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The 74-year-old Czechoslovakian federation created in 1918 from the ruins of the defeated Austro-Hungarian empire after World War I is near collapse. After a divisive election and an impasse between the winning parties in the two halves of the central European country, Czechoslovakia is headed for a messy dissolution that seems ominous for a federal Europe.

President Vaclav Havel is campaigning hard to keep the country together, saying that Czechs and Slovaks must decide in a referendum if they really want to rush into a "wild divorce." His wise advice should be heeded.The constitution decrees that a split can be considered legal only if decided through a referendum, but the newly elected federal Parliament has the authority to amend the constitution by a three-fifths majority vote.

Vaclav Klaus, the right-wing free-marketeer whose Civic Democratic Party won a plurality in the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia, and Vladimir Meciar, the left-leaning populist whose nationalist Movement for a Democratic Slovakia did equally well in Slovakia, agreed to establish a caretaker federal government while the country splits up.

The Czechs and Slovaks have fallen victim to the feuding and nationalism sweeping post-communist Europe. It is not the first time Czechoslovakia has been thrust into the unwelcome glare of international attention. There were two long, difficult periods under Nazism and Communism until the peaceful mass demonstrations of 1989 pointed toward a more democratic way of life.

Many current observers think the two factions should proceed with extreme caution. Separation is bound to bring a host of new problems to both states.

With only 5 million people and an economy with a heavy industrial base already suffering from the collapse of the Soviet Union, Slovakia would have to struggle to be viable. The Hungarian minority, numbering 500,000 in Slovakia, fear a new era of persecution.

And the Czechs, who account for 10 million people and have received the bulk of foreign investment since the 1989 revolution, would likely be overshadowed by neighboring Germany.

A split now would only crush the aspirations of both Czechs and Slovaks to join the European Community, and the economy would be sure to suffer. Few expect violence of the sort that has recently plagued former Yugoslavia, but if a split must occur, it should be the amicable result of a referendum - not a political deal.