The Ethical and Political Dilemmas of the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution
By Jack Wells
Photo Credit: Jiri Igaz / Shutterstock.com
November 17th, 2019 was the thirtieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. This revolution, marvelous though it was, and its aftermath, I believe, demonstrates that creating a mature democracy out of thin air is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. The apparent success of the revolution hid flaws that seemed to be of secondary importance at that pivotal moment, but came back to haunt the fragile democracy. The premium placed on legal continuity and on the disarming of any potential violence in 1989 would be paid for dearly later on, in terms of the popularity, and even the legitimacy, of the country’s post-communist regime.
The Czech dissidents were confronted at the beginning of the 1989 revolution with two major obstacles: they were not professional politicians, which is a diplomatic way of saying that they were complete amateurs in organizational, political, and economic matters; and, crucially, they were not representative of the majority of the population. In a private poll undertaken at the beginning of December, just a couple of weeks after citizens first protested in Wenceslas Square, Czechoslovakia’s most famous dissident, Václav Havel, was mentioned as a potential presidential candidate by only a negligible part of the population. The dissidents did represent the right side of history — the collapse of communism in Europe, that was unthinkable at the beginning of November. It was the new normal by January. But their unilateral claim that they alone were best situated to attain the country’s primary goal of democracy led them to take many liberties with it. As the subsequent decades would show, the fact that the dissidents were legitimized by the first post-communist elections did not erase the damage to standards of acceptable political behavior that they unwittingly made.
At least three of their choices were ethically debatable: they had Havel elected by the communist parliament; they turned down the direct election of the president by the people in the name of constitutional stability at a time when a popular revolution was supposed to be ongoing; and they purged the communist deputies in a process worthy of communist practices.
The support of workers was ensured thanks to false promises such as “there will be no unemployment and no harsh economic measures.” The Slovaks were treated with contempt. The fear of what the masses could do was mobilized, the communist MPs were intimidated, communist authorities were left free to tamper with the Secret Police files, and in order to isolate the Slovak reform communists and Havel’s potential political rival, 1968 throwback Alexander Dubček, the Czech (and soon-to-be neoliberal) economists were coopted and given free reign.
What else could the dissidents have done, however, one might ask? The moment, after all, was sudden, and decisions had to be made fast. Certainly, any scenario for exiting communism would most likely have led to its own set of impossible choices and deleterious effects. Michael Kocáb, the famous singer and dissident, recapitulated various possible paths in a recent interview for the Czech news site, Deník N. None was satisfying.
One important key to understanding this present popular dissatisfaction is to be found not so much in the outcome of the revolution as in the way it was achieved, confronting what Jeffrey Goldfarb calls “the social condition,” i.e. dilemmas that are inevitably built into the fabric of society. It proved to be as impossible to get rid of a dictatorship with democratic means, as it was to start a healthy democracy based on undemocratic practices. There was, apparently, no good solution, all the more so considering that many communist ideals were still popular. Not one country was fully satisfied with its own exit from communism — not even East Germany, the only region that benefited not only from massive investments in its economy, but from an unspoiled well of judges, policemen, teachers, administrators and all other essential professionals needed for the establishment of the rule of law and a viable economy. Despite all its shortcomings, seen from Poland, Hungary, or Romania today, the Czechoslovak path does not look so bad. In fact, until recently, the Velvet Revolution was understood as a satisfactory rupture.
Yet the Czech population has become deeply dissatisfied with certain aspects of the change, particularly the growth of poverty and inequality (see for instance the remarkable work of journalist Saša Uhlová, who, for six months, held some of the worst paid jobs in the country to report on the living conditions of the new proletariat) and the loss of social security. The scale of the corruption, as well as the sense of impunity, have rivaled and in fact outperformed the worst excesses of communism. Even more problematic, the political atmosphere has become execrable.
In consequence, the last years have witnessed the beginnings of a momentous re-evaluation of the Velvet Revolution. The historical and sociological literature had long neglected to admit that in contrast to the laboriously negotiated Hungarian and Polish exits, the Czech version, as an intellectual feat led by heroic dissidents, was no ideal model either. Václav Havel, it is now underscored, was critical of democracy long before 1989. In his celebrated 1978 essay, The Power of the Powerless, he even discussed something he called “post-democracy.” During the Velvet Revolution, he and other dissidents played a power game quite removed from the ethical standards he had made famous as a writer, intellectual, and dissident. The (communist-elected) parliament, in particular, was treated with an alarming level of disdain.
That the dissidents were political amateurs was pardonable; it is the way they made the argument that they represented the proverbial “people’s will” — and then acted on it — that is problematic. Unconsciously mimicking the arguments of party leader Klement Gottwald, who had put similar pressure on the democratic president Beneš in 1948 to sign in the new communist government, Havel insisted at every round of the negotiations he led with the communist authorities that the people were getting impatient and that even his popular Civic Forum might soon lose favor with the mob. In response, the representatives of the outgoing dictatorship all of a sudden became stauncher supporters of the rule of law than the dissidents themselves.
This irony became frankly absurd when the question of the voting system for the new president arose. It was once again the communists who were in favor of the more democratic mode (a direct election by the people), rather than an indirect election by parliament. The communists indeed counted on their genuine support amongst the population to have the communist candidate, outgoing Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec, elected. This communist wager did not take into account the dynamic of power and popularity that dramatically evolved over the next few weeks. But as a snapshot of the situation at the beginning of December 1989, it does speak volumes as to the dissidents’ lack of popularity and the level of legitimacy that the communists still enjoyed. The dissidents were claiming to represent the will of the people but were so concerned about Havel’s chances of winning a free election that, in the name of “constitutional stability,” they argued instead for retaining the election of the president by the (communist-elected) parliament. In other words, they bypassed the public. This disregard for the popular vote, and the means used to ensure a parliamentary vote, are problematic from an ethical point of view. No wonder the expression “velvet hangover” was already in use by the 1990s.
Continuities with past practices continued to surface. The constitutional lawyer who on November 29th, 1989, endeavored to have parliament erase the three articles from the Czechoslovak constitution that guaranteed the leading role of the Communist Party was none other than the author of this very same communist constitution in 1960: Zdeněk Jičínský. During the interim, he had become a dissident and Charter 77 signatory. But how could the 1989 revolutionaries convince the communist MPs to elect their archenemy Havel? Jičínský was the author of a November 28th proposal to have dozens of deputies recalled for “abusing their mandate and not minding the will and interest of the people.” An existing law, passed in 1971 to formalize the post-1968 purges of reform communist MPs, Dubček sympathizers, and Prague Spring enthusiasts, allowed for this. One of its victims had been none other than Zdeněk Jičínský.
Historian Kieran Williams reminds us of other troubling parallels with past practices. Several institutions were established in 1989-1990 to deal with the Ministry of Interior, which encompassed the infamous Secret Police (StB) and its archives: one of those was a network of “three-man screening commissions.” These troikas consisted of one former StB officer, discharged after 1968 for having supported the Prague Spring, one member of a citizens’ committee, and one current employee of the ministry. Such networks of “vigilant citizens” and “screening troikas” are yet again unnervingly reminiscent of the Action Committees that stormed the country after the February 1948 communist takeover and fired many citizens who were not vocally committed to the nascent communist dictatorship from their positions.
Once the Round Table negotiations were progressing and the communist President Gustáv Husák had resigned, a new president had to be elected. Michael Žantovský claims that the presidential election was settled between Václav Havel and communist Prime Minister Marián Čalfa on December 15th, adding with his customary humor: “… this was a parliament so used to taking orders it would have elected Dracula if told to do so by the government.”
This statement is amusing but is contradicted by old and new research. According to Jiří Suk, the communist MPs were in fact strongly determined to resist the pressure from below and above, to engage themselves fully in the democratic process, and to gain greater social recognition for their role as MPs. On December 13th, they endorsed the resignation of the most compromised apparatchiks among them, elected a new presidium, and declared their intention to have the new president elected directly by the people. This path offered them greater moral satisfaction than being humiliated into electing Havel before they were discarded and purged. But the revolutionary constitutionalists — Zdeněk Jičínský, Pavel Rychetský and Petr Pithart — publicly disavowed a direct election and pleaded for the continuity of legal practices. MPs who disagreed would be “helpers of the devil”, they said. The only way for them to redeem themselves was to elect Havel president and adopt the new constitutional order on the basis of which many would be soon dismissed. As Jiří Suk explains it, “In the name of a radiant, democratic future, the MPs — who had indeed been elected undemocratically but who were now professing to respect democracy — were forced to adopt non-democratic practices.”
It got worse. Jiří Suk cites Jiří Svoboda, the soon to be president of the Czech and Moravian Communist Party (KSČM), according to whom several communist MPs refused to endorse this “arrangement” and planned to demonstratively resign from their mandate. In view of this impending fiasco, a meeting of the parliamentary club of the communist MPs was called on December 27th. Secretary Vasil Mohorita and Prime Minister Marián Čalfa threatened the communist MPs with “a criminalization of their political attitudes” and with “hangings on the lampposts.” The MPs were made to vote repeatedly until they reached unanimity, says Svoboda. Čalfa later acknowledged that he had been “very brutal.”
Two days later, on December 29th, Havel was unanimously elected Czechoslovak President by the parliament. When the positions of many communist MPs were indeed redistributed in January, they tended to favor Czech over Slovak MPs. The Slovaks were indignant — this was the beginning of the end for Czechoslovakia. Moreover, Havel’s choice for the post of Minister of Interior, Richard Sacher, kept the head of the Secret Police in place for several weeks. General Alojz Lorenc was thus free to tamper with police files, which fatefully discredited the entire transitional judicial process. Czech memory politics have not recovered from this blow.
It might be time today to reevaluate the course of the Velvet Revolution: to accept Czechoslovakia’s exit from communism as better than some (violence would of course have been worse) but as an imperfect process nonetheless. It would be useful for the Czech Republic today to acknowledge that many of the problems of post-communism originated in the material impossibility of finding a way out of a deeply ingrained dictatorship without compromising democratic principles. There is no shame in having wanted democracy to succeed, and in improvising amidst great constraints to make that happen. What has become problematic over the decades since is the refusal to acknowledge the shortcomings of the revolution and to address them, and thereby to finally turn the page of “post-communism.”
We are not there yet. On November 17th, 2019, for the thirtieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, President Zeman skirted any state commemoration while Prime Minister Babiš only held an indoor celebration with the prime ministers of the Visegrád group — while 200,000 to 300,000 demonstrators had called for his resignation the day before. He extolled Václav Havel’s courage and admitted he was not proud to have been member of the Communist Party before leaving the country for Slovakia. The heads of the Czech state could not face the public at what should have been a festive and symbolic time. Democracy still waits to be built.
Muriel Blaive is a historian and researcher at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague.