11/26/2013 05:19 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2014

The Slovak Example

Of the three multiethnic countries that dissolved in the aftermath of the Cold War, Czechoslovakia fared the best. The two successor states suffered none of the violence, economic catastrophe, or political discord that Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union experienced. Indeed, the relations between Prague and Bratislava are probably better now than they've ever been.

The Czech Republic continues to attract the lion's share of tourism and economic investments. But Slovakia is in some ways a more appealing model for newly democratizing nations around the world. For one thing, it had to establish an identity as a new country rather quickly. For another, Slovak citizens had to mount a second "velvet revolution" to battle an authoritarian prime minister who took power practically from the beginning of the new country's existence.

Pavol Demes was a minister of foreign relations for Slovakia when it was still in Czechoslovakia and then served as a foreign policy advisor to the Slovak president from 1993 to 1997. "Slovaks were from the very beginning often accused by the international community of being nationalists, like those Yugoslav people who were fueling nationalism," Demes told me in an interview in Bratislava in February. "People were worried that we would be another source of destabilization in the region. This was just not true. My job, as a minister, was to explain that this had nothing to do with ethnic hatred and that we would find a civilized way of resolving political debates over the future of Czecho-Slovakia."

One of his first tasks was to begin changing the image of Slovakia in the world. "One of the serious problems was that Slovaks and their history were much less known than the larger and better-known Czechs," he continued. "When I assumed my ministerial position in 1992, there was not a single short history of Slovakia in English that I could pass on to foreign partners or audiences. When I traveled abroad, I always had to answer the question, 'Who are you? What do the Slovaks want?' So I opened a national competition for the best short history of Slovakia. Twenty pages in five weeks. Several historians said that this was a crazy task." However, by offering the prize of access to the newly opened Vatican archives, the competition produced a winner.

Describing the location, history, and culture of Slovakia was just the first step. Many foreigners have been intrigued with the more recent political history of the country.

"Many people from transitional countries came to Slovakia to learn from our experience, and our activists are often invited abroad," Demes explained. "In the last two years, I was invited to do a training in civic organizing in Arab countries. I am learning how to speak to people living beyond the paradigm of European enlargement. We need to learn how to tell people why they should do something or not. What is moral in politics and what is not? I hate to use the term 'exporting models,' because it is total nonsense. You can share and, if you are sensitive to their situation, they might adopt your suggestions."

We talked about the mechanics of the Czecho-Slovak separation, the initial protocol mistakes that the new Slovak government made, and why the initial belief of so many Slovaks in the "end of history" thesis was wrong.

The Interview

You've said that the Czech Republic and Slovakia were always two basically separate entities with separate cultures. After the revolution, was there a moment when you realized that this entity Czechoslovakia was not going to survive as a federation?

Czechoslovakia was created after the end of the First World War out of two very close nations. Mentally, psychologically, culturally, we are very close and helped each other. During the Second World War, because of Hitler, not because of our own will, we were separated for a while. But after the war Czechoslovakia was recreated. Very few people, for example, know that we never had a federal ministry of culture or of education. We never had a federal daily, just Czech dailies and Slovak dailies. On television there were Czech and Slovak moderators. The languages are very close. We understood each other, so this was not a problem. But from the point of view of culture, education, and print, we were separate. Plus, the border was clearly delineated.

After I worked in the ministry of education, the Slovak government collapsed and Meciar became prime minister. I was brought in to become minister in charge of international relations. We had a federal foreign ministry as well as republic ministries of international relations. I belonged among those who thought that there was chance to keep Czechoslovakia together, and this would be advantageous. So I was negotiating a lot with federal minister Jiri Dienstbier and others on how to divide roles in foreign policy. There were no forbidden themes, and there were many political debates about the philosophy of state, the nature of government, the nature of subsidiarity. Relatively soon it became obvious that these two entities have profoundly different opinions on the nature of the common state and the division of power between the republics and the federation.

It became more and more clear that it would be very difficult to keep the country together. I'm strongly against the notion that Slovaks detached themselves from Czechs. This was a 50/50 political deal. There was no referendum. Politicians in the federal parliament came to a conclusion to end the disputes, which could eventually lead to all kinds of turbulences, through a peaceful division of the state. In our case--unlike Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union where ethnic hatred and memories of the past were painful and bloody--we never shed a single drop of blood or had any hostilities or ethnic rivalries. We just had very different notions of how we feel about the new democratic state. From the Velvet Revolution, we came to a "velvet divorce."

I knew many of the people behind the revolution and the new government and also a little bit of their psychology. I'm not surprised at what Vaclav Klaus was doing at the end of his Czech presidency and how unpopular he became. Vaclav Klaus was always a rather egocentric person. He and Vladimir Meciar were the architects of the split. Meciar didn't even come to the celebration of the 20th anniversary of Slovakia. He lives outside of Bratislava, and we are happy that we don't need to see him any more in public. And Czechs soon will be happy that they will not have to see Vaclav Klaus any more. The two men are disliked by their respective citizens because they are in a way quite similar.

Is there any small part of your mind that regrets the split?

Not really. I studied in Prague. I'm a graduate of Charles University, and for me Prague is one of the three most beautiful European capitals, along with Rome and Paris. My son studies now in Prague. Thousands of Slovaks study and work there, because it's just a very close, pleasant city. On February 21, I'm invited to the former federal now Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs where I will be moderating the opening panel on 20 years of independent Czech and Slovak foreign policy. I feel privileged to be invited by foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg. We will be remembering what we went through and where are we now. But all in all, I belong among the majority of people who believe that it was an important and inevitable step to avoid potential conflicts. Relations between Czechs and Slovaks have never been better than they are now. Europe would look much different if relationships among members were as good as those between Czechs and Slovaks, both on a people-to-people level and a political level.

At New Year's, the prime ministers of the two countries held a joint press appearance, wishing peoples of their nations all the best, looking at last year, and looking ahead. It's unthinkable that two Balkan or former Soviet presidents or prime ministers would go on the air and in full harmony analyze what went on and where they are going. This was one of those historically unexpected moments that turned potentially problematic relations into something that people just feel good about.

One of the dramatic aspects of the implementation of policy after the Velvet Revolution was, of course, Havel's vision of a moral foreign policy. I know that there were some negative consequences of that here, in terms of the closing of munitions factories, but I'm curious initially what the response was in terms of implementing this vision from this side.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.