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Vol 2, No 34
9 October 2000
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CzechoslovakiaCzechoslovakia: The Velvet Revolution and Beyond
Robin H E Shepherd
St Martin's Press
ISBN 0312230680

Magali Perrault

Robin Shepherd's work purports to present a portrait of the Czech Republic and Slovakia ten years after the fall of Communism and the Velvet Revolution. He emphasises the decisive impact that more than four decades of Communism had on Czech and Slovak political cultures and points out the successes as well as failures of attempts to establish a dynamic civil society in the two countries.

It is thus not surprising that Shepherd devotes a chapter to what is probably the most important event since the Velvet Revolution: the dissolution of the Czechoslovak state and the subsequent establishment of two separate independent states, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He sees the "velvet divorce" as the inevitable result of long-standing historical grievances between the two nations and rightly shows how the institutional legacies of Communism prevented Czechs and Slovaks from reaching an agreement on a new constitutional arrangement in the post-Communist era.

Yet the book perhaps underestimates the multifaceted and more "accidental" character of the break-up of Czechoslovakia. The split resulted from the unique conjunction, after 1989, of several factors: the hardships of the economic transition, the political "immaturity" of the Czech and Slovak populations, and the self-serving political behaviour of Václav Klaus' Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and Vladimír Mečiar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia—the victors of the 1992 parliamentary elections in the Czech lands and Slovakia.

Divergent paths

In line with most of the academic and journalistic literature, Shepherd also emphasises the distinctive and divergent paths taken by the two nations following the velvet divorce. The Czech Republic, which is now a member of NATO and looks set to gain membership in the European Union—even if Shepherd rightly suggests that this is unlikely to happen any time before 2005 (p 174), is described as "a country which has come to terms with itself as an independent state," as opposed to Slovakia, "a country which has not" (p 4). It is hard to disagree with Shepherd from a political point of view, and the rule of Mečiar has undoubtedly been a setback to the Slovaks' legitimate aspirations to "return to Europe."

Yet, it could also be argued that Slovakia has in some ways found it easier to define its identity than the Czech Republic. Because of the confusion between Czechoslovakness and Czechness which prevailed during the existence of the Czechoslovak state (a phenomenon perhaps not entirely dissimilar to the confusion between Britishness and Englishness), the concept of Slovak statehood was more firmly anchored among the Slovak population than the notion of Czech statehood among the Czechs.

Shepherd himself acknowledges that nearly eight years after the division of Czechoslovakia, the Czech and Slovak paths to transition are starting to draw closer again. The muddy end of the Czech economic "miracle" (and of Klaus' government in 1997) and the nearly simultaneous electoral defeat of Mečiar in September 1998 seem to have reversed the trends of 1989 to 1992. The initial (over)confidence of the Czechs has evaporated after the emergence of economic difficulties and has been replaced by widespread pessimism, whereas Slovakia is now striving to make up for the time lost under Mečiar's rule.

But the book is at its strongest when it discusses the personalities and ideological motivations of the two dominant political figures of the decade in the Czech Republic: the two Václavs—Havel and Klaus.

The two Václavs

Shepherd, who clearly does not adhere to the prevalent revisionism surrounding Havel, devotes a chapter to the Czech president. Havel, the dissident and intellectual who wrote a scathing critique of the Communist system in The Power of the Powerless (1978), has not lost his relevance and is, Shepherd argues, his country's "greatest asset": "Not only did [Havel] have something to say after the end of communism but he was better at saying it than anyone else in the establishment" (p 50).

By "anyone else," Shepherd means primarily the other Václav, the long-serving former prime minister Klaus. Havel demonstrated, especially in his now-famous December 1997 speech to both Houses of Parliament, that he understood economics better than Klaus, the man who built his political career and success on his reputation as a competent economist.

The basic flaw in Klaus' economic policies was his lack of understanding of the distinction between "property" and "ownership." Klaus' free market neo-liberal principles were simplistic and could not account for the fact that "in the absence of crystal clear, fast procedures for establishing who owns what and where their rights begin and end, there may be possession but there is not private property. The state therefore does not simply guarantee private property by establishing laws and enforcement mechanisms, in so doing it creates it" (p 84).

Klaus—a closet social democrat?

The discrepancies between Klaus' rhetoric and his noticeably more "social-democratic" economic policies ("was Klaus really a closet social-democrat?" [p 93]) have been the subject of many articles and books, but Shepherd provides an original evolutive model of Klaus' politics.

Klaus started his career as "a true neo-liberal intellectual" but progressively gave up his ideals when he realised that compromise was the only way to "retain a foothold in power." According to Shepherd, therefore, "whether [Klaus] is or is not, deep down, still a neo-liberal is now beside the point. The point for Klaus is power" (pp 94-95). The reader might be tempted to add at this stage that Klaus is, in this respect, not very different from Mečiar (and the cynics might add, from most politicians...).

To sum up, Czechoslovakia: The Velvet Revolution and Beyond provides a clear synthesis of the developments of Czech and Slovak societies since they have embarked on their "triple transition" towards democracy, capitalism and statehood. It offers a challenging interpretation of the challenges which lie ahead for the Czech Republic and Slovakia and should be enjoyed by all those with an interest in the politics of the two states.

Magali Perrault, 9 October 2000

Moving on:


Catherine Lovatt
Resurrecting 1989

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Not a Shot
in the Dark

Pat FitzPatrick
The Last Domino?

Jan Čulík
A Hard Cell

Sam Vaknin
Losing an Ally

Artur Nura

Emilia Stere
Eminescu's Love Letters

Magali Perrault
Beyond the Velvet Revolution

Martin D Brown
Czech Historical Amnesia

Dejan Anastasijević (ed)
Out of Time

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Oil Scandal

Sam Vaknin
After the Rain

Press Reviews:
Oliver Craske
Comparing Revolutions

Andrea Mrozek
Violent Anniversary


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