Velvet Revolution Blues: How Civic Forum collapsed

Photo: Gampe, CC BY 3.0

The relatively rapid and bloodless Velvet Revolution that swept the communists from power in Czechoslovakia in 1989 and replaced them with a set of civic activists, mostly with little past experience of power, lived on in the memory of many.

Photo: archive of Czech Radio
Iconic Václav Havel became head of state and took to the world stage with aplomb in what appeared to be a latter day fairy story and members of the new government got down to work with a sort of charming naivity.

But the apparent smooth transition was somewhat illusory – within just over two years Czechoslovakia was on the path to separation and Civic Forum, the broad movement leading and uniting protesters, was well on the road to implosion.

The reality of the Velvet Revolution and its aftermath has been explored by historian Jiří Suk in his award winning book, Labyrintem Revoluce, which charts the early months of the Velvet Revolution. He says part of the problem is that from the start Civic Forum was a very broad movement:

“Civic Forum (Občanské Fórum ) portrayed itself as a movement for everyone, for all citizens who were dissatisfied and who were angered by the action against the student demonstration on November 17, 1989. Civic Forum in a way was the mouthpiece for that discontented part of society. It was not at all a political party or a political movement which wanted to take over power. I think it is really important to understand that point. Civic Forum was not a party of professional revolutionaries who had decided to overturn the government and take power. It was a structure which it itself described as transitory and which sought to be an intermediary for dialogue between civic groups and the government on the moves towards democracy in Czechoslovakia. In this case, of course, Civic Forum had to be open to all the trends from reformist communists, to communists in power, and right-leaning dissidents who within that spectrum had a right-wing dissident perspective on the transition to democracy.”

“Civic Forum (Občanské Fórum) portrayed itself as a movement for everyone.”

At the beginning Civic Forum had very limited goals for itself. It wanted to pave the way for the end of one party rule and that was about it. And that concept initially meant that they were willing to accept the continuation of communist ministers and even a communist prime minister, Ladislav Adamec. But Adamec took a stubborn stand against demands for the communist party to be sidelined from power much faster and that eventually proved his undoing:

“Adamec did not accept that and on December 3 he created the so-called 15 plus five government. The 15 were members of the communist party and of the other five, I think two were from other parties and three had no party affiliations. That move really stirred up the public – the fact there was that ratio of power 15 communists to five others – they could simply not accept that and started to demonstrate against it. At that moment Václav Havel and also Public against Violence in Slovakia understood they had to take more power and delegate more of their people to serve in the government.”

So, Havel and the other Civic Forum leaders were pushed, mostly unwillingly, into government. At the same time though they were willing to make compromises elsewhere and this included on the shape of the state itself which they were poised to lead.

Ladislav Adamec,  Václav Havel,  photo: Czech Television
“From the start it was agreed in the movement all round that they would push for one party rule to end, that the communists’ domination would have to end. At the same time though they would continue to use the existing institutions and the constitutional framework that applied. There was widespread agreement on that. Ironically this conservative position was taken and the main person upholding this stance was the constitutional lawyer and former communist and later Charter 77 signatory, Zdeněk Jičínský. At the end of December he was head of the Federal Assembly and he pushed through this constitutional transition. Although this position by backed, paradoxically from January 1990 onwards it also came to be questioned and attempts were made later, but without results, to restructure this constitutional position.”

The rather awkward and lumbering communist structures had the advantage that they more or less worked when a single party was pulling the strings at all levels, but with the leading role of the communist party consigned to the dustbin of history, this was about to be no longer the case. And that created another obstacle that the Velvet Revolution leaders soon had to deal with.

And there was another problem as well, Civic Forum leaders were soon off to occupy top posts with very little left to cement the grass roots movement together.

“Václav Havel and also Public against Violence in Slovakia understood they had to take more power and delegate more of their people to serve in the government.”

“Civic Forum emptied itself very quickly because the leaders left to take up top positions. The first was Václav Havel who went as president to the Castle. He was replaced by Petr Pithart, who a month later went to head the Czech government. And other leaders left as well who had been at the heart of Civic Forum. So, from the start Civic Forum was a very unstable formation because from the bottom up there was a whole national organisation. There were local Civic Forum groups, regional groups, and groups at working places and various organisations. And once Civic Forum and Public Against Violence took power and Václav Havel became president, there was pressure from below to democratise the movement. It did not operate on democratic grounds during that transitional phase.

"Václav Havel as the founder of Civic Forum and the influential personality did not want Civic Forum to become a classical political party. That created tension from the start, Civic Forum post-Havel and post- Pithart faced pressure from below to democraticise. It was not just about that, there were also interests being advanced at the local and regional level and also personal interests. The revolution quickly changed into a revolution of interests. At the top political level as well there was a lack of countervailing pressure.”

Photo: Czech Television
One of the grass roots complaints was that the Civic Forum leaders went too easy on the communists – not surprising since the latter had effectively shoe-horned the protesters, demonstrators, and former dissidents into power:

“The lines of conflict emerged very quickly and one of those was focused on anti-communism. Although it was delayed, it was very strong and intense. It expressed itself in the demand for the communist party to return its large portfolio of property to the Czechoslovak people. That demand quickly transformed into the call for the communist party to be banned. The leadership of Civic Forum had to face up to this pressure because it went to the centre of the consensus they had agreed with the communists at the round table and the co-option of their members to parliament and they could not suddenly turn around and ask for a ban on the communist party.”

And when the grassroots failed to win the fight over the communists they often turned to another swiftly emerging conflict - the direction and speed that economic reform should take in Czechoslovakia.

“Civic Forum emptied itself very quickly because the leaders left to take up top positions.”

“In the end, the economy proved to be a crucial battleground which led to the collapse of Civic Forum and which speeded up the transformation on economic grounds. What the leadership failed to do, such as the ban on the communist party and accept the anti-communistic radical line, was supplanted in one respect in the economic sphere because the argument went that only through fast and radical economic transformation could the old party ties be destroyed. It was argued that another form of ownership, market forces, and prosperity would deal with the attempts to illegally get rich quick through the privatisation process.“

And there was another fundamental weakness surrounding the Velvet Revolution. However, it was spun, that revolution was mostly Prague-centred and led by Czech dissidents. Slovaks spontaneously signed up to the revolution but they were coming from a very different starting point and it soon emerged that they also had different goals.

Photo: Prostor Publishing
“In Slovakia, there was not so strong or hardly any civic dissent on the lines of Charter 77. There was a few signatories there of the charter. At the same time though, there was the Catholic Church and the underground movement of the church. Developments there took a different path though it must be said at the same time that Public Against Violence spontaneously aligned itself with what Civic Forum was doing. It was not the case that Civic Forum dictated in any way. And although there was not a dissent movement in Slovakia, there was a sort of grey zone of academics and artists who worked normally in institutions but were critical of the then regime and took part in ecological protests, such as those staged in Bratislava. Those people created Verejnost Proti Násiliu (VPN) or Public Against Violence.”

And in Slovakia, the former communists were able much more often to keep their fingers on the levers of power or exert a lot more influence that was the case in Bohemia and Moravia. For many Czechs and foreigners the cracks that quickly appeared in the Czechoslovak federal state were a surprise. But from the longer term historical viewpoint, and the fact that the communists over the past decades had tried to suppress Slovak national aspirations, it should not have been perhaps such a revelation. Many of the Civic Forum leaders themselves seemed at a loss how to respond.

“In Slovakia, there was not so strong or hardly any civic dissent on the lines of Charter 77.”

“It’s possible to say that the Velvet Revolution was at one and the same time both very euphoric and consensual and in some way that it hid the problems of Czech and Slovak coexistence in a single federal state. The Slovaks declared their belonging, at sometimes emotively, during the Velvet Revolution to the same state. But that soon changed and in January 1990, during the so-called hyphen war, the past historic obstacles and problems which had existed since the creation of Czechoslovakia and through the Second World War with the creation of the Slovak state and in 1968 reared up again. The Czech and Slovak political leadership and the leadership at the federal level did not know what to do about it. The consensus that the Czechs and Slovaks would remain in the same state emerged to be very problematic. The Slovaks took a confederal approach and tried to develop or reinforce the existing Slovak federal structures with the idea that the federation would be rebuilt from below and that there would be very strong Czech and Slovak national states and which would delegate some of the remaining powers to the federal government. That was a path which more or less led to Slovak independence.”

Jiří Suk,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
The hyphen war ended in April 1990. Suk says many Czechs tried to make a joke of the episode and missed the point that this was an expression of the Slovak desire for more independence. Throughout the rest of 1990, the Slovaks under the leadership of Vladimír Meciar sought to claw back more and more powers from the federal Czechoslovak government to the local level. The movement reached such a point that the federal government was undermined.

And within Civic Forum itself other changes were taking place, the ever ambitious and assuming finance minister Václav Klaus put himself at the forefront of those seeking radical and fast economic change. And he also made a concerted and, eventually successful bid, to win over the Civic Forum party grass roots. With president Hável not keen to intervene in Civic Forum grassroots issues and many of the original leaders seeking to step down from public life, Klaus’ path to further power was helped along. He was eventually elected party chairman in 1991 and was soon on collision course with other leaders in a conflict that would soon see the break- up of the movement.

Could different moves have resulted in a different storyline at least as regards the continuation of Czechoslovakia and was Václav Havel mainly to blame for not appreciating the evolution there? Jiří Suk:

“There were possibilities how that collective state could have been saved.”

“I do not think it was unavoidable, I also do not think it was down to one person, there were people and circumstances involved. In retrospect, it is often portrayed as unavoidable and as if it was set down in law but there were possibilities how that collective state could have been saved. One of those was turning to the citizens and voting on whether the federal state should split or continue. That would not have meant that a vote to continue would have meant the end of all problems and all negotiations but it would probably have evolved differently.”