“We were criminally naïve”: a former Czech PM looks back to the Velvet Revolution


Since the fall of communism, Petr Pithart has been a central Czech political figure. As one of the first people to sign the human rights manifesto, Charter 77, he spent the last years of the communist regime as a political dissident. But as the regime collapsed in November 1989, he shot to prominence – firstly in Civic Forum, which brought together those fighting for an end to one-party rule, and then as the first post-communist prime minister of the Czech part of the Czechoslovak federation. Later he went on to be chairman of the Czech Senate and today he serves as the Senate’s deputy chairman. Senator Pithart has just published a book with the simple title “1989”, in which he reflects on the events and the legacy of the time. Surprisingly the book is one of the first studies to be written by a prominent actor in the Velvet Revolution. The book is striking for the openness with which it discusses the mistakes that were made, mistakes that in Pithart’s view, hastened the split of Czechoslovakia and sowed the seeds for many of the political problems in the Czech Republic today. When I went to see Senator Pithart, he began by telling me that he was drawn into the fray of politics more or less by chance.

“I came with no intention of being part of the leading circle of Civic Forum, but nevertheless, after three weeks, I was chosen – not elected – to be the ‘representative’ – that was the curious title – of Civic Forum, as successor to Václav Havel, at the moment he left Civic Forum to be a president, above political parties, above political movements,. But I was sure that in Civic Forum, as a movement only, with no intention of being transformed into a political party, this was not a role for me. So, at the beginning of February 1990, I was addressed as a possible prime minister of the government of the Czech Republic – I would like to stress Czech, not Czechoslovak, Republic, because at the time Czechoslovakia was a federation of two republics. So I was the first post-November ’89 prime minister of the Czech Republic and I have to say that I felt myself much more comfortable in this role than amid the hectic and chaotic Civic Forum movement.”

On the subject of Civic Forum, the question of what it should do and where it should go, once the early days of the revolution were over is very interesting, because it did remain in existence for a couple of years, but you were very critical of the idea of Civic Forum substituting the role of a political party. This was very much at odds with President Havel’s vision at the time of a depoliticized, or de-party-politicized political culture. From the start you were very much in favour of a party-political based political system.

Petr Pithart, photo: David VaughanPetr Pithart, photo: David Vaughan “I couldn’t agree with Václav Havel, who was very close to me in many other respects. The first generation – I mean the first people around Václav Havel, dissidents and intellectuals mostly – refused to accept that their ideals were helpless or powerless without a political party. That was the main mistake of the first generation, and I didn’t want to be one of those ‘illusioned’ people.”

And you mention in the book that the very word “power” – or the desire for power – was seen virtually as a dirty word in those early days, wasn’t it?

“That’s absolutely understandable, because the motivation of dissidents was not pragmatic. Most of them were not prepared to take part in political life, and the dissidents lost their chance at that moment.”

Your book opens with a quote from the great French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, where he states that, in order to understand the current period, you have to understand the period that went immediately before it. It is interesting in your case that in the 1970s you had actually written a book called “1968” about the events of that year. The title of this book “1989” deliberately echoes that title, so I would be very interested to know where you see the bridges between what happened after the fall of communism in 1989 and what happened after the Soviet invasion of 1968.

“I appreciate your understanding. Both titles are in a way understatement. I try to be as sober as possible, as without illusions and myths as possible. That was my intention, to approach both events with a critical distance…”

Wenceslas Square in Prague in 1989Wenceslas Square in Prague in 1989 And you criticize Václav Klaus in particular for failing to include the legacy of the period of “normalization” into the political equation after the fall of communism. The fact that everyone had a bit of the old regime somehow within themselves was underestimated.

“Probably the main mistake of the authors of the concept of the economic transformation was how they terribly underestimated the legacy of the past. In particular, the so-called social capital was transferred from one regime to the new regime very easily because there were no legal frames or legal obstacles to prevent it, and that’s the main reason of the general disillusionment of the majority of people now.”

When you talk about “social capital”, you mean certain patterns of behaviour…

“I mean an approach to information based on contacts and the former mutual dependency of people. Without knowing that this capital could be so easily transferred, the reforms could not be successful, especially in the sense of social justice or from the moral point of view.”

It’s very difficult, isn’t it, because you’re talking about changing the way that people think or perceive themselves. You talk in the book about a lack of mirrors that people have in order to be able to reflect their own thinking through the eyes of others.

Václav KlausVáclav Klaus “Civic Forum and the Czech government lost the battle with the Klaus team of reformers mostly in terms of the timing of the reforms. We were prepared for a longer way, because we supposed that without constructing legal frameworks, reform couldn’t be successful. But Klaus and his team of economists were successful and enforced the so-called ‘shock methods’ as soon as possible. It was, as the first glance, effective, but the consequences are still unacceptable, and that’s the main reason for the so-called ‘bad mood’ of part of the population in this country.”

One of the most interesting chapters in the book deals with the division of Czechoslovakia, which is a subject that astonishingly little has been written about. The split of Czechoslovakia came as a shock to many people, especially from outside the country. You were there, right in the middle of the political fray at the time. Do you think that you and others could have done more to save the Czechoslovak federation, which I know was what you hoped to do?

“I’m not absolutely sure that Czechoslovakia could have been saved, but I am absolutely sure that we didn’t do much to save the state. There was a term of only two years in which the new constitution had to be written, regulating relations between Czech constitutional organs and Slovak ones. It was too short a time, and that deadline, which was approved at the very beginning, in January 1990, was probably the main reason why we couldn’t succeed. It was a terrible mistake that we accepted the two-year term for a solution: to do it or to split the state – a terrible alternative.”

And it’s interesting that in that chapter of the book you call into question the stereotypical idea that the Slovaks wanted independence, that it was a process of emancipation on their part and that the Czechs had precious little that they could do. When people like Vladimír Mečiar, who later became Slovak prime minister, were saying that the entire federal structure needed rebuilding – and Czechs were criticizing him – you say that he was right, that the federation, as it had been set up in the late 1960s and then in practice as it had worked in the normalization period – when in practice it was little more than an illusion – needed completely rebuilding.

Václav Havel, Vladimír Mečiar, Václav Klaus in 1992, photo: CTKVáclav Havel, Vladimír Mečiar, Václav Klaus in 1992, photo: CTK “I accepted the Slovak attitude that the federation had to be established anew, because it was established originally several months after the Soviet occupation at a time when we had lost all our sovereignty. So I was sure that the Slovak National Assembly and the Czech National Assembly had to gather again and write a new treaty about the voluntary unit of the federation. The Czech side couldn’t understand that Slovak proposal. It seemed useless to them, but for Slovaks, the moment of establishing the federation [in 1969] couldn’t be accepted as an authentic moment, when the free will of both nations was realized. Unfortunately Czech politicians had not enough empathy to understand the Slovak need to do the wedding ceremony anew.”

You are one of very few former Czech dissidents who are still active in the upper echelons of Czech politics. Why are there so few of you? After all, it’s only twenty years since the fall of communism.

“Because they are not disposed to be successful in party politics, and this is the most important political activity – to connect with the political parties. We are not talented for party life, but on the other hand I am fully aware that without political parties, unfortunately, political democracy – parliamentary democracy – is impossible. But we are not the right men for that task.”