’m referring to the European Parliament and the European Commission - to help them, to find some possibilities to improve the Stabilisation and Association Agreement. But there are certain conditions for that and they simply cannot deliver on them, and without that it’s not possible.
If you ask me about the future of that country, without some reforms, which would be very far-reaching, I don’t think that we can expect a fast development of the country towards the European Union. Until now, they are clearly lacking behind all the other countries in the region. They do not lose hope that it’s going to change, but we don’t have any hard proof that that is the case.
Do you think in 2013, the EU will formulate a new paradigm for Bosnia and Herzegovina because the present paradigm doesn’t work…
Well, my sincere answer is yes. I hope so, but hope is not a policy. It’s just hope, but I think that gradually it’s understandable for everybody that something must be done, something substantial, with the structure of that country.
How many countries will still emerge from the former Yugoslavia? Does anyone have the answer?
I hope not any more. There are enough of them!
Eduard Kukan is an MEP from the European People’s Party and chairs the delegation on relations with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo. He was Slovakia's foreign minister from 1998 to 2006.