Neighbours in a foreign country: a new border divides villages in two

05-11-2009

After the split of Czechoslovakia at the beginning of 1993, Radio Prague devoted several programmes to the impact of the new border on ordinary people’s lives. For most, life stayed much the same, but the split did have a very real impact on people living close to the border, and on Czechs living in Slovakia or vice versa. Here is one Slovak student, settled in the Czech Republic, talking to Radio Prague a few months after the split:

“You know, deciding whether to be Czech or Slovak, whether to have a Czech or Slovak passport, was awfully difficult, because I’d never thought I’d end up as a foreigner, having to apply for a residence and work permit. The thought of becoming a foreigner in my native Slovakia was horrible, but in the end I decided that opting for a Czech passport didn’t mean that I would lose my relatives and friends back home. And luckily, that’s how things have worked out. The one thing I really hate is having to cross an international border. I don’t think it was a good solution or a step forwards.”

Czechs and Slovaks did gradually get used to the new border. In the months and years that followed I made several visits for Radio Prague to the White Carpathian Hills straddling the new Czech-Slovak frontier. Here is an extract from one of my reports, made three years after the split:

“I’m now driving towards the village of Sidonie from the Czech side. It’s right on the border, and in order to get into the village itself, you actually have to cross the border at the customs post, which I’m just approaching now, and then go back into the Czech Republic…

“I’m talking to a man who lives right by the border, just on the Czech side. He’s saying that these days when he drives to Slovakia, the customs officers want to see his identity card every time. And by law he’s no longer allowed to graze his sheep and goats on pastures just a hundred yards behind the Slovak customs post. International restrictions on the import and export of livestock apply.”

But not everybody expressed regret for the changes. During my visits to the border region, I often heard the view that the split had actually led to an improvement in cross border relations. Here is one teacher at the local secondary school in Brumov Bylnice, here on the Czech side, speaking in 1996:

“We have friendship between our school and the school in Puchov, which is a town about 20 kilometres behind the border, and now I think that this friendship is more informal and there is bigger interest from both sides for this friendship. So contacts have actually improved since the split of Czechoslovakia.”

But, while Czech-Slovak relations remained friendly, inevitably Czechs and Slovaks found themselves drifting apart, as the shared experiences of living in a common state came to an end. One elderly man in Sidonie, talking in 1993, felt this process at a very personal level.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said, and he went on to explain that he had been in the same hunting club for the last thirty years, along with his friends across the border. Now, as a citizen and resident of a foreign country, he was no longer allowed to be in the club which was on the Slovak side. “I guess that borders have to exist,” he added, “but it would be better if we were all united in a single Europe.”

Nearly two decades later, that dream has, at least in part, come true. Both countries are members of the European Union and under the Schengen Agreement, the Czech-Slovak border is now little more than a line on the ground.

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05-11-2009