| Czechoslovakia gained
independence in 1918. Previously, Moravia and Bohemia was under
Austrian rule, while Slovakia came under the aegis of Hungary during
World War II, Bohemia and Moravia became a German protectorate.
After the war, Czechoslovakia was established under the supervision
of the occupying Red Army.
By 1948 the Communists had become the dominant
political force and took effective control, following elections
that year. Soviet-style political and economic systems were put
in place and Czechoslovakia became a Soviet ally, joining the Warsaw
Pact and COMECON. The Government closely
followed Soviet policy in all respects, until the emergence of a
new leadership group under Alexander Dubcek in the late 1960s. This
became known as the Prague Spring’, the Dubcek governments
introduction of liberalising reforms.
Several months later, the Soviets decided that the reforms had gone
too far and failing to persuade the Czechoslovaks to desist from
their chosen course, sent the tanks into Prague. Dubcek and his
cronies were deposed in favour of a hard-line leadership led by
Gustav Husak. For the next two decades, Czechoslovakia did not deviated
from the Soviet line. That was until the appointment of Mikhail
Gorbachev as Soviet leader and his vision of glasnost
and perestroika. The Husak Government aligned itself
with East Germany’s Honeker, who was opposed to such reforms.
Four years later, as Eastern Europe was marred by political upheaval
and massive demonstrations, the Communists were swept away from
office. The main opposition, Civic Forum, became the principal political
force in the country and its most celebrated member, playwright
Václav Havel, was appointed president. The
country set about introducing a pluralistic political system and
a market economy. Civic Forum won multi-party elections for a new
National Assembly in June of 1990. However, divisions within the
winning party quickly emerged.
The decisive split came in January 1991, when right-wing Finance
Minister Václav Klaus, the architect and chief engineer of
the privatisation programme, left the Civic Forum with his supporters
to create the Civic Democratic Party (ODS, Obcanské
Demokratická Strana). Klaus then emerged as the
most powerful figure within the government.
Meanwhile, there was a growing clamour in Slovakia for greater autonomy
and, among a vocal and growing constituency, full independence.
Despite the strong opposition of President Havel, who considered
that the country could afford a split at that stage, the positions
adopted by Czech and Slovak were endorsed by the people at the June
1992 national election. Klaus’ ODS won a majority in the Czech
part of the country, just as the main Slovak party – the Movement
for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), led
by the ex-communist turned nationalist, Vladimir Meciar –
won the lion’s share in Slovakia. Dividing the two independent
countries was quickly accepted as the only acceptable option and
took place formally on 1 January 1993.
Under Klaus’, the Czech Republic pursued a programme of market-oriented
reforms and social policies designed to reduce the role of the state.
A period of economic growth and rising prosperity for most people
followed. After re-election in 1996, the ODS administration fell
to popular disillusionment and an economic slowdown in June 1998.
The Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD),
under Milos Zeman formed a minority government with the support
of Klaus’ ODS. Also in 1998, Václav Havel, the country’s
towering political figure was re-elected to a second term as president,
despite his chronic ill health.
Against the stacked odds, the Social Democrats not only completed
its term, which ended in 2002, but also won the general election
in June. Zeman ceded the premiership to Vladimir Spidla, whose new
administration no longer had to rely on ODS support. However, Klaus
remains a potent political figure after winning the March 2003 presidential
vote by a the narrowest of margins. In particular, he is known to
be sceptical about the Czech Republic’s entry into the European
Union. Along with membership of NATO (of which the Czech Republic
is now a member) this had been the priority for Czech governments
since the break-up of the Soviet bloc. A formal application for
EU membership was lodged in 1996 and in May 2004 the Czech
Republic gained membership.