IN SPLENDID isolation, the Czechoslovak federal parliament, supposedly the highest legal authority in the land, voted itself out of existence on November 25th. Hardly anyone was watching. For the past few months, while the parliament dithered and the January date for a formal split loomed, the Czech and Slovak republics have been acting as independent states. Where politically possible, their governments have pushed laws through their national parliaments to give their actions an appearance of legality. When they failed to reach consensus, they did as they pleased.
Little fuss was made when the Slovaks, whose constitution came into effect on October 1st (in conflict with the federal constitution), shipped a prototype armoured personnel carrier to Sudan and declared their intention to sell more, defying the still-valid federal rules over the licensing of arms exports. Not to be outdone, the Czechs passed a package of economic legislation, including their own tax system and a law on securities trading, despite a previous commitment to await a mutual agreement.
The legal atmosphere in both countries is peculiar. The Czechs do not have a national constitution yet, since the ruling coalition still cannot garner the required three-fifths majority in the Czech parliament. Instead, they have passed a resolution asserting that the Czech government, together with parliament, assumes responsibility for "the continuity of state power'' in the period leading up to independence. This squeaked past the opposition only because, as a law and not a constitutional change, it needed just a simple majority.
Meanwhile, the Slovak government has called for the renegotiation of several privatisation deals agreed to by the federal government; the new leaders say they want the state to maintain a controlling interest in some large companies, including arms factories. The planned privatisation of the main Slovak printing plant, Danubiaprint, has also been stopped. Slovak leaders say private capitalists have no right to control the plant that prints all 12 Slovak dailies--ignoring the question of whether the state should have that right. The Slovaks have also expressed reservations about privatisation by issuing vouchers to the public, claiming they prefer different methods.
Despite ideological differences, the Czech prime minister, Vaclav Klaus, and his Slovak counterpart, Vladimir Meciar, share a worrying tendency to resort to parliamentary action only when expedient. Neither shows much willingness to seek consensus with those holding opposing views, which is one reason why Mr Klaus has been unable to pass a constitution. Both men will have to change, and not just because they have a duty to respect their democratically elected opponents: the outside world will be watching these new European states carefully.