Institute director Pavel Žáček: petition against me “like voice from the past”

Pavel Žáček

The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes is under pressure this week after a petition was circulated calling for the dismissal of the Institute’s director, Pavel Žáček. Such petitions are not uncommon in the Czech Republic and this one – circulated by former dissident Stanislav Penc – might have gone more or less unnoticed had it not been signed by ex-president Václav Havel.

Just days ago Czechs celebrated the 20th anniversary of the start of the so-called Velvet Revolution, the month of non-violent protests that brought down the Communist regime. Coming to terms with that regime can still prove controversial, however; this week a new petition was circulated by a former dissident named Stanislav Penc, urging the dismissal of Pavel Žáček– head of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes.

Mr Žáček, a former student leader from 1989, has been criticised after the Institute published a new book naming Joska Skalník - a founding member of Civic Forum, the group that led the Velvet Revolution - as a secret police informant. The book was published without consulting Mr Skalník on the claim, which he strongly denies. For Stanislav Penc, author of the petition, this was the final straw in a long list of failures.

“The aim is for the Institute to function properly. At the moment the way it functions is that Pavel Žáček uses lies and untruths to further his arguments. He tells politicians and other people across the country that without him, there’ll be no more examination of the past and the Institute won’t exist. In a democracy, this just isn’t possible. State institutions and their directors are replaceable, like all of us are replaceable. And Pavel Žáček should not try to play the role of victim or the country’s only saviour.”

Pavel Žáček, for his part, told Radio Prague that the book was about Civic Forum, not Joska Skalník. Claims that Mr Skalník was a secret police informer working under the code name “Gogh”, said Mr Žáček, were not new and first surfaced in 1990. Pavel Žáček says those behind the petition are trying to censor the documents in his care.

“It’s very hard for me to understand the petition. Twenty years after the fall of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia it’s like a voice from the past. It’s a voice for censorship of archive documents. I think it’s very necessary for our research, for our society, to work with these materials, even with the materials of the former secret police and to present them. I know it’s a very sensitive theme, but we are not here to censor any of these materials.”

The Skalník case demonstrates the difficulties for a country trying to face its communist past. Professor Mark Kramer is director of Cold War studies at Harvard University and a member of the Czech Institute’s advisory board.

“[Mr Skalník] should have been consulted, there’s no question. But the issue is whether the book should have been put together at all, and there I think it certainly should have been. It’s a legitimate topic of study, and there is certainly room for debate about the tone of it and some of the specific contents, including the identification of this person. This institute, bear in mind, is only a couple of years old, and it’s undoubtedly going to have some problems at the beginning because it’s an institute that by its nature is going to encounter a lot of opposition.”

Pavel Žáček says he will meet Joska Skalník next week to clarify the matter. Speaking in an interview with the weekly magazine Reflex, Mr Skalník strongly denied having informed on the organization he helped to create. However several of President Havel’s former aides told Lidové Noviny newspaper on Friday that Joska Skalník had admitted the allegations when they confronted him in 1990 and, as a result, he was immediately sacked as Václav Havel’s advisor.