VIENNA, NOV. 13 -- Czechoslovak national and regional leaders agreed today on a plan to grant greater political autonomy to the two republics that comprise the country.
Moving to stem Slovak nationalist sentiment that threatened to fragment their hybrid state, Prime Minister Marian Calfa, Slovak Premier Vladimir Meciar and his Czech counterpart Petr Pithart met for more than nine hours in Prague to cement the new power-sharing arrangement between Slovakia and the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia, which had been worked out over the past three months.
Under the accord, subject to regional and federal legislative approval, defense, foreign and monetary policy will remain the province of the federal government. Calfa told the state news agency that a compromise also had been reached on unified foreign trade and tax policies.
Slovakia, the eastern, largely rural third of the country, has often chafed under administration by Prague -- the Czech capital -- since the country was formed out of the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but now it will assume full responsibility for its own cultural, educational and health matters.
"I am able to say that our expectations have been fulfilled," Slovak parliamentary chairman Frantisek Miklosko told Czechoslovak radio at the conclusion of the closed-door talks. Federal Finance Minister Vaclav Klaus, who had strongly opposed attempts to devolve economic policy to the two republics, also voiced satisfaction with the accord.
Previous attempts under 40 years of Communist rule to alter the federal system and salve Slovak sensibilities are widely regarded now as sham tinkering that merely suppressed simmering conflicts between Czechoslovakia's two peoples. But the power-sharing agreement comes amid continued angry protests by thousands of Slovaks against a new regional law that guarantees minorities the right to use their own language in official business in areas where the minority represents 20 percent of the local population.
The language law, approved late last month after protracted wrangling in the Slovak governing coalition, has increased popular resentment against Slovakia's largest minority -- the 570,000 Hungarians who represent 12 percent of the republic's population. Slovakia was dominated by Hungary for centuries prior to the creation of Czechoslovakia.
Explosive popular reaction to restrictive language laws contributed to the collapse of Austria-Hungary, of which the Czech and Slovak lands were once a part, and many of those working to buttress the Czechoslovak union agree that secessionist groups are benefiting from the current linguistic conflict.
Slovakia's governing coalition -- formed by members of Public Against Violence, the Slovak counterpart of Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel's Civic Forum movement, and the conservative Christian Democrats -- seem to view the new federal arrangement as the best means of halting a steady rise in support for the separatist Slovak National Party. "Everything depends on this political step," said Slovak cabinet minister Milan Knazko.
The National Party won 14 percent of the vote in Slovak parliamentary elections last June and is expected to win up to 30 percent in municipal balloting Nov. 23 and 24.
"Is it possible to calm down the separatists at all?" Prime Minister Meciar pondered during an interview last week in Bratislava, the Slovak capital. "It's only possible to prevent them from gaining influence. There will always be a group of people who think this way, but it should not be given the opportunity to influence the majority."