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By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
PRAGUE/BRATISLAVA/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)-- Czechs and Slovaks have begun observing the 20th anniversary of the break up of Czechoslovakia into two independent states, amid concerns over economic differences.
Just after midnight on January 1, 1993, fireworks illuminated the skies over Bratislava as firebrand Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar declared Slovakia an independent republic.
The ceremony marked the end of Czechoslovakia, a politically stigmatized "artificial state" founded on the ashes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918.
Slovakia, with just over five million people, divorced itself from what would become the Czech Republic, with a population of more than 10 million.
It was setback for Vaclav Havel, the former dissident playwright who became Czechoslovakia's last president after the Velvet Revolution ended Communist rule in 1989.
Though Havel would lead the Czech Republic for another decade, he deeply regretted what some described as the hastily arranged split between the countries.
Yet, he was internationally praised for overseeing a bloodless breakup in a region otherwise plagued by fierce nationalism and simmering hostilities.
Last month, children gathered in Prague's Church of St. Anne for a requiem mass marking the first anniversary of the late president's death, their sparkling voices reverberating through the Gothic nave.
"From all over the world people are here to pay their respect to Vaclav Havel, who played a crucial role in this country's modern history," said Cardinal Dominik Duka, the archbishop of Prague, speaking near a giant photo of the elderly statesman.
Slovaks initially blamed Havel for dismantling the arms industry, whose decline began after the collapse of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, the military alliance of Communist nations. Many workers were left jobless and impoverished.
However, Havel's star eventually began rising anew when the country became internationally isolated because of the perceived autocratic and nationalistic polices of Slovakia's Prime Minister Meciar.
After Meciar lost power in 1998, Czech President Havel guided Slovakia's entry into the European Union and NATO military alliance.
While not exactly patching up the divorce, Havel managed to improve ties between his nation and Slovakia.
That became clear during a televised debate on New Year's Day where the prime ministers of both nations sounded upbeat about their separation, calling it the only option.
Yet Czech president Vaclav Klaus said Slovakia gained more from the separation than the Czech Republic. He explained that "unlike the Czech economy and Europe's economy as a whole, Slovakia is booming."
Klaus, who visited Slovakia 12 times in less than two terms, noted that, "Slovakia's economic growth stood at some 2.6 percent of Gross Domestic Product in 2012, which doesn't resemble a crisis."
The Czech Republic's economy shrank by nearly one percent last year.
Slovakia's economic growth has been linked to its fiscal policies and booming car manufacturers and other industries.
In the Czech Republic, however, analysts say many people prefer to keep money on the banks, rather than spending it, despite near zero percent interest rates.
Additionally, Slovakia adopted the euro currency while the Czech Republic held on to its koruna, under the Euroskeptic President Klaus.
Slovakia's President Ivan Gasparovic understands the reluctance to join the 17-nation eurozone. "Today's financial crisis shows that the eurozone is not perfect," he admitted recently.
"But the goal of Slovakia and other countries is to save both the European Union and the eurozone."
His other challenge is to end remaining poverty among especially Slovakia's minority gypsies, also known as Roma, and tensions with its ethnic Hungarian population.
Their currencies different but their languages similar, Czech and Slovak parliaments will meet in Prague next week to discuss 20 years of cooperation and their nation's changing roles within the European Union and the NATO military alliance.
They seem to agree that their Velvet Divorce shows that countries in the former Soviet-dominated region can solve historic disputes peacefully, at least in some cases.
(BosNewsLife's NEWS WATCH is a regular look at key general news developments from especially, but not limited to, (former) Communist nations and other autocratic states impacting the Church and/or compassionate professionals).
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