A QUARTER of a century ago, as international attention focused on the bloody conflict in the Balkans, another multinational European state quietly split in two. The “Velvet Divorce”, the name given to the splitting of Czechoslovakia on January 1st 1993, echoed the bloodless Velvet Revolution that overthrew the country’s communists in 1989. It suggests the partition was amicable. In fact, only a minority of citizens on both sides—just 37% of Slovaks and 36% of Czechs—supported breaking up. Vaclav Havel, a revolutionary icon who was president of Czechoslovakia at the time, was so discouraged that he resigned rather than preside over the split. While raw nationalism fuelled the conflict in Yugoslavia, economics and inept leadership were the prime causes of Czechoslovakia’s schism—a dynamic that presages the struggle for independence in contemporary Catalonia, a region of Spain.

The two peoples had experienced separation before. Even when both groups were part of the old Habsburg empire, the Czechs were governed from Vienna and the Slovaks were administered by Hungary. Czechoslovakia itself was carved out of the Austro-Hungarian empire after the first world war. During the second, Slovakia declared independence and formed a Nazi-allied puppet state while the Czechs endured direct occupation by the Germans. After the communist takeover in 1948 the Czech lands, once the industrial heart of Austria-Hungary, benefited from the regime’s emphasis on heavy industry. But redistributive state policies sought to spur development in the more agricultural and mountainous Slovak territories. By 1992 Slovak GDP per head had improved to equal three-quarters of the Czech figure. Still, the animus created on the Czech side by these payments, and on the Slovak side by the perception that their fate lay in the hands of bureaucrats in Prague, was exploitable by ambitious politicians. While Mr Havel remained the global face of postcommunist Czechoslovakia, a federalised political system made way for the emergence of a pair of powerful domestic operators: Vaclav Klaus, the Czech prime minister, and Vladimir Meciar, the Slovak premier.

Mr Klaus, a free-market ideologue anxious to place his country in the vanguard of the economic liberalism sweeping Europe, wanted to centralise power in Prague. Meanwhile, Mr Meciar, a traditional clientelist party boss, sought autonomy for Slovakia and to use his access to state assets to maintain his political power base. By mid-1992 the divisions were stark and the two men agreed to the split in July. In the aftermath, Mr Klaus pursued the rapid privatisations that made the Czech Republic an economic star of central Europe, but also created public resentment, as ex-communist insiders and foreign multinationals benefited disproportionately from the process. Mr Meciar, meanwhile, tightened his grip and ruled as a semi-authoritarian strongman, slowing the progress of his country’s accession to the European Union and briefly making it a regional pariah, until he was democratically displaced in 1998.

Now both the Czech Republic and Slovakia are members of NATO and the EU. The latter makes the customs checkpoints that were hastily constructed in 1993 rather moot. Save for the occasional lamentation after a weak showing in a sports tournament, and the odd pop-culture phenomenon, little serious talk of reunion is heard. Since the split, Slovakia has further closed the wealth gap by expanding its own manufacturing base, using tax incentives to bring in massive foreign investment, and in the process becoming the world’s biggest maker, per head, of cars. Slovak GDP per person is now 90% of the Czech figure. Once considered the Czechs’ poorer country cousins, Slovaks could serve as morale boosters for the frequently besmirched southern Italians, Walloons and others embroiled in the regionalist struggles of modern Europe.