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Czechoslovakia's Quiet Revolution | The Nation

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Czechoslovakia's Quiet Revolution

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Prague

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

"Havel to the castle": In the doubly festive mood just before Christmas the heart of Prague was full of posters bearing that slogan and a picture of Vaclav Havel, the famous playwright, his shirt open at the neck, looking impish, irreverent and very youthful for his 53 years. There were also less numerous pictures of a more dignified Havel, with suit and tie, as if somebody had subsequently decided that people want a more respectable image of a man who would occupy the presidential palace. When events move so fast it is necessary to improvise.

I had come to Czechoslovakia with one obvious question in mind. Stalin's exported revolution had collapsed throughout Eastern Europe. On its ruins it was possible to restore capitalism or to build something different. The Hungarian and Polish rulers had clearly opted for the capitalist road; where it will lead them is another matter. Do the Czechoslovaks have an alternative?

Prague, with its variety of architecture--Gothic and Renaissance, splendid Baroque and more Art Nouveau than in Vienna--remains a superb setting for any investigation, only the answers here never seem simple or predictable. Thus, as a slogan on one poster put it in a nutshell, the Czechoslovaks had just won in ten days what it took the Poles ten years, the Hungarians ten months and the East Germans ten weeks to achieve. Yet they have managed to perform their heroic symphony in a minor key and couple the word "revolution" with such unexpected adjectives as "peaceful," "moderate" and "orderly." There is a distance, an irony, a sense of humor in the cultural climate here and, once bitten twice shy, an allergy to romantic illusions.

I get a taste of this mood from the very start in the flat of Petr Uhl and Anna Sabatova, one of the rare places, particularly in this part of Europe, still conveying the spirit of the 1960s New Left: a picture of Che Guevara on the wall and a poster proclaiming "Marxism is dead" with a winking Marx replying, in French, "My eye!" Uhl, just out of jail, where he has spent nine of the last twenty years, apologizes for the little time at his disposal. On top of many new tasks, he still has his old job as a stoker in the subway. There were four men on the job and now there are only three. Still, he can't complain since the man who left, friend and former journalist Jiri Dienstbier, was transferred to the seventeenth-century Cernin Palace, not as a stoker but as the new Minister of Foreign Affairs. When I told this story to Ladislav Hejdanek, the subtle philosopher and former spokesman of Charter 77 who as such had much bitter experience with odd jobs, he lectured me on the virtues of being a stoker: There are not many manual jobs in which you can find spare time for reading.

This Czechoslovak version of the "pride of understatement," which Hemingway attributed to the English, is not the only reason for the complexity of the answer to my original question. There are more objective grounds for that. The Czechoslovak economy, as we shall see, badly needs an overhaul, but its crisis has none of the urgency of Hungary's, let alone Poland's. That is why the radical political transformation has not been combined so far with a major social upheaval. Add to it two tendencies pulling in opposite directions. Between the wars Czechoslovakia was the only country of the future Soviet bloc with a genuine democracy and strong left-wing roots (the 38 percent of the poll captured by the Communist Party in a free vote in 1946 was not accidental). Against this must be set the Stalinist purges and trials as well as the Soviet tanks dashing the hopes of 1968. The balancing act is not easy. In the city of Kafka and of Jaroslav Hasek, the author of Good Soldier Schweik, the questions may be crude, but the answers are never simple, or only deceptively so.

The "Velvet Revolution"

O.F. are two letters to be seen all over the country. These are the Czech initials for Obcanske (Civic) Forum, an umbrella organization set up on November 19, 1989, centering on the signatories of Charter 77 and headed by Havel. Its Prague headquarters are at the end of Wenceslas Square, where most demonstrations are held. "Square" is a misnomer because it really is an avenue, a sort of short Champs-Élysées. Come rain or shine, a crowd is gathered outside the forum's headquarters in front of a television set. The Czechoslovaks are watching their history on video, the crucial night of November 17. It was a bloody night during which at least 143 people were wounded, according to a parliamentary commission report. Bloody, that is, by some standards, such as the Paris nights in May 1968, though mild compared with Rumania or Panama. Indeed, for me the images were very reminiscent: With their shields and truncheons the cops of all lands seem to be brothers. But in Prague, that night was the beginning of the end for the regime.

The regime had clubbed on purpose. Jiri Hajek, the man who explains this to me in his distant suburban villa, was Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1968; later, he was one of the first three spokesmen of Charter 77 (Jan Patocka, the late philosopher, and Havel were the other two). It was the regime's habit, he continues, to hit "to teach a lesson" and then relax for a while. Only this time it miscalculated. The clubbed students numbered in the thousands. Soon they were surrounded by hundreds of thousands of others. Since Gorbachev would not send in the tanks, the regime was doomed.

Jan Sokol, a computer specialist, translator of philosophy and Patocka's son-in-law, puts it more graphically: "The police [are] like penicillin. If there is real resistance after the first shock, [they're] just no use." He is reluctant to speak of revolt or revolution. The image he prefers is that of the crumbling of a rotten construction: "You breathe and it collapses." Whatever the cause, it happened quickly. The dissidents, the Chartists, were no longer alone. After the students came the artists and the intellectuals, followed by the urban population at large. When on November 27 the workers joined a token two-hour strike the Communist Party knew it was all over. The transfer of power had begun.

It remains to be seen why, particularly with a party headed by the "normalizers" who brought Soviet order to Czechoslovakia, this transfer of power was carried out quietly, with kid gloves. There are two explanations. The first was best summed up for me by Jiri Pechar, a translator of Proust and Freud, among others. In addition to fear, a feeling of humiliation caused popular apathy. For a spell, in 1968, ordinary people had thought they were actors in their own drama. Then, brutally cast aside, they felt impotent and cheated. By showing that one could have an impact on events, the students gave them hope again, and in this mood of restored dignity even a Schweik was ready to march in step with the rest.

Hejdanek had a less exalted explanation. People are against violent reprisals because they themselves do not feel above reproach. The huge crowd first cheered Ladislav Adamec, the Communist Prime Minister who began serious negotiations with the opposition, because he was, like themselves, a reformed character. It was only when he urged them not to strike that they began whistling to show their disapproval. I grasped this aspect better when Jan Urban, the bright and handsome information man at the forum, told me how he became a dissident. As a schoolteacher he had refused to sign a petition against Charter 77 and at once became an outcast. For the "normalizers," at that time passivity was not enough.

Presidential Paradox

There was an additional factor: Why use violence when it is not necessary? After the initial bloodshed the two sides developed symbolic confrontation into a fine art. There was a round table where all parties were represented, but the Communist Party and the Civic Forum were the main protagonists. While they debated, the forum applied public pressure with student demonstrations and the threat of a general strike. (People joke that Wenceslas Square thus returns to its function as a place for horse trading,) This tactic forced the C.P. to move from never to maybe and then to a reluctant acceptance. In this fashion it gave up in quick succession its monopoly on power, its "leading role" in the country and, though it retained the office of Prime Minister, effective control over the government.

This last event was significant. Through some miscalculation, Adamec produced a government that was too heavily weighted with party members and thus lost the support of the forum. He had to resign from the premiership (he has since been elected chair--the new title for the top leader of the C.P.). He was succeeded as Prime Minister by a younger and unknown party colleague, Marian Calfa. Since Calfa is a Slovak and there is an understanding that a balance of power must be preserved between Czechs and Slovaks (there are more than 10 million Czechs and half that number of Slovaks), the next president should be a Czech. Indeed, by mid-December, while I was here in Prague, the latest confrontation was over the presidency of the republic, a trial of strength revealing in full the Czechoslovak capacity for paradox. On one side the Communists, hitherto not particularly fond of universal suffrage, had converted suddenly to electoral democracy. They sought to alter the Constitution to have the president elected not by Parliament but by the direct vote of the people or, as they were calling it incongruously here, by "referendum." The position of the forum was no less surprising. These fighters for truth and champions of genuine democracy wanted the next president to be chosen by a Parliament composed of stooges and timeservers.

Obviously there was some method behind this apparent madness. The Communists were playing for time, particularly on the eve of their extraordinary congress, and they were also hoping to divide the opposition; with Havel and Dubcek as candidates this was not an absurd assumption. The Civic Forum also had valid arguments. It supported the Czechoslovak tradition of parliamentary democracy, in which the president was more a referee than a party political leader and was not elected directly by the people. It wanted to waste no time and install Havel as a guarantor that the parliamentary elections, to be held by next summer, will be genuinely free. It also warned the C.P. that a confrontation over the presidency might whip up anti-Communist feeling in the country. Uncharitable critics pointed out that the forum did not mention another consideration, namely, that Havel was still not sufficiently known outside the cities and the intelligentsia and therefore might not do too well in a national vote, particularly with Dubcek also running.

Finally, this impasse was also cleared. The students from all over the country having duly invaded Prague and the Communists having held their congress, a deal was struck. On December 29, wearing an elegant suit made specially for the occasion, Vaclav Havel was elected President by the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly; all the Communist deputies voted for him. Previously, Alexander Dubcek had been elected chair of the Assembly. The two men were thus seemingly united.

But the full story about their rivalry has not yet been told. Before tackling that matter, which is emblematic of the relationship between the two Czechoslovak "springs," let us have a quick glance at the spearhead of this quiet revolution, the students.

Students for What Kind of a Democratic Society?

Students were the only ones to stay on strike. They became Havel's chief electoral agents. At the School of Fine Arts, at the entrance of which is a reproduction of the Victory of Samothrace next to a huge Warhol-like can of Coca-Cola, they were all busy producing posters for his presidential campaign. The student showing us around explained that they were conceived in collaboration with artists and other professionals at the Manes, an art gallery that has become the revolution's exhibition hall and workshop. There, an intellectual named Bohuslav Blazek, bubbling with ideas, gives me a course on posters. The most popular one, combining a smile face like an "0 with an "F," the whole in national tricolor (blue and red on white), was the result of a competition. "We had set three criteria: It had to be catchy, joyful, dancing; using two colors but surviving in one; simple enough to be drawn by a child. The winner was a second-year student, not a professional." Some posters are highly didactic (schoolchildren telling their teacher, "Madam, you don't have to tell us lies any longer") or witty ("who's afraid of the opposition is really afraid for his position"). The walls of Prague do not quite have the surrealist verve of Paris in 1968, but they are tidier, with scribblings put on paper and neatly taped to the wall.

To find out the politics of these well-behaved heroes I go to the faculty of philosophy (the generic term used here for all the liberal arts). While the strike committee ends its meeting, a student from the school of interpreters practices her skills. She starts her explanation with the main student achievement. All faculties are now run by an elected council in which students account for half the membership and teachers and the administrative staff for the other half. The compulsory courses in Marxism-Leninism have been abolished. Students are trying to get rid of bad teachers appointed for political reasons and to reinstate those purged after 1968.When 1 ask whether students voted to choose between Dubcek and Havel for President, she clearly thinks I am crazy. No, there was no need to. Were they against Dubcek because he stood for socialism? No, she snapped back, we are for socialism, but he is nearly 70 and stands for the past; his ideas are old hat. I have the impression that the tall and gentle-looking member of the strike committee who has joined us would not have expressed himself for socialism so automatically. He insists on the need for a normal life, the rule of law. the defense of the individual against the state. He wouldn't care whether some individuals earned 3,000 crowns and some 30,000, so long as one could live decently on the former amount. The interview, I confess, turned into a discussion. Shouldn't the workers, I suggested, have as much say in running their factories as the students now have in their universities? He agreed. But that, I said, is closer to socialism than anything the Czechoslovaks have been offered up to now under that same name. We ended uneasily, talking about the difficulty of communicating. An enduring refrain.

Martin Klima, the spokesman at the students' general strike committee, was very precise. With a Prague committee and a coordinating one for the whole of Czechoslovakia meeting every day and then having its decisions approved by general assemblies, the movement had a democratic and efficient system at its disposal. He was still stunned by the course of events. Originally, he thought he would end in jail. He was surprised by the popular support. He didn't expect the workers to act until there was a real economic crisis. No, it's not true that the students underestimated the potentially crucial role of the workers. "On the contrary," he said, "we went to the factories from the very start carrying leaflets, telling them the news, taking them to the theaters for discussion. Now this is done by the press and television. With Havel President, we can go back to school." And tomorrow? "In twenty years' time, my child will be a left-wing radical and will rebel against me."

Did this parting quip contain a gentle hint that their revolution might usher in a conservative society? For once I am not entirely convinced by Hejdanek's suggestion that "if the students are not openly socialist, it is because they don't understand themselves." True, the appeal of the Greens among the young Czechoslovaks is undeniable. At the demonstrations in Wenceslas Square the Austrian Greenpeace bus had a tremendous success and all the young were afterward carrying stickers saying "Stop CSSRnobyl" (the initials standing for Czechoslovakia, with the first "C" pronounced "ch"). But one also senses among the students a deep yearning for "normalcy," and for the moment "normal" is associated with the capitalist West. The psychological price for normalization is, understandably, very high.

Dubcek and the Shadow of '68

In the December issue of Lldove Noviny, together with a Havel editorial titled "Goodbye Samizdat," there is a grim Thurber-like cartoon. A naked, shapeless, middle-aged woman faces a nonplussed man of her generation standing in a door in his dressing gown. The caption reads: "How is it that you don't recognize me! I am your dream of 1968." This image haunts me as I think of the strange case of Dubcek's vanishing candidacy.

The facts first. According to Milos Hajek of Obroda ("Rebirth"), a group of ex-party Sixty-Eighters now part of the Civic Forum, even before the events of December they had decided to put up Dubcek as a symbolic candidate for the presidency when the term came, and Havel agreed with this last September. Then the crisis of November altered the timetable dramatically. On the 23rd Dubcek triumphantly emerged from internal exile in Bratislava. The next day he was hailed by the crowd in Prague. According to his friends, he then went back home convinced that he was still the main candidate of the opposition. What happened then is guesswork. Some people suggest that the appearance on television of Zdenek Mlynar, one of the leaders of the Prague Spring returned from abroad, mobilized the anti-Communists within the Civic Forum.

Back to the facts: On December 7 Vaclav Havel said for the first time that, if he had to, he would accept the presidency; immediately after this, Calfa, a Slovak like Dubcek, was chosen Prime Minister. There followed a strange duel with flowers, Havel proclaiming that he needed Dubcek standing by his side and the latter quietly repeating that he was still a candidate. When I left Prague, Dubcek's friends still didn't know what Havel had promised him to get him to accept the chairmanship of the Federal Assembly.

Let there be no misunderstanding. Dubcek is not beyond reproach. Chartists who spent long spells in jail are perfectly entitled to criticize his moderation, his attitude in 1968-69, his naive faith in the Soviet Union. They may also claim that he brings a symbolic language, not a political platform. Yet it is no secret, particularly in the West, that Dubcek is also being attacked for quite different reasons. Twenty years after the Prague Spring, what is really being questioned is not socialism's more or less ugly face but its very essence. It is within this context that the role of Havel must be examined.

Cincinnatus to the Pen?

This is not the place to draw a portrait of the gifted playwright who achieved political greatness through sheer courage and who now has a career thrust upon him. The fact that he comes from an upper-class background is irrelevant for our purpose since, in his view, it only made him more aware of social inequity. More significant, because of that background he has always been an outsider. The debate over the nature of socialism, whether spurious or genuine, has always been alien to him. Some people may consider that this true liberal democrat of unquestioned moral standing would be the best man to preside over a fairly rapid transition to a capitalist democracy.

Two connected questions inevitably spring to mind. The first is about Havel's intentions. Does he still propose merely to watch over the democratic election of a new Parliament? Asked at a press conference on December 19 whether he might serve a second term, he replied that nobody would want to nominate him after the first. In the case of a professional politician this coyness would be interpreted as a bid for re-election. In Havel's case it does raise some doubts about the promptness with which he will return to his writing table.

The second question 1s even more immediate. As soon as the parties are registered and the laws passed, the parliamentary campaign will begin. Will the Civic Forum simply supervise the democratic process or will it act as the main political force? In other words, will it, like Solidarity in Poland, give its label to chosen candidates, ask for a blank check in the name of freedom and democracy and present the bill afterward? The main argument for cohesion, for "strength through unity," was that the opposition was weak and the Communist Party mighty. Now that the party has fallen apart before their very eyes, what the Czechoslovak people need is a proper debate, with programs, proposals and, after this heady gust of freedom, concrete projects of economic reform. With Vaclav Klaus, a monetarist, appointed Minister of Finance, working people may also want to know what it will cost them.

Monetarism With B Human Face?

Czechoslovakia is not Poland. One can see this in the shops, in the streets, in people's homes. The only lines I have seen during my stay here were fairly short ones for exotic fruits and newspapers. On December 21 I was shocked to see one stretching for more than half a mile; it was for Havel's recently published book. But the Czechoslovaks do not compare themselves with the Poles. They rightly look to the Austrians. When Eastern Europe was cut off from the international division of labor, the fairly well-industrialized Czechoslovakia suffered the most. Now, though less urgent than Poland's, its crisis is no less serious and it is both economic and ecological, as is explained to me by Josif Vavrousek, one of Havel's close collaborators.

We must restructure our economy, he argues, drastically reduce the consumption of energy and raw materials, notably the highly polluting brown coal. We have been getting the worst of both worlds. The planners didn't plan. The huge plants had their representatives in the government. The Soviet Union provided an important market and will continue to do so, he says, but we cannot stick to old patterns of production. Indeed, Czechoslovakia can innovate with health care products or "environmentally friendly'' technology. This will be useful for home as well as foreign consumption, and it is important to fight pollution before, not after the fact. Pollution is also the plague of Czechoslovakia's fairly efficient agriculture, he says, which must go back from the overconcentration of the last fifteen years to smaller collective farms. Up to now the Civic Forum has been changing people at the top; it will soon have 'to change the structure of the state, decentralize, grant more autonomy. But there is no plan to privatize big industry as the Poles intend to do. Indeed, Vavrousek says, we should revive some of the 1968 ideas on workers' councils and other forms of self-management.

I am most pleasantly surprised. On the plane coming in, I saw that the Financial Times published an article co-written by Klaus before his appointment. It was a monetarist profession of faith, admittedly à la Tchèque, with warnings against zeal and social blindness, but Friedmanite nevertheless. When I tell him my surprise, Vavrousek concedes that there are various political complexions within the forum and adds that the Deputy Prime Minister, Valtr Komarek, though from the same institute as Klaus, is more pragmatic, more aware of social problems. Indeed, the economic policy will ultimately depend on social pressure and resistance.

What's Left of the Left?

Having written the headline, I see the problem. Where do you put the Communist Party, particularly in Czechoslovakia, where it was associated with the invader and had expelled its reformers after 1969? Judging by the extraordinary congress I watched on December 20-21, you put it into the proverbial dustbin of history. The Slovaks carried out their own purge before they came to the congress: In their new central committee of ninety-three only three are old-timers. The Czechoslovak party has not gone quite as far. Its new chair, the 63-year-old Adamec, is no newcomer, and 37-year-old Vasil Mohorita, the new first secretary, was hitherto head of the Union of Socialist Youth. Most of the leaders of yesterday, however, were thrown overboard. So was "democratic centralism": Open factions were allowed at the party congress, and the so-called Democratic Forum, regrouping self-proclaimed Communist reformers, was holding press conferences and distributing its own texts. Officially, out of some 1.7 million members only 66,000 have left the party since November. How many timeservers will follow once they grasp that the party card is no longer a passport to a career? Can the C.P. here ever recover any kind of moral stature? Meanwhile, it is groping for a raison d'être.

One should look for the left within the Civic Forum. Obroda, while respected, is so far a club for veterans of the political wars. There are two budding social democratic parties competing for support and also a radical left alternative. Indeed, it will be fascinating to watch how various social interests forge their own instruments of expression. It is sadder to recognize the ideological climate m which this process is taking place. For Jan Patocka's son-in-law, for Rudolf Slansky, son of the famous victim of a Stalinist trial, for many others, the very wording of my question about Czechoslovakia's future is visibly distasteful. For them capitalism and socialism are obsolete terms. They prefer to talk of a passage from totalitarianism to democracy, from a command economy to a free market. They are not bothered by social inequities if the system 1s efficient. Quite a few people here talk like our Western establishment. (In fairness it must be added that they also have a moral distaste for our commercial culture.) Moreover, quite a number of people believe socialism really existed here, and nobody so far is presenting a comprehensive alternative radical project. And so the prospects look quite favorable for Klaus and company.

And yet many people remain convinced that Czechoslovakia will seek a third way. In addition to the argument about prewar roots, they mention the attachment of the Czechoslovaks to their social security and other forms of welfare, the by now profound belief in social justice and equality, as well as the strength of the labor movement. Having talked to many people in Prague, including the organizers of the general strike, I was struck by how little is known about the mood of the workers. The last thing the new leadership wants is for the labor movement to re-enter the political stage with more than a token strike, and this apprehension will act as an additional brake on monetarism.

In civilized Czechoslovakia, a political typhoon sweeps the country without claiming a single fatality. Many people in Prague talk about pinching themselves in the morning just to be sure they are not dreaming. There is an extraordinary, palpable feeling of the end of an era. I felt it myself on my last day as I went to visit the palace where the Bolsheviks had founded their party back in 1912. I walked through this huge Lenin Museum, decorated in Stalinist splendor, a lonely figure watched by the ushers. I then had a feeling of history's irony in the superb Old Town Square, where one is overwhelmed by styles and centuries. On the Baroque Kinsky Palace there is a plaque commemorating the Communist coup of 1948 and quoting the words of Klement Gottwald, the first Communist President, who said it "rendered impossible the restoration of capitalism on our soil." Below, the date and the occasion were hidden by a sticker saying "Have1 to the castle."

Since the playwright-President had on many occasions insisted on the meaninglessness of such words as "the left" or "socialism" in Czechoslovakia, I tried to get him to comment on the substance rather than the term. "Your colleague Molièe invented the character M. Jourdain, talking prose without knowing it," I said at a press conference. "Could you imagine Czechoslovakia forging a new form of democratic socialism not without knowing it but without saying it?" I got a cool, noncommittal reply: "The Czechoslovaks will build what they wish and then give it a name." Quite clearly the future will be what the Czechoslovaks make it. But I prefer to end with the words of Hejdanek, which are valid for the turmoil in all of Eastern Europe: "People know what they don't want; they do not yet know what they do want." The battle for their minds has only begun.

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