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Belgium political group pushes splitting nation

The split of Czechoslovakia into two countries has been referred to as a “velvet divorce” — hassle-free and as amicable as a breakup can be. Belgium’s Dutch- and French-speaking halves are studying that split to see if they, too, could divide their country peacefully.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The split of Czechoslovakia into two countries 15 years ago has been referred to as a “velvet divorce” — hassle-free, peaceful and as amicable as a breakup can be.

Now Belgium’s Dutch- and French-speaking halves are studying that split to see if they, too, could divide their country in two and part in a no-nonsense way.

Three months after elections, Belgium still has no government. And talk of breaking up the 177-year-old federation of 10.5 million people is growing on both sides of the linguistic border that partitions the country into a richer north and poorer south, with Brussels — the nation’s and the European Union’s capital — the only officially bilingual region.

Le Soir, a leading French-language newspaper, devoted three full pages of its Monday edition to the Jan. 1, 1993, breakup of Czechoslovakia, calling it a “civilized and noble settlement” that had a blissful effect on relations between Czechs and Slovaks — and pondering possible similarities for Belgium.

Filip Dewinter, head of the nationalist Flemish Interest group shunned by all other parties in Belgium, told the parliament in the country’s northern Flanders region that it is time for a Czechoslovak-style “velvet divorce.”

And while his party is the only one openly advocating a split — the other Flemish political groupings have rejected his appeal for a referendum on a possible breakup — the issue no longer is taboo among mainstream politicians, and comparisons with Czechoslovakia keep popping up.

Wealthy half pushes split
For the moment, the key political players in the north, such as Flanders’ Christian Democratic premier Kris Peeters and his predecessor Yves Leterme, are intensifying their calls for more self-rule for the affluent region of 6.5 million Dutch speakers.

That rings a loud bell in Slovakia, which spent the better part of the three years Czechoslovakia held together after the 1989 fall of communism campaigning for a far-ranging shift of authorities from Prague, the capital of the federation of 15 million people, to its two republics.

In Czechoslovakia, the split was initiated by the poorer of the two parts, Slovakia, which for centuries was denied any form of national identity. In Belgium, the driving force is Flanders, the wealthier part that has long ago shed past oppression by the Francophones.

The Flemish want constitutional reforms to shift more power in health care, justice and transport — some of the remaining areas where Brussels has central control — to Flanders and Wallonia, the southern French-speaking part of the country.

That scenario is similar to Slovakia, where Vladimir Meciar — elected the republic’s prime minister on a nationalist ticket in 1992 — advocated a loose confederation keeping only the basics, such as the army and the currency, together.

Many Flemish complain their wealthier, service-based economy subsidizes Wallonia. Dutch speakers view the Francophones’ dilapidated cities and 14 percent unemployment — double their rate — as the legacy of Socialist rule.

The Czechs also grumbled, and finally agreed to swiftly part ways with the Slovaks when it became obvious the will to live together was no longer there.

“The similarities are certainly there. Belgium is a two-state federation, which are often unstable, especially if one nation has the upper hand economically,” said Jiri Pehe, a Czech political analyst and director of New York University’s campus in Prague.

“The difference is that Czechoslovakia was a young democracy where traditions did not stand in the way of a split,” he said. “The breakup was directed authoritatively from above and was completed very quickly.”

Brussels could be sticking point
Indeed, it took a mere six months to split the 74-year-old federation of two republics with a near-identical language and similar culture after the June 1992 elections. No referendum took place after two regional governments — markedly different in style and goals — were elected.

In the Czech Republic, Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus wanted to push ahead with market-oriented reforms, determined to bring his republic of 10 million to Western standards as quickly as possible.

In Slovakia, Meciar promised the republic of 5 million a better future without the Czechs and a slower pace of reforms to ensure they would not hurt.

As secessionist wars raged in Yugoslavia, Czechs and Slovaks peacefully agreed to split their country’s property at a 2-to-1 ratio, shook hands and went separate ways.

But Czechoslovakia had no Brussels, the main sticking point in the Belgian debate. What would become of Brussels is anybody’s guess, and for the moment, neither the Flemish nor the Walloons are too keen on plunging into a detailed debate on the issue.

It is hard to see Flanders giving up Brussels, the city of 1 million where the majority of people speak French. But it is equally hard to imagine that Wallonia could survive without it.

“The issue of Brussels could, in fact, subdue the disintegration process,” Pehe said. “In the end, it might just prove too difficult to deal with.”