Popular Democracy in Prague after the Velvet Revolution

By Metta Spencer | 1990-08-01 12:00:00

DON'T call the square "Wenceslas" but "Vaclav"-pronounced Vatslav, the same as the new President's first name. It's a broad avenue with a spacious, flowered median strip that slopes for several blocks from the National Museum at the top to a taxi stop at the bottom, where it is intersected by a pedestrian mall. There on the left side are the headquarters of the victorious Civic Forum Movement, the Magic Lantern Theatre, and the street where the revolution began last November. On the right side the mall held during June an outdoor exhibition of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic's history since 1918. Massive poster cylinders were papered with photos recounting the country's political past in black-and-white. Otherwise this 1990 Prague Spring is upbeat. The posters from the recent election are in full color; cheerful tourists lick their ice cream cones; street musicians perform everywhere; and in the castle reigns Good King Vaclav, beloved by his people.

A year ago almost all Czechs had heard of Vaclav Havel, who was in prison again for his dissidence. The majority of Czechs had also heard of his group-Charta 77-from foreign short-wave radio, but many of them believed the government's line-that it was a disloyal group. Only during the nonviolent revolution, after the TV and radio were seized and the facts told, did the whole Czechoslovakian people come to love these dissidents.

The origins of the revolution may never be fully known but some surprising facts have emerged. The protests multiplied after the supposed death of a student activist was publicized. That "student," who was part of a demonstration that was attacked by police, feigned death and his "girlfriend" announced that he had been killed. Inquiry later showed him to be in good health and an officer of the secret police, to which the girl was also affiliated. It is rumored (without proof) that the KGB and-as the more fanciful story has it-also the CIA backed this provocation.

Anyway the police violence was not all fake. Until recently the blood of students still stained the walls of stores where the brutal attack took place. From the public's horror arose such a reaction that their protests led within days to the downfall of the regime in the Czechoslovakians' "velvet revolution." The movement became organized as "Civic Forum," parties were formed, and now a democratic regime is functioning, having won its election by a landslide.

Democratic by most standards, that is. But an amiable taxi driver told me, "We don't have democracy here. We have a one-party state."

"Don't worry," I said. "You'll have strong opposition parties within a year. Democratic politics generates its own opposition."

Indeed, portfolios had not all been assigned yet and already cracks were appearing in Civic Forum. The movement, which comprised 20 parties during the election, had been united in opposition to communism but, having won that battle, finds itself a disparate hodge-podge, with the right stronger than the social democrats, according to Jan Kavan, a new Member of Parliament.

During his 15-year exile, Kavan had been the best-known expatriate publicist of Charta 77 because of his work on a magazine, East European Reporter and his London publishing house, Palach Press. He was often at odds with other exiled Czechoslovakians for his liberal views and his peace activism. Kavan returned to Prague six months ago and has slept on friends' floors ever since, while hunting for a flat and running for office. Already marginal within the conservative new government, he was initially excluded from working on the Foreign Affairs Commission of Parliament, and would have refused to take his seat if the party had not relented. His conditions were finally met but the stress had taken a toll; Kavan suffered a heart attack on the opening day of parliament.

HIS HELP will be needed by another marginal member of parliament, the head of the Foreign Affairs Commission, Valtr Komarek, who has evidently received a job for which he is poorly suited. Fortunately, most decisions will be made by the able Foreign Minister, Charta 77's Jiri Dienstbier. Komarek served as Deputy Prime Minister until the election and is reportedly a more astute economist than anyone in the new government. A nonideological Communist, he had earlier advised the Cuban government on economic matters. His grasp of foreign affairs seems much less sure. For example while visiting Chile this spring, Komarek invited Augusto Pinochet to Czechoslovakia. The Havel government scrambled quickly and managed to dis-invite the former dictator without much damaging publicity. In the new parliament, Komarek is treated by Civic Forum members as a pariah.

He has begun to criticize the charismatic and handsome member of Civic Forum, Finance Minister Vaclav Klaus. A Financial Times article of June 5, based on Stanislav Holec's interview with Komarek, points out flaws in Klaus's radical scheme for switching to a market economy. Goods became sharply cheaper for foreigners earlier this year when the currency was devalued for tourists. Klaus plans to devalue the official exchange for business transactions as well. Komarek, who doubts that the finished manufactured products will be competitive on the world market, does not expect Czech exports to make up for these added costs. If he is right, many final producers will go bankrupt, intensifying the levels of unemployment that Czechoslovakians are certain to experience for the first time in memory. The economic system will then need even more severe regulation than it has required so far.

So far the new government officially supports Klaus's policies, but the debate with Komarek is becoming a public controversy, and aides to President Havel do not pretend that he and Klaus get along well. Civic Forum does not maintain party discipline in the Canadian manner (being a movement instead of a single party) so the internal dispute may grow into a genuine rift sooner than my taxi driver expected. Some high officials privately say they expect the government to fall before its term is over.

"Civil Society"

THE NEW government leaders, as dissidents, had engaged throughout the 1980s in discussions among themselves and, whenever possible, with other East European activists. They could not travel abroad and were grateful to the Western activists who came to visit them and who were sometimes expelled by the secret police for doing so. Charta 77 members came to consider public dialogue as the essential precondition for the maintenance of democracy. Today, throughout Eastern Europe, analysts attribute the success of their peaceful revolutions to "civil society." In the Soviet Union, similar independent groups are also multiplying now; they are called "informals."

ALTHOUGH THEY were the most isolated and repressed of the Eastern European dissidents, the Czechs took the lead in formulating positions and writing appeals to democratic movements throughout the West. Their Prague Appeal of 1985 was circulated widely, and a subsequent paper, Giving Real Life to the Helsinki Accords, circulated in the countries belonging to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and was endorsed by hundreds. The Czechs particularly recognized the potential of the CSCE in a democratic Europe, since it offered a framework both for defending human rights and for diminishing militarism. Their own plight made the Czech dissidents see human rights as a component of a package of issues that had to be addressed comprehensively, rather than by such single-issue campaigns as the fight against nuclear missiles had been. They began to plan a network of organizations to strengthen civil society in the 35 CSCE countries. While preparatory meetings were taking place, the dissidents were astonished to find themselves members of the new governments in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and to a lesser extent, Slovenia and East Germany.

If the CSCE becomes responsible for the security and governance of the uniting Europe, as the former dissidents and also President Gorbachev hope, there will be need for a parallel nongovernmental forum for civil society within the CSCE countries. This resembles an old idea: for decades Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), as civil society is called in the West, have proposed the formation of a "third house" of the United Nations to complement the General Assembly and the Security Council. In his address to the U.N. Gorbachev also suggested the formation of such a body for independent NGOs. This is not now practicable, but the proposed Helsinki Citizens Assembly (HCA) can fulfill these functions at the regional CSCE level. ("Regional" is hardly a small locality in this case: Since the CSCE includes the Soviet Union, Canada, and the United States, it extends from Vladivostok on the Pacific through Europe and North America.) This large vision was shared by the 60 Eastern and Western activists who met at the end of June in Prague to plan the October founding meeting of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly.

Citizens Assembly

THE 700 delegates to the new forum will be chosen for their diversity. Although the HCA initiative comes primarily from what Europeans call the "alternative culture," participants are being invited from a wide array of groups and political parties. A working group in each nation is organizing a national network of NGOs representing peace, human rights, environmental, and cultural movements, which future participants in the Citizens Assembly will represent. The number of delegates who will be invited to it will be roughly proportional to the population size of their countries, but no nation will have more than 30 delegates. An assembly will be held each year in the fall and sometimes in the spring as well. There will be additional seminars in Prague, the HCA headquarters. (President Havel has asked the Mayor of Prague to offer office space to the organization.) Unless the Assembly decides otherwise, decision-making will be by consensus, as in the CSCE itself.

Within the HCA, five standing commissions are forming to address particular topics in an ongoing way. These are: (1) civil society and social change; (2) demilitarization and peace politics, (3) economy and ecology, (4) national minorities and federal structures, and (5) human rights, including the rights of sexual and other minorities. It is the sustained nature of these commissions that distinguishes HCA from other fora, such as END, which meets for discussions only once a year. HCA's commissions will prepare papers for use in campaigns and for the lobbying activities of member groups.

Preparatory Disputes

SWEET harmony did not always prevail at the June meeting in Prague, and the 60-member preparatory committee left some questions for the founding convention to resolve. For example, it has not been established whether HCA will have individual members-or, for that matter, any members at all. Representation may vary from one year to another. While everyone agreed that discussants should be invited who could debate all sides of each issue, some preparatory group members suggested that eligibility to vote be limited to those participants who endorse the Prague Appeal 1990 (see page 19 of the April/ May issue of PEACE).

OTHERS DISAGREED. Jaroslav Sabata, a veteran of Charta 77, objects both to permanent membership and to voting. He wants HCA to operate by consensus, as the preparatory group has done. He and the other Czechs also downplay the importance of the Prague Appeal 1990 because they dislike one of its clauses: the one pledging to defend the rights of "sexual minorities." This obscure term refers both to the rights of women for equal participation and to the rights of homosexuals. It is no secret that the new regimes in Eastern Europe are unfriendly to feminism, probably as a reaction to the Marxist pretense of offering women equal rights.

However, Sabata's main objection to the clause is based on its reference to homosexuals. Many previous participants in the East/West dialogue (e.g. the Catholic Poles) would not participate in the HCA if they had to endorse the respectability of gays. And, as Jan Kavan explained, the Czechs want other persecuted minorities to participate in HCA-e.g. the Rom, or "Gypsy" people-who would not do so if the concerns of "sexual minorities" held priority equal to theirs in HCA's agenda.

This dispute is related to a more general disagreement within the HCA preparatory group. The Czechs are promoting a broad, inclusive organization, whereas others (notably Yugoslav delegates) want HCA to comprise only those who can campaign together on a unified, comprehensive program. Kavan calls the Yugoslav's preferences "ideologically narrow" and supports the Czechoslovakians' centrist position.

Finally, there is the difficult issue of politicians' participation. Although HCA began as the utopian ambition of (mainly Czech) dissidents, as it approaches realization, those who were its source are now in government. Virtually all the former activists in Charta 77 are now in parliament. This presents a dilemma: Shall they be allowed to participate in HCA or not? On the one hand, in its very definition civil society refers to the independent actions of citizens vis a vis their governments. On the other hand, it seems unfair to exclude politicians who are elected democratically while at the same time accepting as members those political candidates whom the electorate did not favour. When the HCA meets in October, it will probably try to find a compromise, such as perhaps limiting politicians to 5% among the delegates to HCA. In any case, it is hard to see how elected officeholders can find time to participate in HCA except nominally. The new Czech MPs and the President were too busy to attend the preparatory meeting, as were the new politicians of Poland and Hungary.

A small group of Canadians has begun working to link up with HCA, with a secretariat provided by the World Federalists Association in Ottawa. A mailing was sent to 700 Canadians in June, and a conference will be held in the fall-although unfortunately only after the October 19-21 meeting in Prague. To participate in such a forum within Canada which will provide networking among environmental, peace, human rights and minorities organizations, contact Fergus Watt at World Federalists, 207-145 Spruce St, Ottawa K1R 6P1

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1990

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1990, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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