Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 17
18 October 1999

Jan Culik C U L I K ' S  C Z E C H  R E P U B L I C:
Reminiscing Revolutionaries

Jan Culik

Last week's historians' conference in Prague dedicated to the tenth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution seems to have been little more than a celebratory feast run by victors. The losers were no where to be seen, and participants were not expected to ask questions of the old revolutionaries - just drink a toast to them.


1. "I have not read that book by this Mr Keane and I will not be reading that book, the same way I have not read other books that have been written about me, and there have been at least ten of them now. It seems that Mr Keane has the same tendency as other authors of such books, namely to think that history is more mysterious and gripping than it is in reality. When it all comes out into the open, all those facts, it is all incredibly boring. That, however, sells badly. So it is necessary to see everything in terms of a detective story. To say that I secretly divided power in the state between myself and Dubcek or something like that, is, naturally, nonsense."

Vaclav Havel, in reply to my question on Friday 15 October, inquiring whether it is true, as John Keane states in his new biography of Havel, that Havel secretly promised Dubcek to support his candidacy for the Czechoslovak presidential elections in June 1990.

2. "I want to ask about one important thing. Within the framework of fairly complicated negotiations with Mr Dubcek I have given him a kind of promise at a particular stage, and I am naturally bound by this promise, if he has not changed this arrangement. I have promised to him that I will say in public at a suitable opportunity, as soon as possible, that I would support him as a candidate for the five-year presidential office after the free elections [in June 1990] et cetera."

Vaclav Havel speaking at a meeting of Civic Forum and Public Against Violence, Prague, 22 December 1989; see Josef Suk, Obcanske forum, listopad - prosince 1989, vol. 2, Documents, Doplnek, (Brno: Institute for Contemporary History of the Czech Academy of Sciences, 1998), p. 265.

I predict that John Keane, the author of a new autobiography on Vaclav Havel will meet stiff, concerted resistance from the Czech political establishment. Maybe there will be even attempts to destroy him professionally as an academic, accusing him that he has deliberately distorted his portrait of Havel for commercial purposes, as Vaclav Havel implied - without reading Keane's book - last Friday. In the eyes of the aging Czechoslovak intellectual establishment, Keane has committed an offence. He has dared to present an alternative view, questioning the received interpretation of the "glorious 1989 revolution".

John Keane has written an alternative biography of Havel, a balanced, objective work, which does not see Havel as a saint or as an object of worship. Keane's work is in fact a highly sophisticated modern history of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic in the twentieth century. The image of Havel's personality emerges from within the tragic historical events to which Czechoslovakia, that traumatic laboratory of politics, has been subjected over the past decades.

As Keane stressed in an interview with CER two weeks ago, he concentrates on the issues of power in his work, tracing the development of Havel's personality from an independent intellectual from a "politically questionable" (i.e. bourgeois) background to a dissident, "fighter for truth" and then on into a pragmatic politician, a shrewd political operator, who sacrifices truth to political ends.

Keane traces isolated manipulative streaks in Havel's character relatively early on. His assertions are interesting and maybe controversial. Nevertheless, we should be talking about them. The issue of politics and power and what power does to politicians, is certainly extremely relevant, as is the paradox that when a politician gains power, he loses some of his individual features as well as his integrity. In order to be able to fight for certain political aims, in order to be able to retain power, one has to manipulate and make compromises. Is there anything subversive in this line of reasoning? But such remarks, when voiced in the Czech Republic in connection with Havel seem to act, at least in certain circles, with a remarkably explosive force.

In his biography of Havel, John Keane exclusively records an early incident of "power politics" in Havel's life. He notes that Havel allegedly neutralised Alexander Dubcek, an early competitor for the post of the Czechoslovak presidency, by giving a promise that he then did not fulfil. On pp. 372 - 373, Keane says:

Havel... had arranged, with the help of his cameraman friend and fellow Civic Forum activist, Stanislav Milota, a series of top meetings with Dubcek, who was accompanied by his old friend and former Minister of Economic Planning in the 1968 government, Frantisek Vlasak. During the next few days, the foursome thrashed out an agreement, despite some mind changing. The two opponents shook hands on taking turns to taste presidential power. Dubcek initially would not agree to call off his candidacy, but in return for the double guarantee that he would be appointed as leader of the Federal Assembly and that Havel would say publicly that he indeed supported Dubcek's candidacy in the run-up to the forthcoming free elections, Dubcek would happily support Havel's candidacy this time round.

The subsequent commitment of both men to keep silent about the deal worked against Dubcek. Within the ranks of Civic Forum, Havel carefully planned a nebulously worded declaration of sympathy for the idea that, sometime in the future, a Slovak might become president. He then waited until the day he enjoyed the advantage of incumbency. "I feel a special obligation," he said in a brief passage in his first presidential address to the country, "to see that all interests of the Slovak nation are respected and that no state office, including the highest one, will ever be barred to it in future." Dubcek, meanwhile, kept his part of the bargain to the letter. He spoke warmly of Havel, often standing by his side, all the while clinging publicly to his aim of becoming the next President of Czechoslovakia. That didn't happen, despite the free elections that were held shortly afterwards.

I said to John Keane last week that I was due to attend a historians' conference in Prague, organised by the Institute for Contemporary History, where Stanislav Milota was due to speak in the panel of "witnesses to the Revolution". "Ask him about this Dubcek - Havel deal," said John Keane. And so I did. This is what happened:

At the end of Milota's brief panel testimony (see Britske listy, 18 October 1999, where all this and other material relating to this issue is published in Czech) I asked him to explain the Havel - Dubcek presidential candidacy agreement and to show in what respect Havel failed to fulfil it.

Milota answered: "Well, that meeting was never recorded on tape. Vaclav Havel did not fulfil this agreement. Basically, he stood for the presidency. I do not want to add anything more."

A coffee break followed. After the discussion resumed, I said:

"I would like to return to Mr Milota's answer before the coffee break. Unfortunately, that answer was absolutely unsatisfactory. It was not clear that there were two elections for president, one in December 1989 and one in June 1990. There were about six meetings between Dubcek and Havel, and these were not public meetings, they were private meetings." I asked Mr Milota expressly to confirm the details of the agreement.

In response to my urging, Milota confirmed that he was present only at one of these meetings, which took place at Joska Skalnik's painter's studio in Vinohrady. He confirmed the details of the meeting, as specified above, and said that other people present know about these meetings.

Venek Silhan, a representative of the 1989 left-wing grouping Obroda then offered his testimony, saying that he rarely talks about these things and then he mentions them only to friends. He testified that Dubcek, for his own personal satisfaction, wanted to be Czechoslovak president only between December 1989 and June 1990, then he wished to bow out of politics.

Ivan Gabal then said that as far as he remembered, the decision that Havel should stand for president was the result of "quite sharp debates" at internal Civic Forum meetings. Havel himself was allegedly undecided. He wished to debate the matter with others and maybe to strengthen his mandate by the Civic Forum collective support. Gabal added, "As far as those discussions with Mr Dubcek are concerned, I think that they did not take place until after both men, as it were, started their political efforts, [i.e. canvassing for their individual candidatures, JC]. I think that Mr Dubcek did this by giving an interview to the Czechoslovak News Agency (CTK)... By that time our Civic Forum debates had ended and we had set up a team to support Havel's candidacy. We also debated this CTK Dubcek interview and we felt that it might be a good idea if Havel separated himself a little from Civic Forum. The first step towards this was that he had totally disappeared for a few days, he stayed in that studio and no media was allowed to talk to him. So if those Dubcek Havel conversations took place in that Vinohrady studio, it was not until after the Civic Forum debate had ended and Havel's mandate was clear. But maybe I do not remember these things quite clearly," added Gabal.

I asked another question: "If it is true, as Mr Gabal says, that by the time Havel discussed the presidential candidacy with Dubcek he had already become the official Civic Forum presidential candidate, does that mean that Havel promised Dubcek the presidency knowing full well that this was unrealistic?" I never received a clear answer to this question.

Petr Pithart also confirmed that the question of Havel's candidacy had been trashed out in tortuous Civic Forum debates: "Vaclav Havel tormented himself for several long days and so did we. In the morning we reached the conclusion that he should stand, at midday it was clear he should not, in the evening we thought he should. I abstained during the voting. Dubcek unambiguously wanted to become president and used emotional pressure. This is what we did not like. It was a contrast to Havel's behaviour. And also it was clear that we did not wish to continue in the direction of the 1968 Prague Spring, Dubcek would have been a link to 1968. We could not possibly support him. We parted with our leaders on 21 August 1969 [when Dubcek signed the order for police action against demonstrators, JC].

Vladimir Hanzel from Prague Castle, Vaclav Havel's secretary since 1989, insisted that the Dubcek - Havel meetings "were not really secret meetings". Negotiations with Dubcek were very sensitive. "It was not simple. From time to time, he wanted to talk to Havel in private. These were not debates about complex problems." Hanzel added that in his view, Dubcek was absolutely disconnected from the ongoing revolutionary events: "When Dubcek came to Prague on 17 November 1989 for the first time and was supposed to talk to the crowds on the balcony at Wenceslas Square, he came by coach and had little pieces of paper which he wanted to read to the crowd. Vaclav Havel, when he saw those pieces of paper, got a terrible fright and said to me, "Vladimir, please, I cannot do this, go and see Dubcek and tell him that it is not possible to give such a long speech. What is necessary is to greet briefly, energetically, the Prague people; they will yell: "Hurrah, Dubcek is here!" - that is the main message." For me, this was extremely uncomfortable, Dubcek was an older person, who was I to tell him what to do, I sat next to him and told him carefully that it was a bad idea to read that speech.

Hanzel continued: "As far as I know, Havel never told Dubcek directly that he would become president. Havel just vaguely made space. This means that Havel said he would now be the revolutionary president and naturally, Dubcek would have a chance to stand in for the next presidential post. There was no agreement, whether verbal or written. No such agreement was possible, because then a democratic election took place and the top politicians were the result of this election.

Another Civic Forum activist, Radim Palous confirmed that Dubcek, when he appeared at the Wenceslas Square balcony, was still holding "that long piece of paper with his speech, but I was trying to get it through his skull that he must not give a speech, that everything is different." Palous continued: "You should know that always on the previous day we prepared a programme for the balcony for the demonstrations on the following day. Those people who were supposed to be there were invited; on the balcony Vaclav Maly was in front and I was behind him, and I did not allow anyone in. Behind me was the team of directors, Krizan, Kantor, Havel. They prepared the final directions for the atmosphere, which was very sensitive; up until the last minute the direction team reacted flexibly to the volatile atmosphere in the square. This was incredibly difficult work...

Historian Vilem Precan, a dissident activist who supported the cause of Czechoslovak independence from abroad, said that he had earlier sent a message to Vaclav Havel saying that Havel should make sure that Dubcek did not become head of state. "We have had experience with Dubcek from 1968 to 1969 and we know of his silence for twelve years, from 1976 to 1988, when he never supported the dissidents. The state cannot be headed by a person who bursts into tears when difficult times come."

So that was that. Fudging and answers to questions that were never asked in the first place. I was privately reproached that I did not behave like a "university professor", but like an investigative journalist. "But," I said, "John Keane is also a university professor, and a very well known one."

After the morning debate at the conference, which dealt primarily with the topic of the alleged Havel - Dubcek presidential candidacy agreement, as described above, Havel was due to attend the conference for an hour in the afternoon to answer questions.

At the conference lunch I spotted Stanislav Milota and sat at his table: "So, how was it?" I asked. "Were there secret meetings between Dubcek and Havel? Was there a secret agreement that Havel failed to honour? Hanzel seems to deny everything." "He is not right. There were meetings and there was an agreement," said Milota firmly. He then added, "If you think that Havel does not know what has happened here this morning, you would be wrong. He will come here fully informed in the afternoon. They follow things very closely. I was given this by Vladimir Hanzel this morning." He pulled out a large white envelope with a pre-printed address "The Office of the President of the Czech Republic". Inside, there were printouts of the Czech internet daily Britske listy, which I edit from Glasgow, from Thursday 14 October. The printouts were of a Czech translation of the passage from John Keane's book about the alleged Havel - Dubcek agreement, quoted above.

I also learned during that lunchtime that some of the participants of the conference had asked the organisers to prevent me from asking Vaclav Havel a question about this matter.

In the afternoon, Vaclav Havel arrived shortly after two o'clock, apologised that he would need to leave quickly again because of an incipient cold. It was said that he would answer questions, submitted to him earlier in writing.

Just about when he was to leave, I raised my hand. Havel looked at me - Stanislav Milota was standing behind me, also with a raised hand, I was told later - so I was invited to speak. I politely asked about the alleged Havel - Dubcek agreement, as detailed in John Keane's book, and Havel replied:

"I have not read that book by this Mr Keane and I will not be reading that book, the same way I have not read other books that have been written about me, and there are at least ten of them now. It seems that Mr Keane has the same tendency as other authors of such books, namely to think that history is more mysterious and gripping than it is in reality. When it all comes out into the open, all those facts, it is all incredibly boring. It sells badly. It is necessary to see everything in terms of a detective story. To say that I secretly divided power in the state with Dubcek or something like that, is naturally, nonsense."

Havel added:

"I had several dealings and negotiations with Dubcek and there was nothing secret about it. There was nothing conspiratorial about it."

When pressed by the chairman Vilem Precan that the deal was supposed to concern the second presidential election in June 1990, Havel slightly retracted what he was saying:

"Yes, it is possible. I cannot rule out that we did discuss such an alternative. That is possible. I seem to remember something like that a little. But certainly it was not an agreement, a promise.

What does all this mean?

I have to say that I was disappointed to see how shocked some participants of the conference were to witness this affair being dragged into the open.

The Czechoslovak democratic revolution of 1989 is perhaps the best documented revolution of modern times. This is exactly why the revolution is a useful instrument for examining what happens when idealist revolutionaries turn into pragmatic power brokers. John Keane has decided to concentrate on this important topic by analysing the development of the personality of Vaclav Havel, but undoubtedly the issue has a broader relevance and should be extended to the analysis of the Democratic Revolution as a whole.

Even when we examine the extracts from the testimonies given above, we can see clearly that up to a point, the 1989 Czechoslovak Democratic Revolution was not a spontaneous outburst, but from a certain stage it was a carefully stage-managed performance. Maybe this is just as well. Had a team of dissident intellectuals, gathered together in Civic Forum, not decided to "hijack" the revolution, it may well have descended into chaos or even bloodshed, or the defeat of Communism could have been delayed.

Nevertheless, it is clear that popular discontent with the Communist regime was hijacked by the Civic Forum group and used for what they considered to be the best purpose.

One participant of the Prague conference last week pointed out in his presentation that the Czechoslovak populace did not really know what they wanted in November 1989. Only three per cent of the population wanted a "return to capitalism". Most people in Czechoslovakia did not really have an idea what capitalism was.

As a result of the favourable international situation, the people of Prague overcame their fear and came to Wenceslas Square to demonstrate their resentment towards the Communist regime. It could be convincingly argued that their popular resentment was used by the Civic Forum group who placed themselves at the head of the popular wave of resentment and tried to channel it into something concrete, according to their political convictions. Most Czechoslovaks knew very little about the Czech dissidents, gathered together in the Civic Forum.

The Civic Forum group succeeded because they were the most professional group at the given moment, but this does not mean that there were not other groups and personalities - even if sometimes only isolated individuals like Dubcek.

Civic Forum managed to control the revolution for approximately two years at which point the revolution was in turn wrenched out of the hands of the dissident intellectuals by Vaclav Klaus and his newly formed Civic Democratic Party. They successfully managed then to ride a wave of rising anti-communism and turn it against the dissident intellectuals.

Why is it shameful to talk about the fact that expediency had to replace idealism?

I find it disturbing that most of the participants of the revolution cannot really admit even today that they were simply forced to give up their idealism and very early on to become pragmatic manipulators. Havel still waves the flag of absolute truth and morality, although nobody really believes that he actually adheres to what he is saying. Everybody in the Czech Republic will tell you that Havel is just a compromised, pragmatic politician like any other, although most Czech politicians are much worse than Havel.

Why could not anyone at the conference openly answer the question whether or not Havel had promised Dubcek that he would support him at the second parliamentary elections in June 1990?

The following distortions of the truth were elicited instead:

  • There may have been such an agreement, but why should we talk about such an old matter after such a long time... (this was said at a historians' conference!)
  • There may have been such an agreement, but to talk about it now would damage Havel.
  • There was no such agreement. Nothing was ever secret.
  • Havel could not have promised Dubcek to make him president because the second presidential election was dependent on the results of a democratic election which he could not influence. [This was not the question I asked.]
  • Dubcek was an absolutely impossible candidate. [This was not the question I asked.]
  • Do not raise these tabloid issues! [If you ask any serious question directly in the Czech Republic, you are accused of behaving in a "tabloid" manner. Such an accusation is a useful smokescreen. On my return to London on Sunday night, I met the writer Ivan Klima on the plane. He also commented that John Keane's analysis of Havel since 1989 is "tabloid". There is far too much gossip for his own liking in the last sections of the book, said Klima.]

It is obvious that a lot of political manipulation was needed very early on in the Czechoslovak 1989 democratic revolution. Why not admit it and say that in politics this is necessary? If a politician tries to achieve anything, he must strive to obtain political power and in order to do so he or she must give up a part of his or her personal integrity? Surely this is a sacrifice any politician must make?

When the delegates to the historians' conference were feted on the premises of the Upper House of the Czech Parliament on Thursday night, the Senate's Deputy Speaker Petr Pithart reminisced how the Civic Forum people had been gathering in this building in 1989. He said he was at the main door while some people were trying to push in, insisting that they were one of the new, relevant political parties taking part in the new political process. "No, you are not," said Pithart to them and closed the door in their faces.

Had Dubcek not been a serious rival to Havel, surely Havel and / or his Civic Forum colleagues would have sent him packing. Nothing prevented them from saying, "Look, Mr Dubcek, you betrayed the nation in August 1969 when you signed the order to send the police and the troops against your compatriots who called out your name in the streets of Czech cities. Go away." If they did not do so, and treated Dubcek with kid gloves and false promises, the Civic Forum revolutionaries obviously felt that it would have been dangerous to turn Dubcek away. Fair enough, but why hide it now?

John Keane discovers early traces of manipulation, which, was, as it now appears, an integral and maybe necessary part of the revolutionary process in Czechoslovakia in 1989, and also in the personality of Vaclav Havel. Keane may or may not be correct in saying this. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly a worthy and important thing to raise this issue into the public consciousness. Havel cannot complain that his personality is being scrutinised in this manner. He has opened himself up to such a scrutiny by deciding to become president of his country.

As I was leaving the Prague conference on Saturday lunchtime, I was accompanied to the bus stop by an American journalist. He said, "It is not customary in the United States that academics should simultaneously be politicians." In this respect, the Czech Republic seems to be suffering from a kind of "Belgium syndrome". Prague is too small for independent views truly to develop unhindered. Everyone is on first name terms with everyone and everyone seems to be beholden to everyone else in some way or other. Thus, the historians' conference was little more than a festive occasion during which a group of victors from ten years ago jointly reminisced about what they experienced. Nobody from the losing side participated. No alternative view of the Czechoslovak 1989 Revolution was offered. Unless and until the links between the various close-knit parts of the Czech intellectual establishment are broken, no truly serious open-minded discussion can be expected.

What can be expected now, I fear, is that the Czech intellectual establishment will form a united front against John Keane's book which has dared to raise issues which for some unknown reason remain unmentionable in some intellectual quarters in the Czech Republic.

Jan Culik, 17 October 1999

The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britske listy.

Other Articles by Jan Culik in CER

The Educated Poor, 11 October 1999

Pricking Havel's Bottom, 4 October 1999

More Moribund Manouevring (Further TV Nova Tales), 27 September 1999

Mixed Czech Nuts, 20 September 1999

Nova TV: The saga continues, 13 September 1999

UK: Central Europeans Keep Out!, 30 August 1999

Czech Public TV: The yellow-bellies, 23 August 1999

Zelezny Pulls the Plug on Czech TV Nova, 16 August 1999

Czech Media and Civil Society: A survey, 16 August 1999

Czech Revival: No Pulse 99, 9 August 1999

Princess Diana, Al Fayed, the CIA and a Czech Spook, 2 August 1999

Nova TV: Commercial success or embarrassing failure?, 2 August 1999

Book Review: Martin Fendrych's Jako ptak na drate, 26 July 1999

A Concrete Example of Muddy Thinking in the Czech Press, 19 July 1999

Press Freedom under Threat, 12 July 1999

Corruption at the Czech Law School, 5 July 1999

The Czech Malaise, 28 June 1999



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