Home More News Slovakia’s envoy Radovan Javorčík: 30 years since the ‘Velvet Divorce’

Slovakia’s envoy Radovan Javorčík: 30 years since the ‘Velvet Divorce’

Slovakia’s envoy Radovan Javorčík: 30 years since the ‘Velvet Divorce’
Slovak Ambassador Radovan Javorčík discusses his country's relationship with the United States. (Photos by Larry Luxner)

After serving four years as Slovakia’s ambassador in Tel Aviv—a stint that included two violent conflicts between Israel and Gaza—and later as his country’s envoy to NATO in Brussels, Radovan Javorčík thought his most recent posting to Washington would involve a lot less drama.

But that was not to be.

By coincidence, Javorčík arrived in Washington on Jan. 5, 2021, in his words, “just in time to witness something that has happened only twice in American history—the sacking of Congress.”

Indeed, Javorčík had little time to prepare for the tumultuous events of Jan. 6.

“I got a detailed security briefing the day before by my people on all of President Trump’s ‘big lie’ theories, but I didn’t know, for example, that Muriel Bowser [mayor of the District of Columbia] has no powers to call out the National Guard,” he recalled. “So I was worried that there wouldn’t be enough law enforcement. And when I saw Trump’s speech—and then his long silence—it was really troubling. I felt that something big was going to happen.”

The Bratislava Castle, parts of which date from the 13th century, overlooks Slovakia’s capital and the Danube River.

Looking back, considers that awful day one of the three most significant moments in his professional career: the others occurred on March 29 and May 1 of 2004—when Slovakia joined NATO and then the European Union—and on July 7, 2005,  the day multiple Islamic suicide bombers attacked London’s transport system, killing 56 people and injuring over 700; Slovakia’s ambassador to Britain had just departed and Javorčík was chargé d’affaires at the embassy.

But for Javorčík, the real milestone was Dec. 31, 1992—the date Czechoslovakia officially ceased to exist. At the stroke of midnight, the Czech Republic and Slovakia were born, the final act in a process that came to be known as the “velvet divorce” for the calm, nonviolent manner in which it was carried out.

“I was born and raised in a very cosmopolitan, liberal family. We had access to Austrian and Hungarian radio and TV. My views were attached to the democratic values of Czechoslovakia,” said Javorčík, 52. “For me, the split was personally very painful. But in hindsight, this was one of the most stellar moments for both our nations. We managed to overcome all our disputes in a peaceful way, and the outcome is that nobody can blame either side for our successes or failures.”

Czechoslovakia’s peaceful dissolution—no regrets

Speaking to The Washington Diplomat on the eve of his country’s 30th anniversary of independence, Javorčík—whose wife, Michele, is also a career diplomat—said the two countries agreed to part ways in the early 1990s, immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

A stone monument marks the spot just south of Bratislava where the borders of Slovakia, Hungary and Austria meet.

“Bratislava, our capital, was historically a satellite of Vienna, and also a satellite of Budapest,” he said. “Before World War II, roughly one-third of its population was German-speaking, one-third were Hungarians, and one-third were Jews and Slovaks. After the war, the Germans and Hungarians were gone, and the Jews had been exterminated. Within three decades, it had become a depopulated capital.”

During the communist regime, Bratislava “suffered tremendously,” the ambassador said. People from the East flooded the capital in search of jobs, but they were very poor.

“The communists never wanted Bratislava to be a real metropolis, and they definitely didn’t want it to be a satellite of Vienna,” said Javorčík, contrasting the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia with the violent post-Soviet breakup of Yugoslavia into six, and later seven, separate republics—and its ultimate descent into ethnic cleansing and other atrocities.

“The legal and the mental difference between Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia was that from 1968 on, Czechoslovakia was a federal state with one constitution, which goes totally against any legal theory. In our case, the Soviets never gave Czechs and Slovaks their own constitution within the federation.”

Yet the two groups had been drifting apart for years, even before the collapse of communism. Once the Berlin Wall fell, however, their differences became more obvious. Many issues divided the country’s 10 million Czechs and 5 million Slovaks, particularly arguments over how much power each side should have with respect to their population and economic power.

American, Slovak and European Union flags on display at the office of Radovan Javorčík, Slovakia’s ambassador to the United States.

Despite its considerably smaller population, however, Javorčík said, “I’m extremely proud that today, Slovakia is technically more European than the Czechs. We are members of the euro zone; Czechia is not. From 1998 until 2007, when we joined the euro zone, our leadership was laser-focused on being as close to the center of the EU as possible.”

In fact, Slovakia is the only one of the four states in the Visegrád Group to have adopted the euro; Hungary still has its forint, Poland its złoty, and the Czech Republic its koruna. In addition,

Slovakia is a major player in the automotive industry. Few know this, but Volkswagen, Volvo and Kia all have factories there. In addition, all Porsche Cayenne and Jaguar SUVs are assembled in Slovakia.

Slovakia clearly on Ukraine’s side, says ambassador

Landlocked Slovakia, about twice the size of Maryland, is home to about 5.4 million inhabitants. It recently began a gradual recovery from the pandemic, but currently soaring energy costs are putting the Slovak economy at risk of collapse, the country’s prime minister has warned.

Bratislava central rail station links Slovakia’s capital with domestic and international destinations.

In a mid-September interview published by the Financial Times, Eduard Heger warned that Bratislava needs EU support or the crisis could seriously threaten Slovakia’s GDP. He said his government might even need to nationalize Slovakia’s power supplies if Brussels does not provide support.

Meanwhile, Javorčík said the main issue in US-Slovak relations is more regional in nature.

“We want to ensure that the United States and Europe are living up to the idea of America and Europe first—in facing the bullies, setting the trends and finding the best solutions to the challenges ahead of us,” he said. “We must ensure that the United States keeps its focus on Europe as well as the Pacific.”

When it comes to bullies, there’s little doubt as to whom Javorčík has in mind.

Bratislava’s Chatam Sofer Memorial, an underground compound containing 23 graves, is all that remains of an old Jewish cemetery that was destroyed in 1943 to build a nearby tunnel. It is considered one of the holiest Jewish shrines in Europe and is frequently visited by Orthodox Jews from abroad.

“Vladimir Putin says he wants to de-nazify Ukraine. Unfortunately, we have a fascist party in Slovakia,” said the ambassador, noting that it got about 9% of votes in the last election. “When [Volodymyr] Zelensky gave a speech to the Slovak parliament, in two minutes he de-nazified the parliament, because the fascist party walked out. So if there’s anyone who can de-nazify a parliament, it is Zelensky.”

Given that Slovakia shares a 60-mile-long border with Ukraine, the ambassador is clearly worried about what’s happening there. So far, more than 600,000 Ukrainians have crossed into Slovakia; about 80,000 of them have applied for safe-haven status, which allows them to work.

To that end, Slovakia has provided some €130 million in military assistance to Ukraine since the war started, including a Russian S-300 air defense missile system and six Zuzana-2 self-propelled missiles—two of them provided in early October “to celebrate the invader Putin’s 70th birthday,” in the words of Slovak Prime Minister Jaroslav Nad.

“We are 150% on Ukraine’s side,” said Javorčík. “Russia’s war on Ukraine was totally unprovoked, it was started by Putin, and it can be ended by Putin. If Russia stops the war, the war ends. But if Ukraine stops the war, Ukraine ceases to exist.”

Radovan Javorčík, Slovakia’s ambassador to the United States, holds up s a memento from his previous posting in Tel Aviv: the twisted remains of a Hamas missile fired from Gaza at the Israeli town of Sderot during a border war in 2014.

Larry Luxner

Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017. Larry has been news editor of The Washington Diplomat since 2005.