The Czech legislature’s secret session on the breakup of Czechoslovakia

In May 1991, the Czech National Council went into closed session to hear a report from the prime minister on contingency planning for the end of federation with Slovakia. After thirty years, the record of that report and the ensuing discussion has been made available.

Few matters of state that are kept secret really ought to be. Even more problematic are public secrets: something the world knows exists or took place but the details are withheld. Such tantalizing things can grow out of all proportion into legends or myths or conspiracy theories.

One such event, known to those of us who remember the breakup of Czechoslovakia or have studied it, was the closed session of the Czech Republic’s legislature (the National Council, as it was then known) on 22 May 1991. When setting its agenda, the council voted to exclude the public while Prime Minister Petr Pithart reported on the “preparation of measures in the event of the division of Czechoslovakia”. The public record then notes that a separate transcript of the proceedings would be lodged as a “secret file” (tajný spis).

While at the time there were leaks to the press of the session’s gist, it acquired a more sensational meaning a year later, in July 1992. Vladimír Mečiar, the blowhard Slovak prime minister whose behavior in 1990 had prompted his Czech counterpart to begin thinking the unthinkable, claimed that he had seen the report discussed at the closed session. Mečiar alleged that it proved the Czechs had never been negotiating about the future of the federation in good faith but instead were waging a sort of “cold war”, for which Slovakia was totally unprepared. Despite Pithart’s efforts to rebut Mečiar’s accusations, the mere fact that it had been thought necessary to brief Czech legislators behind closed doors could be construed as evidence of a Prague compact to subvert the union or accelerate its demise.

Seeing as more than thirty years had elapsed, it occurred to me to ask the library of the Czech Parliament whether the transcript of the secret session survived and could be released. To my very pleasant surprise, I was quickly told that the record existed, that there was no reason for it to be withheld, and a PDF scan arrived two days ago (16 June). I am very grateful to the staff of the parliamentary library and I believe I am the first researcher to use it (but please let me know if I’m not). As is so often the case with things once deemed secret, it contains no bombshells, but its release serves as an occasion to talk about a relatively neglected topic: the end of Czechoslovakia.

The context of the secret session

As noted above, Czech Prime Minister Pithart had told his ministers, especially ones responsible for finance, trade, energy and industry, to begin thinking in late 1990 about what would have to be done to decouple the Czech and Slovak economies while minimizing disruption. The impetus was a meeting he had held on 6 December 1990 with a delegation led by Mečiar, who warned that the Slovak legislature was on the verge of declaring the supremacy of Slovak laws over federal legislation if they did not get what they wanted in talks on devolution. While crisis had been averted at the time, Pithart sensed that future quarrels over sovereignty could escalate to the point of constitutional catastrophe, and he explained to the legislature on 22 May 1991 that it would be “criminal negligence” not to prepare for its possibility. He analogized it to drawing up plans for mobilization in the event of war: an “unfortunate” (neblahou) event that the government would not seek to bring about but had a duty to be ready for.

Shortly before the Czech legislature held its closed session, Mečiar had been ousted. His successor, however, was Ján Čarnogurský, who was both less erratic and more determined to enhance Slovakia’s autonomy and visibility. The possibility of federal meltdown remained real, as underscored by parallel developments in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, although judging by his remarks Pithart feared at worst a trade war, not an actual war.

Pithart’s report

Once the journalists had exited and all recording devices were turned off (easier in the days before smart phones), Pithart briefed legislators on the premises guiding the government’s “working group” on ending the federation. The assumption was that the federation could end consensually by agreement of the federal and republic legislatures, possibly with a referendum for affirmation, or if one republic (Slovakia) unilaterally quit de iure (with a declaration of independence) or de facto (by treating its own laws as supreme and ceasing to cooperate on economic reforms).

Czech Prime Minister Petr Pithart (Wikimedia Commons)

Pithart proceeded to list the kinds of measures that the Czech government and legislature would have to implement either shortly before or shortly after the federation ceased to function. These included steps such as

  • stamping banknotes as a first step to a separate Czech currency issued by its own central bank,
  • preparing an agreement with Slovakia on dividing federal assets and liabilities,
  • setting up a customs border with Slovakia,
  • working out some sort of clearing system for trade payments,
  • agreeing on mutual access to labor markets and social services,
  • ensuring the transit of (then-Soviet) oil and natural gas through Slovakia to the Czech Republic and the supply of electricity in the other direction, while working to connect the Czech Republic to West European pipelines.

Altogether, he identified several dozen action items, none of them trivial but all doable. He mentioned but did not enumerate the steps that would also have to be taken in military, security and foreign affairs, and even in devolved areas such as education, health care and the judiciary. Although far from being something we could call a blueprint or master plan, Pithart’s remarks foreshadowed what indeed would be carried out at the end of 1992 and into 1993, and augured a fairly clean break: there was no expectation of intermediate confederal arrangements that would keep the two republics joined through a single currency or security community.

The legislature’s response

Pithart seems to have done his utmost to present these measures as unsensationally as possible — he said later it was a “technology of disconnecting” — and also to keep the likely impact of the end of federation in perspective:

“We neither downplay nor dramatize the harm that the breakup of the federation would inflict on us. However, we believe that it would be very tangible harm to both sides. It would mean a significant delay in what we are striving for and a step backward in more than one regard. We would have to handle it. I do not doubt that we would handle it. For now, let us try to avoid such a situation. Let’s be accommodating, to a reasonable degree that of course respects the interests of citizens of the Czech Republic. Federation, which should work to the benefit of the participating parties, presupposes a mutual will for common coexistence, for a coexistence that is not understood as just a necessary evil. It presupposes also a certain rational minimum, which is a unified economy”.

As if to emphasize his cool-headed reluctance to plan for the worst, he concluded by asking that the legislature not reward his government’s efforts with applause, lest it seem somehow ominous.

In the relatively subdued discussion that followed, no speaker expressed any desire for the end of federation, even if there was undisguised annoyance at Slovak attitudes and demands (and those of legislators from Moravia, who passionately called for greater recognition). A breakup was generally described in terms of “tragedy”, and Vladimír Komárek of the post-Communist Democratic Left feared that it would not be as manageable as Pithart suggested. The most sanguine view, put forward by Ivan Mašek, was that the simplest scenario would be if Slovakia quit unilaterally, because they would forfeit any claim to recognition as a successor state, leaving the Czech Republic with the sole right to take Czechoslovakia’s place in the world. This interpretation, which was seconded by the council’s chair, Dagmar Burešová, would be pushed by the legislature in September 1991 in a public resolution.

For the most part, speakers wrestled with whether to share Pithart’s information with Slovak counterparts or the wider public. Of the council’s 200 members, 37 had voted against the motion for a closed session, which had been put by Jiří Payne on behalf of the conservative Civil Democratic Party (ODS). Speakers such as Stanislav Bělehrádek saw no reason why what they had heard needed to be concealed. Payne himself was open to issuing a resolution that would recommit Czech policy to preserving the federation while acknowledging that the government had been taking the necessary steps to ensure the flow of supplies and continuity of state in the “extreme case” of federal failure, and warning that a breakup would have harmful economic consequences, including for Czechs’ living standards.

However, the council’s vice-chair, Jan Kalvoda, who is often seen as the least committed to federalism of top Czech officials at the time, countered that the public should be told only that the legislature was informed of measures to be taken in the event of a breakup. This motion carried on the grounds it was more in keeping with the secret nature of the proceedings.

There remained the issue of whether to inform the Slovak side, confidentially, if it might make them more aware of the implications of the federation’s demise and perhaps discourage them from precipitating it. The writer Eva Kantůrková in particular argued for some sort of outreach. Any such move was defeated by Miloslav Výborný, on the grounds that it was not the place of the Czech legislature to advise or coach its Slovak counterpart. Pithart, returning to the podium later, agreed that the Slovak side could do its own homework and figure out what separation would entail, so the question was whether they had in fact done so. (Mečiar’s remarks in July 1992 would suggest that they had not, and had invested instead in drafting a plan for confederation that the Czechs brusquely dismissed.)

The last word in the closed session went not to Pithart, but to his minister without portfolio, Karel Dyba, who had been involved in this exercise on account of his economics background. A veteran, like Václav Klaus, of the famed Prognostics Institute, Dyba warned that it was impossible to plan precisely for something like a constitutional crisis; as with economic reform, the government could sketch out rational responses to certain scenarios but in reality there would be so many unknown variables, emotions and “external influences” that it would require constant adjustment. Dyba imagined a situation different from the ones Pithart and others had focused on, speculating instead about what might happen if the winner of elections in Slovakia did not declare independence or legal sovereignty, wanted to remain within the federation, but also insisted that the ongoing economic transformation be adjusted to the “tempo” of Slovakia’s conditions. Dyba wondered what would be the reaction of the Czech “political representation”, including the legislature — “I would like to know and hear that”.

A year later, when something very close to that situation in fact arose, he got his answer: with Mečiar returning to power in Slovakia, the Czech side led not by Pithart but by Klaus (with Dyba as economy minister and Kalvoda as deputy prime minister) preferred to walk away from federation rather than concede on economics.

Does thinking the unthinkable make it more likely?

While the content of the secret session’s transcript was largely unsurprising, it did make me wonder about how it and other events could fit into a “process tracing” account of the causal mechanisms that led to the end of Czechoslovakia at midnight on 1 January 1993. Forty-eight hours after receiving the file, there are several questions I’m asking and cannot answer.

First of all, if Pithart had not had such an alarming meeting with Mečiar on 6 December 1990, would he never have felt the need to direct his government to start thinking the unthinkable? And second, did putting them through that hypothetical, commendably precautionary exercise — breaking down the breakup into dozens of discrete, doable tasks — itself have the unintended consequence of making the end of Czechoslovakia easier to imagine, less frightening, and thus more likely to happen?

Preparing for calamity is one of the core functions of the state, especially one that feels responsible for the well-being of its people. In recent years we have seen the fruits and shortcomings of governments’ preparations for a pandemic and disasters. But is planning for an act of nature different from planning for an altogether human event, such as the death of a country? Does the very process of having ministers, officials and legislators think through what would need to be done have the effect of normalizing it, making it seem less extreme and more feasible, perhaps even desirable? In their determination to allay concerns and exude prudent, managerial competence, did Pithart and Dyba (subconsciously and unintentionally, at least in Pithart’s case) reduce the Czech elite’s fear and convert the prospect of a split from a “tragedy” or “catastrophe” into just the next exciting bend on the roller coaster of revolution they had been riding since 1989?

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