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Czech Republic, Slovakia: Still close after 30 years apart

December 31, 2022

In January 1993, Czechoslovakia peacefully separated into two independent states. While the Czech Republic and Slovakia remain close allies, there has been tension in recent months.

Rastislav Kacer (left), foreign minister of Slovakia, and Jan Lipavsky (right), foreign minister of the Czech Republic, October 2022
The first foreign visit for Rastislav Kacer (at left) as Slovak foreign minister was to see his Czech colleague, Jan LipavskyImage: Außenministerium der Slowakischen Republik

The last European summit of the Czech Republic's presidency of the Council of the European Union took place on December 15. Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger was unable to attend because his government faced a confidence vote in the parliament in Bratislava that day. He was represented at the summit by his Czech counterpart, Petr Fiala.

While it may seem unusual for the leader of one country to represent another at an international summit, in the case of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, it didn't raise any eyebrows.

Thirty years after the peaceful separation of the former communist state of Czechoslovakia into two independent countries on January 1, 1993, the two nations remain extremely close.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala gestures as he speaks at the summit of the European Council, December 15, 2022
Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala told DW that relations between the Czech Republic and Slovakia are excellentImage: Luboš Palata/DW

Fiala himself confirmed this to DW: "The excellent relations between the Czech Republic and Slovakia are not just evident in this area," he said, adding that the two countries will celebrate their peaceful separation with pride on New Year's Day 2023.

'Velvet divorce'

The state of Czechoslovakia was founded toward the end of World War I, on October 28, 1918, when it declared its independence from the disintegrating Austro-Hungarian Empire. The main argument for the move was that both the Czechs and the Slovaks wanted to live in a single state, Czechoslovakia.

Although the two nations stayed united throughout the first Czechoslovak Republic (1918–1938), occupation by Nazi Germany (1939–1944/45) and communist dictatorship (1945–1989), their cultural, linguistic and structural differences never really went away.

In 1992, the parliamentary election was won in both parts of the country by parties that rejected a common state. Following protracted negotiations, they agreed to peacefully dissolve the state of Czechoslovakia on December 31 of that year. After 74 years of unity, the Czech Republic and Slovakia were now independent countries.

Peace and friendship

"We should not forget that the division of Czechoslovakia was not only peaceful, but unusually cordial," said Fiala, who points out that relations between the two countries are not only exceptional at political level, but also between people and businesses too. "This is really wonderful and I think it shows that the creation of two independent states was the right move and has helped both nations," he said.

Slovak politicians and diplomats agree. Slovak Foreign Minister Rastislav Kacer looks back with fondness on his time as his country's ambassador to the Czech Republic. "It is a great privilege to be Slovak ambassador in Prague," he said. "You are a diplomatic king. Other ambassadors come to you and say: 'No one understands Czech politics like you do. Explain it to us.'"

Rudolf Jindrak
Rudolf Jindrak will take up the post of Czech ambassador to Slovakia on January 1Image: Luboš Palata/DW

The post of ambassador to Slovakia is equally prestigious in Czech diplomatic circles. This is illustrated by the fact that the Czech ambassador to Slovakia from 2013 to 2018 was the former first lady of the Czech Republic, Livia Klausova, the wife of former President Vaclav Klaus.

Lively cross-border exchange

Another indication of the close relationship is the fact that the first foreign trip undertaken by all newly elected presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers in each country is to the capital of the other. There are also regular bilateral meetings between the two cabinets.

At the university level, too, there is a high degree of exchange: Citizens of each country can study in the other country free of charge — something that is facilitated by the fact that the Czech and Slovak languages are mutually intelligible. More than 25,000 Slovak students study in the Czech Republic and account for over 10% of all students there. The number of Czech students in Slovakia is much lower because Slovak universities are not considered as prestigious.

Slovak political scientist Grigorij Meseznikov, an older man with a beard and shoulder-length curly gray hair and wearing round glasses
Slovak political scientist Grigorij Meseznikov said polls back up claims that relations between Czechs and Slovaks are goodImage: privat

Thousands of Slovak doctors and nurses work in the Czech Republic. Some 91,000 Czech citizens have Slovak roots, and roughly 114,000 Slovaks have permanent residency in the Czech Republic.

Czechoslovakia still alive in people's hearts and minds

Slovak political scientist Grigorij Meseznikov, director of the Institute for Public Affairs, confirmed in an interview with DW that relations between Czechs and Slovaks are good across the board. "The Slovaks' perception of the Czechs is very positive, which is borne out in opinion polls. In the Czech Republic, too, the Slovaks are seen as the closest nation," he said.

"Czechoslovakia is still alive in the hearts and minds of the people, albeit with differing degrees of intensity," said Meseznikov. According to a poll conducted by the Prague-based STEM Institute for Empirical Research in November, 91% of Slovaks and 87% of Czechs still see themselves as closest allies. Some 53% of Slovaks but only 35% of Czechs still feel that the division of Czechoslovakia was wrong.

Recent tension over illegal migration

Yet despite all this positivity, many experts feel the special nature of the relationship between the two nations is slowly waning.

"In many areas, our relationship is not as exceptional as it was," said Rudolf Jindrak, head of the International Department within the Office of the President of the Czech Republic. "Czech–Slovak relations have dissolved like a cube of sugar in the European Union; after joining the EU, we stopped paying sufficient attention to them," he told DW. 

Three male migrants sit at an outdoor table near some tents in the refugee camp in Kuty, Slovakia, on the Czech–Slovak border, November 10, 2022
Most illegal migrants entering Slovakia come from Syria and intend to travel through the Czech Republic and on to GermanyImage: Radovan Stoklasa/REUTERS

This became apparent during the first major crisis in bilateral relations since the two countries became independent: On September 29 of this year, the Czech Republic closed its border with Slovakia.

One reason for the border closure was a stark increase in the number of illegal migrants entering the country via Slovakia. Bratislava refused to take back migrants stopped by the Czech police in accordance with the EU's readmission agreement.

 "Yes, one of the reasons for the reintroduction of checks at our joint border was the problematic implementation of the readmission agreement by Slovakia," said Hana Mala of the press department at the Czech Interior Ministry.

The border closure led to protests by Slovak truck drivers. Even a meeting of the prime ministers on November 11 could not resolve the dispute, casting a shadow over the upcoming 30th anniversary of the establishment of the two independent states.

This article was originally published in German.

Portrait of a man with blond hair, wearing a white shirt and a blue and black checked jacket
Lubos Palata Correspondent for the Czech Republic and Slovakia, based in Prague