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The End of the Velvet Revolution

1.

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 only a brief, two-year mandate. As a writer, Havel thought they would work best under a deadline.

I arrived in Prague on a balmy spring evening when the air was heavy with the scent of lilacs and people were getting ready for the weekend. The election campaign had been officially under way for two days, yet as I drove down the broad Evropská Avenue (formerly Leninová) leading from the airport to the center of Prague, the only evidence of an election I could see were large billboards carrying a portrait of Václav Klaus, a trim, middle-aged man in glasses with graying hair and a gray moustache, against a sky-blue background, grinning, arms folded, right thumb up, under the slogan “Don’t betray your future.” His party’s symbol, the silhouette of a bird taking flight, was set in the lower left corner. Sometimes, instead of Mr. Klaus’s, the image on the billboard was that of an adult male hand reaching out to take the hand of a small child, with the slogan: “You have the future in your hands.” In most cases, the large political billboards shared space with advertisements for Coca-Cola, Volkswagen, Dannon Yogurt, and a merchant bank, which used an image perhaps more appropriate to the new Czechoslovakia: two adult hands shaking to close a deal.

Prague is at its most seductive and charming in the spring, but as I walked through the streets I was especially aware of its characteristic layering of past and present. The center, especially, had altered radically since I was here two years ago, with the explosion of new private shops and restaurants, the hordes of tourists and the vendors and hawkers living off them, the sight of workmen actually working on the scaffolding, old buildings being renovated, new ones going up. It felt as if the city was getting down to business, in its own relaxed fashion. Yet whenever I went into a private shop or restaurant, I could see that the style of service had not changed very much. The sullen manners had gone, but the old inefficiency remained. In one small convenience store, I was gently reprimanded for taking something off the counter myself, instead of waiting to be served.

I spent the next few days getting my bearings. Klaus did, indeed, seem to be the popular favorite, but some people I talked to—people who were strongly in favor of his economic policies—were worried that he would not be able to deal adequately with the shocks that were yet to come. The rents on state-owned flats were about to go up on July 1, and a new bankruptcy law scheduled for the autumn meant that unprofitable state companies could now close down. Unemployment in the Czech Republic was still at an idyllic 4 percent (it was less than 1 percent in Prague), but it would almost certainly rise. Yet Klaus, with his rigid emphasis on rapid, thoroughgoing economic reform, had positioned his party exclusively toward the right end of the spectrum. He had recently formed a coalition with Václav Benda’s Christian Democratic Party, but made no secret of his scorn for the Civic Movement (OH), led by Foreign Minister Jirí Dienstbier, who might have been an ally, and broadened the front against the left. The Civic Movement was the only party that might be defined as being at the center of the spectrum (that is, in favor of economic reforms, but with safety nets, a position like the one Havel takes in Summer Meditations). Many of its prominent members were in government, and were also former dissidents, but the party was badly organized, and in fact it was eliminated in the elections.

Czechs seemed generally ignorant of what was going on in Slovakia, but this did not prevent them from having strong opinions about it. Meciar was seen as a threat, an old Communist with Mafia-like connections and manners who wanted to bring back socialism. Only a handful of people I talked to in Prague took him and his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia seriously. In general they seemed to feel that what was happening politically in Slovakia was illegitimate, something that was taking place outside the limits of proper democratic politics. This allowed them to ignore the possibility that Meciar’s rise—and indeed the strength of the left—might have had to do with Slovakia’s special economic problems. Yet the unemployment figures in Slovakia had risen to a catastrophic 12 percent. The economy in Slovakia was in worse shape now than it had ever been, at least as far as ordinary Slovaks were concerned.

For the past forty years, the Communist regime had put large steel plants, arms factories, and chemical works into Slovakia in an effort to transform its largely rural economy. Thus while communism had meant a decline in the standard of living for most Czechs, most Slovaks had experienced steady improvement. Now their main market, the Soviet Union, had collapsed. In addition, a decision was taken in Prague, apparently without much consultation with the Slovaks, to convert their tank factories to some other form of manufacturing, since selling large amounts of weapons no longer fit with the new Czechoslovakian foreign policy. It was a laudable gesture, but a potential disaster for the regions dependent on arms manufacturing. I was shown statistics indicating that the economy caused far more worry to the Slovaks than to the Czechs. In May, over 40 percent of the Slovaks wanted to slow down the economic reforms and modify them, or stop them altogether.

A few days after I arrived, the popular “voucher privatization” scheme was just about to move into its first round, which meant that the eight million people—both Czechs and Slovaks—who had taken advantage of their right to purchase a set number of vouchers for a nominal price could now “bid” for shares in over 1,400 state enterprises that were about to go private. It was a daring scheme, but some Slovak parties, Meciar’s included, were saying that it should be handled differently, or stopped altogether. They argued, for instance, that not enough information about the companies to be privatized was available, and that the program favored insiders. Meciar said the system was unjust because some people would lose their investment, and at one point his party floated an idea whereby the state would administer the investment vouchers for the citizens. This kind of thing gave credence to the Czech view that Meciar knew nothing about economics.

One issue that I could not avoid, because people kept bringing it up, was the “lustration” or “screening” law, a law designed to eliminate from certain positions in government or industry anyone who had held a high post in the Communist Party or in any way worked for the secret police. The law was controversial and deeply disturbing to many people I met, but I had no way of gauging, yet, what this meant.

At first glance, the electoral landscape seemed confusing and cluttered. There were forty parties, coalitions, and movements competing for votes, almost twice as many as in 1990. They ranged across the political spectrum, from the ultra-right-wing Republican Party with some rather nasty views on Gypsies, to a party of old Slovak Communists. There were Green parties, Hungarian parties, Gypsy parties, and some—like the Friends of Beer or the Independent Erotic Initiative—fell right off the spectrum altogether. On closer examination, however, the variety was illusory: most of the programs shared so many common features that they were almost indistinguishable, except in broad, classical terms: “right” and “left.” (In economic terms, to be “left” in present-day Czechoslovakia means to favor reforms that mix elements of socialism with elements of the market. To be “right” means to favor a market free of political restraint. The right believes that rapid privatization is central to reform. The left believes you can create a marketplace and leave large chunks of the state sector intact.)

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