Over at Charlie’s place, a fellow named Cdodgson brought up the split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia as an example of a “peaceful secession from more or less democratic states which the people involved don’t regret and don’t want to reverse.” The context, of course, was Scotland.
The basic description is true. The Velvet Divorce was peaceful and the countries were more-or-less democratic. But the Czechoslovak breakup came in the context of the upcoming Scottish vote. And the Velvet Divorce holds few lessons for Scotland.
The history of the Velvet Divorce does however hold lessons for the Velvet Divorce: namely that it was a sleazy breakup of a perfectly functioning country that benefitted no one save the two politicians who arranged it and forced it through: Vaclav Klaus and Vladimir Mečiar. Neither of them did their country any good, before or after the split.
Did the January 1, 1993, division of Czechoslovakia reflect popular opinion? Of course, the answer has no bearing on the benefit of small states or the morality of breaking up democratic polities, but it is interesting ... because it didn't! In 1991, polls showed only 9% of Czechs and 15% of Slovaks favored a split. (Page 252.) By December 1992, support had risen ... to only 36% of Czechs and 37% of Slovaks.
Moreover, Czechoslovakia already showed a rather impressive level of decentralization: in 1992, the federal government controlled only 22% of public spending. (See Table 6.1.) An additional 0.5% of spending went through the federal government to the two states via federal grants. (Table 6.5.) It is true that fiscal grants from the federal government had dried up as an almost accidental response to de-communization. That might have annoyed some Slovaks ... only the polls didn't show it.
The deal was hashed out between Klaus and Mečiar with no popular input. Neither politico was a particularly admirable person. Both leaders refused to hold a referendum because they believed that they would lose.
A continuing federation would have eventually led to more fiscal transfers. It also would have ended Mečiar's ambitions. So Klaus threw out the poorer chunk of the country and Mečiar escaped the limits of the federal system. Win-win for them.
Did the split leave anyone else better off politically or economically? On the Slovak side, the answer is pretty clearly “no,” although the country managed to survive the Mečiar years. It came close to some ugly outcomes, though. (See Hungary for a bad but-still-not-worst-case example of the bullet that Slovakia dodged.)
Lose-lose for everyone else. Trade collapsed despite a customs union, and both countries went through a painful adjustment. (Page 60.) It worked out OK in the end, but at grave risk to democracy and the gratuitous sundering of a political community. The Czechs and the Slovaks certainly seem to feel that it was pointless: two decades later, only 41% of Czechs and 29% of Slovaks think the Velvet Divorce was the right thing to do. Given status-quo bias, those numbers are astoundingly low.
There is a value in democratic political communities. They bind people through something more than impersonal market exchanges. It is hard to see why they should be broken up unless they are turning undemocratic (which would include systematized ethnic discrimination) or have such histories of intercommunal hatred that they cannot be made to work without violence.
It may be the case that some members of a democratic community have so soured on the others that they wish to share none of the responsibilities of being in a community. But that is parochial and cramped.
To return to Scotland: the breakup of Czechoslovakia was nothing like the proposed breakup of the United Kingdom. It had no popular support (unlike Scottish independence), led to great economic dislocation for both new countries (unlike Scottish independence, which will likely have no impact on England), occurred in a situation of low fiscal transfers (unlike Scottish independence), led to a near-breakdown of democracy in one of the countries (unlike Scottish independence), and did not occur after several decades of divergent policy preferences (unlike Scottish independence).
Comparisons between Scotland and Slovakia are best avoided, I think, unless the discussion is solely focused on short-term economic effects.