BRATISLAVA, Slovakia -- The country of Czechoslovakia was dissolved with the inauguration of the new year, replaced by separate Czech and Slovak states in an aura of bittersweet celebration.
'The new Slovak state is formed,' Slovak Premier Vladimir Meciar told some 10,000 citizens packed Friday into Bratislava's main downtown square, carrying candles and waving tiny Slovak flags. 'I congratulate the inhabitants of Slovakia.'
The red, white and blue flag of Czechoslovakia was lowered from Bratislava Castle on the hill above the Slovak capital for the last time at precisely one minute before midnight, heralding the end of an uneasy federation of two Slavic nations founded in 1918 with the end of World War I.
It was replaced by the white, blue and red banner of Slovakia, with a blue-and-white shield in the center carrying the Slovak double cross, to the accompanyment of the Slovak national anthem.
As midnight struck, a deafening noise rosefrom the square as Slovaks shouted and cheered, popped champagne corks and set off loads of fireworks that encompassed the crowd with the smell of sulfur and smoke.
Following a round of speeches, an orchestra struck up Strauss' 'Blue Danube' waltz, and the descendants of the Hapsburg empire began swaying around the square in three-quarters time. That was followed by more lively dancing in the frigid weather to Beatles tunes.
After 74 years of union, Czechoslovakia has broken peacefully into two separate states of 10.3 million Czechs and 5.3 million Slovaks.
The split came at almost breakneck speed following parliamentary elections last June in which Slovaks rejected the economic shock therapy of Czech Premier Vaclav Klaus.
Instead, they returned nationalists to Parliament who wanted a controlled transition to free markets, making divorce inevitable but largely amicable.
In a prepared speech, Michal Kovac, chairman of the defunct Czechoslovak Parliament, noted that since the establishment of Czechoslovakia in 1918, only 26 years were lived in conditions of freedom and democracy. The rest were spent amid economic deprivation and devastation of the environment and the human spirit.
He gave thanks 'that we have survived all this, and that we have lived to see the collapse of the communist totalitarian system,' whose demise ironically permitted the rise of Slovak aspirations that led to the breakup.
'Thanks to this, the control of state affairs from one common house ends, but brotherhood and friendship between the Czechs, Moravians and Silesians on the one hand (in the Czech Republic) and the Slovaks on the other do not end,' he said.
In Prague, the passing of the Czechoslovak state was more bittersweet.
'We shall not enter Europe as a single state of Czechs and Slovaks,' mourned Czechoslovak Premier Jan Strasky in a midnight farewell address to the Czechoslovak state. 'I know from the letters some of you have sent to me...that many of you regret this, and that some of you have not reconciled yourselves to it.'
But he added that if the two new states follow up on the calm and peaceful division as it has progressed so far, 'Czechoslovakia will not end completely.'
It was the first time in the 1,000-year history of the Slovak nation that it has achieved true independence. Earlier Meciar had rejected any comparison to the 'independent' Slovak puppet state set up by the Nazis during World War II.
But while the future holds economic uncertainty -- as of Jan. 1, Czechoslovakia ceased to be a member of the International Monetary Fund -- the mood in Bratislava was buoyant.
'At last we are alone and have gotten rid of the Czechs,' said Otta Chury, a 49-year-old mechanic, voicing the feelings of many Slovaks who felt the ruling hand of Prague intruded too much into their lives during the existence of the federation.
A Bratislava woman, Maria Sluvcevova, agreed. 'The future will be very good, and finally we are free,' she declared.
But her friend, Klara Bencikova, 47, disagreed. 'It was better with the Czechs,' she said. 'It's not good to divorce.'
In the square, one department store displayed a giant television screen that continually flashed the word 'Slovakia' and the new flag.
'I am optimistic,' said Dagmar Krocavova, 25, a teacher. 'I think, finally, the Slovak nation has a chance to show its ability. Maybe this will finally be the end of the inferiority complex.'
There was very little police presence during the celebration and no violence.
Earlier in the day, about 100 demonstrators had gathered on the square, carrying a small coffin with the federation flag draped over it, representing the demise of the Czechoslovak state. Next to it, they held a baby doll -- symbol of the new Slovakia.