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The End of Czechoslovakia

1.

The Velvet Revolution and those who received most credit for it were almost too successful for their own good. The Civic Forum among the Czechs and the Public Against Violence among the Slovaks emerged from the ordeal of November–December 1989 with unrivaled prestige and honor. It did not seem to matter that the former all-Communist government was replaced by a new government with a considerable number of Communists. It hardly counted that the Civic Forum and Public Against Violence were less than a month old, had no semblance of organization, and were mainly composed of intellectuals without experience in government or business. It was a time to celebrate and rejoice.

But the problems of the country would not wait. Most urgent were the need for a democratic constitution to take the place of the Communist constitution, attention to the festering antagonism between Czechs and Slovaks, a new economic policy, and in general a sense of where the country was going. The revolution had been too much of a surprise to permit the victors to plan and prepare for the next stage. The Civic Forum and the Public Against Violence were so heterogeneous in their political makeup and so haphazard organizationally that they could agree on little else than getting rid of the Communist stranglehold.

The result was that most problems were put on hold until free elections could be held six months later in June 1990. In his first public address as president in January 1990, Václav Havel did not exaggerate the problems which the country faced:

Our country is not flourishing. The enormous creative and spiritual potential of our nations is not being used sensibly. Entire branches of industry are producing goods which are of no interest to anyone, while we are lacking the things we need. A state which calls itself a workers’ state humiliates and exploits workers. Our obsolete economy is wasting the little energy we have available. A country that once could be proud of the educational level of its citizens spends so little on education that it ranks today as seventy-second in the world. We have polluted our soil, our rivers and forests, bequeathed to us by our ancestors, and we have today the most contaminated environment in Europe. Adult people in our country die earlier than in most other European countries.

After this and more, Havel told of he kind of republic that he dreamed of:

I dream of a republic independent, free, and democratic, of a republic economically prosperous and yet socially just, in short, of a humane republic which serves the individual and which therefore holds the hope that the individual will serve it in turn. Of a republic of wellrounded people, because without such it is impossible to solve any of our problems, human, economic, ecological, social, or political.1

Unfortunately, Havel could provide little more than dreams. Czechs and Slovaks waited to see how and when his dreams were going to be realized.

2.

The election of June 1990 was a smashing victory for the Civic Forum and the Public Against Violence. Both were able to dominate the governments that came out of it. The prime minister of the new federal government continued to be the former Communist Marián Calfa but Jirí Dienstbier as foreign minister and Václav Klaus as finance minister, representing the Civic Forum, gave the government its political identity. The prime minister of the Czech government was Petr Pithart of Civic Forum. In Slovakia, the new government was headed by Vladímir Meciar from the Public Against Violence, still a little-known figure.

The Civic Forum was the first to fall victim to its own nature. It was still very much like its old self—unorganized or disorganized, a motley collection of individual intellectuals, proud that it was not like other parties or a party at all. The most famous and most influential of them all, Havel, was now president and determined to favor no group or faction, including his own. Czechoslovak politics went back to its condition in the first twenty years, beginning in 1918, when a multiplicity of parties had competed for favor and a coalition of five parties had usually formed the government.

Government service was a new and somewhat intoxicating experience for the Civic Forum graduates. For the most part, they had no aptitude for or interest in the grubby work of political organization and fence-mending. Eda Kriseova, who worked in Havel’s office and is the author of a biography of him, later explained why intellectuals were not made for politics; she might have been thinking of her friends in the Civic Forum:

The intellectual-turned-politician is by nature self-critical, and thus unable to campaign in his own favor. His self-criticism, detachment, non-partisan approval—these are his positive qualities. Intellectuals shy away from the power of government. They have a permanently critical attitude to power, a lack of confidence in it. For that reason they are not very successful at practical politics. The intellectual wishes to create ideas but dislikes repeating them and forcing them down people’s throats. He finds it painful to go over the same story time and time again.2

But at least one member of the Civic Forum did not conform to this political portrait of the intellectual. He was Václav Klaus, the new finance minister, perhaps because he was an economist. The second Václav was as different from the first as can be imagined.

During the Communist years, Klaus had managed to stay out of trouble without joining the Party. Now fiftyone, he began his career in the early 1960s by working at the Economics Institute of the Academy of Sciences. Later in the decade, the temporary relaxation of controls during the “Prague Spring” enabled him to study in Italy and at Cornell University. At Cornell, he discovered the theories of Milton Friedman and became a monetarist true believer. On his return, he was ousted from the Academy of Sciences and spent the next sixteen years in a minor post in the Czechoslovak State Bank. In 1987, he managed to get an appointment as an economist and statistician at the Institute of Economic Forecasting under its director, Valtr Komárek, later economics minister with Klaus in the first postrevolutionary government. In that year, he began to contribute articles on economics to the samizdat publications of the opposition. He was such a zealous Friedmanite that he signed them with the initials “M.F.”3 His background hardly seemed to prepare him for a heady political career.

Klaus first emerged into the open by taking part in the Communist–Civic Forum negotiations in November–December 1989. In a matter of months, he went from obscurity to political leadership. In October 1990, he succeeded in making himself chairman of Civic Forum. But the success and institutionalization of Civic Forum was not his goal. Instead, he wanted to transform it into an American-style political party, veering sharply to the right, as that term was understood in Czech politics. This meant taking up a much stronger anti-Communist position than had been adopted and, above all, pursuing an economic policy based on Friedmanite principles. Klaus insisted on full speed ahead toward a market economy and privatization of ownership.

When Klaus encountered resistance within the Civic Forum from those who preferred a mixed economy and a slower transformation, he pushed ahead toward a split. In March 1991, he led his free-market followers into a new Civic Democratic Party, which he said would “not be led by dreamers but would be characterized by realism and pragmatism.”4 He openly described the new party as “right-wing” and gloried in his election as chairman of “the first, really right-wing political party in Czechoslovakia in the last four or five decades.”5

The opposition in the Civic Forum answered by forming the Civic Movement, headed by Jirí Dienstbier, the foreign minister. It considered itself to be “centrist,” because there was a “left” represented by the legal and active Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia. Klaus derided the Civic Movement as ” ‘liberal’—I have to say in the American sense, not in the European sense, to my regret.” 6 But the Civic Movement, unlike its alleged American prototype, still failed to organize itself as a traditional political party and contented itself with halfway measures that made it seem closer to the Civic Forum from which it had sprung.7

In this way, the Civic Forum, which had emerged the unchallenged victor in the election of June 1990, consumed itself a few months later. Nevertheless, Dienstbier’s Civic Movement still had many of the bestknown figures that had been identified with the Civic Forum, and there was no telling how the contest with the Civic Democratic Party was going to come out. Yet the split was another turning point in the Veivet Revolution. It underscored how much the revolution had been “against” and not “for.” Once the children of the revolution had to define themselves, they started to go their separate ways.

In Slovakia, a similar development took place with a different twist.

In February 1990, the Public Against Violence was faced with the emergence of a rival organization. One of its prominent members, Jan Carnogursky, a Catholic dissident, broke away to form a new Christian Democratic Movement. It succeeded in coming in second to Public Against Violence in the election of June 1990, and, together with a smaller third party, they formed a coalition to constitute the first freely elected Slovak government.8

The prime minister of this government was Vladimir Meciar of Public Against Violence. Like Klaus in the Czech government but with a different background, he came out of obscurity as a result of the sudden political shakeup brought about by the revolution.

Unlike Klaus, Meciar had been a Communist. Years ago, he had been a leader of the Communist youth league in Slovakia and had studied in the Soviet Union. But Meciar had gone along with the “reform Communists” in 1968 during the “Prague Spring,” for which reason he was expelled in 1970. He went to law school and bided his time as the lawyer of a glass factory. For almost twenty years, he kept his head down and waited for an opportunity to get back into political life.

The chance came with the Public Against Violence in 1989. He grasped it with such zeal that he became the minister of interior in the Slovak interim government between January and June 1990. Something he may or may not have done in this period has haunted him ever since. He was accused by the parliamentary Slovak defense and security commission of having ordered the removal of six pages of the secret police records, including two file cards on himself. According to the commission, one of the cards said that he had been arrested in 1970 for the possession of illegal pamphlets. The other card stated that he was a “right-wing opportunist” and collaborator, whose code name was “Doktor.” Meciar has repeatedly denied the latter charge, and it has done him little harm except to keep him busy denying it.

  1. 1

    Václav Havel, Open Letters: Selected Writings 1965–1990, edited by Paul Wilson (Knopf, 1991), pp. 390, 396.

  2. 2

    At a conference on “Intellectuals and Social Change in Central and Eastern Europe,” published in Partisan Review, special issue, 1992, pp. 704–705. Kriseova’s biography of Havel has appeared in French (éditions de l’aube, 1991) and is forthcoming in English from Pharos Books. It does not deal with the Communist–Civic Forum negotiations or the subsequent developments.

    Kriseova’s reflections on intellectuals in politics remind one of a remark by Sir Lewis Namier on what he considered to be another such revolution in 1848: “The ‘Revolution of the Intellectuals’ exhausted itself without achieving concrete results: it left its imprint only in the realm of ideas” (1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals, 1946; new edition, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 31).

  3. 3

    The information on his articles for samizdat comes from Rita Klimová, the first postrevolutionary Czechoslovak ambassador to the United States, herself an economist, who knew Klaus before the revolution and was responsible for handling his articles for samizdat. Klaus’s background is briefly described by Jaroslav Veis, “King Klaus,” East European Reporter (Budapest), September–October 1992, pp. 12–13. Veis is vice-president of the Czech PEN Club.

  4. 4

    Bernard Wheaton and Zdenek Kavan, The Velvet Revolution (Westview Press, 1992), p. 167. This book uses the terms Citizens Democratic Party and Citizens Forum, but I have preferred Civic Democratic Party and Civic Forum, because they are employed almost everywhere else and are more easily recognizable.

  5. 5

    Václav Klaus, Dismantling Socialism: A Preliminary Report (Prague: Edice Top, 1992), in English and Czech, p. 22.

  6. 6

    Dismantling Socialism, p. 22.

  7. 7

    A smaller Civic Democratic Alliance also came out of Civic Forum in 1991; it was usually allied with the Civic Democratic Movement.

  8. 8

    It should be recalled that there were, in effect, three governments and two republics: the federal or Czechoslovak government, the government of the Czech Republic, and the government of the Slovak Republic. How this arrangement came about is discussed later in this article.

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