Czechoslovakia's nonviolent revolution


Jan Kavan, Ruth Sormova, and Michaela Neubauerova

Of all the incredible events that took place during 1989 in Eastern Europe, perhaps the revolution in Czechoslovakia was the most amazing. Vaclav Havel, former dissident and now President of Czechoslovakia, described the Velvet Revolution as "a revolution where not a single window was broken." Three Czechs came to the Bradford conference to discuss the use of nonviolence in Czechoslovakia's struggle and in its subsequent revolution. Ruth Sormova is a member of the Independent Peace Association and now holds a seat in the parliament. Michaela Neubauerova works with Civic Forum. Jan Kavan left Czechoslovakia in 1968 to study in London. There he continued to be a key member of the democratic opposition, publishing material under the Palach Press imprint and smuggling it into Czechoslovakia. After the revolution, he returned to Prague where he now represents Civic Forum in parliament.

Ruth Sormova: In 1987 and '88, a number of groups came into being. Many were closely connected with Charta 77 which was already 11 years old. All dealt with human rights issues, not only due to personal experience with their violation, but primarily because fundamental human rights were seen as a basis.

On the other hand, many people felt it would be a good idea to form some smaller groups apart from Charta 77 with their own specific goals. One such group was the Independent Peace Association (IPA) which appeared in Spring 1988, IPA was a type of citizens' group which realised the necessity of peace initiatives which wouldn't be eliminated by any state structures or organisations. Apart from the fact that IPA was the first peace group of a "different kind", I feel that it brought an important aspect to Czech independent movements as a whole. We tried to make our activities as public as possible.

In August 1988, the first big demonstration took place in Prague and later on we tried to organise public discussion meetings. Although most of these meetings were broken up by the police, people began to realise that they could be involved and that it was worthwhile. It is significant that violence never came from the side of the people, although those in power tried to make Charta 77 and other activists equal to terrorists.

The representatives of the state power were the only ones who used violence. Sometimes it was quite hard [to be be subjected to this violence] but I feel this really helped convince people that if something positive were to be achieved, it was necessary to use nonviolent means.

As expected, the appearance of IPA and other groups was suppressed by the state. Some were imprisoned. Others subjected to all kinds of persecution. Such state of affairs made it impossible to launch an open social dialogue. On the other hand, it helped bring different groups in the independent movements closer together. Now the situation is different and Czechoslovakia is confronted with how and where to we find something we have in common for the future.

Michaela Neubauerova: Our revolution has several peaceful attributes. I think when one hears the word "revolution", one thinks of something violent. I think the atmosphere of those days [during November and December] surprised most people because it could have been really violent.

17 November was when the peaceful demonstration by students was broken up by the police and this was done even more brutally than all the previous demonstrations. The students couldn't understand why there were still police who would act against completely defenceless people participating in a peaceful demonstration for human rights, freedom of speech, and so forth. On one side were students singing songs and passing candles or flowers to people on the other side. The people on the other side were of approximately the same age but were wearing helmets and carrying shields, ready to beat them.

How was it possible that two groups of people living in the same country, belonging to the same generation, could be so different? Their values were different even if both wanted to live quietly in a nice country. The first group, the police, defended everything that happened from the political scene as though it was all right. Even if they sometimes didn't agree with it, they supported it, and did so actively by persecuting people who dared to disagree. As a result, the country was really quiet -- but this was the silence before the storm. The other groups started to realise that all their values were locked up by the regime. This regime, even though it was endlessly talking about human rights, was completely unable to change its substance or its totalitarian character.

This demonstration in November was the first one, with a few individual exceptions, where passive resistance was used. As I look at it now, it was very effective and it significantly influenced [the use of] nonviolence for the whole revolution. During the following two days people were deciding about their future. They could have just left the matter as had been done several times before, but this time, they decided to take the risk and fight. During these two days Civic Forum was established, mostly by people who were previously active in independent movements. Strike committees were formed along with Public Against Violence, which is the parallel to Civic Forum in the Slovak republic.

At the beginning of the week, new demonstrations took place at Wenceslas Square, and more and more people joined. The police squads were threatening to suppress the demonstration, as they had done so many times before. During the days that followed, demonstrations took place in other parts of the country. Vaclav Havel, other representatives of Civic Forum, students, workers, and strike committees started negotiations with the government. They were, naturally, hard times. One day, a people's militia gathered around Prague. No one knew what they would do. [The threat of] violence was very close at that time.

One very important event was the massive demonstration that took place on 26 November. About one million people participated. It was also a turning point for our movement, especially in the countryside. The situation in the small towns was quite clear. People in the country were still hesitating. These demonstrations convinced them it was worth participating. It was necessary to show them that the ideas of revolution were constructive, that it was really something better than the old regime, that we could and we wanted to be better. Because violence can never be constructive, it was very important to stress the necessity of nonviolence during the whole process. Violence from our side would only justify violence from the state power. We wouldn't give them that chance.

The atmosphere of the demonstration was very special and completely new for many of us. One thing that increased the value of these nonviolent demonstrations was that people participating overcame their hatred. They were able to listen to a policeman who was a participant in the 17 November action and they even appreciated his expressing [his views] of what would happen, although he was a symbol of state power and persecution.

After this weekend, the general strike followed. Still the communists were trying to persuade the people that the leaders of the opposition were very irresponsible, that they were acting out of selfish interest and that a general strike could destroy our economy. The negotiations with the government brought in a new government, but it still consisted of ten communists and five members of other parties and non-party members. Obviously, the Communist leaders still wanted to keep power. They were forced to make some changes, which they did, however, they severely underestimated the situation. A new demonstration came and on 10 December, a so-called Government Commission of Understanding was named.

The opposition came from former dissident circles, consisting mostly of intellectual groups. People leading the movement were recruited from independent movements, especially from Charta 77, and peace and environmental groups which had been established during the past few years. I think without this, the revolution wouldn't have happened. These personalities heavily influenced how the revolution happened. They were, of course, in a difficult position because they were handicapped by communist propaganda.

The only way to attract the common people was to be as open as possible. The groups participating at the beginning of the revolution were mostly students, actors, and people from the arts. Students are generally the most critical part of the population, and specifically for our country because they were the only ones who didn't carry the burden of failure of 1968.

Jan Kavan: In order to discuss some of the problems we are now facing in Czechoslovakia, I must return to the period before the revolution. I would also like to talk briefly about the role civil society played then, as well as its continued need now.

There seems to be a number of parallels in the pre- and post-revolution situation. Before the revolution, we talked about the need to democratise the existing institutions from below at a time when we believed one might have to combine some radical reformism with a more direct revolutionary approach. In the long period leading up to the revolution, some very rudimentary reforms of civil society had emerged. A kind of imperceptible, rather internal society, has been in the making for quite some time. We've been in close cooperation with our Polish revolutionary friends since the mid-'70s. We've realised, on a smaller scale than in Poland, that some of our parallel forms of society -- be they in printing, theatre, underground, or university -- were similar, if not identical.

The system tried to absorb some forms of civil society into the structures of the state. The failure to do that was one of the catalysts that led to the emergence of a number of independent groups and the atmosphere which precipitated the revolution. If you look at the different independent groups, from IPA to to some of the more cultural groups, they all share a common denominator. They rejected all forms of Communism and the encompassing domination by the party in all its institutional forms. They subscribed to what has been called "solidarity of the shaken", or solidarity of the oppressed. They built certain informal mechanisms for self protection.

The goal was not so much to gain political power. The goal of many activists was to drive the system out of their personal lives, to promote traditional values such as respect for other individuals, the dignity of the individual, and democratic self-determination, and slowly to prepare conditions for the emergence of democratic, pluralistic self-organising civil society which by its existence would limit political power.

There is yet one more thing to keep in mind when discussing Czechoslovakia and East Germany -- to a certain extent in isolation of each other. I would like to draw attention not only to the various domino theories as to which country precipitated changes in the others, but also to the fact that long before 1989 there was an increasingly closer cooperation between the activists in independent groups across the East European borders. Some were directly meeting on the borders such as our Czech and Polish friends, some via London (Hungarians, Czechs, Poles), and in this way issued joint political statements. For example, on the 30th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, a discussion was started about the political principles common to all the different independent groups in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and to a certain extent, Yugoslavia.

This kind of solidarity cannot be underestimated. I remember once trying to persuade a leading journalist from one of the British daily papers to publish a brief communiqué about an important meeting on the Polish-Czechoslovak border. He told me I was wasting my time because the British public wasn't interested in these items which aren't seen as being newsworthy. "These people only meet with each other and correspond in order to give each other a kind of moral slap on the shoulder, to encourage each other to survive. Sure, they are courageous and one should respect them, but it's not newsworthy because they will never get to power." Yet, we were talking about a meeting which was attended by Vaclav Havel, Adam Michnik, Jacek Kuron and others who are now fairly close to power.

Early in November 1989 I was invited to a seminar in Wroclaw, Poland, to introduce Czechoslovakian independent culture to our Polish friends. There were many who were taken aback by the widespread solidarity that many Poles showed us in Wroclaw, especially at concerts given by independent Czech musicians. They felt partly undeserving, that this solidarity could never be repaid to the thousands of young Poles. This was just a few weeks before our revolution. Nevertheless, I do believe that even the Wroclaw seminar and the impact it had on civil society and the young Czechs -- who were able to smuggle themselves across the border to avoid the police checks -- were one of several catalysts which brought about the change.

The revolution was, to a large extent, carried out thanks to the immediate political aftermath following the students' demonstrations from the June massacre, the first mass demonstrations afterwards, and the many activists who quickly united, including the dissidents from Charta 77 and other independent groups. They've created what is now the Civic Forum. Civic Forum, along with help from public pressure, successfully negotiated change.

What we in Czechoslovakia still need after the revolution is a movement which is responsive to needs for autonomy and optimal participation. A few years ago Adam Michnik explained the "philosophy of political compromise" -- the need to explore aspects of social change which would be acceptable to both the political elite and to the independent groups which wanted greater autonomy and political influence -- to us. It seems to me that this need for a political compromise is still necessary.

What we now have is two Civic Forums. On the one hand, there is the Civic Forum which is an attempt to maintain an informal movement as an association of politically active people who are trying to inspire as wide of public activity as possible and therefore trying to influence the state of public affairs. On the other hand, we have what I would call a political elite which formed shortly after the negotiations at the round table. Of course, since then, some of the persons have changed and have become members of government, parliamentarians, president, and so forth. Nevertheless, the concept has remained that the inner council of the Civic Forum is a kind of new political élite with its hands on the power.

I remain optimistic for many of the same reasons I was optimistic before the revolution. For one thing, the civil society structures have not been dismantled, and cannot be dismantled. People are still aware of the power of social pressure, of the ability to self-organise and to try to take public affairs into their own hands.

In the constitution of Civic Forum there is a beautiful sentence which describes one of goals of the Forum as "to create self-managed democratic institutions and mechanisms enabling the participation of citizens in public affairs." I still think that's the goal of the movement, but at the moment, part of the political elite is closing the door to its own past. Now they are taking the Forum into what I call a blind alley. Again, it is understandable. It was created as a kind of negative consensus against a totalitarian power. But it is now necessary to create a positive consensus based on a joint effort to continue the democratisation of society, to introduce some principles of market economy, political pluralism, and I hope also a principle called justice.

In conclusion, it seems to me that the role of civil resistance in the protest of political and social change will be diminished after the revolution. It will be replaced not only by more traditional politics, but by different points of social defence. Social defence will try to use the informal structures of civil society to defend, for example, the independent trade unions, or rights of the worker, principles of a participatory democracy, political rights, and a need for greater openness.

Civic Forum needs to be a movement, as opposed to perhaps slowly emerging as a political party; although, I think this will probably happen after the elections. Parties don't need to be so open to the public, except to a certain extent to their members, but not to the public, as such. I do believe that movements do and that civil society structures can insure that. I think the principles of active citizenship both guarantee forms of nonviolent change and take away the danger of military confrontation. To me, it is also a guarantee that eventually the main political goals of the movement and of the revolution will be reached -- to create a democratic society which will respect the dignity of the people and their views, and will encourage wide participation.

It is necessary to keep the civil society movement active so that Czechoslovakia does not slip back into totalitarianism, so that we do not simply trade one group in power with another. To keep all forms of power in check we must make use of public activity combined with a free press and with a legally guaranteed access to media.

I keep stressing the role of civil society because I frequently meet people, in Eastern Europe but especially in the West, that believe that once we carried out the revolution and got rid of the Communist Party, everything has now been resolved. Now all we need to do is get a market economy and copy some Western institutions, and everything will be fine. I'm trying to gently suggest that the problem is much more complex. The long term success of the revolution depends very much on the continuation of civil society, a civil society which has been greatly enriched by its experiences.

[note, June 1991: Civic Forum is now split into competing parties, but continues to exist as an umbrella organisation. Jan Kavan is fighting to clear his name of charges -- made in parliament -- that he was a secret police contact in 1969-70 during his London exile.]

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