MUCH of the crew had already deserted the leaking Czechoslovak ship of state. With Vaclav Havel's decision to leave the helm, it now looks well and truly sunk. The question is no longer whether the Czech and Slovak parts will set off on their separate courses for independence, but when. Mr Havel's departure from the presidency is likely to speed things up.
Although he did his best to look solemn, the Czech prime minister, Vaclav Klaus, could scarcely hide his glee at Mr Havel's resignation. Mr Klaus's supporters, the Civic Democrats, are impatient to formalise Czechoslovakia's division. They want to get on with building a new state and protecting their ambitious economic reforms from the instability of a long constitutional crisis.
The Slovaks were less sure whether to be happy or sad. It was they who had blocked Mr Havel's re-election to the post of federal president. But, as they have now come to realise, by keeping Mr Havel in office they could have eased their journey to full statehood. Their rush towards autonomy, as exemplified by the Slovak parliament's unilateral declaration of sovereignty earlier this month, has not been matched in talks with the Czechs on resolving the constitutional issue. Ideally, the Slovaks would like to hold on to the financial and diplomatic benefits of federation, while they work out how they are going to survive on their own. If they stall too long, they may find themselves alone at the negotiating table.
The day after Mr Havel announced that he would step down, the speaker of the Czech parliament told his Slovak counterpart that further discussion of future co-operation must await the establishment of two independent states. While the Slovaks pore over flag designs and discuss a new national anthem, the Czechs are busy drafting one constitutional bill to legalise a split and another to establish their own presidency.
All parties in the Czech parliament will be under strong pressure from a bereft public to speed up Mr Havel's return to political life. Mr Havel could have stayed on as federal president until October. But under his oath of office he would have been committed to defending a common state that no longer has much purpose. He would never agree to serve as a tool to win unwilling citizens over to the idea of Czech independence. But it seems they have arrived there ahead of him. His acceptance of the Czech presidency would encourage hope that Czechoslovakia's division can be managed calmly and peacefully. If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done Havelly.