Martin Butora: The Velvet Divorce

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.

There are several interesting things here, I think. In those elections in 1992, with the exception of the Slovak National Party, basically no party came with the program of becoming independent. There were different versions of this legal state arrangement from some kind of confederation, through federation, or another union, but only the Slovak National Party demanded total independence, neither in the Czech part of the country or in the Slovak part of the country, one could not say that splitting Czechoslovakia was supported by the majority.
Even though it is true that the Czech population and the Slovak population had different ideas of what it meant to be in a common state. On the Slovak side, there were more elements of a partnership, some of which went in the direction of the confederation, and on the Czech side that wanted to make sure that the country was working. That was the key idea of Václav Klaus but also others. [Vaclav Klaus served as Czech prime minister from 1992 – 1997 and as Czech president since 2003.] We can’t keep bickering, because those two years were marked with the various representations constantly bickering about what kind of arrangement it should be, how to put together a new constitution, et cetera.
We can’t keep bickering, we have economic goals, we have foreign policy goals, we simply have to agree on something and we need a functioning federation to do that. In Slovakia, Vladimír Mečiar won the elections, who originally ran as a member of Public Against Violence, but shortly after the split occurred. [Vladimir Meciar led three governments as Slovak prime minister, from 1990-1991, 1992-1994, and 1994-1998.] And people got divided, the people who could be described as the national and social populists and the people, I think probably, more than some idealists that initially joined Public Against Violence, understood the pragmatic aspects of power and were able to manipulate this power appropriately.
What became a problem was the fact that the two states got separated, separated without a referendum, it is likely that this referendum would not have been passed. Yes, that would have been a certain dead end, it would not have been an easy solution, that’s true, but the politicians would have had to find a solution. Anyway, the countries split, Slovakia Vladimír Mečiar gained absolute power and after a relatively short period of time started to use authoritarian elements.