Czechoslovakia, Czech and Slovak Republic

State Formation and Administrative-Territorial Organization

Forthc. in European Regions 1870-2020, ed. by. P. Flora and J. M. Henneberg, London: Palgrave

My contribution to a fascinating new handbook explores how administrative-territorial divisions in the Czech and Slovak Republics are rooted in historical processes of state formation.

Author: J. Pieper

Compared to most West European nation states, Czechoslovakia was established lately. It emerged from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy after the First World War and existed until 1992, interrupted by the German annexation and the creation of an independent Slovak state between 1938 and 1945. The Czechoslovak state was composed of the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic, two territories with distinct historical identities.

The Czech part of Czechoslovakia consisted of three historical regions: Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia. These Czech lands (České země) constituted internal interface territories between the medieval city-belt of Europe and the two great powers that were able to consolidate their territories at the eastern periphery of the city-belt, Austria and Prussia. Bohemia experienced the early formation of a state centre at the end of the Middle Ages, facilitated by the Reformation and the Hussite movement.

The Slovak part of Czechoslovakia has not been structured into historically distinct regions. The territory of the present-day Slovak Republic formed a landward periphery of the Habsburg Empire and saw only an incipient medieval state formation.

Until 1918, debates and decisions on the political and administrative structure of territorial units were intricately linked to struggles over the democratisation and modernisation of the Habsburg Monarchy. Decentralising and federalising reforms occurred on the background of the socio-economic cleavage between the emerging middle classes and the landed aristocracy on the one hand, the ethnic cleavage between nation building centres and peripheral nationalities on the other.

After Czechoslovakia had become independent, the leaders of the Czech and Slovak political parties initially decided that the Austrian and Hungarian legislation on local, district and regional administration should stay in force. The Constitution of 1920 established a unitary state and withdrew any legislative and administrative functions from the land assemblies.

In order to unify Czechoslovak public administration, the 1927 law on the “organisation of political administration” established four lands – Bohemia, Moravia-Silesia, Slovakia and Sub-Carpathian Russia –, represented by Presidents and Land Representations. Moravia and Silesia were integrated into one land. Slovakia’s counties and county associations were dissolved and replaced by a district level of state administration. In Bohemia, District Administrative Commissions were integrated into the district-level state administration.

In the wake of the Munich Agreement and the German annexation of a part of Czechoslovakia, the Czechoslovak government accepted autonomy statutes for Slovakia and Sub-Carpathian Russia. The country was renamed Czecho-Slovak Republic to reflect Slovakia’s newly established autonomy. Under the German occupation, all bodies of territorial administration were either dissolved or centrally controlled.

The Constitution of 1948 endorsed Czechoslovakia’s unitary statehood, while conceding that the state was formed by two slavonic nations, the Czechs and the Slovaks. A special status was assigned to the Slovak nation as the Constitution envisaged a Slovak National Council and a Board of Commissioners (sbor pověřenců) with executive functions. The Czech nation was not granted an equivalent special status by the Constitution.

The new Constitution of 1960 retained the special status of Slovakia, but limited the legislative discretion of the Slovak National Council to economic and cultural matters. The centralizing thrust of the 1960 Constitution and the failure of centralized economic planning to sustain high economic growth rates strengthened a reform movement among the Slovak communists that argued for the federalisation of Czechoslovakia. The transformation of Czechoslovakia into a federation became an important aim of the Prague Spring in 1968. In October 1968, the National Assembly transformed the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic into a federation that consisted of the Czech and the Slovak Socialist Republics, both enjoying equal rights and the constitutional status of sovereign states.

The democratic transition brought new political elites into power who differed about how to reorganise the federation and the status of its two constituent republics. In 1990, the Federal Assembly renamed the country Czech and Slovak Federal Republic to emphasize the equality and sovereignty of the two member republics. A second constitutional amendment abandoned the category of shared competences. Most shared competences and also the previous exclusive federal competence over foreign relations were assigned to the republics. The federation retained exclusive power only over defence, currency, transport and postal service.

Having been reconfirmed by the 1992 elections, Czech and Slovak political leaders decided to dissolve the federation and to create independent states. On 1 January 1993, the federation was replaced by two Republics that both were defined as unitary states. Yet the Czech Constitution of 1992 referred to the possibility of establishing lands and mentioned the historical lands in its preamble.

The Constitutions of the two Republics envisaged a second level of self-government that was to fill the institutional void left by the abolition of regional-level National Committees. The Czech Republic established regions and directly elected regional self-governments in 2000, based upon laws from 1997 and 2000. Slovakia established regions as units of its territorial structure and state administration in 1996. Legislation on regional self-governments was adopted in 2001. In both countries, the recreation of regions occurred in the context of an encompassing reform of public administration that was necessitated not only by the transition to democracy and the rule of law, but also by the preparation for membership in the European Union.

The administrative regions and regional self-government institutions created in the early 2000s have persisted in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The scale of fiscal decentralisation has been limited despite the incentives provided by membership in the European Union and access to its significant cohesion policy funds managed at regional levels. However, by creating regional governments with legal powers and financial resources, the two states have also institutionalised political interests in sustaining and continuing decentralisation. Regional political representatives have opposed attempts of recentralisation in the wake of the global financial crisis not only by harnessing subnational interest associations. Electoral competition for regional-level political offices has also enhanced the roles of subnational political elites within political parties, contributing to consolidate the administrative reforms.

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