The debate continues over whether the people of East-Central Europe have benefitted economically from the post-1989 transition. But this discussion of economic winners and losers largely ignores a key demand of the people in the region. Yes, they wanted bananas and travel to the West and propaganda-free media. But they also wanted an end to the injustices of the Communist era.
Communism promised equality: an end of the class system and a future in which everyone would live as brothers and sisters. It soon became obvious, however, that some brothers and sisters were more equal than others. The emergence of a new class – the nomenklatura – was a direct repudiation of the egalitarian ethos of Communism. This elite, and their children, enjoyed better education, greater opportunities for travel, nicer homes and cars, access to hard currency, and jobs at the top.
Of course, the nomenklatura didn’t simply enjoy economic privileges. The Communist elite had political power that they deployed to silence critics and preserve their own position in society. Thus was perpetuated the misrule of law. Those “living in truth,” as Vaclav Havel liked to put it, also ended up spending at least part of the time living in jail.
The changes in 1989 promised an end to the injustices of the previous era. But when that promise appeared to be broken — and the old elite either regained political office through elections or increased their material wealth through privatization — the newly enfranchised citizens of East-Central Europe grew angry, even if their own material position improved.
“In my first studies of post-conflict societies in different parts of the world, I’ve learned that what people want and expect from revolutions and regime changes is not the immediate rise in living standards but a sense of justice,” Jan Urban told me in an interview in his office at New York University’s campus in the heart of Prague’s Old Town. “Here is where we failed terribly. Allowing the Communists not to part with their criminal past, allowing them to capture up to 20% of the electorate – meaning that more-or-less democratic parties had to work in coalitions that would embrace a larger portion of the electorate – was a strategic mistake and we have to live with it.”
Urban was a leading dissident prior to 1989 and a founder of Civic Forum. He decided early on not to pursue a political career. Rather, he supported the professionalization of political life in Czechoslovakia. He put his hopes in the creation of a new corps of young civil servants trained abroad, a project that never quite happened.
Instead, the new political elite embraced a different method of breaking with the past. It enacted a lustration law – literally, “purification” – to ensure that no one in public life had connections to the repressive structures of the Communist period. Here too a desire for justice – though sometimes simply revenge — motivated the supporters of the new legislation.
“I think lustration was one of the worst methods of dealing with the past,” Urban told me. “First, it gave legitimacy to the Communist secret police archives. It’s kind of funny when you declare the secret police a criminal organization and then you use its archives for the purposes of parliamentary democracy building. It took us 17 years to take secret police archives from the political property of the state. Also, what you need is trust in the rule of law. Lustration was a kind of clerical operation: your name appears here meaning you, according to a given list, cannot hold certain positions. There is no judicial attitude in it. There is no fair trial.”
Some countries, in the wake of abrupt political change, embarked on truth-and-reconciliation processes. But in the Czech Republic, only partial truths have prevailed and virtually no reconciliation at all. “We don’t want truth,” Urban concluded. “We want punishment.”
Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I remember it well. Around that time, my wife forced me to spend three weeks in a spa, because I was detained by secret police and received a so-called prosecutor’s warning that could land me for up to12 years in prison. We had a wonderful three weeks in Marienbad – Marianske Lazne — and stayed in a hotel that had separated floors: one was for guests from East Germany, one for West Germany, and one for the Czechs and Slovaks. Each floor had its television room; there were no television sets in the individual rooms. I probably never had closer surveillance in my life. We always had two-four people walking with us through the spa.
We were walking that day on the colonnade. Until then, East Germans and West Germans always walked in separate groups. But this time everybody was screaming, laughing, crying, drinking from champagne bottles. We didn’t understand a thing. So we went back to our hotel. There were more crying people. But this time nobody went along with the selection of floors. Everyone flocked into the West German TV room. I just couldn’t believe my eyes: people standing on the Berlin Wall – beautiful.
Were your surveillance people also watching?
No. They stayed in the lobby.
It would affect them perhaps even more dramatically, but they didn’t know that. How long did you stay at the spa after that?
We came back to Prague on, I think, November 11.
So you were here when things started to happen?
I want to go back a little earlier. Was there a moment in your mind when you made the step toward being a dissident or being in opposition? Was there a clear moment or was it a gradual process?
As with most of the dissidents, it happened by chance. My moment came in January 1977 when I was 26 and worked as a high school teacher. All state employees including teachers were asked to show their loyalty to the regime and to sign a condemnation of Charter 77 – the human rights defense manifesto – and I refused. Ten days later I was taken out from the middle of the lecture, from the class, and received an immediate dismissal. The police walked me out of the school, and that was it.
What did you think at that point? Did you have any idea what your next steps would be?
No, no, it was just pure shock. I knew that it was forever because the game had very simple rules. You would get maybe one, maybe two offers to humiliate yourself and to come back. If your vanity or pride disallowed that then it was for the rest of your life.
So what did you then do?
I looked for a job because at that time we had a work obligation: after three days without a job you could be jailed for parasitism. In our case, one more friend was sacked as well. It took a month, but then I spent the next 12 years in manual jobs.
When you refused to sign the statement condemning Charter 77, did you know any of the signatories of Charter 77?
Quite a few. Some of them were very close friends of my parents. Some of them were family friends from before I could remember.
During those 12 years, did you think that period would last the rest of your life?
Sure. I never believed I’d see the end. I just wanted to gradually grow in dissident education. I just wanted to make as much damage as possible to the Communist regime. But I never believed I’d see the end.
What did you think would make the biggest damage in those days?
At the end, I helped to launch the only existing international dissident network, called the East Europe Information Agency, with friends and colleagues in the Soviet Union and from Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, sometimes GDR. We were able to put together independent information and spread it, mostly via foreign radio broadcasting. That was pretty effective, at least judging from the reaction of the State.
Given this position you obviously learned a great deal about the status of opposition movements in other countries. How did you place Czechoslovakia at that time in terms of the opposition movement: strong here, weaker there?
We perfectly understood the differences between individual countries in the Soviet bloc. I had a chance to meet many Soviet dissidents of that time and I always asked myself, “How many of us in Czechoslovakia would be able to withstand such oppression?” They were scattered, less organized. Hungary was a completely different situation: sometimes we had a hard time recognizing dissidents there because their life seemed so comfortable. Our biggest intellectual problem was Poland: whenever we needed something printed in a large number of copies we had to smuggle the manuscript across the mountain and then had the couriers –we called them mules – carry them back in rucksacks. Compared to the Polish experience, we were absolute cowardly amateurs. There was a great envy – and love — towards Polish dissidents.
Is there one incident during those 12 years that jumps out at you as the must absurd in terms of your interactions with the State and surveillance? Your experience at Marianske Lazne was an interesting one, but was there another instance that was difficult to even believe at the time?
There were many of them. In the last two and a half years we were publishing Lidove Noviny in samizdat, but we were asking every month for official registration. There was the World Peace Conference in Prague, and I went there and asked for journalist accreditation for Lidove Noviny. The panic that it caused! Organizers just couldn’t throw me out in front of hundreds of people. So I got accreditation. I had a guy walking behind me for three hours as I was doing interviews with different delegates, always stating that was I doing it for Lidove Noviny. After three hours, they just had enough, and secret police came in and dragged me out. This was one of the many, many absurd moments.
In October 1988, we wanted to organize an international independent historical seminar on the 70th anniversary of the creation of Czechoslovakia. Again, we wanted to have it official. So we always went in couples to invite different dignitaries. I accompanied Vaclav Havel when we went to the office of the prime minister to invite him. They just didn’t know what to do, so they formally accepted the invitation – quite politely. At the beginning of the conference, we were all detained for four days.
So you were good at using the bureaucracy against itself.
You always look for weaknesses and rely on the fact that nobody wants to decide on their own. You get at least some time before they make all the phone calls and somebody high up realizes he has to make the decision.
What was the point at which you realized, with all the things changing in Poland, in Hungary, that something was going to happen here?
We were blinded. For years we were on the run. You stop thinking about the future, you stop thinking about the past, and you focus on just this moment, this situation. It was definitely an intellectual failure, but what can you do? I realized that the moment of open confrontation was here was November 17 after we had received information of at least one dead student killed by the police. It was clear at this point that this social contract between the regime and the citizenry was broken. People would keep their mouth shut and stay down to get their kids into university and to travel and not get into trouble, but once they believed that the regime was killing their own children – the deal was off. But I believed that we won only the moment that the entire top layer of Communist party leadership resigned.
Did the demonstration the year earlier, in 1988 in Bratislava that was repressed quickly by the authorities, have an impact?
Absolutely. March 1988 in Bratislava, then October 1988 in Prague. By January 1989, it was clear something was brewing, but the regime was very good at dealing with these situations. In August 1989 they were so successful in convincing us that large-scale violence could take place that we tried to calm down people so we wouldn’t have any human losses. It took two Hungarian students to stage a protest in Wenceslas Square so that at least something happened.
You got the news that there’d been a big student demonstration, and that at least one student protester had been killed. What was the next step for you?
We tried to form a united political opposition this time. It was clearly political because it was now or never, it was either them or us this time. We ran around getting people together. We met in Vaclav Havel’s apartment and devised this Civic Forum. That was the first step. Then there was running around again to get more people. I had to hide for a few days. The secret police tried to get me on three different occasions because I was one of those who spread this false information about the killed student.
When you were coming up with this Civic Forum, how much were you influenced by civic formations in other countries?
I brought up “forum” as a 100% copy of the GDR formation, New Forum. Vaclav Havel added “civil” and that was it.
There was a wide variety of political orientations in Civic Forum…
Politics didn’t matter at that point because it was a self-defense coalition. There was one goal and that was to get rid of the opposite side. It took a few days before we realized that there was responsibility for the country attached to it. Only then did we start to think about the next steps, the future, a program.
For you, what was the moment when you realized that this was going to have a political and not just a self-defense orientation, that it would actually have to deal with politics?
Very quickly. If for nothing other than my knowledge of Russian, I was asked to negotiate with the Soviets. There was a great fear that the Soviet troops could intervene. We started to get information from the region that the secret police might stage some provocations against Soviet troops. My task was to negotiate with the embassy and to pass the message as high as possible in Moscow that the Civic Forum has nothing to do with possible provocations and that we want the Soviets to stay out of it. It succeeded. Politics entered it quite quickly.
Why did, in your mind, the secret police, and also the army, not engage in very much resistance?
I wondered about that for several days because all that could have been shut down with 20, maybe 50, people with AK-47s. It was my fear for the demonstrations because I knew that the second someone would start shooting the streets would be empty. My explanation for it is not conspiratorial. The Czechoslovak system was quite specific in the way that it did not develop for 20 years. The legitimacy of the Communist party leadership was still the same. They were brought in literally on the turrets of the Soviet tanks in 1968. They went against they own people. They humiliated them, they oppressed them. The leaders were around 70 years old at this time, and the system was so vertical in decision-making. It discouraged any initiative. When the first critical situation after those 20 years occurred, there was no one who had the balls or the courage to take responsibility and send in one or two tanks. There were attempts to bring in the people’s militias, and armed groups of militias for the Communist party were sitting in buses on the streets of Prague as a threat. But no one dared to give the order for them to leave the buses and blow up the streets or go against the demonstrations. We were lucky.
In some sense this was the same window of opportunity you referred to before, where you had that moment before the command got up to the top, except that this time it was on a bigger scale.
Right. After 48 hours, when we were able to organize the theater and student strikes we had a nation-wide network of buildings, groups of people, telephone lines that we could work with. I believe that after those 48 hours, with hindsight, it was too late, that it would have taken too much force to wipe it out. After you get 400,000 people in the streets, after you have trade unions organizing a general strike, it still would be possible for Bucharest-style violence to shut it all down, but there was no tradition of that here.
In the Romanian situation, the Bulgarian situation, even today people talk about the revolution that in fact didn’t happen. There was a carry-over in many places of the same people in power along with a change in the name of the party. Assets were transferred and economic power was retained. But that seemed to be a scenario that was avoided here.
Not really. We haven’t even forced the Communist Party to change its name, and we have the same Stalinist or neo-Stalinist faces. It was just the change of guard with the younger generation. When you go onto their websites and see their ideological conferences you see that one of the speakers is the last leader of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia talking the same rubbish like 35 years ago. The same happened with privatization, and this is what people criticized the most.
It’s true that the Communist party retained the same name but it didn’t have anything like the power that, for instance, the Bulgarian Socialist Party did in the first elections.
Right. But in my first studies of post-conflict societies in different parts of the world, I’ve learned that what people want and expect from revolutions and regime changes is not the immediate rise in living standards but a sense of justice. Here is where we failed terribly. Allowing the Communists not to part with their criminal past, allowing them to capture up to 20% of the electorate – meaning that more-or-less democratic parties had to work in coalitions that would embrace a larger portion of the electorate – was a strategic mistake and we have to live with it.
Do you think that lustration – a process of regulating the participation of former Communist Party officials in the public sphere — was not sufficient in satisfying people’s desires?
Definitely not. I think lustration was one of the worst methods of dealing with the past. First, it gave legitimacy to the Communist secret police archives. It’s kind of funny when you declare the secret police a criminal organization and then you use its archives for the purposes of parliamentary democracy building. It took us 17 years to take secret police archives from the political property of the state. Also, what you need is trust in the rule of law. Lustration was a kind of clerical operation: your name appears here meaning you, according to a given list, cannot hold certain positions. There is no judicial attitude in it. There is no fair trial.
It’s an assumption of guilt.
It’s an assumption of guilt that may even be correct in 95% of the cases. But still there were so many weird methods of how to break people and turn them into secret police informants or agents. With lustration you didn’t look into those individual cases or individual reasons. You didn’t look at what harm, if any, was eventually done. I see it as highly unfair.
I haven’t gotten to Poland yet, but I understand that Adam Michnik was very concerned that false information from these files would be used in a political way.
It’s just one angle. The most damaging is this lack of a procedure: the lack of a fair trial.
Is there anywhere in the region where you think this issue was handled right?
It is not by chance that not one of the post-Communist countries had the courage to use the truth-and-reconciliation concept. We don’t want truth. We want punishment.
I interviewed Roland Jahn in Berlin and I asked him that question: he disagreed. He thought it was virtually impossible to actually push people in East Germany to have the reconciliation process.
Germany was very different, and I think that the Germans have done the most to reconcile with their communist past – as with their Nazi past. They were the first to destatize the Stasi archives. But still the concept of trying to find the common truth doesn’t work in post-Communist countries.
There was a decision with Civic Forum not to turn it into a party – to in some sense distinguish it from a party. Some people disagreed with that. What was your feeling?
The problem was much more complicated. I belonged to a very small minority that disagreed with the decision about Vaclav Havel becoming the president. Our argument was that we have to make a strategic decision about whether we want to occupy the Communist institutional regime framework or whether we want to destroy it and change it. Sending the best people into the Communist institutions petrifies the situation and the bureaucracy. Most importantly, you have Civic Forum as a motor, as a vehicle, that carries on the change, and then you behead the organization by sending these people into government. Our fear was that we would lose people by parachuting them on top of the Communist institutions. They’d simply be drawn into day-to-day institutional business and lose the cohesion, and the motor would stop. That’s exactly what happened. Very quickly, we had a very complicated constitutional framework: a federal assembly with two chambers and two national assemblies, and a federal government with two national governments, and a president who wanted to play a very active role. All of these stood as power centers that jealously guarded their space. This is the main reason why changes took so long and were so shallow instead of going against the system as such.
Here are two illustrations. There was a debate about occupying the secret police archives before they were destroyed and also occupying the censorship building. The decision was not to do so. Instead we allowed the secret police to destroy everything of importance – or most of it. We appointed a former dissident to become the director of the censorship office and it took him six months to formally dissolve that institution. All those censors were doing nothing and getting their salaries for six months at a time when the victims of the Communist regime had the lowest possible pension.
If your small minority within Civic Forum had been a majority, what would have been the first steps in establishing a new system and what would that system have looked liked? Would it have been, say, like pre-Communist Czechoslovakia under Masaryk?
No, not really. We understood that the whole system needed modernization. We wanted the Civic Forum to stay as an absolute moral political authority with delegated politicians remaining in an employee status to the Civic Forum. What we created instead was several dozen semi-gods or semi-god cousins that hate to cooperate.
We understood the importance of professional bureaucracy. Our plan was to have a five-year program to send 1,000 selected students abroad to the best Western universities. We even had money for it at that point in grants. There was a hope that within five years we would have a thousand-plus young people to become completely new young bureaucrats with no attachment to the past regime and having connections and contacts with the West. We were trying to create a democratic elite whose loyalty would be to the state and no one else – no political party. We failed. At that time we even proposed the first draft of the civil service act. We don’t have it even after 23 years.
Did those students ever go abroad?
I don’t know. I left too early.
So you never had this new group of bureaucrats?
No. So in my opinion, this debate — party or not — was totally false. We decided to have the first elections only for a two-year period for the constitutional assembly. This debate came about simply because of personal animosity between Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus. Klaus quite skillfully used the addiction to ideology and just replaced the content. But this addictive ideology was very, very effective.
I remember, when I came back from the United States after four months, I was invited to the party congress of Civic Forum. Klaus, who was the chairman, didn’t want me to speak, so in the end I got three minutes. Then somebody felt ashamed so I got his three minutes – altogether six minutes. After listening for over four hours to the debate, I said, “I’m listening to this debate for four hours and there is a delegation from Slovak Public Against Violence sitting in the front row. In those four hours the word Slovakia was not mentioned even once. Are you sure you want to keep Czechoslovakia together?” It was on the day when the Soviet Special Forces OMON attacked a TV tower in Vilnius and killed 11 people. So I mentioned that, and I said, “In those four hours I didn’t once hear foreign policy being mentioned. This is Central Europe! What are you talking about here?” I just left.
Was that the end of your engagement with Civic Forum?
It ended the night after we won the elections. This is what I said already at the beginning of December 1989: that I’d help to win elections and then it’s over for me. So I just didn’t come to the office the next morning.
Let me ask you about foreign policy for a moment because that was one of the things I focused on when I was here 20 years ago. I was quite taken, as many in the West were, by Vaclav Havel’s statements about the need for a new, moral foreign policy. Inevitably there were some challenges to that in the relationship with Slovakia in terms of the closure of the munitions factories and on the question of Lithuania. You saw it in the conference for Civic Forum where foreign policy wasn’t mentioned at all. How did you see Havel’s efforts on the foreign policy front in those days?
I was quite critical. As much as I liked him as a person, I think that, specifically domestically, he was incredibly inefficient as a politician. He lost everything he touched, with the exception of the cases he passed through the constitutional court. He never learned that for politics you need institutions. He never trusted institutions. He believed in the strength and value of ideas. He has never realized that a genius thought, ideally, is one thing, but equally important is the road to it. If you want to change things, the goal stays a dream only until you get there. You have to think about the steps. That I believe was too slow for him. He was a thinker, not a politician. He definitely did so much for this country as a symbol, as a moral authority, but he failed as a politician.
That extends to the foreign policy realm?
Also. But in some ways he was a great success because he was so unreal and so non-political, so extraordinary that people and foreign statesmen were able to forgive him a thousand times more than anyone else simply because he was who he was.
You mentioned that Public Against Violence in Slovakia was at the Civic Forum plenary where nobody talked about Slovakia. I just came from Bratislava and I asked everyone pretty much the same question: do you think there was a possibility for Czechoslovakia to remain together, and they said no. The countries were too dissimilar and going in different directions. What did you think at the time, and what do you think now?
Czechoslovakia never represented the arithmetical sum of Czechs and Slovaks. It was a much more important and much more complex project. It was devised in a way as a copy of the United States: individual allegiance was to go first to the country and only then to anything else like religion or language. By splitting Czechoslovakia we just went back to the 19th century. I refused to be identified exclusively by my language. The question of whether Czechoslovakia could have been kept together: in my opinion, it could and it should have been. Even the last polls before the split showed equally, on both sides, that two-thirds of the electorate was against it. It was the politicians’ decision. They just realized that the easiest way was to split the country, not to look for compromise. Why couldn’t Czechs make the suggestion of Bratislava as the capitol?
What I dislike the most is this Czech, and also Slovak, interpretation that Slovaks just needed it. I wrote about it in 1991 that if you looked at the voting pattern in the national assembly, the Slovak nationalist bloc always lacked 7-8 votes to push through their agenda. Whenever there was a need, 7 or 8 of Klaus’s people from ODS left the chamber, ending the quorum. It was a cold, rational decision of the two leaders, and their entourage, to split the country. They didn’t know how to go, and they had no idea about the mission. Embracing a “language nation” concept was definitely the simplest and easiest – easiest to sell in the long run, specifically with the Slovaks. Until today I have difficulty feeling loyalty toward what I call Leftoverstan. With Slovakia, okay as you say yourself, it is now a majority opinion: we wanted it; we needed it; hurray, hurray. In my opinion it is like building a house without a roof simply because it is not raining. You believe it will never rain again.
I miss Czechoslovakia.
It’s true that during my discussions in Bratislava that is their feeling now. In 1993, it was raining. In other words that they would be left with Vladimir Meciar and you guys got rid of Meciar, essentially.
Yes, but the thing is that it brought back historical memories in Slovakia vis a vis the Hungarians, vis a vis the Germans. There is such a lack of self-confidence that it periodically erupts in aggression. Modernization is sorely needed, because otherwise this populist, 19th-century nationalism can be used in present-day politics. We could see it in the presidential elections here in the Czech Republic two weeks ago. Seventy-year-old events were being used in present-day politics! I beg your pardon! Show me another country, except Serbia, where this is possible.
It was a surprise to me that the Sudeten question emerged again in Czech politics.
It never disappeared. It’s constantly used. But to have it used in such a cynical way is new.
Vaclav Klaus is known in the West, in addition to his autocratic style, mostly for the economic reform that he pushed for. Some people held up the Czech Republic as the best example of economic reform in the region. It was fast and it resulted in reasonably, relatively prosperous country. Other people argued that it was not a very successful economic reform at all. What’s your opinion?
Klaus is a genius at selling other people’s work. The voucher privatization was developed in Poland already in 1988. He just stole it and pretended that it was his invention. When you look into the hard numbers, you start noting that Czechoslovakia had the best starting position of all the Communist countries. We had no debt and so much privatizable nationalized property. We could have done so much better. But his idea at that time was to create his world by helping create a loyal economic elite – that was the primary reason why he prevented the creation of a legal framework for privatization. It was a completely chaotic, often illegal process where the calculated losses are often mindboggling.
Volkswagen Skoda was privatized against its will, and it’s now bringing 10% of our GDP. He prevented the privatization of the biggest Central European steelworks and the modernized engineering Skoda complex. General Electric, Siemens were just screaming to get it. It went to voucher privatization. Most of it is lost forever. The most important parts are in Russian hands. All of it was corrupt, corrupt, corrupt, corrupt.
Yes, he has done a great step in the devaluation of the crown but most of the rest is propaganda. Or at least he doesn’t talk about the losses and the lost dynamics. We had the first real critical crisis because of Klaus’s reforms, already under Klaus, in 1996-97. Today, all the systems of corruption that had ruled over privatization, and which entered into political power from the beginning, are now what rule this country. Regional oligarchies that combine economic and political power on a regional level are dictating positions to the central government, to the centers of political parties. Until today we do not have classical political parties, with the few exceptions of the Greens or this TOP 09.
That seems to be a complaint in many of the countries in this region. In Bulgaria, the only real party seems to be Bulgarian Socialist Party. The others sort of just emerge to run in elections or are a vehicle for a strong individual. You mentioned the fact that there isn’t any civil service law. What other pieces of unfinished business from 1989 are still left undone?
We should have banned the Communist party. We should have destatized government control of the secret police archives. We should have paid much more attention to the judiciary, because if you cannot trust the justice system the rest just goes bankrupt.
The judicial system is problematic because of the judges, or because of its structure?
Both. Today you can buy off of the judges, or at least you can arrange that the judge you like gets your case. We could have prevented all these things. We could have done it differently. But from the very beginning so much depended on personal relationships and animosities, and Klaus was the first to realize that he needed to build his own power base, and Vaclav Havel always hated the idea that he would be building his own power base – and so we ended where we are. Political parties are now fan clubs, or only economic-political power vehicles.
The relationship with the European Union was one of the major arguments of the Civil Forum in 1989: With Us to Europe. Do you think that process went smoothly?
It took too long. The European Union, as with all latecomers, should have been much tougher. This is something I’ve learned from studying post-conflict society: if you want something, you just take it. I always compare it to pregnancy: you can’t be halfway pregnant. I think that the European Union should have forced a sort of protectorate over us and been much tougher.
Even today for the Czech Republic?
Today is a little bit different. We are a fully-fledged member now, but it took billions to be stolen for the European Union to react and get much tougher when providing funding for programs on the quality of the judiciary and so on. As I always tell my students, there is no other 70-year-long period of peace in European history. This is why we want to be a member and work for this. Why else? The whole issue of European Union became stupidly politicized because of Klaus. It will be much more positive within a few weeks once he leaves. We are learning how to be diplomatic. There are so many Czechs working in the European Commission institutions, but they are without parents. They are Czechs, but the Czech Republic doesn’t work with them. But I think that we are in a much better political position than we were, definitely.
Do you see what’s happening in Hungary now as problematic for the region as a whole or as a specifically Hungarian pushback against liberalism?
Unfortunately, going through a Communist regime is an experience that does something with your head, with your thinking. It’s not about liberalism. It’s about history. It’s fascinating to watch post-Communist countries discuss issues of the 19th century with all the emotions and zealotry of the time, as if time has stopped. We dress it in a 21st-century outfit without realizing that this is not the 19th century. We probably need time to realize that there are no shortcut solutions. There are no pure nations. There is nothing like a national solution to pension systems, aging populations, to human rights. The promise of eternal happiness, by way of Communism or eternal salvation, simply does not exist.
Maybe the way to be most comfortable is to make life livable for everybody and try to avoid confrontation concerning symbols. It’s painful, often frightening, but my hope is with the younger generation, that it will study abroad, come back, and be much more adult than their parents.
Hungary is a very specific situation. Again, it’s a 19th-century debate, with Hungarians as a master nation, Czechs and Slovaks as slave or servant nations. The day we forget about “nation” and start feeling as individuals will be liberating for all of us, and for the nation.
Have you made any major changes in your thinking since 1989?
I am normal. I was not normal before. I spent years on the run. Fear was the major element of my life and thinking. Trying to stay out of prison or trouble. I’m enjoying every day and every mistake I make. This is the beauty of it: as the nation and as individuals we have lost all excuses. Everything that’s good is our deed and everything that is bad is our misdeed. There’s no excuse: we don’t have communists in power; we have a government that we elected; we don’t have occupation forces. That’s beautiful.
For all of my early life, the world ended 140 kilometers from my home. I didn’t have a passport for 19 years. Two or three years ago I gave witness evidence to the European antifraud organization. I missed my bus, so I had to drive back the next day. Only back home did I realize that I crossed four state borders without confronting a single policeman. God! I’m happy in this way.
Prague, February 14, 2013