Velvet Revolutions Jiří Suk

During the second half of the 1980s, the Soviet empire—which was supposed to last “forever”—was undergoing changes that would lead to its disintegration and a new division of power and values in the world. Czechoslovakia mostly only played a passive role in these changes, but for a short time, at the end of 1989 and beginning of 1990, it significantly codetermined their character. Although perestroika, linked to the name of Mikhail Gorbachev and signifying an attempt to profoundly reform a corrupt and rigid bureaucratic system, was not intended to be a trigger for such a major change of direction, it created the right conditions for it, loosening the iron shackle encircling both the “inner” and the “outer” Soviet empire and enabling nations and states to liberate themselves from the harsh conditions of subjugation. During the first years of “perestroika,” the changes took place within the framework of those communist parties that had to differing degrees, and with various motivations, embraced the new wind blowing from Moscow—communist parties in the nation states of the USSR, in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria; Romania and East Germany approached perestroika with reservations. Between 1987 and 1988, however, events began to develop beyond the control of enlightened centers (or ones pretending to be enlightened) and broke free of their reins. Political, economic, and nationalist issues that had long been taboo came bubbling to the surface, epoch-making events accumulated, mutually influencing each other and accelerating political developments.

The main reason behind these centrifugal tendencies lay in the reformist intentions of the Soviet leadership, which advocated freedom of speech (“glasnost”), intending to fundamentally reform the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, replace the bureaucratic nomenklatura-led administration of the economy with a managerial system and bring new order to relations between the East and the West (“new thinking”). Methods were sought that would make it possible to marry democratic, pluralist, and market principles with the reality of a state that was controlled by the Communist Party and based on Marxist-Leninist ideology. For the most part, however, efforts at liberalization and democratization did not bring the desired results, instead deepening the social, economic, and nationalist crisis. Gorbachev and his associates began to lose popularity. Opinions at the top levels of the Party began to polarize sharply. The reforms became mired in structural disputes. Centrifugal forces building up inside the Soviet bloc brought it to near breaking point and its leadership had no other option but to declare its subjugated nations independent, giving up its role of being the strict police officer of the empire. In 1989 the external empire, which included the nations of Central and Eastern Europe, fell apart.

The new “spring of nations” began in Poland. As early as December 1988, the strong and independent trade union organization Solidarity—recognized the authorities as a political partner, but one which was to discredit itself at least in part by taking a share of political responsibility—established the Citizens’ Committee composed of 119 opposition representatives. The Committee was divided into 15 groups, each headed by a chairperson responsible for ensuring that Solidarity was perfectly prepared for the demanding “round table talks” that were to address key political, social, and economic themes. The majority of the demands which it intended to put forward were related to those it had originally made in 1980 and 1981 (the abolishment of censorship, freedom of the press, opposition access to the media, the disbanding of the nomenklatura and organizational monopolies, freedom of assembly, independent regional administration, economic reform, etc.). At the “round-table,” Solidarity intended to act as a powerful pressure group that would force the regime to relax conditions in the country and to organize free elections in the near future. On February 6, 1989, the round-table talks began. The discussion, which concerned three basic areas—economic and social policy, political reforms, and political pluralism—ended on April 5 with an agreement on the progressive liberalization and democratization of the regime. In the interests of future free elections, Solidarity accepted a model of transitional elections which only allowed it to gain a maximum of 35% of the seats in the lower house of the parliament, the Sejm; elections to the other house, the Senate, were to be held without restrictions. Solidarity decided that it would not seek a share of executive power after the elections, or to participate in government, because of “the deepening economic crisis, the substantial force of the army and the security apparatus, and uncertainties concerning the stance of Moscow.” During the transitional period it expected to perform the function of parliamentary opposition, initiating legislative changes and controlling the way the governing Polish United Workers’ Party in executed its power. The results of the elections held on June 4 and 18 were absolutely categorical and devastating for the governing party. Solidarity, led by Lech Walesa, took almost all the seats available for free election—in the Sejm it gained 260 of an overall total of 560 seats (260 seats were up for election) and in the Senate it gained 99 of an available total of 100 seats. This unequivocal victory led Solidarity to alter its strategy—it announced that if the governing party took the function of president of the republic, the opposition would demand the premiership. On August 19, the Polish President Wojciech Jaruzelski charged the Catholic Solidarity activist Tadeusz Mazowiecki with assembling the government. The new government, in which Solidarity occupied half of the 24 positions, held its first session on September 12, 1989.

Events were also moving fast in Hungary. Here, the decisive impulses came from the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party which, under strong pressure from society in general, recognized political pluralism and began giving up its monopoly on power. Already in January 1989 the communist-dominated parliament approved an act on the right of assembly and association, which made it possible to legally establish political parties. On March 22, the newly established parties met for “opposition round table talks” which were intended to unite the opposition and prepare it for negotiations with the governing party on the transition to a democratic system. After some twists and turns, political negotiations began on June 13 at the “three-sided table talks,” involving the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, the parties of the opposition round table and the so-called third parties comprising official union and party organizations. The governing communists suffered a palpable defeat on June 16 during the public funeral of the remains of the former Hungarian Prime Minister Imre Nagy and his associates, who had been executed for supporting the anti-Soviet uprising in 1956. The funeral turned into a nationwide peaceful commemoration ceremony and manifestation of the will to acquire freedom and democracy. The extraordinary congress of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (October 6–10) completed the period of liberalization—it dissolved the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, creating the Hungarian Socialist Party as its successor. The new party surrendered its monopoly on power and declared its intention to espouse democracy, mixed ownership, a socially-sensitive market economy and citizens’ self-administration. Between October 17 and 20, the National Assembly approved constitutional and other legislative measures previously agreed at the “three-sided table talks” concerning the functioning and management of political parties, the dissolution of the Presidential Council, parliamentary and presidential elections and measures to redress convictions related to the 1956 uprising. It eliminated the word “People’s’” from the name of the state and declared the Hungarian Republic an independent, legally consistent and constituted state. At the end of March and beginning of April 1990, free parliamentary elections were held in which the right-wing opposition Hungarian Democratic Forum enjoyed considerable success (43%), even though the Hungarian Socialist Party, which received 8.5% of the votes cast, did not disappear off the radar entirely.

Compromise was not the nature of the developments in the German Democratic Republic—the communist regime here, led by neo-Stalinist politicians headed by Erich Honecker, did not accept any changes whatsoever and held on to the reality of two German states with two antagonistic state administrations. The discontent of the East Germans with the omnipresent police state and the low standard of living, which was substandard especially when compared to the West German standard of living, elicited a mood of gloom and doom. Many people considered escaping to the capitalist Federal Republic of Germany to be their only option. In May 1989, Hungary removed the barricades on its border with Austria, allowing many East Germans to escape to the West. Crossing the border was no longer as risky as before, motivating more and more disgruntled citizens to act—the number of defectors kept growing and the situation began to resemble an exodus. In September the opposition group New Forum was established and called on the authorities to participate in “a democratic dialog on the tasks of a legally consistent state, on the economy and culture.” In the autumn the governing elite lost control of the affairs of the country and the masses which flooded the streets and squares had a decisive influence on subsequent events. At the beginning of October, 20,000 people demonstrated in Leipzig; three weeks later the number was 300,000. The police did not dare to intervene. The demonstrations spread to other cities, people demanded free elections and civic freedoms and liberties. On November 9 their call for the opening of border crossings between East and West Berlin succeeded and the “Berlin Wall”— the symbol of a divided Germany and Europe—fell. The original demands for liberalization and democratization of the German Democratic Republic soon developed into an unequivocal desire on the part of the demonstrating citizens for the unification of both German states. In March 1990 elections were held in the GDR, in which West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) achieved a marked success—its main program was the unification of the GDR and the FRG. Candidates put forward by the New Forum suffered a resounding defeat in the election. On July 1, the monetary, economic, and social union of both states came into effect; on August 23, the East German parliament with a large majority voted for the GDR to join the Federal Republic of Germany. The German Democratic Republic ceased to exist on October 3 after a period of almost 41 years.

The remaining states of the outer Soviet empire were also impacted by changes. The Bulgarian “palace coup” in November and Romania’s “bloody revolution” in December 1989 were indicative of the two extremes of change—in one instance everything significant took place within the governing party, in the other the struggle for power was taken to the streets. Czechoslovakia took neither of these roads. The first phase of the “Velvet Revolution” was reminiscent of the German picture—town and city squares packed with people demanding the end of communist hegemony and free elections; later it inclined toward the Polish-Hungarian model representing a historical compromise between the opposition and state power agreed at a “round table.”

The peaceful student demonstration on November 17, 1989, in Prague, brutally suppressed by the police force, became the proverbial trigger of revolutionary events. Immediately after the police intervention, university students contacted intellectuals, artists, and theater and film actors, and in an outpouring of justified and fearless outrage they created the first active epicenters of civil unrest. The strike movement was born. From November 18 onward, almost all of Prague’s theaters were on strike; in the days that followed they were joined by theater groups from towns and cities throughout the country. Dozens of theaters nationwide turned into open spaces for public discussion. On Monday, November 20, the universities went on strike and soon after they were joined by the majority of secondary schools. Already on November 19, demonstrators were in control of the center of Prague, the police force more or less withdrew from the area. The space at the top of Wenceslas Square became a place of permanent antiregime agitation. From November 20 onward, meetings taking place in the center of the capital were attended by hundreds of thousands of people every afternoon, and they were joined by millions of other demonstrators in the majority of towns and cities in Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia.

On Sunday, November 19, the Civic Forum was founded in Prague’s Činoherní klub theater as a political movement representing not only dissident groups, but all discontented and indignant citizens, including even some communists and members of the National Front parties. Václav Havel, the most well-known dissident in Central Europe, became the generally respected leading figure of the Civic Forum. At the same time, an analogical civic movement called Public Against Violence was established in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Environmental activist Ján Budaj and the popular actor Milan Kňažko became its spokespersons. The aim of Civic Forum and Public Against Violence was to engender a dialog with state authorities on the liberalization and democratization of totalitarian Czechoslovakia. Under strong pressure from the people thronging the country’s streets and squares, culminating on November 27 with a massive general strike, the communist authorities represented by the chairman of the federal government, Ladislav Adamec, began talks with the opposition toward the end of the first revolutionary week.

These political negotiations resulted in the first steps toward liberalization—the release of political prisoners, the removal of articles of the constitution concerning the leading role of the Communist Party in society and on the closed political system of the National Front, the legalization of opposition groups, their access to the media, etc. Civic Forum and Public Against Violence demanded fundamental changes to the composition and program of the government; at this point, however, they did not as yet wish to have a share of political power. This reluctance to be part of the government ensued from the fact that the civic movements had been established so precipitously, in fact not until after November 17, 1989, and needed time to form organizational structures and create political manifestos. They were caught unawares by the speed of events. Prime Minister Adamec made use of the generously provided space for political maneuvers and on November 3 he assembled and presented a government that continued to be dominated by the communists—they had held on to 15 out of a total of 20 positions. The mobilized public remained the most important driving force, however, sharply rejecting a federal government with such communist preeminence. Though boisterous, the protests remained cultivated and did not become violent. Over the days that followed, the opposition movement realized that in order to avoid failure it had to take on government responsibility. Prime Minister Adamec lost the space to maneuver and resigned. The “government of national understanding” lead by the accommodating moderate communist Marián Čalfa integrated seven Civic Forum ministers who occupied key economic and legislative departments, but not the Ministry of Interior, or the Ministry of National Defense; in addition, Public Against Violence was not represented by any minister in the government. The significant discrepancies in the way power was taken, unnoticed and unreflected in the hectic atmosphere of the time, were early indications of the future crisis in the area of dealing with the communist regime’s repressive forces and in the sphere of Czech-Slovak relations.

On November 10, the day the federal government was appointed and the communist president Gustáv Husák resigned, Civic Forum and Public Against Violence announced that their joint candidate for president was Václav Havel. The communists opposed this candidacy in a subtle manner. They held a comfortable majority in the highest legislative body of the Czechoslovak federation— the Federal Assembly—and decided to advocate direct presidential elections, which they expected their own candidate, former prime minister Ladislav Adamec, would win. All the political parties and civic organizations in Slovakia rejected Havel in favor of the political symbol of 1968—Alexander Dubček. A paradoxical situation resulted: the Civic Forum, as a revolutionary political movement, wanted the president to be elected by the communist-dominated Federal Assembly in line with the communist constitution; the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, on the other hand, was preparing to carry out a fundamental change to the constitution to serve its own ends by introducing the presidential system. The Civic Forum categorically wished to prevent this from happening. Negotiations on this issue at the “round table” were faltering, however. The democrats declared their willingness to construct a new state and decided to take over state and political structures and procedures because they were apprehensive about constitutional destabilization. They did not have a single seat in the Federal Assembly, however, and were unable to control the 350-member legislative body. They had no formal instruments at their disposal; all they could do was to mobilize the public once again. However, they were apprehensive about another wave of discontent, which might sweep the parliament away and block the presidential election. That was not something that the democrats wanted, since they were unprepared to deal with events developing along nonconstitutional lines.

At a private meeting on December 15 at the Cabinet Office of the Government, Prime Minister Čalfa offered the presidential candidate Václav Havel a way out of the stalemate. They agreed on a coordinated approach, which aimed to convince a majority of Federal Assembly deputies to elect Havel president of the republic before the end of 1989. Čalfa made skilled interventions in the parliament and a number of communist deputies at a joint session of both houses gave up on the notion of direct elections on December 19, expressing their willingness to elect Havel. In parallel with the Prime Minister’s interventions in the cabinet, however, students demonstrated every day in front of the parliament to express their support for Havel. The communist deputies could no longer stand up to the pressure from above and below.

In order to prevent a crisis from breaking out in Czech-Slovak relations, it was necessary to relieve tensions between the Czech and Slovak presidential candidates—Havel and Dubček—in a mutually satisfactory way. Both men met several times to discuss the issue. The complicated talks—carried out in parallel in negotiations between political forces at a “round table”—resulted in an agreement on the division of the highest state functions: on December 28, Alexander Dubček was elected chairman of the Federal Assembly and a day later Václav Havel the Czechoslovak President, both unanimously. University students, the driving force and symbol of the protest movement since November 17, did not call off their strike until the election ceremony, culminating with a ceremonial Te Deum mass in St Vitus Cathedral, was over.