Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 5
26 October 1998

B E T W E E N   T H E   L I N E S:
The Revolution That Never Was?
Czechs have mostly forgotten the
Velvet Revolution of November 1989
Sean Hanley

For many Czechs the 30th anniversary of the 1968 Prague Spring was a matter of disinterest or even embarrassment. Next year will see another important historical anniversary, which may be similarly orphaned: the 10th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution of November 1989. For Western observers, the Velvet Revolution with its fairy-tale-like qualities and powerful images, was, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, one of the defining moments of political change in the former Soviet bloc. But unlike the foundation of the (now non-existent) state of Czechoslovakia and the lives of the Mediaeval saints Cyril and Methodius, the starting point of post-Communist Czechoslovakia and indirectly of the modern Czech Republic, the Velvet Revolution, do not even merit a public holiday.

In early 1990, the events of November and December 1989 were celebrated as a triumphant reassertion of Czech and Slovak societies against totalitarianism. For the first time in decades, these nations had ceased to be the pawns in a larger geo-political game and. their peoples had acted as citizens, not subjects. Since then, however, Czech politicians, intellectuals and journalists across the political spectrum have consistently downgraded or downplayed the Velvet Revolution.

Unconventional interpretations of 1989

First came the conspiracy theories, energetically taken up and promoted by the far-right Republican Party in 1990-1 and fuelled by domestic and foreign media speculation about unexplained, behind-the-scenes aspects of November 1989. According to these interpretations, the Velvet Revolution was staged as part of elaborate conspiracy hatched by the StB and the KGB (with the possible assistance of the CIA and the West) to establish a corrupt nomenklatura capitalism under the guise of democracy.

In this view, dissidents and Civic Forum leaders were really crypto-Communists and long-standing agents of the regime. The demonstrations and negotiations of November are December 1989, it is claimed, were thus no more than carefully choreographed political theatre intended to manipulate and deceive an unwitting public.

Czech Communists, while not slow to point the finger at supposed interference by Western intelligence agencies in November 1989, also came up with an account of the Velvet Revolution as elite manipulation. In this view November was above all the start of a "property putsch" whose real agenda was the restoration of capitalism rather than the establishment of democracy.

For the Communists, the eruption of public discontent with the many and manifest failings and rigidity of the old regime at the end of 1989 was exploited by small, unrepresentative groups (dissidents and/or neo-liberal economists such as Vaclav Klaus) to undo even the positive achievements of the "real socialism." Most Czechs and Slovaks, it is argued, wanted a reformed socialism, but were presented with a fait accompli of "neo-capitalism." Unsurprisingly, Communist voters see November 1989 as a negative chapter in the nation's history.

Away from the fringes

More surprisingly, many mainstream Czech politicians have also looked askance at the Velvet Revolution. Although polls show that supporters of center-right parties evaluate November 1989 as a positive historical event, politicians on the Czech Right view the Velvet Revolution primarily as a prologue to greater events: it led to the 1992 election victory of 'normal' party politics, coupon privatization and the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia. While happy to commemorate November 1989 as the downfall of Communism, the Right is deeply reticent about a "revolutionary" period it views as stirring dangerous illusions about experimental new forms of civic participation and other supposed "third ways."

Indeed, the political identity of the Czech Right, and in particular of Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS), has been largely based upon the idea of a "second revolution" in 1990-91: a necessary break with the "revolutionary improvisation" of 1989-90, which the second revolution consigned to history.

Many Social Democrats are inclined to see the Velvet Revolution and its immediate aftermath more kindly as an era of proto-social democratic policies in which many of the party's current leaders were politically active. Social Democracy itself, however was humiliatingly marginalized during the Velvet Revolution. Thus, for the Social Democrats too, November 1989 represents a prologue to the more important business of conventional left-right politics, which has brought the party such success in the late 1990s.

Even a political centrist, such as Petr Pithart, the current Chairman of the Czech Senate, takes a skeptical view of the period. Despite having played an important role during the Velvet Revolution (unlike Klaus or Zeman), Pithart saw the very idea of a "revolution" - a sharp, sweeping and radical break with the past pushed through by popular mobilization - as an inherently unrealistic and dangerous concept.

The public's view

The Velvet Revolution was hardly worthy of the name. Popular demonstrations in November 1989 were confined to Prague and a few major centers, and they only took place when the threat of repression had passed. Most Czechs sat at home, watched television and waited skeptically to see how things would turn out. The regime was like "a rotten roof which simply fell in."

For most people November 1989 was a short-lived euphoric outburst of public spirit and civic-mindedness, which soon gave way to the self-seeking and political cynicism, that was for many the habit of lifetime. Thus, the idea of revolution (velvet or otherwise) only encouraged a false picture and led inevitably to the frustration of over-reaching expectations. Post-revolutionary disillusionment was a recipe escalating radicalism and political polarization.

Common agreement

Nine years on, it is hardly surprising that views of a historical turning point such as November 1989 are highly politicized. Nor is it surprising that interpretations sharply diverge.

All the interpretations, even the obviously extremist ones, contain elements of truth. In early 1990, Czech post-Communist elites did indeed lay down policies on de-Communization and economic transformation with little direct regard for emerging public opinion. Coupon privatization and the division of Czechoslovakia may indeed have had greater impact on Czech society than the chaotic and euphoric transition period of 1989-90. Some Communist-era social elites have indeed done unconscionably well out of capitalism. Sober realism is certainly necessary to deflate extravagant myths of national rebirth, which ignore the nation's more unpleasant, engrained habits.

It is surprising, however, that the views of Left and Right, of mainstream and extreme politicians converge from quite different directions upon a single point: that the Velvet Revolution of November 1989 did not really happen, or, if it did, it did not really matter.

In the Czech Republic of the late 1990s, there are few, if any, positive interpretations of the regime change in 1989-90, and there are seemingly none that can take in the complexities of an event, which is estimated to have mobilized, however fleetingly, up to half the adult population.

Sean Hanley, 26 October 1998


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