View on Czechia and Slovakia

There are basically two theories regarding the geographic origins of Slavic people. One considers the region of the Danube River as their original home, and it is assumed that from there they spread to the northeast as far as the Volga River and the Caspian sea. The other places them originally between the Wisla and Dnieper rivers from where they expanded into territories to the southwest as far as the Alps and the Balkans. Nevertheless, regardless of the exact nature of this expansion, three major geographic and linguistic divisions have arisen over the years: the West Slavs who settled in what today is Poland, Czechia and Slovakia; the South Slavs who settled in the Balkan region; and the East Slavs who inhabit Russia and the Ukraine.

The ancestors of the Czechs settled in Bohemia and Moravia and those of the Slovaks further East what was later to become Slovakia. The name "Bohemia" came from the Romans who called that area Boiohaemia after a Celtic tribe, the Boiis, who were displaced by the oncoming Slavs during the first five centuries AD. The earliest records of Slavic inhabitants in that area date from the end of the fifth century. Czech settlements extended as far south as the Danube River in what today is Lower Austria and the Slovaks even settled as far south as Lake Balaton in what today is Hungary.

In the sixth century AD, the Avars, probably a Mongolian people, invaded Central Europe and subjugated many of the people living there. Under the leadership of Samo, the Czechs freed themselves and established the empire of Samo, which disintegrated when Samo died in 658 AD. The final blow to the Avars, leading to the destruction of their empire, was given to them by Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, the famous Frankish king, around 796 AD.

In the ninth century, the Czechs and Slovaks were first unified in the Great Moravian Empire. This empire included all of present Central and West Slovakia, Bohemia, Moravia as well as parts of Southern Poland, Western Hungary and Northern Austria. The conversion to Christianity took place in 863 AD by two missionaries, the saints Cyril and Methodius, who are also known as the Thessaloniki brothers.

However, the unity of the Czech and Slovak peoples was brief, the Great Moravian Empire disintegrated early in the 10th century, and for almost 1000 years the two peoples followed separate courses and different paths of developments.

After the disintegration of the Great Moravian Empire, the Bohemian Kingdom emerged in the 10th century as an extension of the first Bohemian dynasty founded by the legendary Premysl and his wife, Queen Libussa. This kingdom was to last well into the sixteenth century and although it became part of the Holy Roman Empire in 950 AD by acknowledging the rule of king Otto I, it had many aspects of a national state.

The Bohemian Kingdom reached its greatest power and extent under Premysl Ottokar II but he was defeated in 1278 at the battle of Marchfeld by Rudolf I, also known as Rudolf of Habsburg, and the house of Habsburg was to play a major role in the further development of the Czech and Slovak peoples.

Early in the 11th century almost all of Slovakia was annexed by Hungary, and in the early 13th century a Tartar (Mongol) invasion killed almost half of the population. The devastated country was repopulated by people from the Holy Roman Empire. When Hungary was overrun by the Turks in the early 16th century, the Hungarian capital was moved from Buda to Bratislava and Slovakia became the center of Hungarian economic, cultural and political life for many years to come.

The golden age of Bohemia occurred during the reign of Charles IV in the second half of the 14th century. He was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1355, Prague became the seat of the empire and his Golden Bull established the kings of Bohemia as electors on a permanent basis. He also founded Charles University, the oldest university in Central Europe.

After his death, religious, political and social tensions mounted and culminated in the Hussite wars. Jan Huss was a religious and national leader and led a movement against the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church. He was burned at the stake in 1415 and his movement was defeated at the battle of Lipany in 1434. Although the Hussite movement had ultimately failed, it remains to be of historical significance since it was one of the first substantial attacks on feudalism and the Roman Catholic Church. Furthermore, it also paved the way for protestant reforms.

The long Habsburg domination began in 1526 when Archduke Ferdinand, who later became emperor Ferdinand I, started to deprive Bohemia of self-rule. He sent in Jesuit priests to strengthen the catholic faith and the religious situation remained explosive. Freedom of religion was, however, granted by emperor Rudolf II in 1609 but when emperor Mathias revoked this in 1618, members of the Bohemian diet revolted and threw two imperial councils out of the windows of Hradcany castle in Prague. This so-called "Defenestration of Prague" precipitated the Thirty Years War, which involved most of Europe and caused tremendous sufferings for the rural populations.

Despite of the fact that Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia were all under Habsburg rule, they developed quite differently for the next centuries.

Hungary had lost most of its territory to the Turks after the defeat at the battle of Mohacs and had moved into Slovakian territory. The Slovak population consisted primarily of serfs, were not considered members of a political nation and had basically no influence on the politics in their own land. In contrast to this, the Czechs and Moravians experienced a far greater degree of religious, political and cultural autonomy and by the nineteenth century they had developed a distinct national identity. The Slovaks, however, remained mainly an agrarian society with an underdeveloped national identity.

When Austria established the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary in 1867 concessions were also made to the Czech and Slovak peoples but the rise of nationalism could no longer be stopped and culminated in the First World War. At the end of this war the monarchy no longer existed and the Habsburg Empire was destroyed. Thus, in 1918, the Czechs and Slovaks merged to form the Czechoslovak Republic, also known as Czechoslovakia.

The Czechoslovak Republic was conceived as a parliamentary democracy and the first president Masaryk is still today highly regarded as the founding father of the republic. In addition to Czechs and Slovaks, many other nationalities such as Hungarians, Poles, Ukrainians, Germans and Austrians lived in the republic and each minority was granted the freedom to develop its own culture and language. In a relatively short period of time, the Czechoslovak Republic had built up a viable economy, had become a model democracy and a safe heaven for many persecuted people in Central Europe in the midst of a Europe, which saw an ever-increasing rise of fascism.

Thus, in spite of its tolerant policies towards minorities, Hitler used the pretext of an oppressed German minority to destroy the republic as a prelude to the planned attack on Poland. Just prior to the German invasion, Slovakia declared independence, became a German ally and on March 16th, 1939 the Czechoslovak Republic had ceased to exist.

At the end of World War II the country fell within the sphere of Soviet influence, the boundaries as they existed before 1938 were restored and, in a dark chapter of its history, most of the German-speaking population was often cruelly expelled. The third Czechoslovak Republic was established and in 1948 a communist take-over took place and the administration became centralized in Prague. Czechoslovakia became more and more a Stalinist state and the communist party became the one and only political power. By 1952 almost all the economy had been nationalized and the economic situation began to deteriorate in the late 1950s and continued to do so well into the 1960s. Political instability and the demand for reforms resulted, and when Alexander Dubcek, who wanted "socialism with a human face" became first secretary of the communist party in 1968, a struggle between reformers and hard-liners ensued. This period became known as "Prague Spring" and it was crushed by Soviet and other Warsaw Pact troops and tanks that invaded the country in 1968.

A period of harsh repression ensued, but when the Soviet authority collapsed in 1989, Czechoslovakia underwent the so-called "Velvet Revolution", regained its independence and established a democratically elected government.

On January 1st, 1993 the country went through a "Velvet Divorce" and split into its two national components, namely the Czech and the Slovak Republics, with Prague and Bratislava being the respective capitals.

In March 1999 the Czech Republic became a member of NATO. In May 2003 the Slovak people voted with 93%, and in June 2003 the Czech people voted with 77% for joining the European Union. This became reality in May 2004.

After the collapse of the old system in 1989,Czechoslovakia experienced a tremendous decline in GNP, which was to last until 1993, when the split-up occurred. After this, it was actually Slovakia that grew faster then the Czech Republic, which experienced yet another crisis between 1997 to 1999. Today, however, the economic situation is boosted by the fact that foreign direct investment rose dramatically starting in Slovakia in 2000 (This was largely due to the electoral defeat of the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Meciar in 1998, the upcoming EU accession and big privatization sales), and in the Czech Republic in 1999 when many incentives were introduced and more efficient privatization started.

As far as the coatings industry is concerned, big changes have taken place. In 1988 the Czechoslovak paint industry had a capacity of 250,000 tons and the leading paint producer was Barvy a Laky, with nine production sites spread across the country. In 1989, Barvy a Laky split into two state-owned firms, Barvy a Laky s.p. in Prague and Colorlak s.p. in Uherske Hradiste. Then a stepwise privatization proceeded with the sale of various plants and of Colorlak and, in addition, many private firms were established. Examples are: Barvy Tebas, Teluria, Balakom, Balak, Primalex, Denas Color and many more. Balakom has recently been taken over by Sefra of Austria.

By 1998 the paint and coatings output in the Czech Republic was down to 75,000 tons, but in 2003 it is expected to be around 95,000 tons. Waterborne paints constitute a high proportion, about 60,000 tons (64%) due to their usage in the building industry. A total of about 2,500 tons of powder coatings are also produced by Balakom in Opava and by Jotun in Prague.

The Slovak paint and coatings industry underwent a similar development. The estimated production in 2003 will be around 40,000 tons, with only about 15,000 tons of waterborne paints. Major companies are Chemolak, Primalex (of Czechia), Terra Nova (of Austria), PAM, Polytex, Inex, Farbol, SlovZinc and others.

Both countries are importing the majority of industrial paints from Western Europe, although they could easily manufacture the majority themselves. But, a general weakness of the paint and coatings industries in both countries is and has been the lack of capital and investment. In future, it is expected that a consolidation process will still lead to a larger concentration but the EU accession should help to put the industry on solid grounds.

It should not be forgotten that both countries offer a highly skilled labour force at reasonable costs but also transport logistics for exports to both Eastern and Western Europe. Overall, it will be interesting to see how the EU accession will influence the further development of the paint and coatings industries in the Czech and Slovak Republics. Joe Jilek welcomes reader comments. You can e-mail him at