Projects > Governance
Democratization: Learning from the Lessons of Others
9 September 2003, Ramallah
Democratization Process in Post-Communist Czech Republic
Speaker: Dr. Ladislav venys
I am a political scientist by training. This may be the reason
why I was never interested in becoming an active politician. I
preferred working in the not for profit, non-governmental sector
and established in 1990 an NGO called Center for Democracy and
Free Enterprise which I have directed until today. In my brief
address I would like to share with you my 13year experience in
building democracy in the Czech Republic with some excursions to
the neighboring countries such as Slovakia , Poland , Hungary and
even some countries of the former Soviet Union .
The role of the not for profit, non-governmental sector in helping
the democratic process in any country is very important. Unfortunately,
in the central European countries, which used to belong to the
Soviet Bloc until 1989, the NGOs get very little support and encouragement
from the ruling democratic parties. They have to struggle hard
to survive and fulfill the role of the counterpart of the government.
I don't want to bore you with too many details of our history
as a background to my talk. But least a few major dates and facts
should be mentioned to give you an idea what we have had to go
through to become a solid democratic country. The first Czech kingdom
was established on our present territory already in the 9 th century
and through the middle ages we have had several strong kings, some
of them ruling over large parts of Central Europe . At the beginning
of the 16 th century the Habsburks of German origin took over the
rule and in the course of one century they were able to decimate
totally the Czech nobility. From 1620 to 1918 we were under the
occupation of foreign empires related to Habsburks. In 1918, immediately
after World War I we were able to become an independent country
called Czechoslovakia .
This major event of our history was made
possible by great support and encouragement of our nascent political
elite by the then American government, especially president Wilson.
(As a matter of fact, our Declaration of Independence was composed
and written in English in Philadelphia and only later translated
into Czech. ) From 1918 to 1938 we were able to build one of
the most exemplary democracies in Europe and an economic system,
which made us one of the ten most prospering economies of the
world. (We were by 1938 the fifth largest exporter of arms in
the world and our armament sector was considered one of the finest
in the world.) The neighboring Germany , ruled by Nazis, occupied
Czechoslovakia in 1939 and stayed in during World War I until
1945 when we were liberated by Soviet and partially also American
armies. For 3 years we continued our pre-war democratic process
but in 1948 the Communists, supported by the Soviet Union , took
over and ruled the country until 1989. Those 41 years were very
difficult for us. A handful of communists (about 10% of total
population) ruled the country in a ruthless, totalitarian manner.
Tens of thousands of people were jailed, quite many executed,
for nothing but disagreement with the undemocratic, inhuman rule
of the communists. Only once we tried to change the undemocratic
rule, namely, in 1968 when we tried to give „a human
face“ to socialism but were punished for our disobedience by a
Soviet-led invasion of our country in August 1968. The communist
rule tightened even more after this occupation and Soviet troops
stayed in for more than two decades.
We knew that nothing major in our lives could
happen until there is a change in the “empire of evil” i.e. the Soviet Union . The
moment of hope came in 1986 with Gorbachev and his “perestroika”.
In October 1989 he was enlightened and progressive enough to declare
that the Soviet Union would not interfere in domestic events of
its central European vassal states. Immediately afterwards, a very
strong liberation movement started in all those countries and one
after another became independent by throwing down their communist
rulers. By the end of 1989 the whole area, formerly under Soviet
dominance, was free and could start building democratic regimes
and free market economies.
For Czechoslovakia it was a third attempt during the last century to build
democracy. Let me share with you some of our experiences and lessons of the
past 13 years.
In November 1989, when it became quite clear
that the communist rule in Czechoslovakia had come to an end
and after the neighboring East Germany 's dismantling the ill-famed
Berlin wall, we faced all of a sudden the problem of having no
new politicians to take over from the communist rulers. It was
a group of dissidents, mostly intellectuals and 1968 reformists,
who were the only people in the country to be able to negotiate
with the communists at that important milestone of our most recent
history. It was a very peaceful negotiation process which lasted
a few weeks and which was led by a leading dissident (and later
the first president of the post-communist Czechoslovakia ) Mr.
Václav Havel. A number of compromises
had to be made to keep the takeover relatively smooth and bloodless.
The communist party still had quite a few of its members in the
new government that was established at the beginning of December
1989. Even the prime minister of this interim government was a
communist. Just before Christmas of that year Václav Havel
was unanimously elected President of Czechoslovakia and the process
of reforms, both political and economic, was started. Slowly but
systematically communists were losing their positions in the government
and the Parliament. After the first free, democratic elections
in June 1990 the democratic forces took over completely and ended
the more than 4-decade rule of the communists. Unfortunately, the „velvet
revolution“ of 1989 made it possible for many communists to take
up leading positions in many branches of our economy because there
was no law preventing them from such an infiltration. This lack
of legal barriers to stop them from doing so is attributed to the
very „soft“ negotiations President Havel and his group of leading
dissidents had with the communists at the end of 1989 and beginning
of 1990. The net result of this very generous treatment of the
communists is the fact that many former communist leaders have
leading positions in a great number of large and prosperous companies
and many more benefit from their former contacts and capital they
amassed in the past by establishing small and medium – sized companies
which were able to get themselves established quite fast in the
reforming economic set up and profit a great deal from the privatization
of state owned companies (98% of the production sector of communist
Czechoslovakia was owned by the state!). That process started in
1990-91 and went on until 1997 when over 80% of the large, medium-sized
and small companies was privately owned; the remaining 20% were
gradually privatized in the following 5 years so that in 2003 we
have more than 90% of the production sector in private hands. The
former communists never tried in the past 13 years to take over
again the political power and seemed quite satisfied with the economic
power they got in exchange. Whether this was a strategy planned
beforehand or just coincidence or good luck on the side of the
communists is difficult to say. This is how it is at the moment
and we have to make the best out of it, if we want or not. It is
important to note at this point that Czechoslovakia is the only
country of Central Europe which was so excessively democratic that
it allowed the Communist Party to go on existing as a parliamentary
party even after the democratic takeover in 1989. Consequently,
it continues to be quite a strong opposition in our Parliament
(about 15% of seats on the average) until today. It has, however,
accepted the new democratic principles of ruling and behaves accordingly
in the parliament as well as in the public life. Its influence
in the country remains quite strong (currently about 18% of population
supports it) but there is no danger it could again become a dominant
and ruling party. This brief account of the political atmosphere
in my country after 1989 shows quite clearly that you can transfer
from a totalitarian rule to a democratic one in a peaceful way
and don't have to use any extreme means of violence and warfare.
What it needs is a group of good negotiators, patience, diplomatic
skills and, last but not least, international support. We were
lucky to have most of these prerequisites. It is true that our
new political representation (we could call it an elite) was recruited
not from professional politicians but former dissidents and common
citizens willing to learn fast new skills and enter the tricky
political arena in an attempt to help their country (and often
also themselves) get out of the mess of the past two generations.
This new „elite“, however inexperienced at the beginning, is now
behaving in quite a professional manner and keeps the country firmly
on a democratic path.
One of the major events of the past 13 years
is certainly the split of Czechoslovakia into two independent
countries on January 1, 1993 , namely, the Czech and Slovak Republic
. It wasn't an easy decision to make after 75 years of marriage.
Yet, again, our political elite, however still inexperienced,
was able to negotiate a „velvet divorce“ resulting in the two
countries now existing side by side, having the same (if not
bigger) amount of trade and keeping a very friendly (much friendlier
than before) relationship.
The „velvet revolution“ of 1989 and „velvet divorce“ in
1993 show clearly that everything can be negotiated in a peaceful
way if there is, of course, good will on both the negotiating
sides. The role of elites in such processes is quite important.
It is therefore important that they are well trained and dedicated
to the cause under negotiation.
An important factor in all negotiations of the kind mentioned
above is, as I already mentioned, international recognition and
clear support. We have fortunately had understanding and support
of most of the world in the past 13 years and could luckily achieve
most of what we wanted even in the international arena. We became
members of NATO in 1999 and are going to become a member of EU
in May 2004. What else can we wish? More prosperity? It'll come
in due time but we have to work very hard to get where many prosperous
countries of the world have get by now.
What is the lesson you could learn here in
Israel from our experience? I think many aspects of our way to
freedom and democracy cannot be compared to what you have here.
But some Can. The level of animosities and hatred I can see and
feel here are comparable to what we felt toward the Nazi occupation
in 1939-1945 and then to Soviet dictatorship and later even its
direct occupation in 1948-1989. Our problems in both the difficult
periods of our recent history were, however, solved by foreign
superpowers (in 1945 jointly by Russians and Americans – and in 1989 again by Americans and Russians – in
that order). You have a more difficult situation here as you
have Americans supporting only the Jewish community while Russians
tend to stay aside and not get involved in the conflict. There
is nobody important in the world who would support the Palestinians
and would have enough influence to persuade others that there
are two sides to the coin, You have to persuade the world that
your case is strong enough to be paid attention to. Otherwise
you are doomed. Your case cannot be solved domestically. Foreign
powers have to help both you and the Jewish community to find
a compromise, a solution. None of the two fighting parties can
achieve a 100% victory. You have to negotiate, find or quickly
train good negotiators, stop suicidal atrocities, and achieve
your goals through clever diplomacy rather than bomb attacks.
That's my advice to you at this moment of truth.
- If you tell us that you were occupied for 300 years, we were
occupied for 500 years.
- You are also telling us about
educating elites; I don't think elites need to be educated.
know what to do and they jump on the wagon whenever it is convenient.
they will hide.
- In our case we have something worse. There are people who deny
their identity. You have this many Palestinians in Israel and you
know how they have been treated and how they have been dehumanized.
Similarities are there but if you want to compare specific cases,
which you hinted about president Havel: how he rose to power and
his character. I recall what you call the Prague 2000. I was invited
to this festival; it's a huge festival conference in Prague 2000.
A small window was opened for him to bring Palestinians, Israelis
to speak to each other, not to negotiate. He was attending with
the former president of South Africa , Clarke. We also remember
when the Romanian president started inviting Palestinians, Israelis
for talks. Two years back I saw president Havel sitting watching
talks and not interfering how things develop by themselves.
Dr. Venys: In 1968 when the Russian came
and occupied our country we resisted in discussing things with
them. I was one of those who were talking to the Russian soldiers
when they came because we all spoke Russian well. I saw the Russian
soldiers crying over things. They were told completely different
things. The first groups of Russian soldiers because of these
friendly discussions with Czechs after 10 days of staying in
my country were returned to Russia and new soldiers came in.
They were forbidden to talk to us. “Elite people” are mostly
educated people who want to do something for their own country,
use their education and experience and maybe to do also something
for their ego because they want to become important, which is
fine. If you combine all this you have a true elite member definition.
President Havel never wanted a solution at that conference. He
just wanted people to talk, discuss things, and come up with ideas.
That's what you are doing here, to have people meet here, discuss
things and maybe there will be something important coming up that
will help somebody here in his own work, in his own field. Who
knows? Are we going to come up here with a solution to the Israeli
Palestinian conflict? No. But it would be fantastic if we did.
Dr Abdul-Hadi: After 100 years of struggle for independence, I
don't see a solution. I see an endless conflict. I see everybody
is using this conflict for so many reasons. But again coming back
to this. How can we see a democracy developing under the worst
conditions ever? In your case under occupation several times, did
the civil society (activists, intellectuals, teachers, academia,
charitable organizations) were they functioning normally and benefiting
from the circumstances to survive with the worst conditions or
they had obedience and surrendered accepting to be tools?
Dr. Venys: They were totally dissolved; they
couldn't do anything. Look I taught at Charles University in
my country from 1969 until 1974. As a matter of fact, I returned
from my graduate studies in the U.S.A. on the invasion night
in August 1968. I came as a future diplomat. I was trained in
America to be a diplomat. Because of the Soviet invasion, however,
I never entered diplomatic service. Hundreds of thousands of
people emigrated. Out of all my classmates only two people stayed.
A large part of the educated elite actually emigrated after the
Russian invasion in 1968. After teaching at the university for
6 years, I was asked to sign a declaration that I would teach
only according to the lines of Marxism-Leninism. I did not sign.
There were some 260 teachers who were kicked out in one semester
from Czech universities in 1974. We couldn't do much. We had
to become “nobodies”, to be able to survive. My uncle
was jailed for 25 years, only because he delivered a letter of
his friend who secretly emigrated to Germany to his mother in Prague
. That was considered a treason.
Dr. Abdul-Hadi: What did the church do?
Dr. Venys: The church could not do anything.
If you went to church you had to go there secretly. Otherwise,
you would be punished. It went on until 1989. People were discouraged
from being involved in anything, because they could be suspected
of conspiracy. They were doing only what they were told to do.
We were climbing many mountains; whenever we reached the top
of a mountain, we discovered that there was a new mountain to
climb. We did it for four decades non-stop – and didn't get tired!
That's how we survived and could take over the reins of governing
Finally I just want to read a quotation from the book IS THERE
LIFE ON MARX? by Czech-British writer Benjamin Kuras, depicting
quite well what really happened in Central Europe after 1989.
“The 1989 Central European revolution was a special hand-over
of power by visible villains to invisible villains who hid behind
a facade of national heroes whom they gradually turned into visible
villains. The net result is infinitely cleaner public lavatories,
which give a fleeting visitor the inspiration of being in the
West. That in itself is not an achievement to sniff at.” (Karl
Marx – what he would have remarked if he were still alive)
Ladislav Venys, Director, Center for Democracy and
Enterprise, Prague,The Czech Republic
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