Taking stock of democracy 30 years after the fall of communism

Revolución de Terciopelo, foto: Peter Turnley, Public Domain

Thirty years ago Czechs took to the streets to demonstrate for freedom and democracy, for the chance to speak their mind without reprisals, to vote in free elections and shape their own future. Today they are taking stock of the country’s successes and failures, of how far they have come along the road to a liberal democracy and market economy and whether the ideals of 1989 are still alive in people’s hearts and minds.

Vít Pohanka,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková / Czech Radio
My guests in the studio for a debate on these and related questions are: political scientist Jiří Pehe, economist and writer Tomáš Sedláček and Czech Radio journalist Vít Pohanka, who was one of the student leaders making history in 1989.

Vít, how do you remember the heady days of the Velvet Revolution?

Vít Pohanka: Well, I should explain that I was a student at Palacký University in Olomouc which is a provincial town, some 150 or 160 miles east of Prague, so I wasn’t in Prague on November 17th which was Friday. At that time we used to travel home for the weekend to see our parents. I was following the news, of course. At the time I was already listening to the BBC World Service in English, which was no longer being jammed at the close of the 1980s, and I was listening to Radio Liberty or Radio Free Europe in Czech from Munich –so I was getting the news from Prague. What I was worried about on my way back to Olomouc on Sunday was that in that small provincial town no one – or very few people – would know that something had happened in Prague and that most people would not be willing to take part in any protests and that the town would stay “stagnant”. To my great surprise, that wasn’t the case. When I came to the hostel where students lived there were already students gathering and we decided to go on strike –even in Olomouc –that following Monday, November 20th and most of the university students supported that decision. We elected strike committees at the various faculties. I became a member of the strike committee at the Faculty of Arts and what followed was probably the most intense week of my life. The atmosphere was still tense. It is easy to say today that everything was lined up and it was clear that communism would fall. We didn’t know that. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that the communist regime had more or less collapsed in Poland, because there were free elections in June of 1989, which the Solidarity Movement led by Lech Walesa won, communism was more or less gone in Hungary, but in Czechoslovakia the regime was still surviving and even though the Berlin Wall had fallen by then, we still felt that communism was very real and wouldn’t give up easily. So the first week was very intense. And I am very glad I had the opportunity to live through that and to be active –even in a small town like Olomouc.

But you knew there was a real chance to topple the regime and one worth fighting for…I believe you once said you would have emigrated if things did not work out?

Vít Pohanka  (left) discussing strategy in 1989 | Photo: Petr Zatloukal
Vít Pohanka: That’s correct. I was in my final year at the university, expecting to get my MA in 1990 and I had decided by then that I would emigrate to the West. In the late 1980s the travel restrictions were more relaxed and it was possible to leave. So I had decided to leave the country, to leave communism and for me the Velvet Revolution came at the eleventh hour.

How do you feel about where we are now?

Vít Pohanka: I hate to use the cliché about the glass that is half-full and half-empty. There are things that I am not very happy about, on the other hand, the development of my country more or less fulfilled what I had hoped for in those heady days of November 1989. If you had asked me in 1989 whether I thought the country would be in NATO ten years later and a member of the EU in 15 years’ time, I would not have thought it possible. On the other hand, not everything is as rosy as I would like it to be.

It was a time of great expectations. Could it not be that people’s expectations were simply too high and that it was inevitable that the idealists would be replaced by pragmatists and that the transition to a democracy and market economy would be fraught with problems such as corruption?

Jiří Pehe: Yes, I think it was almost inevitable. Because look where we came from. We had lived through four decades of communism and I do not know why anyone thought that there were people who knew how to build a system of liberal democracy, a real market economy, a rule of law…there were no skill for this and a lot of what happened in the 1990s was just improvisation, sometimes also bad intentions… so I am not really surprised by the fact that there was a lot of corruption, a lot of what we call “tunnelling” or asset-stripping and things of this sort. Also, the political parties that came into being were not what everyone hoped for simply because everyone stayed away from partisanship after forty-one years of communism. The parties that were created were small, created mainly from above and these parties presided over the largest transfer of property in this country’s history, creating, in the process, new economic actors with which they were very closely intertwined and, in the end, some of the assets were privatized into the hands of these new economic actors. So it was to some extent inevitable, it could have been slightly better, but I think that we have to be patient because if you look at literature on the process of post-authoritarian transformation, basically all authors agree that it takes two generations to build a fully-fledged democracy and much of that depends on creating a fully-fledged civil society –so we are somewhere in the middle.

Jiří Pehe: If you look at literature on the process of post-authoritarian transformation, basically all authors agree that it takes two generations to build a fully-fledged democracy and much of that depends on creating a fully-fledged civil society –so I would say we are somewhere in the middle.

When you look at how the Visegrad Group states function today, how they defend their interests and how much they have in common, does that suggest that we all have similar teething problems and transformation problems?

Jiří Pehe: Yes, what connects us is our communist past, and some of the same attitudes that people who were socialized during the communist era still carry with them, people who spent the formative parts of their lives under communism have some of the same mental stereotypes and often - if you listen to some of our politicians – even the same vocabulary. But you could also argue that in the case of the Visegrad countries they are connected by a more distant past. You can detect some of the pathologies of the late Hapsburg Empire, of its political culture, which we all share. All you have to do to verify that thesis is to look at Austria which is, in some ways, very similar – as far as political culture goes – to what we see in the four Visegrad states.

The society has become increasingly consumerist in the past 30 years. Is that the reason why people vote for politicians like Mr. Babis, like Mr. Zeman who are likely to put business interests ahead of everything else?

Tomáš Sedláček : Well, it is a very similar thing to what is happening in the US. I always judged the development of the transition according to the problems that we had. We started having standard economic problems, like every other country, and added to that we now have standard political problems. “Refugees” was a word we didn’t know, it was a non-issue, even though we survived a couple of waves of migration from the Ukraine and the former states of Yugoslavia and we have a somewhat significant Vietnamese community. It never became a political topic, only now we have caught up with the rest of Europe.

Jiří Pehe | Photo: Jana Trpišovská,  Czech Radio
We are no longer the trouble-makers. Interestingly, even the economic situation in 2008 and 2009 was something that the Czech Republic was exempted from. We were one of the few countries in the world that did not have to subsidize their banking by a single penny from the budget. The Greeks have become bigger troublemakers than the Czech Republic, the UK has shot itself in the leg in solving the Brexit problem for three years and many years to follow. So I wouldn’t say that we are exceptionally consumerist. The economy is doing well, I agree it could have been better, on the other hand of all the post-Soviet countries we are doing the best, we have 90 percent of GDP per capita in purchasing power. Slovenia was always close to catching us up, but it never really did and in terms of economics we are doing better than Greece and we will soon catch up with countries such as Portugal and Spain and we were able to borrow at a lower interest rate than Italy and Italy is a member of the Eurozone. So, objectively speaking, I see it as a wave cycle. We had a very exceptional president such as Havel and we seem to have got a little bit tired of being the “good guy” and now we are seeing a downward part of the cycle and who knows – maybe after seven years we’ll be able to produce something outstanding again.

Vít Pohanka: You know on the consumerist phenomenon….recently I was producing a radio program about the record number of Czech visitors to historical sites and to theatres. Just try getting a ticket to the theatre in Prague. What I am trying to get to is that while we may be living in a consumption-oriented society what gives me hope is that there are so many people going to historical sites and theatres. If I didn’t know the director of a theatre in Prague I would never get a ticket! So there is a positive side to how the society lives today.

The subtitle of Forum 2,000 this year was Recovering the Promise of 1989. Do we need a moral authority like Václav Havel was or like T.G. Masaryk?

Tomáš Sedláček: The only symbolic musical instrument that is new since the 1990s is the mixing board, which I think is a perfect symbol of politics today – we take old tunes and we remix them.

Jiří Pehe: I am not sure that such a moral authority is easy to find because Havel, just like Masaryk, was the product of very specific historical conditions. He was catapulted to the presidency by circumstances which will not be repeated. I remember a discussion Havel had with Bill Clinton. Havel told Clinton – you were groomed for the role of president since the age of six and you are a product of the American political system, whereas I did not know, at the age of fifty, that I would be president. I became president because history brought it about. I think that is very true. So I am not sure we can have politicians like Havel or Masaryk again. And, maybe it is not even necessary, because those kinds of politicians are the product of revolutionary times.

How did we come to terms with our communist past? There are still people who say the Communist Party should have been abolished, others argue it is best to let it leave the scene in a democratic manner…what do you think?

Tomáš Sedláček: It is actually interesting that 30 years after the revolution we are still talking about communism –that alone is significant. If you look at it - the First Republic, the inter-war era, very significant for us Czechs and a time that we tend to fetishize, that lasted for twenty years and I do not think there was a very long or strong debate on the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time. I think what we should have done is we should have called on those people who were actually guilty of trespassing against their friends in cooperating with the secret police to apologize. They should have said “Please forgive us, we are guilty”. We should have had this night of “getting all the bad out”. That did not happen. But I do not think we should have banned the Communist Party –that is against my idea of democracy. But the fact that we are still talking about it 30 years later is significant. It “only” lasted for 40 years and we are still talking about it thirty years later. I think it is time to stop blaming something that a whole generation knows nothing about and start looking into the future instead.

So how did we handle the economic challenges that we faced in 1989?

Tomáš Sedláček | Photo: Jana Přinosilová,  Czech Radio
Tomáš Sedláček: Well, let’s just say that we managed. It was a very difficult process and there was no cookbook on how to go about it. And it is actually quite interesting that if you look at our market democracy – what we call the Western system today – we managed to export only half of it. We managed to export capitalism to China, to Russia, all over the world, capitalism was exported very successfully; democracy not so much. In fact, if you want to be a little bit brutal, you can say that we Westernized the East when it comes to the economy but when it comes to politics it is more an Easternization of the West. That’s how some of the new populist politicians and moods seem to us. So capitalism managed to conquer the world, democracy not so much. If it were up to me, I would rather it had been the other way round.

Jiří Pehe: I also think that creating a system of liberal democracy is a process that doesn’t take two years or five years, it really is a long process as Ralf Dahrendorf warned us in his famous essay A Letter to a Polish Friend. I think the reason for that is that the democratic system is based on institutions and procedures on the one hand and also requires a certain democratic culture on the other. And to create the latter is a much slower process, because certain values have to be internalized, certain ways of behaviour, and I think our main problem in this regard is that – as elections showed – about half of our society is “post-communist”. Those people were formed by certain values and ways of thinking under the communist regime and that is very difficult to change and it is difficult for them to renounce the past. We saw that recently during the funeral of Karel Gott, when we saw this outpouring of emotions, people wanted to be connected with the past. So it is a very complex thing and one of the books I wrote is called “Democracy without Democrats”, based on Masaryk’s famous quote, and I think this is our main problem, that we have a critical mass of people who are not democrats. We have an institutional procedural democracy that is in place – the “facade” so to speak, but we do not have enough people to provide the blood circulation – as Tomáš Halík said “civil society is the blood circulation of democracy which distributes oxygen and nutrients”. So it is perhaps a generational process as well, we’ll see. But I agree with Tomáš Sedláček that we can see problems for democracy everywhere in the world and so this system of liberal democracy that we hope to create is a moving target, because the paradigm of it changed after 1989.

Have we come as far as you’d hoped to see us come, thirty years on? Are the institutions that foster democracy in place, is there an education in democracy for young people?

Vít Pohanka: People close themselves into this virtual reality with others who think alike and they live their life there. There’s not much of a discussion, there is just shouting. But the shouting happens on the social media, it doesn’t happen in the streets. It is a new phenomenon we journalists don’t know what to do with.

Jiří Pehe: Yes, I think that given the circumstances, we have. That we are where, in my opinion, should have been. Maybe it could have been slightly better in some areas, but then to my surprise there are other areas where we have done better than I expected. So it is half-and-half and I think that what is really important is the external framework. We were very lucky to be surrounded by countries that promote democracy, to have had the EU, NATO and other international institutions. This was not the case for Czechoslovakia before WWII. Czechoslovakia was the last surviving island of democracy in Central Europe, surrounded by totalitarian, authoritarian states and now, while we may have some problems with democracy, we are surrounded by states which promote democracy and I think that is extremely important.

Do we let ourselves be helped?

Jiří Pehe: Well, al lot of politicians resist. For them it would be better to operate in a twilight-zone, but in many ways I think they don’t have a choice because our economy depends so much on Europe that if they go too far they would damage the economy and that would damage them in the end.

Vít, as a journalist, what are the threats to our society today? Is press freedom in danger?

Vít Pohanka: I may surprise you by saying that I actually think the press in the Czech Republic is doing fine, and I say this based on my experience from Poland where I served as a correspondent for a few years and where the public media became the state media. The same thing happened in Hungary and –though not to such a violent extent –in Slovakia as well. So I think the public media are doing fine in the Czech Republic and are still able to withstand attacks by some politicians.

What about fake news, populism?

Vít Pohanka: Yes, but that is something you can see everywhere, it is not just in the Czech Republic, you can see that in the US, where I served as a correspondent in the past…that frightens me much more - the fact that people, whether they are supporters or opponents of Donald Trump, they close themselves into this virtual reality of people who think alike and they live their life there. There’s not much of a discussion, there is just shouting. But the shouting happens on the social media, it doesn’t happen in the streets like it did in the US in the 1960s because of the war in Vietnam. So it is a new phenomenon that we journalists do not know what to do with – I mean just look at Donald Trump – he communicates via Twitter and that’s it, there’s very few press conferences, there’s no real challenge. It’s a new media reality, but it does not concern only the Czech Republic, or only the post-communist geographical area – this is a global new phenomenon that we don’t know what to do with.

Velvet Revolution | Photo: Peter Turnley,  public domain
Tomáš Sedláček: Yes, look at Great Britain, which is an exemplar democracy, and they do not know if they have a parliament in session or not, it seems that their democracy has run into a blunt edge that they do not know what to do with. Parliament doesn’t know what to do with Brexit or is trying to complicate it, while the public poll was slightly in favour. That is something that is a real problem for democracy and we technically don’t know what to do with it. On the other hand, I’d say that we have run out of new ideas, if you look at the last politician who had some sort of vision I think it was Tony Blair with his “third-way”, which wasn’t super-duper original, but at least It was something new. Since then we haven’t had many politicians who would come up with a new vision, so it is no surprise that many countries want to revert “back” to something –in England it was “Let’s take BACK control ”, in the US “Let’s make America great AGAIN” and even here, 30 years ago, we spoke of returning “Back to Europe” so this notion of going back to a system that we’ve already seen is a punishment for the fact that there is nothing new in the world of politics. You can also see it in the world of music, since the 90’s there has not been a new musical genre, I’ve checked this many times and it seems quite a paradox. Also in the area of dancing – nothing new. The only symbolic musical instrument that is new since the 1990s is the mixing board, which I think is a perfect symbol of politics today – we take old tunes and we remix them. Also in terms of economics –we havn’t had any great economists such as Friedman, Caines or Hayek since the 1990s and I would even dare to say that in the area of philosophy or humanities there hasn’t been any great new movement. The only movement we have is this Green movement, but I remember when I was young we had hippies, anarchists, punks, all very lively youth organizations and today we have hipsters. So there is nothing to fill democracy with new hope. We have the European Union which is also in dire need of a new direction. So one way of looking at it is that the crisis we are experiencing in democracy is a vertigo crisis from fulfilled dreams. We had very nice democracies for twenty years, reasonably good, and now there was no vision to make people go forward, which is why the populists are winning ground. To me a populist is a politician who says I only want your vote –I do not need you to do anything else, do not change, just give me your vote and do not speak after you give it to me. Whereas a true politician does not want to take your vote, but talk with you throughout his four years in office and change things, if the country wants to change. The easy-solution populists won because on our side we have no new vision.

Are we learning the lessons that can be learnt from other countries – Brexit, the US?

Jiří Pehe: These new technologies contribute to the spread of certain values which go beyond the boundaries of the Western civilization. Just now we have seen demonstrations and protests in the most unlikely places which are driven by ideas that you can find in the Declaration of Independence of the United States – “all men are created equal”- and you have people in Lebanon and Chile and such places demonstrating in the hundreds of thousands for these values, for emancipation. In that regard I am very optimistic.

Tomáš Sedláček: I am an economist and I think the basic belief of an economist is that things go in cycles, that they go up and down, and during the good times we should not forget that bad times are coming and the other way round. I think that it may be that in seven years people will be sick and tired of fake news, sick and tired of people who can only blame others, sick and tired of arrogant politicians and that there will be a sincere demand for people with a difficult, but do-able vision.

Jiří Pehe: Tomáš Sedláček mentioned that there is nothing new in music, dance and many other areas, but I would argue that there is something profoundly new and revolutionary and that is in technology and science. That is something that is happening under the surface, but it has political consequences. We are slow to see them because they come with a certain delay, but as we speak hundreds, probably thousands of new discoveries are being made which will profoundly affect us in many ways. This is the revolution of our times and it is changing everything, even politics and I think we should think more about this dimension –the ethos of this period is there. That is why I am also an optimist. I think that these forces below the surface which are driving modern societies are working towards integration and more integration, because they need it to be productive and that is why I think that all of these pathological things that we see now –nationalism, populism, a certain renewal of racism – all of these attempts to go back in time, to re-set the clock so to speak, are doomed in the medium run.

Tomáš Sedláček: I really like this comment, because it is true. In technology and science we are seeing the exact opposite of the still waters in the areas that I named and I just want to say that it is quite interesting that this political disintegration that we see within Europe, but we also see it in America from Trump, goes hand in hand with an unprecedented integration of the world through the Internet. I can now be a much closer friend with a Chinese peasant who happens to like the same music than with my neighbour in the Czech Republic. So there is a very strong paradox and the issue is that we are being driven by technologies which are not here to change the society. This would be a fine new topic – new blood for democracy – to start dealing with technology and try to do politics somewhat scientifically. That would help the problem with fake news. These are the birth pains of an integrated world. Theoretical physicists say that in a hundred years’ time this planet should turn into a Civilization Type 1, meaning planetary civilization –that we will start having planetary debates, planetary democracy, and it has already begun, in terms of technology we have “one mind” when it comes to the Internet. I now know what is happening in a small Japanese village, I know it like a Jedi, in a second I know that there is an earthquake in Japan … so it is an interesting paradox that the world is integrating and yet in politics we seem to be disintegrating.

Vít Pohanka: I would just like to point out – as a parent with teenage children – that one of my disappointments, 30 years on, is the education system which has not developed as I would have liked – and I am talking here about primary and secondary schools, not so much about universities. I mention it because when we talk about how the planet is becoming interconnected and young people communicate on the same subjects whether they come from Europe, Asia or the United States –I do not think that the educational system is adapting to that. I think media literacy courses would be a good idea for a start. I know it is difficult to change a whole system, but one of my disappointments is that the education system has remained stagnant.

Photo: Lupuca via Foter.com / CC BY-SA
Jiří Pehe: But I would argue that because of easy access to communication technologies our kids are ahead of the educational system. They find the information and context that they need. I would point to another thing that gives me hope and that is that these new technologies contribute to the spread of certain values which go beyond the boundaries of the Western civilization. Just now we have seen demonstrations and protests in the most unlikely places which are driven by ideas that you can find in the Declaration of Independence of the United States – “all men are created equal”- and you have people in Lebanon and Chile and such places demonstrating in the hundreds of thousands for these values, for emancipation. So I think that something is going on which is tied very deeply with these easier ways of communicating and the spread of certain technologies and in that regard I am very optimistic.

Tomáš Sedláček: It is like the world of technology is sucking so many things from our real life it also seems that it is sucking out innovation –we minimize the innovation to science and technology – other areas seem to be falling behind, just like the education system.