Campaign for Peace and Democracy Left Forum Panel New York City - March 17, 2012
" What Are the Lessons of 1989's East European
Transformations Today? "
Panelists: Joanne Landy, Jan Kavan, Antonio Morandi
Moderator: Thomas Harrison
TRANSCRIPT OF THE DISCUSSION
can be seen at
Joseph Young: Hi, my name's Joseph Young, I was born one week after the Berlin wall fell. My question to you is as I've, as what I've limitedly understood about the 1989 revolutions, was looking at whether or not the ideology behind the 1989 revolutions, specifically the political philosophies that were used to articulate the changes necessary that would be required of a future society. And so was there any ideological foundation as to trying to reform the system? And if so, what was it? Or was it rather, like, as I like to coin, anarcho-liberalism, where you had individuals, each individual come up with their own ideology and they served in a process of trying to individually describe to themselves, almost in a reactionary sense?
Second Speaker: I wondered if the expert minister would say a little something about how Czechoslovakia managed to come apart without violence where Yugoslavia and some of the Russian countries seemed to be going the other way. Is there anything we can learn from their experience?
Thomas Harrison: Let's take a few more comments and then the speakers can respond.
Third Speaker: I'm Wales Brown, I'm a translator. I've worked with people in Croatia. Croatia just held a vote on the question of whether or not to join the European Union and a small majority said yes, we do want to join the European Union. I've wondered about that. Given the European Union as it is now, is it good for a country to join it? Or is it bad for a country to join the European Union?
Thomas Harrison: Maybe one more comment?
Joanne Landy: I'll say something briefly. Of course I liked practically everything Jan [Kavan] said and he said he liked practically everything I said. But he didn't come out and say what was the little bit of what I said that he didn't agree with. But I'm going to come out with the little bit of what Jan said that I don't agree with. Jan said "This is a kind of a long road, it will take sixty years." In one sense you can't argue with that. You know, building a new culture doesn't happen overnight. But I think that much more could have happened overnight [in 1989] in creating a new context in which people functioned. That is, the revolution could have created some kind of socialist or radical democratic initiative at the outset even though it would have been plagued by all kinds of inheritances from a repressive culture that hadn't let things flower. I think people could have learned faster had they been able to create their own revolution and had they had an ideology that was more sophisticated. And you [Jan Kavan] could say, well, they couldn't have had an ideology that was more sophisticated or more radical. But I guess, I mean, obviously they couldn't because they didn't, but I don't think that in the future you will have to start out at zero [i.e. without an organized and public left presence when the revolution erupts.]
Thomas Harrison: Jan, do you want to respond?
Jan Kavan: Yes, let me try to respond to some of the questions. Some are interlinked. I did try to explain that the main opposition in Czechoslovakia — but it to a larger extent applies also for example to Poland which I knew quite well; I helped to facilitate cooperation between the Polish Solidarnosc, Czechoslovakia's Charter 77 and the Hungarian democratic opposition even before 1989.
These movements were strong because they were united by what they opposed. Now, it is not true that there were no internal debates about what type of society they would like to live in once they would defeat the regime and there were some among them did believe that communism would collapse, although there were differences in the estimate of when it would actually happen. But some people believed it would actually happen. For example the discussions inside Charter 77 were sometimes very sharp and very controversial. Especially between what was vaguely termed the Charter Left and the ones who supported more, what I would today call more right-wing solutions. It is true that they genuinely believed that to make these disagreements public would weaken the opposition against the common enemy, which was the oppressive regime.
But those debates immediately sprang to public knowledge at the beginning of 1990. And in fact, I remember during the first democratic elections, which took place in June 1990, during the campaign you already had a certain contradiction because the so-called Velvet Revolution was carried out by a civic group called the Civic Forum that incorporated most of the Chartists. But the Civic Forum had this sort of strange slogan that it's not a party, it's a movement, and that parties [are] for politicians and the Civic Forum is for the people. Nonsense which, surprisingly, many people believed. But the sooner we were getting toward the elections, some people correctly argued that the Civic Forum is a very strange beast indeed. Because on the list of candidates for the parliament, you had a Thatcherite, Vaclav Klaus, on one hand, and a friend of mine, Peter Uhl, who at that time called himself a revolutionary Marxist, on the other. And they were running for the same party. Or rather the same "movement" — they didn't call it a party. It was inevitable that this was short-lived.
By the end of, by 1991, the Civic Forum collapsed, disintegrated, and the normal political parties emerged out of it. Both on the right, with the Civil Democratic Party led by Klaus, on the left it was much more difficult. Again, I tried to explain, for psychological reasons, many people with the collapse of communism rejecting everything which was associated with the left. Therefore even the word "socialism" was hijacked by the Stalinists and therefore it was very difficult to campaign on it if you don't want to lose — drastically. But it does not mean that there was no left and that there were no people who actually put forward what I could call leftist ideology of left policies. But they were careful in the terminology they used. And in that sense the social democratic terminology was much more acceptable, partly because it was not "socialism" and partially because the Communist Party during the previous forty years spent a lot of its time and energy attacking social democracy as its worst enemy — and therefore that was acceptable to people to embrace. And the new Social Democratic party which was created immediately after November 1989 (and which had very few members), by 1998 was the largest party in the country and formed a government.
So I would not underestimate that, but bear in mind, as the democratic elections, you have to really respect the issues of the people. And the majority of the people simply rejected anything to do with the left — which was encouraged by the media, which was run and staffed by very young and very right-wing people who took over the newspapers and became multi-millionaires and very right-wing, and encouraged by the educational system. For in fact, there was no internal support for the left. And the western land was absolutely silent. Never heard of anything from anyone during the first two years when we faced the worst crisis. They began to contact us when I was in government. But not when I was attacked as a secret service agent by the right.
Why there was no violence with the breakup of Czechoslovakia. This relationship circuit was very different from Yugoslavia or some other countries. There was no real animosity between the Czechs and the Slovaks. There were 72 years of life in one country. Well, there were certain differences. The Slovaks felt slightly exploited and run by Prague, et cetera, so a number of them wanted more independence. But I would say more autonomy, not secession.
Unlike what is believed even today in the west, and that is a great achievement of Vaclav Klaus; he fooled the whole of the west, including the United States, where people believe that the breakup was caused by Slovakia wanting to secede because there were Slovak nationalists who did ask for independence. Those Slovak nationalists were a minority and what the constitution actually demanded [unintelligible] they would have lost. It was Vaclav Klaus, Czech Prime Minister at the time, who wanted to dump them! He correctly argued they are poorer and they will slow our race to capitalism. And they are more nationalist, some of them are even socialist, they are very close to Russia, I mean, get rid of them! But, he also argued, the west wouldn't understand if you say that. So we have to persuade the west that we want to keep the country together, and these nasty Slovaks want to secede.
[Vladimir] Meciar, the prime minister of Slovakia at the time, said, I don't want complete independence, I want confederation. To which Klaus said, Out of the question! You would ask us to be the insurance company for you. We'll pay your debt and you will do what you want. Out of the question!. You have only one choice. You either maintain the status quo, (which he knew the Slovaks would not be able, would not be prepared to accept) or complicate the matter. This Swiss idea of confederation, I mean... So he forced the Slovak secession. And what was interesting — I was there — our smooth transition was facilitated by the fact that Klaus knew what would happen. [He] correctly estimated the Slovak response. He created Czech currency six months earlier, a long time before he told the west there was going to be a breakup.
So we had a very easy transition because everything was prepared. The Slovaks had much deeper problems because they did not believe that they would become independent. And they didn't want to become independent.
Secondly, the economy was so intertwined. You had so many mixed marriages, common culture, there was absolutely no reason for any groups, Czechs or Slovaks, to fight each other. I was member of the Federal Parliament then. I can tell you we demanded a referendum. And we knew perfectly well in both countries, Czech and Slovakia, those of us who were against the breakup were at one, which is the reason why Klaus and Meciar, Klaus in particular, agreed there would be no referendum, constitutional or non-constitutional. So, very different from the Balkans and the animosity between Croats and Serbs and others.
Join the European Union. That's a very controversial question and I will give you my subjective answer but I prefix it by knowing that three years ago I was in majority, now in minority. And in three years' time I will be in majority again. I have certain problems with figures which were given here by our Italian colleague [co-panelist Antonio Morandi]. I don't defend the Czech government. I'm in opposition. [But] It is true that the current Czech Republic is the sixth least-indebted country in Europe.
The current regime, our current government, argues we don't want the Euro because we would finish like Italy. We don't want the Italian, Portuguese, Spanish debts. They are in real trouble. If you take the Euro, you'll finish like Greece. They won the last elections by threatening people with Greece. By saying, if the socialists won, they would sink [?] the social state, they would give away money to the poor people and the country would go bankrupt like Greece. Now [in fact] we were never anywhere close to bankruptcy. And we are still not even today and I am critical of the government's cuts.
The current government's argument is that those who have the Euro have problems. Don't join the Eurozone if you want to remain prosperous. The argument against it [the government's case] is not that you could become prosperous by joining the Euro because most of the Euro countries have problems. The argument is, once you join the E.U., you could show a certain amount of solidarity. To which Klaus says solidarity with the E.U. is a terrible thing because there is nothing worse invented by mankind than the Eurozone. What he calls "eco-terrorists" and "Euro-optimists" are "worse than the Communists," quote, unquote. Now, that is not necessarily supported by others. But even the Social Democratic Party which opposes him says we should support the Greeks. We should support the Eurozone. We are richer. And it would be giving away some of our money which is demagogic because we do also receive money from the European Union.
But if you look at Slovakia, one of the few East European countries which does have the Euro [you will see that] although they are much poorer than the Czechs (they are the poorest country of the Eurozone), last year a government collapsed in Slovakia because one of the coalition right-wing parties said, "We poor Slovaks will not support the rich Greeks," and he compared Greek pensions with Slovak pensions, et cetera. Slightly demagogically but it worked. And they believed that in this nationalist wave of anti-solidarity they could win — a tiny right-wing party! They withdrew from the coalition and therefore the government fell, and you had elections ten days ago. For the first time since 1989, the result is for one-party government. Despite proportional representation, despite a law which aims against one party, Slovakia is today ruled by the Social Democratic Party, which has a majority. That was a firm answer to the people about solidarity and the Euro. The Social Democratic Slovak Party is strongly for the Euro, which was introduced when they were last time in government.
So that's why I say in a few year's time I'll be in majority again even in my own country, because I believe history is on our side. The Eurozone is facing major problems but I do believe that integration is the answer. Not only economic. It must be also political and social [integration], so what we are aiming at is not a current capitalist-state-run Eurozone, but a Eurozone based on social justice, on solidarity, on limitation of the financial oligarchy. Very difficult, but you may change that only from inside, not from outside.
Thomas Harrison: We have to end in five minutes but …
Antonio Morandi's Translator: I think Antonio wants to make just one...
Antonio Morandi (through translator): I have a slightly different opinion from Jan. I started from the premise that there are 54 states in Europe. Some of them are very, very small. For example ten are ex-Communist countries in Eastern Europe they represent twenty-one percent of the current population in Europe. but they represent only seven percent of the gross income of Europe. Another example is the Balkan peninsula, that now consists of seven states, with economies unable to be self-sufficient. So I, as am representing my union, believe, it is true that there is a Europe of the banks, but there should be, there can be also a Europe of the people, of the workers. For example, Croatia will enter Europe.
Yes, it would be useful for countries, other countries, to join the European Union because this would force some of these countries to respect some of the general norms — you know, maternity leave, for example, unemployment for children. This is my opinion.
Joanne Landy: There are leaflets over here: the Campaign for Peace and Democracy's Statement of Purpose and our positions on different, on Libya and Iran and so forth so please take them. We also have buttons if you'd like to get one for a dollar. This issue of New Politics, the one that I mentioned, only a dollar, and a current issue is downstairs at the New Politics table, or you can get it for five dollars from me. Well, thanks everybody.