WORLD

RINGING IN A NEW ERA

CZECHOSLOVAKIA’S COMMUNISTS YIELD THEIR MONOPOLY

ANDREW PHILLIPS December 11 1989
WORLD

RINGING IN A NEW ERA

CZECHOSLOVAKIA’S COMMUNISTS YIELD THEIR MONOPOLY

ANDREW PHILLIPS December 11 1989

RINGING IN A NEW ERA

CZECHOSLOVAKIA’S COMMUNISTS YIELD THEIR MONOPOLY

For nine years, between 1953 and 1962, a 100-foot-high statue of Josef Stalin loomed over Prague. Erected on the Letná Hill on the left bank of the Vltava River, which runs through the Czechoslovakian capital, the monument proclaimed the country’s fidelity to both communism and the Soviet Union. Last week, Prague students placed another symbol on the spot where the statue once stood: a six-foot-high bell that they said would ring out the old era in Czechoslovakia and herald a new time of freedom. And the bell had much to welcome. With astonishing speed, the country’s shaken Communist leadership granted virtually all the demands of Czechoslovakia’s burgeoning opposition movement—and set the country on the road to free elections that could take place as soon as next summer. After two days of watching the government acquiesce, Jiri Dienstbier, a leader in the opposition Civic Forum umbrella group, declared, “The revolution is proceeding much quicker than we expected.”

In the wake of mass demonstrations and a general strike that underlined the depth of popular opposition to their rule, the country’s government and Communist party granted concessions that amounted virtually to signing their own political death warrants. In the early

hours of Nov. 27, the party’s ruling Presidium fired its last three members directly associated with the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec agreed to form a new government and include non-Communist ministers. At midweek, the country’s parliament unanimously voted to amend Czechoslovakia’s constitution to delete references to the “leading role” of the Communist party, removing the legal guarantee of the party’s monopoly on political power. The government also lifted censorship of films and books. Then, officials announced that they would dismantle the barbed-wire fences along the border with Austria and no longer require citizens who wish to leave the country to obtain exit visas.

Taboo: At the end of the week, the Communist party broke still another taboo. For 21 years, it had steadfastly defended the 1968 invasion—which crushed Czechoslovakia’s bold attempt at reform led by then-Communist party chief Alexander Dubcek—as a necessary step to ensure the survival of socialism. But finally, the party daily, Rudé prdvo, reported that members of the party’s main think-tank, the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, had condemned the Warsaw Pact intervention as unwarranted. As well, the party Presidium announced that it would set

up a commission to investigate the invasion and the repression that followed it.

Pace: The pace of events left even leaders of the opposition movement bewildered. Many had spent two decades struggling in tiny dissident groups and issuing petitions and appeals that seemed to find little response among ordinary Czechoslovaks. Barred from all but menial jobs, the dissidents were harassed by the authorities, sometimes beaten and frequently arrested. Václev Havel, the rumpled 53-year-old playwright who has emerged as the main leader of Civic Forum, was jailed for four months earlier this year for taking part in an antigovernment protest. And as recently as mid-October, when he was bedridden with a lung ailment, police jailed him to prevent him from participating in demonstrations that had been scheduled for Oct. 28, the country’s independence day.

But last week, Havel found himself leading an opposition delegation that, in a two-hour meeting with Prime Minister Adamec, virtually dictated terms for reform to the government. “For 20 years, we have had immobility and timelessness in this country,” Havel noted last week with what sounded like awe in his voice. “And now we have such fantastic speed.”

The amazement of opposition leaders at

'THE REVOLUTION IS PROCEEDING MUCH QUICKER THAN WE EXPECTED'

their own sudden success was matched by the disarray in the Communist party. For years, it had maintained a facade of monolithic unity that brooked little discussion and no dissent. Then, suddenly, after a week of protests that brought as many as 500,000 people into the streets of Prague to denounce police brutality against student demonstrators on Nov. 17, the party appeared to lose its nerve. Twice within three days, the ruling Presidium purged itself. By the beginning of last week, none of the men who had been directly implicated in summoning Soviet and other Warsaw Pact troops into Czechoslovakia in 1968 remained in the leadership. And the party’s new leaders launched a belated campaign to win back public approval. Its new general secretary, Karel Urbánek, defended his position in a debate with skeptical steelworkers, on television, in the city of Kladno, 25 km west of Prague. “We must talk to the people,” Urbánek conceded.

“We cannot hide from the people.”

Role: At the same time, members of the country’s Federal Assembly, or parliament, frankly admitted political failures when their debates were shown for the first time on television. The delegates unanimously voted to eliminate from Czechoslovakia’s constitution references

to the party’s “leading role” -

and to Marxism-Leninism as the state ideology. Anton Blazej, a Communist delegate from Bratislava, declared: “We have misunderstood the leading role of the party and its position. We must regain this trust.”

Even Milos Jakes, who was forced to resign five days earlier from his position as party general secretary, voted to end the Communists’ political monopoly. “Life has shown that it is not important what is written,” Jakes conceded. “We must try to win the confidence of the people.” And, against all the evidence of the past several years, Jakes even claimed that, at a meeting scheduled for midDecember, the party’s Central Committee had been prepared to introduce reforms similar to those demanded by Civic Forum. “We were going to create space for democracy,” Jakes maintained. “But events moved quicker than we planned.”

But, after abusing their power for much of

the past 40 years, the Communists face a difficult, perhaps impossible, task. Their oncequiescent population showed repeatedly last week that it retained a deep mistrust of the party. Some 500,000 people twice filled a sports field atop Prague’s Letná Hill to hear opposition leaders attack the party. Despite the freezing weather, the crowd was palpably

upbeat. “For 20 years, everything was grey and heavy,” said Josef Nos, a 40-year-old singer from Prague. “I had to try to be up every day. Now I don’t have to try—it’s in the air.” Strike: Last week, millions of people throughout the country staged a two-hour general strike to support Civic Forum’s demands for change. At noon, church bells pealed and car horns blared to signal the start of the strike. Several hundred thousand people poured into Prague’s Wenceslas Square, focus of the demonstrations. Many rang small bells or jangled keys in a symbolic message to the Communists that their day was over. Some chanted the traditional last line of Czechoslovakian bedtime stories for children: “The last bell is ringing—the fairy tale is over.”

Caught up in the euphoria, leaders of Czechoslovakia’s Roman Catholic Church expressed hopes last week that political changes could lead to a religious revival after four

decades of harsh repression under the Communists. Said Bishop Antonin Liska of Prague: “We shall seek new laws on relations between the state and the church that will abolish the restrictions that have made life difficult for us in the past, including state supervision of the church.”

Many leaders of the Civic Forum opposition group frankly admitted last week that they, like the authorities, were caught off guard by the sudden upsurge in popular feeling. Václev Maly, a 39-year-old Catholic priest who lost his government licence to preach because of his dissident activities stretching back to the mid1970s, was in the countryside on the weekend

when the first protests were organized. When he returned to Prague on Nov. 19, he said, he was discouraged because people in the country were unresponsive to his arguments for change. “It was funny,” Maly recalled in an interview last week at the kitchen table of his tiny two-room apartment on the northern outskirts of Prague. “I came on Sunday afternoon to Prague and suddenly I saw this demonstration. Then I met Václev Havel, and he took me to a meeting to found this group [Civic Forum].” Added Maly: “I knew it would happen one day, but I didn’t know when or how. So I was really surprised.”

Power: The astonishing change in Maly’s circumstances underlined how profoundly power had shifted in Czechoslovakia last week. Frequently arrested and harassed by the police for his activities with the Charter 77 dissident group, Maly was until barely two weeks ago a Continued on page 37

virtual outcast in Czechoslovak society. Last Tuesday morning, he awoke as usual at 6 a.m. in his shabby, cluttered apartment and spent the first few minutes of the day reading religious material. But a few hours later, Maly, Havel and other Civic Forum leaders sat across a table from Prime Minister Adamec in central Prague—and successfully demanded that Adamec form a new coalition government as a first step towards free elections.

Still, Maly quietly insisted last week that he was “just a political amateur” whose only aim is

to work as a parish priest. He added: “I really don’t want to do politics. Very soon, I will jump out of all this.”

Turmoil: But while once-reviled dissidents suddenly found themselves hailed as national heroes, others were less fortunate. Karel Kvapil, the 44year-old head of Czechoslovakian state radio, for one, described the pressures on him to resign. Many of his staff were criticizing him for failing to make radio time available to the opposition movement at the beginning of what he called “the turmoil.”

Instead, he said that he insisted on “balanced” programming to avoid increasing tensions and possibly contributing to a repeat of the 1968 invasion. “The situation was very grave at that time,” Kvapil said in an interview, gesturing across the street at an old apartment building whose facade was pockmarked with bullet holes. “I said to them: ‘Look at those holes on that house. They are from Russian bullets. I wouldn’t like there to be more of them here now.’ ” Kvapil added that he

hazd almost lost his job two years ago for calling for greater frankness in reporting.

Pressure: But those arguments did not satisfy his critics in Prague’s heady new atmosphere. Staff members petitioned for Kvapil’s dismissal and, he said, a teacher singled out his 14-year-old son at school and criticized him for his father’s actions. Then, near the end of the week, Kvapil bowed to the pressure and resigned, just five months after becoming director general of state radio.

A Communist party member since he was 18,

he acknowledged quietly that the party leadership had let him and many other party members down—by refusing to reform and by refusing to let citizens hear the views of dissidents. Said Kvapil: “When I saw [Václev] Havel on television, I asked myself, ‘Oh God, how could we make a hero of this man?’ If we put him on television two years ago, we wouldn’t now be in this position. But we made of him a symbol of Czechoslovak freedom.” He added sadly: “We as a party are paying for our own stupidity. And the bill is very long.”

But amid the dismay of loyal Communists and the joy of |i the opposition movement, there were indications that the power of the Communist party had still not been broken completely. In a country of just 15.5 million people, the party has 1.7 million members, and its entrenched apparatus controls all positions of authority. Although Czechoslovakia’s army last week began disarming the country’s “workers’ militia”—a type of private army directly controlled by the party—many reformers remained

concerned about the established power of the Communists. “One must not underestimate the power of the Communist party,” said Maly. “It has the police, it has the army, and there are many Stalinists inside the Central Committee. They will not simply give up power.” Said Vladimir Dlouhy, a senior researcher with the reformist Economic Forecasting Institute in Prague: “What was dangerous was not Jakes and his people. What was dangerous is the political apparatus. They are what you in the West call political animals—they will have to make many concessions, but they will fight for their lives not to make the basic change to pluralistic democracy.” Reform: Valtr Komárek, the 59year-old director of the forecasting institute, also cautioned that the party remains extremely powerful. A potential future prime minister and a member of the Communist party all his adult life, Komárek has been in the forefront of efforts to reform the economy since the late 1950s. But last week, he urged opposition leaders to sustain the pressure on the government and Communist apparatus, which he labelled a “mafia” that seized control of the country after the 1968 invasion and subsequent purges of reformers from the party. “Only the facade has crumbled so far, but the Communist mafia has only moved out of sight,” Komárek warned. “The opposition must keep up the pressure with energetic and radical demands for more changes.”

In the next few weeks, those demands will likely be directed at ensuring that the new government moves steadily towards holding free elections. One senior party official predicted “free democratic elections” within one year. But opposition leaders said that they wanted a vote within about six months. The government that emerges from that process, whatever its political complexion, will have to tackle the problems accumulated during decades of Communist rule. Although the country has one of the strongest economies in Eastern Europe, it is poorly equipped to compete in Western markets, and the people would almost certainly suffer a drop in their standard of living in the transition period to a market economy. At the same time, Czechoslovakia, like neighboring Poland and East Germany, faces severe environmental problems such as acid rain.

Despite those problems, a mood close to euphoria prevailed in Prague last week. For days after the opposition called off its mass demonstrations, people continued to wear the swatches of red-white-and-blue cloth in their lapels that they adopted as a badge of defiance against the government. Said Maly: “What is most important is that the psychological barrier between the people and the powers that be has been broken.” Whatever the problems ahead, that, at least, could not be changed.

ANDREW PHILLIPS in Prague