The aftermath of the Velvet Revolution – was justice delivered?

Velvet Revolution in November 1989

The 1989 Velvet Revolution, ending over four decades of Communist one-party rule, spelled seismic change for Czech society. Words like restitution and lustration became common parlance in the early 1990s, as the transition to democracy was accompanied by a legal reckoning with the past. But how effectively was justice served in that period? How successful was the rehabilitation of political prisoners, many of whom had suffered greatly under the recently departed Communists? 

One man who has studied these questions in great depth is Roman David, a Czech sociologist and expert on transitional justice based in Hong Kong. Indeed Mr. David, who was himself a 21-year-old student in 1989, carried out sociological surveys of both ex-political prisoners and former party members and collaborators for his book Communists and Their Victims: The Quest for Justice in the Czech Republic.

When I spoke to him by Zoom, I first asked Roman David what had led him to research and write the book in the first place.

Roman David | Photo: Department of Sociology and Social Policy,  Lingnan University

“I had a very interesting inspiration during my doctorate in Brno, where I studied with Professor [Vladimír] Čermák, who was a political philosopher and justice of the Constitutional Court.

“We had a lot of debates about justice, and I came to the conclusion that to solve the problem of dealing with the past we can’t rely on lawyers, because there is no uniform opinion among lawyers.

“Law in books is just an illusion, and one lawyer can have a perfectly legitimate opinion and another lawyer can have a perfectly legitimate dissenting opinion.

“This realization motivated me to look beyond. I wrote an article for a newspaper which was entitled ‘Two ways of persecuting the crimes of communism’.

“I outlined two paths that could lead to the prosecution. One was the Czech Republic’s path through the Act on the Illegitimacy of the Communist Regime, and another was a path advocated by my supervisor, Professor Čermák.

“Following the publication the leadership of the Confederation of Political Prisoners contacted Professor Čermák and asked what he could do with this issue of prosecution.

“As a judge he couldn’t do anything, but what he did was to call me and said, We need to help these people, somehow.

“Then I came to realise that in order to study justice, I need to really ask people what they think about justice, what does justice mean to them – and especially to ask the victims of human rights violations.”

In your book you say something that for me is so interesting. You say that Czechia was a “leader” in dealing with the past in post-communist Europe. What did the Czechs get right in that regard, do you think?

Photo: University of Pennsylvania Press

“Well, I said we were leaders in terms of outcomes. But we need to see that there were historical conditions for the process of dealing with the past.

“Since the Battle of White Mountain, 1918 and the establishment of Czechoslovakia and 1945, dealing with Nazism, we already had some sort of blueprint for dealing with the past.

“We know that the new regime deals with the previous regime, that the perpetrators or the protagonists of one regime are damned in the following regime.

“There was a whole conceptual apparatus available: words such as restitution, rehabilitation, or denazification at that time. These words were already available in our vocabulary, so that gave us a certain head start.

“And what made us leaders is that in 1990, or already in 1989 actually, the first laws were passed in Parliament which started to dismantle the Communist regime.

“They included the Confiscation of Communist Property Act, the Rehabilitation of Political Prisoners Act, the Restitution Act and the Act on the Illegitimacy of the Communist Regime.

Monument of Battle of White Mountain  (November 8,  1620) | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

“So these acts were fundamental for laying the groundwork. And they were so thorough that they allowed us to progress in comparison to other countries in post-Communist Europe on a massive scale.

“They essentially sidelined the judiciary from this process. The judiciary played second fiddle. The most important thing was that the decisions were done on the basis of law, rather than by judicial decision.”

If we look at the justice system at that time, in the early ‘90s, what were the mistakes made in the transition from communism to democracy?

“I would need to go the previous question, when you mention what made us leaders. Let me tell you that the process of dealing with the past requires more than legal measures: It requires the involvement of society.

“For political prisoners’ rehabilitation, one of the very important factors is their social acknowledgement.”

“So for example political prisoners, for their rehabilitation, one of the very important factors is their social acknowledgement. Another important factor is their reception in their neighbourhoods. And there are many other factors which affect the well-being of political prisoners.

“Now these factors were pursued informally in the Czech Republic. They were not really supported by the state. But, thanks to the history of the Czech lands, we had the understanding that these are important things to do, so society was dealing with them.

Illustrative photo: Fifaliana Joy,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“But what is a mistake here, or what is the weakness, is that these social measures of justice were not pursued more systematically.

“Another issue was that a whole alternative way of dealing with the past was completely absent.”

When you speak about the rehabilitation of people who were imprisoned, say, before 1989, was that carried out well? Were the victims satisfied with how they were rehabilitated, could you say?

“It was about half and half. Some of them reported a solid level of rehabilitation. Some of them a lower level of rehabilitation.

“The major measures which were approved legally, for example the financial compensation, and the possibility of returning to their former professions, if they were of an age to, were the most important factors in their rehabilitation process.

“But then there were a whole range of factors which were not accentuated, because they were not known in the Czech lands. They were factors which were related to alternatives to justice, inspired by the whole process of justice, in a comparative perspective, in countries like South Africa.

“And those played a critical role for the rehabilitation of political prisoners.

“So when I studied those processes I also included questions about the meaning of truth and truth sharing – how important that is for former political prisoners.

“There was no formal forum to establish and deal with the past.”

“I found that if they shared their stories privately, with family members for example, they reported a higher rehabilitation score.

“But if they shared their stories publicly the score was negative. That was usually because there was no formal forum to establish and deal with the past.

“As a result, truth sharing was done by, let’s say, journalists, or by invitations to speak to students at schools. And these are not the best forums for opening up.

“Because they require a certain patience, for example when they are dealing with students. But they also require a certain tolerance when dealing with journalists, because journalists need to do their jobs, they need to edit.

“And for many former political prisoners, when they have been interviewed they felt that very important parts of their lives were cut, because there are simply always some limitations. But then for them it was not really a positive experience.”

Illustrative photo: Post Bellum

One thing I’d also like to ask you about is restitution. You say that restitution didn’t really deliver for “foreign Czechs”, Czechs who had left the country, in most cases to escape from communism.

“This is a shame. I think this is very unfair treatment of Czech people. Simply some people could not take the risk to return to a transitioning country by giving up the citizenship that they had earned, for example, in the US or many other countries which did not necessarily allow dual citizenship. So they were in a very difficult legal position.

Photo: Czech Television

“But what is more problematic is how the Czech government handled it. Why this was handled this way, I’m really not sure.

“But the outcome is that essentially nationalistic considerations made sure that Communist-era injustices remained unrectified.”

What about lustration, or screening. This was a system that was brought in by law in 1990 or 1991, under which people who had had high positions in the Communist Party were barred from important posts in the new democratic system. Was that useful, or effective, as a form of bringing about change for the better?

“There were informal processes that were already conducted before the lustration law.”

“It’s a question, to what extent it was useful. There were informal processes that were already conducted before the lustration law was approved. So that somehow diminished the impact of the law.”

What were these processes? Were they the lists of collaborators?

“No, they were something that was called a ‘vote of no-confidence in the leadership’. This was pursued in all state institutions, schools – so already in 1989, 1990 there were changes in personnel.

Cibulka's lists of secret police collaborators

“That was very important to do, and the lustration law was also brought in to, among other things, legalise these kinds of changes, in terms of saying which changes are allowed, and which changes are not – so to put some legal regulations into it, and to prescribe who can and cannot hold certain positions.

“This was simply because there was a certain rotation: people were dismissed in one place and then became a director in another place, or another school, and things like that.

“But what is important here is to see there are different lustration models. For example the Czech lustration model is exclusive in its nature and is based on dismissals.

“In Hungary they approved a model which is more inclusive. It was based on the revelation of background information about an individual who wanted to retain his position in government.

“There are different lustration models. The Czech model is exclusive in its nature and is based on dismissals.”

“In Poland they approved another model of a kind of an inclusive, or kind of reconciliatory, system in which – similar to in South Africa – the position of a person who wanted to hold office was exchanged for true revelation about his past. So the person needed to make a disclosure, and upon full disclosure he or she was granted a second chance and could hold office in the new system.

“In my previous book, I wrote about these systems and I compared their utility. I found out that the Czech system is the best in establishing trust in government, simply because a government without tainted officials is better than a government with tainted officials. That makes perfect sense.

Illustrative photo: Office of Czech Government

“But what is interesting is that reconciliatory system, the Polish system based on confession, was also effective. Although here it has to be said that it was three times less effective than the Czech system.

“In comparison to the contribution to reconciliation, or to some kind of overcoming the divisions of the past, the Czech system had no effects. The Hungarian system also had no effects, either positive or negative.

“But the Polish system had a positive effect. So the people who were confessing their wrongdoing essentially had a positive relationship, or positive standing, in society, in comparison to those secret collaborators who were just disclosed, without anything else.”

About secret collaborators, you write in the book also about coercion, that people were very often forced into being collaborators. Does the fact that coercion was so often used mean that it’s just not fair to point the finger at people who appeared on lists of collaborators?

“It depends on who compiles the list. So if this is some kind of a wild list, compiled based on leakage of information, it’s not fair.”

But even assume that the list is correct. Imagine the list is 100 percent correct. Is it fair to point the finger at these people, and blame them, if they may have been forced, in all kinds of ways, to collaborate?

“Well, it is fair if a person wants to hold public office. I think it is a requirement of holding a position of trust, that people have information about a person’s past.

“Imagine that in a police station there are people who used to, let’s say, persecute dissidents – and they are continuing to police the community. How would the community feel safe about this?

“So these types of situations need to be addressed. And I think that transparency is very useful in this aspect.”

For me one of the most fascinating points you make is that retributive measures against pre-1989 Communists may in fact have been a kind of block, or impediment, to those people transforming themselves into, let’s say, democrats.

“Retributive measures inhibit the personal transformation of ex-Communists and inhibit their ability to internalise human rights.”

“Yes, this is one of the findings: that retributive measures essentially inhibit the personal transformation of former Communists and inhibit their ability to internalise human rights. It can also inhibit generational transformation of former Communists and their offspring.

“One of the hypotheses that I was working with is that those retributive measures created an ‘inversion effect’: They turned society upside down, and those who were up were now down, etcetera.

“So that’s partly true. We can say that those retributive measures didn’t help to reconcile or overcome those divisions. In fact, they solidified those divisions. They created a situation in which, let’s say, a former Communist or a former secret informer gained these type of fixed identities. And there was no escape out of it.

“So this is not really something that is useful for society. It creates more divisions, or deepens the existing divisions, rather than overcoming those divisions.

“And it’s good that society is unified about fundamental issues. We can see it, for example, related to the war in Ukraine: We would be better equipped to face the Russian aggression if we were unified, if we had, for example, the former Communists on board.

“Clearly now they are not that relevant, because they are out of Parliament, but who knows – they may make it back in.”

Even now, all these decades later, sometimes I hear people, especially older people, saying that it was a mistake in 1989 or 1990 not to ban the Communist Party. What do you say to that assertion?

“I think if we want to have a liberal society, we cannot really use those instruments which are available to authoritarian rulers too often.

“I don’t say exactly that there should not be possibilities of banning illegal organisations, but I don’t think the Communist Party should have been banned.

“Simply, it was important to cut it off from its resources, from its property. This happened – the property was confiscated. It was important to cut it off from influence on the secret police; the secret police was dissolved.

“So suddenly there was no longer a state party but instead a political party, like any other, although still with significant membership and significant resources. But nevertheless it already posed less danger at that time than it did in, say, 1989.”

Many former Communist Party members have been involved in Czech politics in the last 30-plus years, including recently Andrej Babiš, who was prime minister, Miloš Zeman, who was prime minister and later president, and the current president, Petr Pavel. Could it be said that a lot of former Communists have contributed, maybe even a lot, to Czechia over those decades?

Andrej Babiš in 1981 | Photo: Czech Television

“I look at results from my survey, which were not published, because they were not significant… but I tried to find out whether movements like ANO or Freedom and Direct Democracy have a significant number of former Communist Party members, or their offspring.

“And there is no such significant result. They do not have a concentrated cohort of former Communist Party members. So this is kind of at the kind of grass-roots level.

“On the political level, we have the society that we have. We cannot replace people. It takes whole generations to replace, to phase out [laughs], the Communist regime.

“So one could say that some people who were members of the Communist Party were contributing to society.

“I see the current president, Petr Pavel, who was a member, and he also tried to face this issue openly, rather than running away from it.

“President Pavel is a decorated war hero, but it’s not a bad thing that the issue of his former Communist Party membership stays with him.”

“He’s a decorated war hero and he’s also a skillful diplomat, but it’s not a bad thing that this issue of his former Communist Party membership stays with him; his steps can be scrutinized, and I think that is only a good thing for politics.”