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.)

The sheer number of parties seemed like a recipe for excitement, but the campaign was curiously subdued. In 1990, it had been “us” (the people) vs. “them” (the Communist system) and the campaign had been a joyride on a raucous bandwagon. Now the atmosphere was sober, and, in view of what appeared to be at stake, people seemed remarkably calm about it. To get a broader picture I watched television, which is still largely state-owned, and listened to the radio, but apart from some maddening discussions of the legalities of transforming the health service, I could find almost nothing about the elections except a serialized explanation of the voting system. At times it was almost like the old Communist press and television, except for the ads for detergent and chewing gum.

The electoral law, hastily drawn up by a parliamentary commission in early 1990, was amended this January. One of the amendments, perhaps motivated by an exaggerated desire to be fair, forbade television and radio to broadcast electoral programs or speeches except in the social advertising slots available to all parties, or to broadcast “any presentation that could be construed as propaganda or advertising for political parties running in the elections.” It was interpreted to mean that there could be no reporting of electoral meetings on the news, no interviews other than those paid for by the parties and run in special time slots, no “meet-the-candidate” encounters with reporters asking challenging questions, and no political debates, unless presented in some nonpolitical guise. Thus during the three-week campaign, while people were trying to make up their minds in an election crucial to the country’s future, the electronic media offered them nothing but political commercials to ponder over.

These ads appeared about twice a day, clustered together in the European fashion, so that you could, if you wished, watch forty uninterrupted minutes of electioneering that varied wildly in quality and professionalism. Candidates in some of the minor parties explained their programs in ways that suggested a rather limited grasp of the political process. (“If elected, we will try to get rid of all those laws that harm our citizens.”) Other speakers seemed to prefer examining the floor or the wall to looking at the camera while they spoke. There were some unintentionally funny moments. “Our job,” said a particularly plump candidate, “is not to find ways to divide an ever-decreasing pie, but to find ways to make the pie even bigger.” Many of the ads were cartoons, or entertaining skits. None of this was a substitute for a broad discussion of the many issues at stake in the elections.

At the bottom of Wenceslas Square—once the scene of mass demonstrations and now teeming with newspaper vendors, flower sellers, gypsies, schoolchildren, tourists, weekend shoppers, whores, money changers, and layabouts—there was a wooden podium with a canopy over it where an energetic folk combo played an old Prague traditional song about a man who makes love all weekend and than goes to the doctor on Monday and complains that his pištál—his penny whistle—won’t play any more. It was wonderful to hear these songs again, and to be reminded of that musty old Czech mixture of sexual swagger and self-deprecation that saturates the popular culture. But it was an odd way to begin an election meeting, for this podium belonged to the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA), one of the small parties that owed its hopes to the electoral system.

One by one, the ODA candidates who were running for parliament introduced themselves. An attractive woman declared that she was a psychologist with a special interest in human communication, alcoholism, and drug abuse, and that if she was elected, her clinical skills would come in handy in the Federal Assembly. A lawyer in his mid-fifties with a slow, sonorous voice announced that he would apply his legal and legislative skills to the housing problem. A young man with a reddish beard began his speech in resonant ancient Greek, then said: “As you’ve probably guessed, I’m a classical philologist, and I’ve just recited the opening lines of the fifth book of the Odyssey, where Athena appeals to Zeus and the gods to help release Odysseus from the clutches of Calypso. And what she says is this: ‘I have concluded that kindness, generosity, and justice should no longer be the aim of any man who holds a scepter.’ Homer is saying that we can no longer trust kings, we must be prepared to rule ourselves. ODA believes that only a free society can create truly worthy values.”

The Civic Democratic Alliance began life as a political discussion club in the fall of 1989, before the Velvet Revolution. It ran in the last election under the Civic Forum umbrella but retained its separate identity in parliament. One of its leaders, Daniel Kroupa, was instrumental in forming a parliamentary Club of the Democratic Right to resist highly organized counter-proposals for economic reform coming from the left. When the Civic Forum broke up in early 1991, ODA became a free agent again. They claim to be modeled after the British Conservative Party, and they have remained small by design. The members are organized into small discussion clubs all over the Czech Republic. They have no members in Slovakia and have taken a tough stand on the Slovak push for a looser federation.

“We are a party of the electoral type,” I was told, and when I asked what that meant, I was told that their power and influence came straight from the voters, not from a huge political organization. (What he really meant, I think, was that they were relying on the fame of several of their members, who were ministers and parliamentary leaders, to carry them over the 5 percent mark necessary for representation in parliament. They did not.)

How did they differ from Klaus’s party, ODS? After all, both are parties of the right, both espouse privatization as the fastest route to a decentralized market economy, both have taken a hard line on Slovak nationalism. If these elections were a battle between the left and the right over the future of the political and economic reforms and, indeed, over the future of the country, why were they risking a serious split in the right-wing vote? Why did they not simply join forces with ODS?

Dr. Cepl, the lawyer with an interest in the housing problem, liked this question. “We are Hayekians,” he said. “ODS are Friedmanites.” I didn’t understand. “It’s a matter of emphasis,” he explained. “ODS places their main stress on economics; we think political liberty comes first. If the structures of democracy are working, economic reforms will follow. We say we are on the road to freedom; ODS says we are on the road to prosperity.”

As the conversation unfolded, I began to see that the two parties were divided more by temperament than by politics. What ODA most objected to in Klaus’s party was its size (over 30,000 members and growing, as opposed to around 2,000 in ODA), its hierarchical organization, its apparatus, its discipline, its party line, its grim determination to win. “All of this,” says Dr. Cepl, “is intrinsically foreign to us.”

Another major factor dividing the two parties is the personality of Václav Klaus. Many see him as authoritarian, intolerant, even “narcissistic,” accusations I was to hear often. ODA has a billboard in the campaign featuring a group shot of its most prominent members, with the slogan: “We are not a one-man party,” a reference to the popular perception that Klaus has very few strong personalities in his party.


As Havel points out in Summer Meditations, the Federal Republic of Czechoslovakia is hobbled by a constitution inherited from the old regime. It has a bicameral Federal Assembly, with a House of the People in which Czechs and Slovaks are represented in numbers roughly reflecting the population spread (99 Czech seats and 51 Slovak seats) and a House of Nations in which they have equal representation (75 seats from each republic). For important legislation, the Czech and Slovak parts of the House of Nations vote separately, and legislation must be carried in each half to pass. This means that all it would take is 38 recalcitrant Czechs or Slovaks to block legislation. The president, whose powers are largely ceremonial, is elected by the Federal Assembly. Each republic has its own parliament: the Czech National Council with 200 seats, and the Slovak National Council with 150. All these bodies are elected for a specified term, and the constitution has no provisions for dissolving them in the event of an irresolvable conflict with the government. Havel has spent part of the last two years working on a new constitution, and has proposed several basic amendments to the present one. None of them passed, and some say this was because Havel had not consulted with the parliamentary parties beforehand to ease their passage.

The Czechs and Slovaks have maintained the practice, also a hangover from Communist days, of holding elections to both the Federal Assembly and the two National Councils at the same time, arguing that it saves money. This means that there are really two different elections going on at the same time—federal and regional—but they masquerade as one. It causes unbelievable confusion. Most of the parties that run for the Federal Assembly are not, in fact, federal parties at all. Their organizations and membership bases are entirely within the individual republics, and therefore their programs reflect a regional, rather than a federal, understanding of politics. Only six of the forty parties—Klaus’s ODS is one of them—have country-wide organizations and ran candidates in both republics. None of them elected a single candidate in Slovakia.

This situation lends serious weight to an argument sometimes heard in Slovakia—that Czech politicians unconsciously impose Czech policies on Slovakia because they make no distinctions between Czech interests and Czechoslovak interests, and assume that what’s good for Bohemia is good for the nation. In fact, it also meant that the emergence of genuine Slovakian parties like Meciar’s HZDS, instead of being seen as a natural consequence of democracy, was seen as a dangerous threat because it brought into the federal theater a party almost exclusively concerned with Slovakia’s problems. Because of the voting procedure in the Federal Assembly, Meciar and his potential allies could effectively block any federal legislation they wished. And with one seat short of an absolute majority in the Slovak National Council, Meciar can strong-arm the federal government while pursuing his policies in Slovakia, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

The current system, designed in 1990, is a modified form of proportional representation, which means that the seats in the three legislatures are filled according to the percentage of the total vote each party gets. There is a lower limit of 5 percent, so that most of the smaller parties did not get into parliament.

This year there were 8,844 candidates competing for 650 seats spread over twelve electoral districts. Each voter had a package of about a hundred ballots delivered to the door a few days before the election. Each ballot is a list of one party’s candidates to one of the three legislative bodies—the two federal houses and the national council. On election day, the civic-minded voter, having spent several days weighing the merits of the roughly seven hundred candidates on those lists, chooses three ballots belonging to the party (or containing the candidates) of his or her choice, one for each assembly, puts them in a special envelope, and places them in the ballot box. When the final count is in and the seats have been allotted to the parties that make it over the 5 percent limit to qualify for parliament, the candidates to fill those seats are chosen according to the order in which they appear on the ballot. Even in the case of popular parties, only the first few names are “electable,” but voters may, if they wish, circle up to four names on each list to indicate their preference. If a candidate is given enough of these preferential votes the order of names on the ballot is shuffled to reflect that.

The proportional system of voting is more attractive to countries emerging from one-party dictatorships than the majority system practiced in Great Britain and North America because it appears to be more democratic. It gives smaller parties a chance, lessens the “threat” of one-party rule slipping in the back door, and parliaments elected by this system better reflect the range of opinion in the country.

But a look at the Czech and Slovak political scene suggests that the choice of proportional representation has been a disastrous mistake, because it hinders, not helps, the growth of a democratic political culture. In the first place, it discourages the development of large, modern parliamentary parties capable either of winning a clear victory and assuming responsibility for governing the country, or of providing coherent, intelligent, and responsible opposition in the legislative assemblies. Moreover, because such parties are in fact broad coalitions, they depend for their existence on the ability of their members to seek and create consensus within the party—a skill and an ingredient desperately lacking in the present political culture of Czechoslovakia.

Secondly, because the electoral districts are so large and return so many members to the legislative bodies, the notion of representative government has remained a purely formal idea with very little substance. Most Czechs and Slovaks have no idea who their representative is, and the representatives, in turn, owe their position more to the party than they do to the voters, and a crucial link in the chain of representative government never gets created.

As far as I know, there are only two major politicians in Czechoslovakia today who favor the majority system: Václav Klaus, because he is building a strong party that he hopes will eventually be able to govern on its own, and Václav Havel, because he wants to strengthen the element of personal responsibility in the country’s political system.

The electoral system may hinder the growth of large political parties, but it has not stopped it. The two commanding figures in this election, Václav Klaus and Vladimír Meciar, both started building their parties (Meciar calls his a movement) within the disintegrating civic movements that began life as coordinating committees to guide the revolution of 1989. When communism bowed out as the “leading force” in society in December 1989, most of the major leaders in the Civic Forum in Bohemia and Moravia and the Public Against Violence in Slovakia left to take up posts in government, and the movements concentrated on preparing for the first free elections the following June. When the elections were over, Civic Forum and the Public Against Violence became, in effect, a large parliamentary party with a reform program that was supposed to be translated into legislation. But while the members of these movements agreed about what they didn’t want (the old Communist command economy, one-party rule) and about what they did want (a market-based economy), there were serious disputes about how to achieve this.

While the coordinating center of the Civic Forum, in Prague, debated endlessly over policy, the organizations outside Prague, which had helped get them elected, were left without direction. This was all the more distressing because it was here that the presence of old Communists in the local government and state agencies was most acutely felt. Complaints poured into the center, and something had to be done. The movement needed clear policies, better organization, and strong leadership. In other words, it had to become more like a real political party. Some Civic Forum members decided to start with a new leader.

Václav Klaus understood the need for a strong party more clearly than most and in the fall of 1990 his organizers enlisted support from local Forum committees outside Prague, and at the monthly general assembly in October, Klaus was elected chairman, beating out Martin Palouš, a former dissident who was the central coordinating committee’s choice. In his decisive and energetic fashion, Klaus set about to give the Civic Forum a clear political profile, but some objected to this approach, or disagreed with Klaus politically as too doctrinaire in his views of swift privatization, or they simply couldn’t stand him personally, and early in 1991 the movement split. Klaus called his group the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the rest, who were chiefly people with a dissident past, became the Civic Movement, led by the minister of foreign affairs, Jirí Dienstbier.

Klaus describes the Civic Movement people as “post-socialist intellectuals,” and to this day he can still barely disguise his contempt for them as soft liberal intellectuals. Some former dissidents, on the other hand, think that Klaus’s view of economics and politics is too narrow, one that would make of Czechoslovakia just another small country with a slick economy and a plump, complacent populace. Many, including Havel, believe the country can bring more into Europe than that.


After five days in Prague, I rented an old Zhiguli (a Russian Fiat) and drove east, toward Slovakia. It was a relief to leave Prague, with its sense of self-importance, its swirling currents of opinion, the pull of its beauty. The Czech countryside was lush and green, and reports of ecological devastation seemed distant and unreal. There was a bright new sign on the Slovak border, with the Slovak coat of arms on it: a double barred cross emerging from three mounds that are meant to represent mountains. I stopped to see if the Czech sign on the other side of the road matched this proud announcement. All I could find was an indifferent faded blue sign, slightly askew, that said “Czech Republic.”

The history of Slovak nationalism goes back to the nineteenth century, when Slovakia belonged to the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The Hungarians instituted a brutal and thorough policy of Hungarianization, and by the outbreak of World War One, there was only a tiny Slovak intellectual class left. When that empire collapsed after the war, the Czechs and Slovaks came together—uneasily—to form a single state. There was a large German population as well, but they did not take part in the constitution of Czechoslovakia.

The original state was founded on the idea that the Czechoslovaks were a single nation—not a nation of blood and soil, but what they called a “political nation,” that is, a nation bound together by the idea, or the ideal, of political liberty. This idea did not originate with the Czechs or Slovaks and it never really found proper political expression, though there is a large body of literature expounding the ideas of Czechoslovak statehood, and its most recent expression is Havel’s own, in Summer Meditations, where he calls for the creation of a duchovní stát—that is, a state based on spiritual and intellectual values.

In the First Republic, from 1918 to 1938, the Slovaks had virtually no political autonomy. The friction and dissatisfaction this arrangement caused fed the forces of nationalism and separatism, and on the eve of World War Two, the separatist, Nazi-influenced Slovak People’s Party, led by Monsignor Tiso, declared independence with Hitler’s blessing. This repressive Slovak state lasted until the end of the war. In the brief interim before the Communist takeover in 1948, the Slovaks enjoyed a decreasing measure of self-government, and Communist rule brought this to an end. During the brief period of liberalization under Alexander Dubcek in 1968, the question of granting increased autonomy to Slovakia was opened again, and in fact a new constitution granting the two republics “sovereignty” and “equality” was drawn up and passed. But with the Communist Party in virtual control of all levels of government, the concessions were hollow, and remained so until the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

Vladimír Meciar looms as large in Slovakia as Václav Klaus does in the Czech Republic. His pictures were everywhere—a big, jovial man of around fifty, with arms outstretched in a gesture that makes him seem to be saying: “Hey, you really wanna believe all the stuff they say about me?” Other billboards featured a whole team of his people, with the slogan: “That’s us!” There were even “I ♥ Meciar” signs. The Party of the Democratic Left (a Communist party) also had signs everywhere, most of them featuring their chairman, a young research worker named Peter Weiss. His urbanity and good looks indicate the transformation that has taken place in the Communist movement in Czechoslovakia.

In two and a half years, the Communists have managed not only to purge their old and intransigent cadres, but also to shed their image as a totalitarian party. Some say this makes them all the more dangerous. Their attitudes to the reforms, however, are ambiguous. It is said that many Communists are profiting handsomely from the move to the market economy. Thus it is in their personal interest to support privatization, while their political interests are served by opposing it. This has produced a “goslow” strategy which seems to serve both interests at once.

If one were to judge by signs alone, the most prominent party of all in Slovakia would be the Civic Democratic Union—or ODÚ—a party somewhat like Klaus’s ODS in the Czech republic, consisting of the “healthy core” of the Public Against Violence when it broke up in early 1991. ODÚ are not doing well in the public opinion polls, partly because they are considered the party responsible for driving Meciar out of the premiership last year, but also because they have not managed to develop a clear enough pro-federalist and pro-reform platform.

In Košice, I stay in the Hotel Hutník (the Foundary Hotel), one of the many genuine relics of the Bolshevik past that still exist all around the country. Judging by the style—a high-rise pseudo-Corbusier structure faced with fake marble—it can’t be more than twenty years old. I’m delighted to be reminded of how things used to be and shocked at how seedy a place that was once considered luxurious now seems. The lobby smells of the past, of smoke, stale air, old carpets, and cleaning fluid, smells that have seeped indelibly into the very fabric of some public places. The look of the past is there, too: the winding staircase descending from a mezzanine that no one uses, the phony “avant-garde” wall mural, the chunky armchairs in the lobby gathered around large chrome-plated ashtrays on stands with perforated lids so the ashes can collect below and be left there for months at a time.

How many hotels have I been in where precisely these formless wonders—and all the other little details—have been faithfully present: the washbasin with no plug, the rough plastic matting on the floor of the shower, the used bar of soap hanging from the tap in a plastic net bag, the heavy double windows in metal frames that don’t close properly, the Orwellian radio with no dial that can only be turned up or down, but never off, the three-piece mattresses that slip apart in the night, the telephone that can’t be used to call out, the dusty chintz curtains? I am truly glad to have experienced this place because I find that I am easily seduced by signs of change, and need to be reminded that there is more of the past around than I realize.

As I traveled around Slovakia, almost no one I met—with the exception of professional politicians and some young hitchhikers—wanted to separate. Recent statistics suggest that my small, random sampling may not be too far from the reality. As of May, only 11 percent of Slovaks favored outright independence. On the other hand, they were more willing than the Czechs to think about a looser kind of association, and more worried about the economy. In May, 42 percent of Slovaks wanted to alter the course of the reforms, and 30 percent wanted to stop them altogether, whereas in the Czech Republic the figures were 31 percent and 20 percent respectively. Positive support for the reforms was only 28 percent in Slovakia as opposed to 49 percent in the Czech Republic.

Meciar has been able to find political expression for these attitudes and channel them more successfully than his rivals. He devised a program to appeal to the growing number of Slovaks who thought that a new arrangement with the Czechs was essential, but who did not necessarily want to risk a complete break with them. (In this, his program was similar to the “Sovereignty Association” platform of the separatist Parti Québécois in the Quebec election of 1976. Meciar claims to have been inspired by Quebec’s example.)

Vladimír Meciar, like Václav Klaus, is often accused of having dire personal vices, of being uncooperative, incapable of working with others, power-hungry, inconsistent, megalomaniacal, and of riding the nationalist tiger not because he is a nationalist, but because he believes it will take him to power. But whereas with Klaus the accusations usually stop with a list of his personal failings, criticisms of Meciar quickly descend into accusations of unsavory back-room politicking, and of activity that borders on the criminal. He has been accused of misusing his brief tenure as Slovak Interior Minister from January to June 1990 to destroy secret police files that might incriminate him and his friends, and of amassing dossiers that could be used to blackmail potential enemies, and of being in collusion with the old StB (State Security police) and the KGB. Meciar has managed not only to survive such accusations (including an official investigation) but in a curious way, they have added to his luster.

Like Klaus, Meciar came out of the “gray zone”—a region where people held regular jobs and kept low profiles during the Communist era but quietly prepared themselves for the time when the regime would pass away and the skills they had maintained would finally be useful. He has a background in the Communist Youth Movement that supported Dubcek in 1968. He was expelled from the Party in 1969, and appears to have had an unremarkable career as a company lawyer in the central Slovakian city of Trencín. He was also an amateur boxer. He surfaced during the Velvet Revolution when he joined the Public Against Violence and was made (at Dubcek’s suggestion, he says) interim minister of the interior.

After the elections in June 1990, when the Public Against Violence won a clear victory in Slovakia, Meciar became premier of Slovakia and in this capacity he took part in most of the protracted constitutional negotiations between the Czech, Slovak, and federal governments. These negotiations were primarily concerned with working out a new federal arrangement, with a new division of powers that would reflect Slovakia’s status as a “sovereign and equal” republic, and a new constitution and make it more “visible.” Despite initial progress, the talks on the federation came to an impasse, from which they never really recovered. Slovakia wanted the federation to be understood as a voluntary coming together of two sovereign states (a federation “from below”) while the Czechs insisted on the primacy of the federal constitution, that is, essentially a rearrangement from the top down.

As the negotiations dragged on, the Czech side—and part of the Public Against Violence—began to see Meciar as the main obstacle to an agreement, and for that, and other reasons having to do with allegations about collaboration with the secret police and other dirty tricks, both past and present, he was ousted as premier of Slovakia in April 1991. The move was made in his absence, he was not allowed to defend himself, and the way in which it was done was irrregular: it was accomplished by a vote taken among the executive committee of the Slovak National Council, or parliament, and not by a vote of the council itself. Many now think that this was a major mistake by the Public Against Violence, one from which it never recovered. Mecar became a martyr to backroom politics directed from Prague—perhaps even from the Castle itself—and far from dislodging him from power, it strengthened his hand and won him widespread sympathy in Slovakia.

Meciar left the Public Against Violence, which was weakened anyway by conflicts over the lustration of one of their key members, and by disagreements over economic and social policies, and he took with him all those who supported his program called “For a Democratic Slovakia,” and formed the movement of which he is now the head. Although it has no formal membership, it claims the active support of some 300,000 people throughout Slovakia. The rump of the Public Against Violence slowly regrouped, and emerged last October as the Civic Democratic Alliance, but it was slow to come up with a consistent political program, and that made it difficult for them to form a coalition with their natural partners in the Czech Republic, like Klaus’s ODS, reminiscent of the one they had so recently dumped.

Instead of enriching the political scene, the split in the Public Against Violence deeply divided it. Meciar’s opponents see him as a dangerous man who is using the nationalist issue to reestablish a strong, centrally controlled regime run from Bratislava, reminiscent of the one they had so recently dumped. The perception that Havel was behind his ouster is one of the main reasons for his refusal to support Havel’s re-election. He has announced his intention of dismantling the Federal Television Network in Slovakia and has begun to move against local elected officials who belong to ODÚ. Some people I met said they would seriously consider “emigrating” to Prague if he won the election.

There was one more attempt to end Meciar’s political career by accusing him of a variety of dirty tricks, and of having been an agent of the secret police. (I saw election signs in his home town of Trencín spray painted with the word “Doktor,” his alleged code name.) Whether these reports are true or false, each time he is attacked it merely adds to his popularity. But at some point the Czechs who mount or stand behind these attacks should ask themselves—to paraphrase William Butler Yeats—if any links in the chain of responsibility for Meciar’s ascent to his present position of power were not forged in their own workshops.

On May 28, President Havel began a two-day tour of the northern region. He arrived at Poprad airport in a small YAK 40, a Russian plane that disgorges passengers from a ramp that drops down from the rear of the fuselage. He was dressed in a rumpled dark cotton suit, and his face was lined, but he looked well. He worked the reception line quickly, got into his car, a dark BMW sedan, and the motorcade moved off, weaving down the road at what seemed like an insane speed after my week in the Zhiguli. We stopped in at a new private bakery in Poprad, and the TV cameras jammed in while Havel tasted the rolls. Next came a meeting with the board of directors at Tatramat, a washing-machine factory that had recently closed a joint venture deal with Whirlpool International. (Havel’s visit insured that a report on this economic success story would make the evening news on Slovak television, helping to correct the impression that the economic news in Slovakia was all bad.) After a swift tour of the assembly line, where Havel joked with some of the young women, the tour went back on the road. There was an unscheduled stop at a small village pub, where Havel spent twenty minutes drinking and talking about the political situation with a table of local men. He was completely at ease in this setting—more so than in factory boardrooms. One of the men asked him why Czechoslovakia would want to join NATO, and Havel, playing with his cigarette lighter, replied with as much detail and care as he would to a visiting diplomat.

Wherever he went among the public, Havel was constantly asking questions, listening intently to the answers, probing, like a journalist trying to find out what people are really thinking. In a sense, he was not politicking at all, but rather making himself available, making his presence felt, giving people a sense of the man behind the voice they hear on the radio every Sunday afternoon, trying to spread his influence by a kind of osmosis that requires physical contact.

Havel is not a brilliant public speaker. He has a rather dry, hesitant way of talking in public, almost as though he were afraid of being as witty as he can be, lest people think he was taking things too lightly. And yet the manner of his speaking to large audiences is exactly the same as his manner of speech in private—and this may be one of the secrets of his power to communicate. He presents himself to the public more or less exactly as he is, rumple-suited and chain-smoking, with a shy and awkward, untrained smile. Watching the audiences, I could see that people were hanging on his every word, not because he was dazzling, but because in his deliberate way he was unfolding his thoughts to them. The reason why his ideas have impact is that they can create clarity in the mind of the listener. To a hostile question in Liptovský Mikuláš about why he was trying to make political mileage in Slovakia, he replied simply: “Slovakia is not a political party.”

Havel knew, I think, that events in the country were by then beyond his influence. The final polls that arrived by fax during the tour were predictably gloomy. There seemed no way to translate his popularity into political effectiveness. He made one last effort. In his final address to the country before the elections, he urged the voters to think of the larger world when they were voting, and he warned them of the danger of voting for parties that would destroy the country. Everyone, including Meciar himself, assumed that Havel meant HZDS.

Havel persists in his belief in the power of the word, in the power of non-political politics, and in the power of personal example to radiate decency. But it was not working. Havel’s political insights are brilliant and instinctual, but perhaps because he arrives at them by intuition, he does not always use the best or the most effective arguments in putting them across. For more than a year he worked intensively on constitutional matters, isolating the problems that needed to be solved and suggesting workable ways to solve them. (His most important proposal was an amendment to allow for the dissolution of a hung parliament and new elections. Had it passed, it would have made possible the separation of federal elections from elections in the republics, and thus provided a possible way out of the present impasse.) But according to his critics, he made no effort to prepare the ground politically in parliament to ease their passage through the two houses. He seems to have trusted that the politicians would grasp the good sense in his ideas, and accept them. Havel said many times that he would not fight to retain his office, but it sometimes appeared as though he was not even prepared to fight, at least not in public, for his principles.

These elections have removed a whole generation of former dissidents from political office, and Havel’s time is, at least for now, up, too. Behind the obvious reasons for this defeat—lack of proper organization and lack of clearly identifiable programs—lie other reasons that are related to “dissident culture”—that is, to the ideas and mind-sets that these men and women developed over the years in opposition to the Communist regime, and which now make them less effective than people like Meciar or Klaus, who sharpened their political skills in the sheltering anonymity of the gray zone.

One was their belief in solidarity, that is, the belief that a society or community could be created in which people of vastly differing political views and backgrounds could bury their differences and work together on a project that had a higher meaning and deeper principles than “mere” political ones. Members of the human rights movement Charter 77 saw themselves both as a real community where its members could practice the arts of freedom, and as foreshadowing a future society to come, in which divisive politics need no longer play a role. But as the rapid demise of Charter 77 after the Velvet Revolution showed, solidarity is something that flourishes most easily under siege, and when the siege is lifted, the vision fades. Still, the bonds formed in that solidarity are persistent and powerful, sometimes more powerful than respect for more mundane things like tradition, law, or procedural rules. What looks from the inside like a genuine community can look from the outside like a clique.

Another aspect of the dissident experience that hinders the creation of a new political culture is the belief that compromise means surrender. This attitude, in fact, is not limited to dissidents, since everyone who lived under communism and came in daily contact with its unyielding nature knows of the thousands of little accommodations one had to make with the regime to survive. In the mid-Seventies, the dissidents tried to engage the authorities in a dialogue over human rights, but unlike in Hungary or Poland, nothing ever came of it in Czechoslovakia. Few of those who emerged from opposition have the skills—or even the desire—to practice the art of give and take, the art of building consensus. It can seem too much like giving up altogether. The converse of this attitude, which may be causing havoc in Prague now, is that to be uncompromising is morally and politically correct.

The attitude of the former dissidents to communism is now having a rough passage on the way to the new world. Coming to terms with the past is a vital process for these societies, and the way it is done will leave its mark on them for decades to come. Most dissidents went through a process of personal “de-Bolshevization” years ago and have no need to act out any rituals of purification now. On the contrary, they often attach high value to an experience that most ordinary people would just like to forget. Havel has even said that the experience Czechoslovakia has had with communism can be the source of a qualitatively new understanding of human experience, and that could contribute a specifically Czech and Slovak sound to the concert of Europe. This sound wonderful, but it does not address the practical problem of getting the old guard out of positions where they are still causing mischief, and it increases the perception that the former dissidents are “soft” on communism.

This is why they controversy over the “lustration law” controlling the employment of former Communists is more central to the emerging democracy than it seems, and is as great a test of its political maturity as how the constitutional crisis is handled. The law, passed last October, enables particular categories of people—former higherlevel Communist Party officials, agents, and informers of the secret police, and members of the Communist militia and people in several other categories, including some areas of the economy—to be banned from specific kinds of public employment for five years. The actual process of lustration has been going on since the early months of 1990, but it was hit and miss, and the process was clearly open to political abuse and misinterpretation.

As it exists now, the law is an amended version of a bill submitted by the federal government in late September last year. The attack—led by Klaus’s Civic Democratic Party—focused on a formula in the government preamble limiting the application of the law to those who had demonstrably taken part in the “repression of human and civic rights.” The ODS proposed an amendment dropping the formula; the amendment was defeated by one vote; a procedural wrangle developed over whether the house could vote again on the same amendment proposed by a different MP; ODS got its way, a new vote was held, and this time the amendment was passed by a single vote when one member of parliament was persuaded to change his mind and another one hit the wrong button on his voting machine. Members of the Civic Movement, which supported the more limited government version of the law, were upset at this, and many abstained in the final vote. The original version also provided for a jail sentence of up to three years or a stiff fine for the unauthorized publication of the results of anyone’s lustration. The amended version merely says that unauthorized publication is “prohibited.”

Since the law was passed there has, of course, been wholesale publication in the gutter press of lists of former agents and collaborators, and occasionally of the contents of people’s files as well. What many people do not realize is that just because your name appears on the list, it does not automatically mean guilt, at least not in certain categories. President Havel caused a sensation about two weeks before the election, when he announced that he had been “positively vetted” as a “candidate for secret collaboration.” In 1965 the police, unknown to him, had opened a file on him as a possible collaborator, and then thought better of it three months later. The commission cleared him, but his admission highlighted both the weakness and the strength of the present law, which can only confirm or deny that your name is present in a special index of secret police files, not whether you consistently collaborated.

I found widely varying reactions to the lustration law. Outside Prague, in the towns, it was seen very matter-of-factly as a necessary tool to get rid of old Communists who refused to budge. Defenders of the law argue that no one has gone to jail, and the provisions only last for five years. Critics of the law say that a smear lasts forever, and the law is indiscriminate. They say there should have been a political, not a legal solution to the problem, something like a freedom of information act that would have left people and institutions free to deal with the information in their own ways.

Whatever one thinks about it, the lustration law has become a political weapon. Klaus has said that those who oppose it may well have something to hide. And in defending the law to the first convention of his party last November he described what he called “a new social elite” that is linking up with the old Communists to form a huge “politico-economic complex.” They are dangerous, he said, because their version of social and economic reform is completely self-serving, and they stand in the way of progress toward a democratically and economically productive society. “If we do not wish to allow our country to be dragged into a catastrophic social and economic development,” he told the party faithful, “we must insist on [the lustration law’s] application. Any attempt whatsoever to amend it, regardless of how noble the intent, would mean its elimination, and this is something ODS does not intend to permit.”

Meciar’s response to the law was more succinct. “The lustration law creates a state of legal uncertainty. It is a political mistake because it is legally unsound.” He then went on to say that he wasn’t surprised, because it was a “typical product of the Czech political scene. Since 1621, more Czechs have fallen in politics than in battle.”

The election results were announced on the evening of June 7 by a sepulchral election committee to a room full of journalists who sat sullenly taking notes. Both ODS HZDS had done about equally well in their own republics, polling around 34 percent of the popular vote. The revamped Communists had come in second in both parts of the country, at about 15 percent. The complete failure of the Civic Movement to get above the 5 percent mark was a surprise, and the Civic Democratic Alliance, Klaus’s nearest allies, got seats only in the Czech National Council. The Slovak Nationalist Party—an overtly separatist party—got over 9 percent, and a Hungarian party (which would support the federalists in any case) got over 7 percent. The biggest surprise was the far-right Republican Party, which came in at around 6 percent. What this meant in practical terms was that Klaus was faced with a federal parliament dominated by nationalist and left-wing parties, and this may well have made him more convinced of the need for separation.

For the time being, moreover, he had more seats than Meciar, and the same evening President Havel asked him to begin negotiations with Meciar with a view to forming a government.

The negotiations that followed between Klaus and Meciar were distressing. Neither man had run a campaign with separation as a platform, and neither had anything like an absolute majority, but early in their negotiations it appeared that what they were really talking about was not forming a federal government, as Havel had entrusted them to do, but dismembering the federal state. I questioned the propriety of all this, but the answer I always got was that you couldn’t form a government if you didn’t agree on what kind of state you were going to have. Therefore, so the logic went, they had to decide by next Sunday something the three governments hadn’t been able to settle in two years. The politics of haste had triumphed.

I soon discovered that the only people who were wondering the same thing were the left-wing parties, which in the present climate made it an unacceptable idea. Suddenly, after two years of suspicion that the Communists had secret designs to break up the country, the fact that they were now in favor of keeping it together made that idea seem subversive.

During the negotiations the Czech right-wing press kept up a steady separatist drum beat that made it difficult to entertain any ideas other than separation. In fact, there was a spooky uniformity about the editorials which looked like orchestration, but might just have been the Czechs once again demonstrating their amazing capacity for emotional unanimity.

While Klaus and Meciar negotiated, President Havel kept his door at the Prague Castle open. When, the day before I left, both men had reported to him, he went before the public and said that, unfortunately, there was no agreement, because one side, the Slovaks, wanted a confederation of two states, each with international recognition as an independent country, and the Czechs insisted on a federation recognized internationally as a single country, as it was now. Since those two things were mutually irreconcilable, there remained only one constitutional door open: a referendum so that the people themselves could decide. It was a strange moment—this late-night press conference. Havel did not seem distressed, only wan and resigned. Clearly he was not a man in charge; he was just the messenger.

With Meciar threatening to vote against him, Havel’s days as president were numbered. But he soldiered on, and in what amounted to a valedictory to the Federal Assembly on June 25, he reminded them that they were still the highest authority in the land, and that if they ended up dismantling the country, they should do so in a way that would show the world what civilized separation could be like. He reiterated his political credo—certainly the finest statement of its kind he has ever made—and went on to say that he still believed in the idea of a federal state and had no intention of presiding over its liquidation. He concluded with the hope that if the Czechs and the Slovaks did separate, he might one day help to bring them together again.

On July 3, the Federal Assembly voted against him. A second round two weeks later was precluded when Klaus’s party, once again demonstrating its propensity to bend procedural rules, called for a second vote immediately. Havel was defeated again. Moderates within Meciar’s party protested that a compromise might have been worked out, but Klaus was not interested in compromise. The machinery for separation had already been set in motion, and compromise was a waste of precious time.

The course for the breakup of Czechoslovakia now seems set. The two nations have been brought to the brink in a series of events that remind me very much of the old adage about the kingdom that was lost for want of a nail in the shoe of the king’s horse. Havel saw more clearly than anyone else the loose nails in the old constitution—those tiny, fatal flaws—and because he could not wield the hammer himself, he tried to draw the blacksmith’s attention to them. But the smith ignored his advice, and Havel found himself presiding over the breakup of his country, powerless to do anything about it.

A large question remains whether he can regain his power, or retain his influence, by accepting Václav Klaus’s offer to be president of a Czech republic. In the present atmosphere of great enthusiasm for the new idea of Czech separatism, it may be tempting to think that he could. But when the enthusiasm dies down, as it inevitably will, and the reality of what they have done sinks in, the Czechs and Slovaks will need politicians who have stood fast and were not swayed by the winds of temporary passion. Havel’s greatest strength is his consistency. If he seems to abandon his idea of a Czechoslovak federation, his faith that the country can make its own unique contribution to a more united world, can he continue to have the authority to act effectively in politics?

When he was an independent intellectual, Havel once wrote that there is a secret life in society that goes on, despite the efforts of worldly powers to suppress or manipulate it. It was this secret life, he said, welling up to the surface, that overthrew communism, and in Summer Meditations he refers to it again, calling it the tremendous potential for good slumbering in society. Havel tried to awaken it by appealing to the morality he believes must be at the basis of all politics. The politicians have not listened to him, but, as I know from having lived with them, ordinary Czechs and Slovaks have, and they have taken great strength from that. Beneath the current debacle of Czechoslovak politics, the hidden life of society goes on, as it always has. It would be understandable if he chose to retire, for now, at least, to become obcan Havel—citizen Havel—once more, and to rediscover the truth and the strength in the ideas that now seem to lie about him in such disarray.

July 17, 1992

This Issue

August 13, 1992