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Velvet Revolution of 1989. The rise and rise of freedom in Czechoslovakia.
Published in The Current Affairs Bulletin, March 1990. The author, Jozef Imrich, was born in Czechoslovakia and migrated to Australia in 1980. He has since closely followed events in his former homeland.
The recent developments in Eastern Europe, and particularly in Central Europe, have generated elation among all Czechoslovaks in Australia. The last six months have been exceptional in the extraordinary history of Czechoslovakia.
Once upon a bad time Czechoslovak bars, cafes and restaurants were described by tourists as depressing. Today they vibrate with cheerful conversations about the death of communism, and the birth of new hopes and new visions of the democratic future.
To misquote what Karl Marx wrote in 1848, a ghost is haunting Eastern Europe: the ghost of democratic socialism that will bring these countries to free elections, free speech and a free economy.
It is obvious that the legitimacy of any political system imposed from the outside is precarious. Perestroika has only aggravated the deep-seated malaise it was meant to relieve. The imaginary problem of how to restructure communism is now giving way to the real problem of how to ged rid of the system. Throughout the dying empire the pattern is the same and it is amazing that the Czechoslovakia the 20th century is ending as it began, with democratic socialism ascendant.
In 1916 the British historian R. W. Seton-Watson started, in close co-operation with exiled Czechosloval leader, the philosopher and historian, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, a weekly periodical called 'The New Europe.'
Their vigorous and informed independent Czechoslovakia helped to redraw the map of Europe. At the end of the First World War the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Hapsburg) was dissolved.
On 28 October 1918 the Czechoslovak Republic was established on the territory where in the 9th century AD Czechoslovaks had established their kingdom - the Great Moravian Empire.
This lovely, compact country in the heart of Europe has always been an unfortunate land. Writer George Konrad sees a wholesale series of historical accidents in Central Europe as 'a series of old tricks':
'It was East-Central Europe's misfortune that it was unable to become independent after the collapse of Eastern, Tatar-Turkish hegemony, and, later, the German-Austrian hegemony of the West; and that it once again came under Eastern hegemony, this time Soviet Russian type. This is what prevents our area from exercising the Western option taken out a thousand years ago, even though that represents our profoundest historical inclinations.'
History almost weighs too heavily on Czechoslovakia. At Munich Conference in 1938, Britain and France sold out Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler. After Second World War a conjunction of events played yet another 'dirty trick,' when the communistsseized power in the Prague Coup of 1948.
The Prague Spring of 1968 illustrated that communism, however disastrous, was resourceful enough to hold on to its monopoly of power. Most of the ideas Mikhail Gorbachev introduced through a program labelled 'perestroika' in 1985 were originally those of Czechchoslovak leader Alexander Dubcek.
Dissapointing results in industry fuelled speculation that restructuring of the system of economic management was inevitable. Dubcek initiated a wide-ranging program, known as 'socialism with human face,' to liberalise and democratise all aspects of communism. Once again Soviet military forces were in Czechoslovakia, but while in 1945 the came as liberatoes, in 1968 they were opressors.
In the and of Jan Hus and Jan Amos Komensky (Comenius), suppression could not last forever. In 1977 a coalition of intellectuals and former communists issued a manifesto entitled 'The Charter 77.' Among the hundreds of signatories who were arrested was the dissident playwright Vaclav Havel.
The Roman Catholic Church played its most active role in 1987 when Cardinal Frantisek Tomasek presented the government with a 17-point statement, 'The Charter of Believers in Czechoslovakia,' on behalf of thousands of Christians in the country.
As Kierkegaard once put it: 'Life is lived forward and understood backward.' For months, the Czechoslovak communist leaders watched in stony silencee as Poland, Hungary and East Germany vibrated with people power. But the desire for freedom is contagious and sooner than anyone expected, first students and then the rest of the population in their thousands joined the peaceful revolution of 1989 that transformed the heart of Europe and the shape of history itself. From the making of the Civic Forum movement to the communists' acceptance of a government in which they would be a minority took exactly ten days. The dream has become a reality.
When the history of the recent revolution in Eastern Europe is written, the prize for the swiftest and therefore most dramatic revolution will go to the Czechoslovak 'Velvet Revolution' of 1989. Students began the Velvet Revolution summed up their feeling in a large slogan draped around the 15 metre statue of king Vaclav (Wenceslas in English): 'If not us, who? If not now, when?'
On the New Year's Eve in Golden Prague, a city intoxicated with a sense of liberation, the dawn of the new era began: the era of possibilities. Six months ago it would have seemed mad to predict that Vaclav Havel would become president, or that Alexander Dubcek would become chairman of the Federalk Assembly (Parliament), but today Czechs and Slovaks have a popular hero at the top.Vaclav Havel feels more of a dramatist and moralist than a politician. However, situations arise in history which do not allow someone of Havel's stature to refuse to play a political role and he has had to become a citizen-politician.
The Presidential Castle (Hradcany) is a long way from the prison cells, where the uncrowned king Vaclav of Bohemia and his knights spent too much time in the last two decades. In a delicious act of irony and role reversal Jan Carnogursky, a Slovak Catholic who was behind prison bars only three weeks before he became deputy prime minister is, with Valtr Komarek and Marian Calfa, part of a team that supervises the Interior Ministry (which runs the police).
The new 21 member Cabinet of Marian Calfa, the Prime Minister, still co
ntains 10 communist places, but two or three of the communist ministers - notably Valtr Komarek - are now little more than nominal member.
When Tomas Masaryk became the first President of the new Republic of Czechoslovakia between the wars, there flew above his presidential castle a flag bearing the motto: 'Truth Prevails,' and it is hardly a coincidence that the central theme of Havel's political writings has been 'To live in truth.'
Havel's presidential address on New Year's Day could not have diverged more sharply from the usual practice of telling the nation that everything was fine in the best of socialist worlds. Havel summed up the achievements of the Velvet Revolution by paraphrasing the 17th century theologian Jan Komensky: 'Your government, my people, has returned to you.'
For Havel what matters is the truth rather than the particular party or ideology which he might support. For Havel the issue of whether firms are privately owned or nationalised is no longer a basic question: what is important is whether their scale is human or not. 'The tragedy of the modern man,' Havel wrote to his wife in -In the Letters to Olga-, 'is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of life but that it bothers him less and less.'
Unlike Poles, Hungarians and other Easten Europeans, Czechoslovaks have a real democratic past. They are fortunate in that, unlike other Easter Europeans, they are not faced with an imminent economic crisis. The death of communism has provided Czechoslovaks with political equality and spiritual dignity. Yet the reform processes under way are incomplete and fragile. The real danger now is that in a time of political and economic uncertainties, extrimists may flourish. As B Webb of the Guardian observes: 'Exchanging brutalism for another is not what Havel and his kind have in mind nor do such prescriptions fit the democratic habit of the Czechoslovak temperament, formed long before communism's arrival to power.
The fundamental truth is that what suceeded in Czechoslovakia is not a capitalist system: democracy. 'The agenda is clear - we want democracy, we want to rejoin the European Community, we want social justice and free market economy. We may be socialists, but without these things there can be no socialism.' These were the words of Vaclav Havel on the night Communist Party Chief Milos Jakes resigned.
The word socialism is treated very warily, since more than one communist politician has managed to abuse the concept of socialism. Still the democratic style of socialism practised in West Germany, the Scandinavian countires and Austria is proof that socialism can work.
In Prague and Bratislava people compare their Skodas with BMW, Volvo or Volswagen not with Cadillacs and Jaguars. The Austrian model is preferred to Wall Street's free for all. The Austrian model has worked with rather than against the free market, balancing the requirements of social justice and economic sufficiency.
Havel and his team are busy taking steps to maximise such ultimate goals as the nation's political freedom, economic welfare and security. Czechoslovakia, like all nations, is guided by it national interests and like all nations it has no permanent friends, only permanent interests.
Havel recently stated: 'We are a small country, nevertheless, in spite of this we used to be the spiritual crossroad of Europe. Why should we not become it again? Would it not be another contribution with which we could pay back help to others, which we shall need from them?'
It is in the interests of both Western Europe and Eastern Europe to cultivate close political and economic relations. Their destinies are linked and indivisible. The problems facing Western Europe today cannot be solved unless the problems facing Eastern Europe are solved; in helping Eastern Europeans, people in the West are also helping themselves.