The End of the Velvet Revolution

The Czechoslovakian elections this June have created a watershed in the country’s history. The two winners—Václav Klaus and his Civic Democratic Party (ods) in the Czech Republic, and Vladimír Meciar and his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS)—have both agreed to abandon the federal state for what they claim is a higher ideal: Meciar to secure a sovereign Slovakia, Klaus to pursue rapid economic reform. Václav Havel has resigned, giving up his bid to preside over a federal Czechoslovakia for another term, although he may become president of a separate Czech state. This election exposed the radical polarization of Czech and Slovak political life and also marked the defeat of almost all the dissidents who held public office since the revolution of November 1989.

I flew to Prague this past May, aware of the rumors of imminent breakup. Klaus had said, on May 7, that his party would split the country if accommodation couldn’t be found with the Slovaks, and just a few days before Meciar, the strongest politician in Slovakia, had announced to Havel that he intended to declare sovereignty in Slovakia this summer. Havel’s star was sinking, and Klaus was replacing him as the new, charismatic leader.

When Havel wrote his reflections on the country, Summer Meditations, a year ago, the broad outlines of the present crisis were already visible. The country’s inadequate constitution had not been designed for use in a working democracy; it lacked many of the instruments—such as public referenda—to deal with possible crises, and it could too easily become deadlocked. Negotiations with Slovakia over power-sharing in a renewed federation were not going well. The electoral law, in Havel’s mind, was confusing and did little to encourage true representative democracy. And the political scene was fragmented into many political parties each pursuing its own particular interests, rather than the common good. Havel, it seems, had not really been prepared for this sudden welling up of trouble.

I had understood all this but, from the outside, none of the problems seemed unmanageable, or even out of the ordinary. Democracy, after all, is an imperfect way of dealing with human imperfection; even in the so-called mature democracies, we are still, in a sense, muddling through. Besides, Summer Meditations also outlines some formidable achievements. Plans for reintroducing a market economy—the most radical and inventive in any of the former Communist countries—were under way. Largely thanks to Havel’s own efforts, Czechoslovakia was cutting a strong figure internationally. The Soviet troops that had occupied the country were gone, new treaties had been signed.

The face of the country was slowly beginning to change. The only disquieting thing about Summer Meditations was Havel’s own impatience. He seemed to think that all these problems should have had quick solutions, so that Czechoslovakia could get on with the real business of reclaiming its place in Europe. This was why he had insisted that the country’s first free parliaments have …

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