Martin Butora: Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution

Source: The Freedom Collection /

Martin Bútora is a Slovak sociologist, writer, civil society activist and former diplomat. He was born in Bratislava in 1944. He studied sociology and philosophy at Bratislava’s Comenius University and at Charles University in Prague.

In the late 1960s, he was a writer and editor for several student newspapers that advocated reforms in communist Czechoslovakia. After the August 1968 Soviet invasion ended the Prague Spring period of liberalization, Martin worked as a sociologist and therapist, continuing to write for underground publications. In November 1989, Martin was one of the cofounders of Public Against Violence, a Slovak civic political and movement. Along with its Czech counterpart Civic Forum, Public Against Violence organized the peaceful mass demonstrations that brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime in what became known as the Velvet Revolution.

With the restoration of democracy in Czechoslovakia, Martin continued his engagement in public affairs. Between 1990 and 1992, he served as Human Rights Advisor to President Vaclav Havel and Director of the Human Rights Section in the president’s office.

Following the 1993 division of the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Martin turned his attention to teaching and civil society. In 1997, he founded the Institute for Public Affairs, a Bratislava think tank. He was a leader in Slovak civil society’s efforts to defeat autocratic Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar in the 1998 parliamentary elections. The civil society voter education and motivation campaigns helped convince nearly 85 percent of eligible voters to take part and secured a majority for a democratic and pro-reform government.

From 1999 to 2003, he served as Slovakia’s Ambassador to the United States, where he played a key role in securing his country’s membership in NATO. He ran as an independent candidate in Slovakia’s 2004 presidential elections.

Martin currently works as the Honorary President of the Institute for Public Affairs and Program Director of the institute’s European Integration and Transatlantic Relations program.

I think that by the end of the 1980s it was becoming more and more clear that things would move in some way and that they have to change. We saw what happened in Hungary, where they re-staged the burial of Imre Nagy [Imre Nagy was a reformist Hungarian communist leader. He was removed from power by the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. In 1989, he was reburied with honors, an event that was key in the restoration of democracy in Hungary.] who in the past was called a counter-revolutionary, now half a million Hungarians came, we saw what happened in Poland, Solidarity won the elections to the senate and the changes were clear, but – but the people in Czechoslovakia, I mean that people would believe that this would collapse and that communism as a system would collapse, with all due respect, I say, and I also witnessed it daily, that at that time the people did not even dream of anything like that.

That means, yes, do it differently, yes, some dialogue, some openness, more freedom, and so on, but not a path to some fundamental change in the regime. I still remember that even, hmmm, Madeleine Albright [Then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and later Secretary of State. Albright was born in Prague and had a strong interest in Czechoslovakia.] wrote an article, on the fifteenth [of November 1989], or maybe a week or literally a few days before the Velvet Revolution, where she says that it would probably take some time in Prague, and then it erupted three days later.

So when it comes to Public Against Violence [Public Against Violence was an anti-communist civil society movement that emerged in Slovakia in 1989. Simultaneously, a similar group, Civic Forum, formed in the Czech part of Czechoslovakia. Together, the two movements brought down the communist regime through nonviolent protests.], it was a civic movement which was founded literally during the first moments, those moving and dramatic days, those days that basically started with the student demonstration; that great and well-known, world-known student demonstration in Prague was still preceded with a demonstration of students in Bratislava, who came together two days earlier, who also marched on the Ministry of Education, they had some demands there, but nobody beat them, the negotiations fell kind of flat, but the fact that the young people ventured out like this, there were about 300 of them, they held hands, they dared to go in the streets and they dared to express their opinions this way, that was something revolutionary, because the biggest problem of Czechoslovakia was to appear in public.

The biggest problem of Czechoslovakia was to get a hundred thousand people in the streets so that the soldiers and the militia could not beat them all. Once we could get that many, we knew this from the beginning, then we won, because that cloud from China was still looming. [In June 1989, China’s communist government brutally cracked down on pro-democracy activists protesting in Beijing’s Tienanmen Square.] People remembered what happened on that square in Beijing, some of those hardened communists were part of the army and the police, who would have been willing and ready to resolve it this way, but, of course, I think we were convinced that we can change that once people stop being afraid.

When the news came about the death of that student, then we got together, those so-called, as I said, people from these islands of positive deviations, which means sociologists, writers, environmentalists, Christian activists, and we debated about what to do, and we basically said to ourselves that this was the moment, that we have to go public, we have to go in the streets, and the events of course happened, because everything that started, it started with an unbelievable pace. [One of the first major anticommunist demonstrations was a student march in Prague on November 17, 1989. Security forces responded with force to the nonviolent protest.

Erroneous reports circulated that one of the demonstrators was killed by police. While ultimately disproven, the news of the death motivated the opposition and brought thousands more protesters to the streets.] So the interesting thing was that the development in Bratislava and Prague was happening parallel to each other. That means that in Prague they founded the Civic Forum, and practically at the same time, one could say maybe a little bit later, perhaps a little bit earlier in time, Public Against Violence was established.

First there was a huge meeting in the Art Forum [A Bratislava bookstore and cultural venue], several hundred people came. It was also such novelty that people simply came, and not for the purpose of a concert, not for the purpose of an exhibition, not for the purpose of theater, but for a political purpose of protesting against this rape of human dignity and that is how we all accepted that news that the student was killed. It got organized fairly quickly and immediately, you could say within the first hours, a type of coordinating committee was created, and immediately we came up with the first demand, and that is interesting, because that is still dealt with till today, one could say.

Well, next to the Art Forum was the building of the Philosophical Faculty [of Komenius University], some 200 meters away – and I will just tell you an interesting tidbit that about seven of us went, and we were authorized to go ahead and write that first statement. We went to write it in the totally empty building of the Philosophical Faculty, some 200 meters from there it was roaring, buzzing, there were people, they were waiting. We were there and the news came that the cops were already waiting for us downstairs and now – that moment that you are still in an old building which was completely vacated by the old regime, and when you thought that we wouldn’t even be able to bring the statement and that moment when some two hundred meters away there was, I’d say, I don’t want to call it a revolutionary crowd because I don’t like the word crowd, but simply the people who gathered there waited for it, that moment is so distinctive and symbolic, and the last sentence of that statement, which gave rise to Public Against Violence, that we condemn and are outraged about what happened, that it can’t go on like this because we are capable of more, we simply have more energy, fundamental changes must occur, justice and dignity of people are being threatened – and it ended with a statement like that.

So we as citizens took our own matters into our own hands. We, of course, did not even know then that this was unbelievably electrifying. That last sentence said, let’s take our own matters into our own hands as citizens. After that, like mushrooms after the rain, every hour, these Public Against Violence organizations started to sprout basically all over Slovakia. The first important thing was that Public Against Violence practically took over the public spaces, organized strikes, and moderated the political dialogue.

Second, it was clear that what emerged was not an opposition movement as part of some reform communist party, but an independent separate opposition movement that took stage, that showed that it can act politically, that it can communicate politically and therefore became the partner to the existing political structures. And then third, and this is divided into point A and point B, from the beginning we closely cooperated with the students, which means that it was clear that these things were coordinated. It was very important to coordinate the square, because when 50,000 people show up, everyone wants to talk, that is understandable, anger of the people and then the emotional eruption and the exploded lust for freedom and that uncertainty.

The first three days we still didn’t know, there was still some talk that the militia was coming, that tanks were getting ready, that it was still in the air and we could get hit. I think that this moment when Public Against Violence teamed up the students and coordinated all their appearances, and then when they put together all their demands, not only in that first statement but also in those twelve points and even from among those twelve points that practically talked about restoring democratic conditions, two points were the most important. And those two most important points then got regularly repeated at all the meetings and spread more and more among the public and we in Bratislava had the feeling that in this sense of the word Slovakia spoke with an even stronger voice than Prague, and that was to delete the leading role of the Communist Party from the Constitution and to hold free elections.

And that was repeated more and more and then also in close communication with Prague, because Milan Kňažko [an actor, cofounder of Public Against Violence, and later a Slovak politician] who was one of the leaders of Public Against Violence and also a member of the Civic Forum, that communication – of course, there was no Twitter, there was no internet, there were no social networks, but the phones worked and the students had their connections and we had our connections, that communication was fairly robust and it was needed, because the Communists first did not want to yield, so somehow we managed to agree, to arrange to declare a general strike and you could say that it worked.

That this period, this period of transition, I mean truly transition from the rule of a single party, to erecting the pillars of pluralistic regime, in my opinion we managed this quite well. It’s another thing how well we did over the next 20 years, but that’s a different discussion. So many people had this feeling at the time, that what was happening in our country, that it could be a kind of example for the others. Of course, it was very naive and contained many illusions, but what I want to say is that it was not managed from the outside and that it really wasn’t, as they were saying later, that it wasn’t so obvious at all.

Of course, it was not plotted like those various conspiracy theories between [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev and [President Ronald] Reagan. Of course, it was not plotted in the secret police circles who were certainly involved in the Prague intervention, but it got out of their hands. Apparently, they were involved in the way the police intervened against those demonstrators, but it was only a fight of two factions. They did not create that Czechoslovak November with Civic Forum and Havel, with Public Against Violence and those hundreds of thousands of people who clinked their keys and who felt at the time that they were co-owners of this revolution. [Czechs and Slovaks jingling their keys in protests against the communist government became one of the iconic symbols of the Velvet Revolution.]