Martin Butora: Normalization

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.

What followed then [after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia], to shorten it, was also a shock, because we were looking at people’s behavior, and under this pressure, the purges started quite soon. First, the strongest figures of that reform movement were removed. And then practically, people who, in our eyes, embodied the better perspectives, the better life, better thinking, better organized society, they were gradually removed practically from all positions, whether they be economic position or political position or educational position or media position or whatever.
Not only that, what was even more frustrating was that after two or three years those people who were in the streets, who were protesting against the invasion, who were the supporters of this Czechoslovak road to socialism, who would give everything – who would get – literally give everything in order to get more freedom, all those people, under the pressure of the authorities, started gradually to change and to adapt. And in relatively short period of time, maybe three, four years, you know, the countries of passive citizens, it’s not that they would become, you know, a communist, or it’s not that they would agree with it, but they formally – and on the surface they agreed, they said yes, it was counterrevolution, yes, we really do not want to deviate from the party’s line and so on.
And to watch this, to see literally thousands and thousands of people like – their backbones are just gradually, you know, moving in this direction, it was, I would say, such a – on the one hand, shock; on the other hand, it was such a meeting with reality, right? So in those days to think about what could be done was not easy for several reasons. Probably the basic reason was not only that adapted and disappointed and, you know, accommodated population in those moods, people somehow returned to their privacy, they were not involved in the public life, and officially, they were doing what the party structures wanted, and in their private life, they were, you know, doing their hobbies and so on. But there was also a conviction at the time and it was even stronger after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan [in 1979] that this is forever.
It was not so easy to believe to it. And to convince people that we shouldn’t get satisfied with it – so now, yes, now it looks bad, they are controlling everything. In my case, it meant the, you know, different interrogations with the secret police and repeated, I would say, clashes with them because we started to do some small activities. It means some discussions. It means some meetings. It means publishing some samizdat materials and so on. [Samizdat is a Russian word meaning “self-published,” referring to the underground press in communist societies.] But again, what was, at that time, frustrating was this general feeling that we really can’t change this.
First of all, the Soviets are, you know, so strong and also that there was a deal practically that – the West hasn’t helped in ’48, hasn’t helped ’56 with the Hungarians, hasn’t helped in ’68, so practically, we perceived that the Western democracies more or less adapted to the situation and accepted this division of power and accepted this result of Yalta, that, well, this part of the world belongs to the Soviet zone and we can’t do anything with it. [The 1945 Yalta Conference on postwar Europe was seen as securing Soviet domination over much of Central and Eastern Europe, including Czechoslovakia.]
To a certain extent, what was at that time encouraging was the Helsinki, because a – I think the history of the Helsinki Accord was very well known. [The Helsinki Accords were an international treaty signed by 35 countries in 1975. They guaranteed basic human rights and promoted cooperation between the Soviet bloc and western nations. Dissidents and activists in the communist countries used their governments’ signatures to the treaty to advocate for freedom and human rights.]
It means that part of the agreement, which was the agreement about postwar frontiers and postwar arrangement, postwar architecture and security design, but also the human rights basket and when it was published in the communist dailies Pravda and Rudé právo, 100,000 or 200,000 copies to – at noon they disappeared because everyone was, you know, reading this. And so it provided a certain legal basis for simply challenging the authorities just to want from them, so just keep your promises. This is what you signed, so we do not want anything special; we just want you to behave like you said, like you agreed, like you promised and like you signed to.