Rising from the ashes of the Second World War, the European Union has been perhaps the most important development in modern European history. Initially, it only included those countries we think of as ‘Western Europe.’ Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, however, membership in the EU has expanded dramatically and rapidly and now includes some 27 nations. This has created not simply logistical complications, but a debate over what ‘European’ means. This month, historian Donald Hempson looks at two recent joiners—The Czech Republic (which held the EU's rotating presidency from January 1 to June 30, 2009) and Slovakia (which adopted the Euro currency on New Year's Day 2009)—and how their histories have defined their approaches to European integration.
For more on current events in Europe, please read this 2009 Origins article on Kosovo and the former Yugoslavia and this 2008 Origins article on Russian Politics. Origins gratefully acknowledges the support of the Center for Slavic and East European Studies at The Ohio State University in preparing this article.
In Prague, the last hours of 2008 were crisp and clear, and in that sharp winter chill the flood-lit landmarks of the city blended seamlessly with the starlit sky over Central Europe. From the fabled Charles Bridge, huddled among the ancient statuary that lines each side, New Year's revelers were treated to a panoramic view of the brilliant and spectacularly adorned Prague Castle and the colossal Metronome draped in darkness.
At the stroke of midnight, the Metronome (which symbolically keeps the tempo of Czech progress) became bathed in the radiance of red, white, and blue lights. Perched upon a pedestal draped in the blue and gold European Union (EU) flag, the undulating pendulum reminded observers that the Czech Republic had now assumed the six-month rotating EU presidency.
This fantastic visual display had been triggered by remote control from a television studio where Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Alexandr Vondra triumphantly hailed the new role of the Czech Republic across the airwaves.
Yet, in the midst of the celebration of this momentous occasion for both the Czech Republic and the EU, conflicting voices could also be heard among Czech officials about their place in a larger Europe.
Most conspicuously, Czech President (and Euro-skeptic) Václav Klaus ordered that the EU flag not be flown above Prague Castle. Even on a day so saturated with importance for Europe, he refused on grounds that the Czech Republic "is not an EU province."
On that very same clear and crisp New Year's Eve, 181 miles to the southeast, a significantly different scene was unfolding in the Slovak capital of Bratislava. High above the northern bank of the Danube River, at the stroke of midnight, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico withdrew five crisp new 20 euro bills from an ATM near the Bratislava Castle.
Beneath a canopy of fireworks, yellow balloons, and a clever 2€€9 banner, hundreds of Slovak citizens in the historic town square also queued up at ATMs to withdraw fresh new currency marking Slovakia's latest move toward an integrated European identity.
Thus, at the very same moment that their cousins to the west became (if ambivalently for some) the second former communist-bloc state to assume the rotating presidency of the European Union, Slovaks became the second former communist-bloc state to adopt the common European currency, bringing to 16 the total number of countries in the euro zone.
Membership in the EU means many things for the myriad states of Europe. For some it represents a greater sense of unity and a progression away from European warfare. For others, it offers the free movement of goods and labor and the promise of greater economic integration and prosperity.
For the states of the former Soviet bloc in particular, the EU symbolizes full rehabilitation and acceptance back into the European family of states. It also stands for a sense of security and for some, such as the Czech Republic, a sense of recognition as a vital partner in the future of Europe.
The Czech ascendancy to the EU presidency and the Slovak adoption of the euro are part of an ongoing process of enlarging the very definition of "Europe." At the same time, these events remind us that joining the EU has also meant a struggle to define and evaluate what it means to be Czech or Slovak.
In this sense, the events of New Year's Eve 2008 in Prague and Bratislava are the latest examples of the strains and tensions these people have felt creating their own sense of nationhood while simultaneously negotiating a relationship with the rest of Europe.
Inventing Czechoslovakia: Small Nations and Great Powers
Czechoslovakia came into existence in 1918 in concert with the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the end of World War I. This new and relatively small state was situated in the geographic center of Europe, bounded by five states (Germany, Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Austria). These neighbors looked at the newcomer with varying degrees of animosity because of the territory that each had been forced to give up to the new and independent Czech and Slovak state.
From its very beginning, the union of Czechs and Slovaks was a marriage of convenience intended to preserve a slim Slavic majority over significant German and Hungarian minorities located within their new postwar borders.
Proponents of an independent Czech and Slovak state initially conceived it as a marriage of equal partnership. However, Slovak desires for a large measure of autonomy within a federated state soon fell victim to a stronger Czech economic and political heritage.
Czechs were able to exercise more control over both domestic and foreign policy in large part because they enjoyed a greater degree of political sophistication, industrial development, and economic prosperity.
This set the stage very early for a tense relationship between Czechs and Slovaks that has long simmered just beneath the surface of their shared history. Despite the amicable 1993 dissolution of Czechoslovakia—the infamous Velvet Divorce—remnants of these tensions remain.
Czechoslovakia and Europe between the Wars
The 1920s were a pivotal decade for both Czechs and Slovaks in shaping their respective attitudes toward membership in regional and international organizations and in their expectations of what it meant to be European. In many respects, the seeds of the 2008 New Year's celebrations, and the significance of the events those celebrations heralded, were planted in the fertile and contested soil of that first interwar decade.
Czechs and Slovaks were sensitive to their status as subjugated peoples under the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Czechs had enjoyed a far greater degree of political autonomy under the Austrian half of the empire than had the Slovaks under the Hungarian half. Yet, both were determined to take advantage of the spirit of national self-determination that accompanied the Versailles Peace Settlement ending the First World War.
Both national movements realized they would be a very slim majority within their own states unless they joined forces, promoted a shared culture and history, and defended the legitimacy of a constructed state with debatable historical precedent. The greater economic viability of a combined Czecho-Slovak state also appealed to Western statesmen more concerned with mapmaking than understanding the realities on the ground in East Central Europe.
Foremost in the minds of leading Czech politicians in the 1920s and 1930s was how to deal with the precarious role of small states in European affairs.
Tapping into the political philosophy of nineteenth century nationalists, President Tomáš Masaryk and Foreign Minister Edvard Beneš were driven by a desire to anchor Czechoslovakia to the major West European states. Diplomatic and military alliances with France and closer economic ties with Great Britain dominated a large portion of their agendas and were intended to reinforce the importance of Czechoslovakia to European-wide peace and prosperity.
Beneš also made strategic use of the League of Nations, exploiting it as a platform to showcase Czechoslovak diplomacy and commitment to international institutions.
Czechoslovakia billed itself as a natural bridge between East and West and emphasized its substantial industrial base and historic connections to European institutions. It came increasingly to believe that it was indispensable to European security and prosperity.
However, it was the insecurity of a small state, long relegated to minor roles within larger multinational structures (i.e., the Holy Roman and Austro-Hungarian empires) that help explain the disruptive tendency of early Czechoslovak policy-makers to avoid subordinate positions within transnational organizations and agreements.
For example, in the 1920s and 1930s Czechoslovakia attempted to derail several initiatives by other European powers to create greater economic unity among the successor states of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many of these proposals sought to capitalize on the historic interconnectedness of the region's economies by essentially re-creating a customs union among former imperial constituents.
However, these plans fell out of favor among the Czechs when Great Britain and France supported projects centered in either Vienna or Budapest—as opposed to Prague. Czechs saw any union based in one of the former imperial capitals as tantamount to resurrecting the Austro-Hungarian Empire and proof that their position in Europe was not only underappreciated but under threat.
Additionally, Czechs understood that they possessed one of the most developed and stable economies in the region. They felt this fact reserved them a leading role in any regional economic or political structure.
On the grounds they were defending their economic and national sovereignty, Czech policy-makers, championed by Beneš, worked diligently to ensure the economic union desired by other European powers never saw the light of day.
Many observers interpreted this as Czechoslovak obstructionism, but for Czechs, this episode represented an opportunity to assert their willingness to embrace a European identity only if they were accepted as equal, first-tier members.
Czechs believed they were as crucial to European stability as Great Britain and France, but had more to lose than the larger states if that recognition was not embraced by all. The result was frustration among many Western European leaders who could not understand Prague's seemingly mixed signals.
Reinventing Czechoslovakia in the Cold War
As the shadow of the Second World War crept across the European landscape, Czechoslovakia's greatest fears came to fruition. In the autumn of 1938, Europe betrayed the Czechs at Munich. Czechoslovakia was sacrificed on the altar of appeasement to keep Great Britain and France from having to accept the inevitability of war with Hitler's Germany.
The specter of the Munich betrayal has never really left Czech-European relations. On some level, it continues to reaffirm the Czech belief that only they can guarantee their own security, regardless of international agreements.
Following the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, the Germans capitalized on nearly 20 years of Czech-Slovak tensions. Czechoslovakia was quickly dismembered. While Slovaks endured conditional independence as a quisling state within a Nazi alliance, Czechs suffered a brutal occupation.
The vastly different wartime experiences of the two territories would continue to strain relations between Czechs and Slovaks when Czechoslovakia was reconstituted in 1945. Following the 1948 Communist coup that absorbed Czechoslovakia into the Soviet sphere, the state once again saw its foreign and economic policies subjugated to the imperial diktats emanating from a foreign capital.
Effectively cut off from Western Europe by the Iron Curtain, Czechoslovakia became firmly rooted in a newly conceptualized Eastern Europe. Czechoslovakia was seen as a necessary buffer-zone by the Soviet Union. Western Europeans saw it as an alien and backward periphery.
Discarded by one club and unhappy in the other club that claimed it as a member, Czechoslovakia languished in ways that would continue to shape its approach to supranational institutions after 1989 and its insistence upon equality with the larger states of Europe.
Throughout the Cold War, Czechoslovakia's economy was subservient to Soviet agendas. Even though Czechoslovakia became a key component of the Soviet and Eastern bloc economic engine, the Czechs' once advanced industrial economy slowed under five-year plans and state centralized economic planning.
At the same time, the predominantly agrarian Slovak half of the state finally experienced the type of industrial development it had been denied during the 1920s and 1930s. The state became notorious for pumping out armaments and explosives that found their way into the hands of Cold War communist insurgencies the world over.
Reinvention a Third Time: Czechoslovakia and the EU in the Post-1989 World
For nearly 50 years Czechoslovakia clung to the memories of the brief interwar period when it confidently charted its own course among the other ships of state in Europe. But in 1989 with the collapse of the communist regime, Czechoslovakia was once again ready to renew its position as a key player in European affairs. [See this 1993 Origins article for more on the events of 1989 and the early history of post-communist Czechoslovakia]
Conscious of its diminished status as a former Eastern bloc state, it quickly identified membership in the European Union as the necessary step in reclaiming its European status. As with all the former Eastern bloc states, Czechoslovakia understood that in a post-Cold War world, being European meant joining the European club – the EU.
However, just because substituting membership in one supranational entity for membership in another made certain economic and political sense did not mean there was consensus within the state for such a move.
The foundations for the European Union were first laid down in 1951 when Belgium, West Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands came together to create a common market for coal and steel.
The basic rationale behind the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was both economic (the advantages of free trade in essential mineral wealth) and strategic (states that are economically linked are less likely to go to war with one another and repeat the horrors of World War II). The early success of the ECSC in regulating and enhancing its members' economic prosperity led to the 1957 Treaty of Rome that created the European Economic Community (EEC).
Since then, the EEC has evolved into the EU and grown in membership from 6 to 27 in four distinct expansion initiatives, the largest of which—and arguably the most significant—occurred in 2004 when ten new member states joined the EU, including many former Warsaw Bloc countries.
This willingness to continually expand its membership has signaled to many European nations, especially those on the periphery of Europe, an openness to an evolving sense of European identity. It has also communicated an ability to enter the union as an equal partner, irrespective of size or national history.
By 1989, the European Union was faced with the reality that its periphery was suddenly ready and eager to return to the center. In need of much economic and moral support, the former Eastern bloc countries began setting their sights on attaining EU membership and Czechoslovakia was no exception.
Even as its policy-makers began charting a course through the dangerous waters of simultaneous democratization and a transition to a market economy, Czechoslovak leaders had to contend with the renewed calls for greater Slovak autonomy within the Czechoslovak state.
For many Czech politicians, the issue of Slovak autonomy was a distraction better left to the future. For Slovak politicians, such Czech attitudes were reminiscent of the policies of the 1920s and 1930s. Promises to consider greater autonomy at a more stable point in the future rang false.
The political solution was as swift as it was consequential. In 1993, the Velvet Divorce occurred, granting Slovakia not just autonomy, but full independence.
With this separation, the Czech and Slovak Republics embarked upon increasingly divergent paths toward membership in the European community of nations. Initially, the Czech Republic became a frontrunner for EU membership while Slovakia appeared to be in a backward slide toward a corrupt, ineffective, and anti-Western government.
The Czech Path
Of the two new states, the Czech Republic had the fortune of greater name recognition. In addition to being seen as an ideal environment for foreign investment by Western companies, its leadership was better known and, generally, better received.
The highly respected and popular Václav Havel continued to guide the nascent state as its president—a largely ceremonial office, but a platform he used effectively. Known near and far for his dissidence during the final decades of the communist regime, he lent moral authority to Czech policies and, like Masaryk over half a century earlier, made other Europeans feel comfortable with the Czech Republic's migration inward from the European periphery.
Between 1993 and 1999, the Czech Republic made great strides towards its goal of greater political and economic integration with the rest of Europe.
President Havel and then-Prime Minister Václav Klaus enjoyed a healthy and spirited opposition to one another's policies, however. Havel was the leading advocate for EU membership and generally pro-Western policies. Klaus, on the other hand, took a more measured approach toward the EU. He was confident that it was the proper direction in which to move, but remained concerned over subjugating Czech interests to an EU dominated by large West European states.
Klaus and his right-wing Civic Democrat party (ODS), increasingly voiced a Euro-skeptic attitude that demonstrated mixed feelings for the EU within the Czech Republic (Klaus prefers the moniker Euro-realist and has called himself a European dissident).
Nevertheless, the Czech Republic made steady forward progress toward greater integration with European institutions and throughout the 1990s experienced a substantial amount of foreign investment. Furthermore, Czech policy-makers appeared willing to make the hard decisions necessary to bring its economy in line with those of the rest of Europe.
In 1999, the Czech Republic was admitted into NATO along with Poland and Hungary—a signal to many that it was well on its way to meeting the requirements for EU accession.
Slovakia: A Different Approach
In Slovakia, on the other hand, domestic political turmoil in the mid-1990s and the flamboyant Prime Minister Vladimír Meciar alienated most outside observers and seemed to confine Slovakia to Europe's periphery.
While Slovak policy-makers also aspired to EU membership, the immediate challenges following the 1993 separation from the Czech Republic was to get their political house in order. Most Slovak political parties had been focused on obtaining greater political autonomy within the Czechoslovak state. Now that independence had been achieved, political parties had to become more robust and recalibrate their agendas—to become national parties rather than regional parties.
Meciar became the most prominent and controversial actor on this stage and, in stark contrast to Havel and Klaus, was seen by most Europeans as a throwback to the totalitarian leaders of the communist era. While a supporter of EU membership initiatives, Meciar advocated a slow approach toward economic privatization. He accused those pushing for rapid privatization of state-owned enterprises of selling out to foreign interests and destroying any attempt for Slovakia to become economically self-sufficient.
As Prime Minister, he engaged in thuggish politics, often misusing police and security services to intimidate or discredit his political opposition and further his party's agenda. Meciar's political shenanigans fed a growing concern among EU policy-makers that Slovakia was experiencing a constitutional crisis and signaled a very weak commitment to Western-style democracy.
In many respects, Meciar symbolized the identity crisis confronting both the Czech and Slovak Republics in the decade following the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. The dilemma of where they belonged was not unlike the very similar dilemma that had faced Czechoslovakia in the 1920s and 1930s. Were they a central part of Europe or only on its margins?
In the early 1990s, Meciar envisioned an economically independent and vibrant Slovakia that could serve as a bridge between Russia and the West. This same utility had been proposed by Beneš for Czechoslovakia in the decades between the two world wars.
The problem with attempting to be a bridge was the lack of commitment it communicated to both sides. It did not work for Beneš and Czechoslovakia in the 1920s and 1930s any more than it did for Meciar and Slovakia in the 1990s.
The recognition that Slovakia was losing out as its neighbors were basking in the warmth of a new-found European identity, precipitated a radical reorientation within Slovakia towards European integration. Slovaks realized the choice before them was between the EU or Meciar. In 1998, they opted for the EU.
With many of its neighbors already on the track for the EU's most significant expansion initiative, Slovakia had little time to lose. With Meciar gone, Slovakia rapidly transformed itself into a stable, investor-friendly economy. Between 1999 and 2004, the state implemented a flat income tax and provided generous tax incentives for foreign companies willing to invest in Slovakia's industrial base.
Foreign automotive companies flocked to Slovakia in the first years of the new century and almost overnight, Slovakia's image was transformed from that of petulant teenager to responsible young adult. The state demonstrated it was willing and capable of making the necessary and hard decisions to align its economic policies with the EU and to address the corruption that had blighted its politics.
Nothing speaks to Slovakia's success in this regard more than the recognition it received by Western institutions in 2004. In March 2004, Slovakia joined NATO and in May of that same year, together with the Czech Republic and eight other states, Slovakia joined the EU as part of the organization's most substantial enlargement initiative.
The expansion signaled a return to Europe for most of the states that had been held captive behind the Iron Curtain for the duration of the Cold War. This was a necessary recognition of their European-ness, but it was not the final step.
Ironically, as the pro-EU voices in Slovakia grew louder in the build-up to 2004, it was the Euro-skeptic voices within the Czech Republic that became more strident. These divergent interpretations as to what EU membership represents have become more pronounced in the intervening five years.
The Czechs are not exceptional in their mixed feelings about the EU. For example, Ireland—another small state on the edge of Europe—has caused great consternation within the EU for its resistance to the Lisbon Treaty—an attitude that Czech President Klaus openly celebrates.
Great Britain, too, has long held reservations about the extent to which it should become economically integrated with EU structures. Like Great Britain and nine other EU members, the Czech Republic remains skeptical about the wisdom of adopting the euro.
What makes Czech Euro-skepticism so awkward is the prominence it received in connection with the Czech assumption of the rotating EU presidency—and the contrast highlighted by the simultaneous adoption of the euro in neighboring Slovakia.
Since its entrance into the European Union in 2004, the Czech Republic has been perceived as being conflicted in its relationship with the rest of Europe. Havel has retired, leaving Klaus as one of the senior statesmen holding court over a new generation of competitive and equally conflicted politicians.
The messages coming out of Prague on issues ranging from the war in Iraq and Russian energy policies to U.S. missile defense bases and the conflict in Georgia appear mixed and, at times, uncooperative.
Both Czech and EU policy-makers understood the broader significance of the Czech EU presidency. For the European Union, the opening six months of 2009 demonstrated the true promise of EU membership. For only the second time since the 2004 expansion, a new member was taking the helm.
To some observers, the Czech EU presidency reflected confidence in the strength and commitment of new member states. It also illustrated a commitment to the rhetoric of the European Union.
For the newest members of the EU, it reinforced the notion that with membership comes responsibility. And not empty responsibility, but real and meaningful opportunity for all members—regardless of tenure—to have a true voice in policy articulation and an ability to shape the direction of the EU in both real and symbolic ways.
Europe without Barriers?
The Czech EU presidency is symbolic in yet another important way, since 2009 also marks the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the reunion of Europe. In recognition of this watershed event, the Czech Republic chose Europe without Barriers as the motto of its EU presidency.
Europe without Barriers is an attempt to re-center Europe—to move the center of European gravity away from the largest and oldest members of the EU and eastward toward the smaller and newer members. The motto suggests Europe's future lies to the east and the receding periphery.
Europe without Barriers also illustrates the friction in Czech-European relations. As in the 1920s and 1930s, Czech policy-makers seem to resist the idea that they should be junior partners in any political and/or economic union. The legacies of Austro-Hungarian and Soviet domination weigh too heavily upon the collective Czech memory and are too heavy to easily shrug off, even as they help chart the course of the EU.
Slovak policy-makers, on the other hand, have learned different lessons from their experiences within Austria-Hungary, the Soviet Bloc, and Czechoslovakia. The period from 1993 to 1998—as well as earlier episodes—taught Slovaks a lesson about pushing independence of action a bit too far.
Slovak policy-makers since 1998 have experienced the advantages of showing they are willing to play ball and assume the risks and responsibilities of membership. The Slovak adoption of the euro illuminates their willingness to invest in EU institutions for the long-term.
Both states are undoubtedly committed to EU membership, but each sees membership differently. While Slovakia seems more comfortable embracing more aspects of its European Union membership, the Czech Republic still seems hesitant about the long-term implications of membership in transnational organizations.
In 1993, the Czech and Slovak Republics came to similar junctions and they each proceeded down slightly different paths toward a desired European identity. It is perhaps still too early to tell if they will arrive at a common destination, stronger for the challenges of their distinct journeys of self-discovery. But 2009 seems to offer the glimmer of hope so often on display in this region of Europe.
On 1 July 2009, the Czech Republic handed over the EU presidency to Sweden.
During its six-month tenure, the Czech Republic presided over a European Union that wrestled with a global financial crisis, helped settle a natural gas dispute involving Russia, Ukraine, and Europe, and experienced a change of government resulting from an internal vote of no-confidence in the ruling coalition government.
Assessments are still being formulated, but one has to admit it was not a bad performance for a state conflicted over its relationship with the EU.
Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918), sometimes referred to as the Dual Monarchy, was officially created with the 1867 Ausgleich (Compromise) that established a shared power structure between Austria and Hungary. The Ausgleich gave Hungary full autonomy within the Habsburg Empire. While still adhering to a common foreign and economic policy emanating from the Habsburg capital of Vienna, Hungary was granted its own legislative body and territorial army. The Austro-Hungarian Empire covered much of East Central and Southeastern Europe. The present-day Czech Republic was located within the Austrian half of the empire, while present-day Slovakia resided in the Hungarian half and experienced a far more oppressive regime.
Holy Roman Empire (962-1806) was a union of Central European states dominated by Germanic princes and the Catholic Church. It was headed by the Holy Roman Emperor who was chosen by seven Electors, one of whom was the King of Bohemia (Prague was the capital of Bohemia and, today, the Czech Republic is comprised of the historic lands of Bohemia and Moravia). From the mid-15th century until its dissolution in 1806, almost every elected emperor was a member of the Habsburg family.
Munich Agreement (1938) ceded territory along the Czechoslovak-German border, known as the Sudetenland, to Nazi Germany under the auspices that the territory was more ethnically German than Czech. The territorial transfer associated with this fateful agreement denied Czechoslovakia vital frontier defenses and left it vulnerable to the eventual Nazi invasion in March 1939. Despite French treaty commitments to protect the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia, the agreement was signed in Munich on 20 September 1938 by the French, British, German, and Italian heads of state. A pillar of the pre-WWII British and French policy of Appeasement of Nazi Germany, the Munich Agreement was viewed by Czechoslovaks as an act of betrayal by its Western allies.
Lisbon Treaty was signed in 2007, but must be ratified by all 27 members in order to go into effect. This treaty proposes a new constitutional structure for the EU and many opponents feel the treaty relinquishes too much national sovereignty to the EU governing bodies. At the time of publication of this article (July 2009), the Czech Republic, Ireland, Poland, and Germany are the only member states not to have ratified the treaty. In the Czech Republic, members of Klaus' ODS party, which opposes the treaty, insisted that the Czech Constitutional Court determine if the treaty was consistent with the Czech constitution. The Czechs' highest court ruled in favor of the treaty in November 2008, paving the way for parliamentary ratification. Germany recently employed the same tactic, with similar results. Its highest court ruled the treaty was constitutional, but delayed ratification until legislation is passed strengthening the role of Germany's parliament. Klaus has vowed not to acknowledge his own country's ratification until the Irish first approve the treaty – promising that he will be the last to sign the treaty. The Polish president has made a similar assertion. Ireland, which first rejected the treaty in 2008, is scheduled vote again on the treaty in October 2009.
Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937) was the first president of Czechoslovakia and served between 1919 and 1935. Often referred to as the "President-Liberator" because of his role in establishing an independent Czechoslovak state, he was a highly regarded politician and scholar, both at home and abroad. Prior to his involvement in the Czechoslovak independence movement, he was a popular professor of philosophy and sociology in Prague. He began his political career as an elected member of the Bohemian and Austrian parliaments within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As an indication of his progressive tendencies, upon his marriage to Charlotte Garrigue, an American, he incorporated her maiden name into his own. Her family's connections with New York high society, coupled with his own connections made with U.S. politicians and businessmen during his time as a visiting professor in Chicago, helped win U.S. support for an independent Czechoslovakia in 1918.
Edvard Beneš (1884-1948) served as Czechoslovakia's first foreign minister from 1919 to 1935 and was the only member of every government during the interwar period. He briefly held the post of prime minister in 1921 and 1922. An understudy of Masaryk, Beneš also campaigned abroad for an independent Czechoslovak state during the First World War and almost single-handedly shaped Czechoslovak foreign policy during the 1920s and 1930s. Upon Masaryk's retirement in 1935, Beneš became Czechoslovakia's second president, a post he held until shortly after the Munich Agreement in 1938. He once again held that post briefly between 1945 and 1948, resigning shortly after the communist coup.
Václav Havel (1936- ) is a Czech playwright and former Czechoslovak dissident and politician. He began his political dissidence in the 1960s and rose to prominence during the 1970s and 1980s when he was eventually imprisoned and tortured by the communist regime for his outspoken and much publicized criticisms of its oppressive and inhumane policies. He was a leading figure during the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which overthrew the communist government in Czechoslovakia, and was elected Czechoslovakia's tenth and final president that same year. An opponent of the Czech and Slovak separation, he nonetheless agreed to serve as the Czech Republic's first president and was instrumental in guiding the state through its post-Communist transition and putting it on the path toward NATO and EU membership.
Václav Klaus (1941- ) is the current president of the Czech Republic. He was elected the state's second president in 2003 and was re-elected in 2008. Prior to holding his current position, he served as the Czech Republic's first prime minister (and Czechoslovakia's last). An economist by training, he was largely responsible for shaping the economic policies that guided the Czech Republic through its post-Communist transformation. He is considered by many to be the most outspoken Euro-skeptic head of state in Europe today – a distinction he appears to embrace with enthusiasm.
Vladimír Meciar (1942- ) is a Slovak politician and former prime minister. His ardent nationalist sentiments led to his role in negotiating the 1993 separation of the Czech and Slovak Republics. For much of the 1990s, he served as Slovakia's contentious and autocratic prime minister. Viewed as one of the reasons for Slovakia's economic decline in the 1990s and its difficulty engaging in membership talks with the EU, he was ousted from office in 1998. In 1999, he ran for the presidency and was defeated in a run-off election. He made another unsuccessful presidential bid in 2004. He is currently the chairman of the People's Party – Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (LS-HZDS) which has been a junior member in the ruling coalition government since 2006.
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