Student leader turned energy security trouble shooter

Václav Bartuška

Václav Bartuška was one of the leaders of the student protests which toppled the Czechoslovak Communist regime in November 1989. Recently he has been the Czech energy security trouble shooter and has been recruited as an advisor by Sweden’s current EU presidency. I asked Mr Bartuška how he became one of the leaders of the student protests.

“I think it was basically enough to be willing to risk a little and do something against the regime. In fact, it was not difficult to be a leader because there were very few people who did something openly against it. If Prague had 40,000 students at that time, the whole number of people who were actually involved in illegal papers or demonstrations or organising that stuff would be 20 or 30 people, no more. So it was quite easy. There was no queue to join. Everybody was welcome.”

And what did you do. What was your leadership role.

“I got detained on August 21st, 1988. It was the first big demonstration against the regime. I suppose what really made them furious was the things I wrote for a student paper. It was not exactly illegal, but it was not legal. It was just done – samizdat – a typical one. That was enough. Probably everything the student movement did before November 1989 was rather timid by today’s standards. We just tried to organise a few friends to talk about things which were going on and read things not in the official papers. There were certainly no heroic acts to be done. But even that little brought me a few detentions and things like that.”

During the eventual revolution what was your role.

“I was a member of the central committee of the striking students and I was also very soon elected by the students to be a member of the committee of parliament which oversaw the secret police and later the disbanding of the secret police and the investigation of what happened and why the police acted the way they did in November 1989. So it was basically first, just one of many, many student leaders and then an expert on the secret police. The reason was I was the first to be detained by the secret police. I had some experience of interrogations and stuff like that. I was taken as an expert by colleagues and friends, which of course was not true. But it seemed so.”

November 17, 1989
Do you think everything has been explained about 1989 sufficiently.

“Well, you always have questions and mysteries about the past. I would say that the main story is known. I do not believe in a great conspiracy theory, definitely not in this country. The favourite conspiracy theory is that the reformist Communists and secret police somehow wanted the Communist leadership to fall and have them follow the Gorbachev version of revolution: slow reform. I do not believe that. You do not keep anything secret that is shared by more than two people and definitely not for years. This is a country where everything spills out.”

The secret police reacted on the crucial day of the march from Vyšehrad - the news came out that one student was dead who was not dead. Do you not think this was rather strange.

“Once you look at it in the context …You had major demonstrations since August 1988, October 1988 and again in August 1989 and October 1989. So by November 1989 the police are becoming more and more experienced in how to suppress demonstrations. At the same time it is becoming more and more tired with it and especially tired with the pressure from the Communist Party leadership. It is saying there should be no demonstrations and make sure that nothing happens. Well, you can make sure nothing happens when there are 20 people but not when there are 20,000. And you can be fast in suppressing; you can be fast in beating them up; you can bring more policemen with sticks and, as they did on November 17th for the first time, bring armoured personnel carriers – they look like small tanks – but even with all of this you still have limitations. You cannot clear people out of a certain space fast enough. So there was plenty of irritation on behalf of the Communist Party and the police leadership and the Ministry of Interior leadership about the slowness of the whole disbanding of the demonstrations. So the people who were doing this were rather frustrated. I suppose that is the reason they were rather harsh on that day: the reason we got a rather big beating was this. That student: the news spread the next day. It was not true, but it was one of the catalysts of the whole change. It was the game changer.

You came to write a book “Polojasno” partly based on the parliamentary investigation.


Can you explain what you meant by the title.

“Polojasno means two things in Czech: it means partly sunny and it also means partly clear. The book was published in the Fall of 1990 but it was written during the committee work. The title in Czech says it all: it is partly sunny; it is nice weather, finally, and it is partly clear what happened. I think that is so true. We do not much like the past, especially the past which has something nasty about ourselves. And the Communist past is certainly something we do not want to discuss too much because we have to discuss how you can turn a relatively educated well off nation in the centre of Europe into a nation of slaves.”

Over the last months you have been special ambassador for energy security for the Czech Republic and now you have been asked to work also for the Swedish presidency of the EU. How much of a surprise was the Swedish offer.

“I have been doing this for the last three years for the Czech government. The Swedish offer is to be advisor for the presidency. I would like to insist it is their presidency and their’s only. It is the Swedish moment in the sun and in the crosshair of photographers. I am just an advisor to them on Russia, Ukraine and gas which is pointing to the crisis in January this year, which I think was the highlight of our presidency.”

And are the Swedish priorities the same or similar to the Czech priorities.

“I can just speak for the relatively small area which is the expertise they want from me, which is Russia, Ukraine and natural gas and the possibility of another crisis this winter. In this field I think their approach is very similar to the one we had this January and throughout our whole presidency. It is basically telling both Moscow and Kiev: No, we are not going to pay any ransom to you. We are not going to be blackmailed by you. You have deals with us, especially Gazprom, to deliver gas to our border and inside our territory. Please do so and really fix these internal difficulties with each other. Do not really ask us to be arbiters or negotiators between you because no-one outside of Moscow and Kiev really knows what is going on between these two. There is no way of being a mediator if you do not know all of the facts. We understand that there is a huge business going on in gas in which plenty of people in Ukraine and Russia are making huge amounts of money. I mean billions of dollars a year. And those who know about this do not talk and those who talk do not know. There is no place for Europe in this.