ON THE eve of its general election, the 74-year-old Czechoslovak federation perched like Humpty Dumpty atop a wall of uncertainty. As expected, the results of the vote on June 5th and 6th split power along national and ideological lines, between pro-reform, anti-communist Czechs and the Slovak nationalist left. Now the federal state has had a great fall: the first meeting between Vaclav Klaus, the leader of the Czech right-wing Civic Democratic Party, and Vladimir Meciar, the leader of the nationalist Movement For a Democratic Slovakia, collapsed after six and a half hours.
Nobody could have expected a speedy rapprochement. The formation of a workable federal government and the composition of a coherent economic programme were bound to take time to discuss. But the first round of negotiations did not even get to these issues. The talks came to grief on a far more fundamental point: whether there should be a common state at all. The Slovak side seemed to think not.
Czechs feel they have already come a long way towards recognising Slovakia's drive for greater autonomy. Mr Meciar's three-point programme for the new Slovak parliament--passing a declaration of sovereignty, drafting a Slovak constitution and electing a Slovak president--is now accepted by the Czechs as inevitable, if not exactly reassuring. They have agreed that it is legitimate within the constitution. But most Czechs believed until now that if Slovakia were to push for roomier quarters, it would still want to live in the federal house.
Emerging from the talks, Mr Klaus appeared horrified to learn that what Mr Meciar's movement envisages is no more than a kind of commonwealth of two states living side-by-side under a flimsy, vaguely defined economic and defence umbrella. In fact, this is what the movement's policy-makers have said all along, to anyone who would listen.
Although they say they want a common currency, the Slovak leaders also demand their own, currency-issuing central bank and their own right to borrow to finance an economic policy that includes restoring state subsidies to industry, slowing privatisation and increasing social benefits--all heresy to the budget-trimming, privatising Mr Klaus. And although they say they want a common defence policy, the Slovaks want their own army. To most outsiders, it all looks as if the Slovaks are trying to square a circle.
Still, a federal government needs to be formed; the current government no longer has the power to take day-to-day decisions. To resolve the conflict, Mr Klaus has suggested giving a new, temporary federal government the power to act until a referendum can be organised in both republics, to ask citizens whether they want to live in a federal state. A referendum would speed things up: if the Czechs accepted the federal state and the Slovaks did not, the Slovaks would be allowed to leave peacefully (perhaps to the relief of some Czechs). There would be other issues to resolve--protecting the rights of Slovakia's Hungarian minority, dividing the national debt--but the reform process in the Czech Lands would continue.
However, if the Slovaks did not agree to leave--and if Mr Meciar's party respected their decision--Czechoslovakia would have at best a weak government and a hung parliament, at worst total chaos. Given the election results, and given Czechoslovakia's parliamentary system, almost no form of cohabitation is feasible.
In the House of Nations, one chamber of Czechoslovakia's bicameral federal parliament, Slovaks have equal, not proportional representation (the Czech republic has two-thirds of the country's population, Slovakia one-third). For the chamber to pass any law, both Slovak and Czech deputies must independently agree to it. Thus Mr Meciar's sweeping victory means that his party holds veto power: the Slovak nationalist left will have the power to block any legislation incompatible with its vision of the federation and of economic reform. Its hand will be strengthened by co-operation with the former communists. If it can get the well-represented Czech left to co-operate on economic issues (albeit not on national ones), they will be strong enough to repeal existing laws and initiate their own--in which case the Czech deputies would have the veto power to block all legislation.
The numbers are important, but personalities matter too. The prospects of maintaining a functioning federation would look brighter were it not for Mr Meciar's capacity to act out of spite. The day after the election, he announced that he would order his deputies to vote against the re-election of Vaclav Havel as Czechoslovakia's president. Mr Havel is the most popular figure in Czechoslovakia (though second to Mr Meciar in Slovakia). His understanding and hard work have helped Czechs to recognise the legitimacy of Slovak demands for greater autonomy.
But Mr Havel has also repeatedly spoken of the danger of intolerant nationalism, and Mr Meciar cannot resist the chance to punish him. Mr Meciar and Mr Klaus are pragmatists, and stand more for what separates their two peoples than what unites them. Without President Havel's moral sensitivity to guide it, the common state of Czechoslovakia may just lose the will to live.