Velvet divorce and the Scottish referendum: a fair comparison?

Jan Zilinsky
5 min readSep 15, 2014

I wasn’t eligible to vote when my home country, Czechoslovakia, split into two separate republics in 1993. But my age was irrelevant: the elected leaders of a young democracy promised — but never gave us — a referendum.

The messy process and contradictory promises of 1992 could perhaps be partially excused by saying that things had to be done quickly in a turbulent time at the dawn of the Cold War. Giving extremists time to organize and ratchet their demands could have been dangerous. Things could have spiraled out of control. But what happened in 1992 was a shadowy combination of backdoor dealings, legitimate grievances, emotional manipulation, scapegoating and, painfully, lots of false assurances of a brighter future.

A reader of the western press may have an impression that a peaceful outcome was guaranteed. Re-told and re-packaged by some journalists, the story sounds as if ‘both sides wanted it.’ Ergo, we are told, Czechoslovakia is not a good analogy for Scotland, because the division of the UK will be less amicable:

Giles: How a Yes would make enemies and alienate peoples

The quote above from the Financial Times is a grossly misleading representation of a historical event that involved unclear mandates, inexperienced politicians (there was a one-party, undemocratic, system prior to 1989), a few narcissistic figures with strong poll numbers, and large groups of people still in shock on January 1st when the separation came into effect.

A fair picture?

If you compress those years into a sentence or two, the reader may naturally conclude that everything was bound to turn out great. It is true that the Czech Republic and Slovakia are both EU and NATO members today and that their economies are doing fine.

But it was a fortuitous outcome. So much could have gone wrong, and many things went wrong. (An entire book could be written about the post-separation storm: recalling that Madeleine Albright called Slovakia a black hole in the heart of Europe at the time should be enough).

Better together?

In 2014, I cannot agree with the notion that an independent Scotland would not be “economically viable” as some have suggested (“the economic question is the viability of Scotland as an independent, sovereign state in a globalized economy” — source), and I find similar suggestions condescending. But I also do not believe that currency is a “non-issue” as a prominent economist has asserted (source).

I would be happy to sign my name under what Oliver Hart said in response to the latest IGM Poll:

“The main uncertainty concerns whether Scotland retains the pound (bad idea) and stays in Europe (good idea). Once resolved, things may be OK.”

Asking the question in a fair way?

The silver lining about the absence of a referendum in 1992 was that a bitter war about the wording of the question was avoided. Framing matters.

So, it is strange to see what kind of question the supporters of the union settled for. If the majority of Scots will vote “yes” on Thursday, and if the margin of victory will be small, then the people who designed the question will have mostly themselves to blame (or praise).

Originally, the question was intended to be:

“Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”

The wording was then changed to:

“Should Scotland be an independent country?”

The leading word ‘agree’ was appropriately removed but even in its final form, this is a little bit like asking “do you want more freedom?”

Every sensible person likes to have more freedom, and many people will happily answer questions of this type in the affirmative, unless they are reminded of the tradeoffs lurking in the background.

You could imagine a somewhat more neutral query, such as: “Which arrangement would you prefer?”

  1. No change.
  2. Delegate more powers to the Scottish parliament.
  3. Separate from the rest of the UK (full independence).

The phrasing of the third option would obviously be contentious, so a three-item referendum of this sort would not be ideal either. Still, something at least superficially neutral would be superior to the dreamy question that will be posed to the Scottish people on Thursday.

Update: I found this Quora post from Tomáš Bella, a Slovak journalist and entrepreneur. His summary of the events preceding the velvet divorce is pithy and informative:

1. Majority of Czechs and Slovaks were against the divorce at the time when it was happening. This was the decision of politicians, against the will of majority of citizens.
2. Minority that actually supported the split had very different reasons on different sides of the border.
- In Slovakia, the reasons were more emotional (nationalistic, if you want) — many Slovaks wanted their own state, regardless of what would be the consequences.
- On the Czech side, there were some nationalistic feelings as well, but supporters mostly thought Czech republic would benefit economically: getting rid of the poorer (troublemaking) Slovak part of the federation, thus being able to develop the economy much faster.
In general, there was a strong expectation that Czech republic would come out as clear winner after the break up.

The conclusion of the post is right on target — I could not have put it better:

The important thing is that both Czech and Slovaks now have only themselves to blame for the state of their countries, and they have no choice than to focus on actual problems instead of blaming each other about who is getting more out of the federation.

Update 2:

In the video below, we have the former Czech president saying that it is very easy to divide a country. What a shallow way to look at 1992: the point is not that angry mobs did not fight back. We cannot evaluate choices based on their “difficulty” — a better metric is: was it a thoughtfully calculated gamble at the time, or was it just throwing hats in the ring once negotiations about the division of power within the federation got tough?

Photo credit: Martin Sojka.



Jan Zilinsky

political science & economics (sometimes with 19th century methods)