On 29th of March 1990 the Czechoslovak Parliamentary embroiled in a so-called ‘”Hyphen War” over what the country should be called after 30 years as a Soviet satellite state. It was hugely indicative of the different identities between Czechs and Slovaks, and was the first in a long line of disputes before the countries split on January 1st 1993.
The fall of communism in Czechoslovakia began on 17th November 1989, when a peaceful student demonstration in Prague was brutal suppressed by riot police. This led to a daily plethora of popular protests against the one-party government in Czech and Slovak towns and cities – the Velvet Revolution or Gentle Revolution – with crowds reaching as much as 500,000 and coinciding with the fall of a number of Warsaw Pact governments accross Europe. By November 24, the leadership of the Communist Party, including General Secretary Miloš Jakeš, resigned, and the party announced the dismantlement of the one-party state a day later. On December 10th the first largely non-communist government in Czechoslovakia since 1948 was appointed, with Alexander Dubček was elected speaker of the federal parliament on December 28 and Václav Havel the President of Czechoslovakia on December 29.
The new President announced the the word ‘socialist’ would be dropped from “Czechoslovak Socialist Republic” to coincide with the transition towards Parliamentary Democracy, a reversion back to the country’s name 1920-1938 and 1945-1960. However, Slovak politicians proposed “Czecho-Slovak Republic” as it was called 1918-1920 and 1938-1939, arguing that the lack of hyphen diminished the equal stature of the Slovaks.
Havel’s next proposal was “Republic of Czecho-Slovakia” but this reminded Czech politicians of the Munich Agreement 1938, where the Nazis annexed part of their territory, so was discarded. The Parliament then suggested the “Czechoslovak Federative Republic,” without a hyphen in Czech (Československá federativní republika), but with one in Slovak (Česko-slovenská federatívna republika), on March 29th. Nevertheless this supposed comprimise was met with another alteration on April 20th to the “Czech and Slovak Federative Republic” (Czech: Česká a Slovenská Federativní Republika, Slovak: Česká a Slovenská Federatívna Republika, or ČSFR), with these long-form names entrenched in law to ensure their place as equal partners. Furthermore, by capitalising every word it avoided Slovakia from seeming less prestigious, as only the first word of a country’s name is capitalised in Czech and Slovak.
The dispute over the hyphen (which joins words) was due to the Czechs referring to it as a dash (which separates words). The Slovak language differentiated the two as spojovník and pomlčka respectively, whereas the Czechs use pomlčka for both. Perhaps this initial language dispute was a signal that this partnership was doomed to separate.