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
TALK BY JAN KAVAN
Can be seen at
Ladies and gentlemen, friends and colleagues,
I am addressing you as a former Czech human rights dissident who helped the Czechoslovak opposition, especially Charter 77, for 20 years to change the repressive pre-1989 Communist regime. Charter 77 was a human rights movement that was very heterogeneous. While this factor made it fairly strong and attractive before November 1989, it was the movement's Achilles heel after the so-called Velvet Revolution.
The Chartists were united in their demand that laws should be respected and human rights conventions implemented, that people should not be sent to prison for their political views, that there should be freedom of the press, speech, assembly and association. Many argued that ethical principles should govern political decision-making.
They all agreed that the prevailing economic system was grossly inefficient and increasingly less and less able to satisfy the expectations of the population. The social contract upon which the social and political order was based had come under increasing and eventually destabilizing strain. The Chartists facilitated the emergence of a rudimentary civil society. Given the absence of any permitted critical dialogue, any genuine pluralist forms, even a tiny non-conformist voice represented a major challenge to the system. I am trying here to stress that Communism collapsed because of its own contradictions and that the internal factors in these systems were more decisive than the alleged pressure of the West or the superiority of liberal capitalism.
In my opinion Dick Howard of Stony Brook University was right when he argued that the East European changes were revolutionary in the sense that they made it possible to pursue "democratic policies of rights." There was no Fukuyama&paos;s End of History or a victory of liberalism. Most of the population, including many of the dissidents, even including Vaclav Havel, did not wish to see the return of capitalism. However, there was no consensus as to what system they wanted to implement. All proposals were marked by lack of experience, by na´vetÚ, by wishful thinking. And there was a very fertile soil for illusions. I recall my friend the late Ji?Ý Dienstbier, who became the first post-1989 Foreign Minister, declaring that "the Cold War was won by the civil society," a great illusion that stemmed from the fact that a number of dissidents became government ministers. Only two years later the dissidents began to understand that their former "power of the powerless" (Havel┤s phrase) was quickly replaced by the powerlessness of those in power. And most of them were removed from all power positions anyway. The real power shifted to the new financial oligarchy, Western banks and Western advisers.
Under the slogan that past injustices have to be set right, a major program of privatization unfolded. Supporters of capitalism, such as the then Finance Minister Vaclav Klaus, today the President, warned that economists and managers should not be slowed down by lawyers and those who wanted to agree on rules preventing the laundering of dirty money, widespread corruption, etc.
East European countries were successfully incorporated into a variety of regional and global Western-dominated structures and institutions. The Communist past was rejected wholesale. The Right-dominated media helped to discredit ideas of socialism and even attempted to criminalize them. In some countries, including Czechoslovakia, and later the Czech Republic, a real witch-hunt unfolded, reminiscent of the U.S. McCarthy era. Interestingly enough, the real targets were not former Communist Party officials, many of whom never believed in their ideology and easily turned into very cynical, corrupt and successful capitalists. The wrath of the new "revolutionaries" was aimed primarily at those former dissidents who remained convinced socialists. Psychologically it was understandable. For example, people asked me how could I have escaped from Communism only to join the Labour Party and become critical of Maggie Thatcher, when it was the Iron Lady who had led the courageous and victorious struggle against the evil Communists. Such an apparent absurdity could only make sense to people if I could be shown to have all the time acted under the instructions of the Communist Secret Service, the StB. Conspiratorial ways of thinking prevailed.
There were an increasing number of articles suggesting that Charter 77 had been in fact infiltrated by former Communists as well by StB agents such as myself. This idea reassured those who had conformed to the regime that in fact they were no cowards by not supporting Charter 77 but just the contrary — they were clever enough to see through the camouflage. These new suspicions helped many people to feel better about themselves. More importantly, it helped to obscure their complicity in maintaining the repressive regime. By the 1992 elections most dissidents (with the exception of Havel) were removed from positions of power. There were similar developments in Poland and Hungary.
Illusions were fostered that forms of capitalism not known in the West since nineteenth century would lead us all to quick prosperity. The desire to cut East European countries off from their Soviet past led to an unconditional embrace of everything Western politicians and investors suggested.
I agree that the great expectations of 22 years ago have never been fully realized. I personally believed that after a period which I called "Thatcherism with a human face," the disillusionment with so called shock therapy proposed then by Jeffrey Sachs and happily implemented by Milton Friedmanite and Thatcherite Vaclav Klaus, would lead people to support a kind of social democratic alternative. This became partially true in the Czech Republic in 1998 and similar (not identical) developments took place also in Hungary and Poland. However the new social democratic governments proved incapable of dealing with the issue of systemic and widespread corruption. People became cynical about politics and politicians.
Today we can witness a profound crisis of governability. There is no functioning real participatory democracy. There is no real social justice or meaningful solidarity. The most important decisions are dictated by the financial oligarchy. The rights of the trade unions are gradually curtailed. The burden of state indebtedness is passed on primarily to the old age pensioners and to ill people. The average pension in today┤s Czech Republic is 375 euros but when the currently proposed pension reform will be implemented, increasing the role of private funds at the expense of the state, the pensions of low income employees will be drastically reduced.
Democratic policies are under increasing pressure. The most frequent explanation is voter apathy, the decline of political parties or the influence of money on politics. But there are deeper causes. One can talk about the privatization of the state and politics. The gradual merge of political parties and economic interests, frequently supported by global capital, leads to systemic corruption and the transfer of state functions (pensions, education, health service, security) into the hands of private groups. Democracy in many post–Communist societies is still very fragile. There is a very low level of political culture. With a certain amount of overstatement it can be it can be called "democracy without democrats." Such an immature democracy is not able to protect itself sufficiently with antidotes such as a public sphere, civil society, and institutions independent of politics, and thus the state is under increasing influence from the merged economic and political mafias. Among members of these mafias are also some former top Communist managers, who have turned into anti-Communists, and soon after 1989 became millionaires and fervent capitalists. Understandably, people view this development with increasing cynicism.
The pressure on democratic politics is increased by modern communication technologies. Admittedly, on one hand they have a democratic potential, as we have seen in Tunisia and Egypt, but they can also help to establish quite artificial political parties with no background or identity and thus easily misused by various political entrepreneurs and populists. With the help of sophisticated marketing methods they become private firms doing business in politics. A short time before our last elections an enterprising owner of a security company concluded that his firm could get more commissions and thus money only if they took over the Ministry of Interior -- the police and security forces -- and therefore that the firm had to enter politics. Using simple slogans, the new party called Public Affairs promised to replace old political dinosaurs and fight corruption; they were elected to Parliament and helped to form a three party right wing government coalition. Incidentally, their leader is now on trial for alleged bribery of his party's MPs. This to me is another form of privatization of state and politics that weakens and destabilizes democratic politics.
People today do get angry when they see governments responding to financial crisis by (a) ordering cuts in the expenditure of the welfare state, (b) reducing unemployment benefits, pensions, social benefits, etc, and (c) tolerating corruption that siphons off billions by manipulating government commissions, etc. All successful and healthy Czech banks are foreign owned. And people watch with disgust how Western governments pour taxpayers money into banks while bankers continue to live in luxury. The explanation that some banks are too big to fail and that they cannot be allowed to face bankruptcy because global financial markets can take down with them entire states or even the Eurozone, only fuels the anger of people, who note that these powerful markets are under no political control of any kind. In Eastern Europe, especially in the Czech Republic, this feeds into a great anger aimed at the EU, which is encouraged by emerging nationalist politicians and extremist groups.
Incidentally, the new President of the European Central Bank, and the new Italian and Greek prime ministers are all linked to Goldman Sachs, which participated in the U.S. financial crisis of 2008. Global capitalism is able to undermine democracy. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek notes that "capitalism functions much better without democracy."
Democracy as a set of formal processes and institutions that enable human , and not because people may be afraid of punishment -- which anyway happens only rarely. Democracy is under siege. beings to truly participate in the public political sphere in the pursuit of their interests and ideas does not work, at least not, for example, in the Czech Republic or in Hungary today. Post-Communist East European countries have been able quite easily to establish formal democratic institutional frameworks, organize free elections, in short to fulfil the Copenhagen criteria. However to develop a democratic political culture in which the values of democracy become rooted in people's mindsets and reflected in their behaviour is proving to be a very difficult task indeed. Ralf Dahrendorf estimated that it may take 60 years to achieve that and I am afraid that this was an over-optimistic guess. It is not that civil society did not develop and that there are no initiatives from below but that the impact of civil society development has not yet produced the kind of substantive democracy that would enable citizens to exercise some real participatory power. Just the contrary, widespread corruption undermines the entire functioning of democracy in almost all fields. People have not internalized democratic values. It is proving to be very difficult in the current atmosphere to establish a rule of law that would be respected because it is correct and fair
Today there are numerous demonstrations in countries such as Rumania, Hungary and even in the Czech Republic. Many people protest against austerity cuts and the governments' anti-social so called "reforms." But many condemn all politicians -- government and opposition alike -- claiming that they are all corrupt. This anti-political politics is not even as constructive as Havel┤s concept was to a certain extent in the late 1980s. Today┤s anti-political politics is the result of deep disillusionment with democracy (and with the unfulfilled promises of 1989), of resentment provoked by the destruction of social state and by numerous corruption scandals involving top politicians. The government┤s approach is simple. With reference to primitive ideological phrases they reduce income into public budgets, which enables them then to claim that there are no resources and thus the state cannot provide a given public service, which necessitates the entry of private capital. This results in the reduction of pensions, in higher school fees, high health care fees, etc. And poverty and unemployment rise, as well as the wealth of a few entrepreneurs and politicians.
This development opens space for the emergence of new populist and nationalist groups and even extremists with a certain brownish coating. At the same time a space is also opened up for new civic initiatives on the Left that are very sceptical towards the established leftist parties such as the Social Democratic or the Communist party. They have been encouraged by the U.S. Occupy Wall Street movement and by Spanish indignados rather than by Arab protesters. They feel themselves to be an integral part of the 99 percent. But these protests are also marked by a significant degree of na´vetÚ, inexperience and disorganisation. Ironically, while they employ radical terminology, they advocate policies that can be described as reformist. They stress the need to renew their own identity on the basis of old ideals of freedom, equality and solidarity as the fundamental ethical values. This is in line with the arguments used by the late Tony Judt whose book Ill Fares the Land is currently very popular. They clearly strive for old values to be implemented by an entirely new model, not for cosmetic changes of the current model of capitalism. But they are not clear how this new model should function.
The difficult dilemma for these new groups is posed by the choice between two alternatives. They can work with other civic initiatives towards a future major movement for change, but that means risking that they will fail to get into the streets hundreds of thousands, let alone millions. Anything smaller the establishment will safely ignore. A tiny army without influential generals will only have a nuisance value. Or, they can pragmatically cooperate with parliamentary leftist opposition parties, placing them under constant pressure and keeping them under certain permanent public control and then jointly bringing about the desired change. This involves an obvious risk that close cooperation can lead the activists into being imprisoned in the embrace of a corrupted system. This would provide a green light to the radical right wing populists prepared to break into the deserted public space. And that would be very regrettable indeed.
Let me conclude by sharing with you my own dream. I would like to live in dignity, in a healthy environment, in peace and in security, in a world free of hunger, repression and wars. For this dream to become true, we have to target extreme poverty, injustice, oppression, ignorance and intolerance, exploitation and the manipulation of the people. I believe that people, groups and institutions who share the same values and convictions are part of a global civil society, which in a world of infinitely better communication than existed during the Cold War can play a very important role. The impact of our activities is unlikely to change the world tomorrow. Dream castles in the air are dangerous illusions. I am, however, convinced that if we are consistent and determined to persevere, then we could decisively contribute to a long drawn out process of necessary political change. And that is definitely worth an all-out effort by all decent people who care.