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‘Bleak Island’

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The famous dissident petition Několik vět (Several Sentences) was launched 20 years ago. In retrospect, it might seem that the death knell for the Czechoslovak communist regime sounded back then in the summer of 1989. But this is not quite true. Long after Několik vět, Radio Free Europe (RFE) was still airing mocking accounts of Czechoslovakia as an “island of slightly reformed Stalinism” and a “bleak island”.

Over the next three months, we will be presenting a series of reports on the inhabitants of this “island” in the year leading up to the big bang of 1989. The first instalment will take a look at the reasons for Czechoslovakia’s “bleak island” reputation.

Only a fool would have stated in early 1989 that there was nothing going on. Dissidents had already held their first authorised rally in the Žižkov neighbourhood. In December 1988, the regime stopped blocking broadcasts of RFE and Voice of America (VoA), probably on orders from perestroika-embracing officials in Moscow. In January 1989, Polish communist leader Wojciech Jaruzelski came to Prague in an effort to convince his bewildered Czech comrades to meet with the opposition movement Solidarność. Around the same time, thousands of demonstrators were intently focused on their dream of toppling the regime in a week of rallies marking the 20th anniversary of Jan Palach’s self-immolation. These rallies, consisting mainly of young people, were put down decisively, except on one day when the regime failed to intervene. When the weekend arrived, they wound up without much impact or public support.

Czechoslovakia was then headed by Miloš Jakeš, a man of limited intelligence and a rather pathetic leader and ideological hardliner who had been the compromise choice two years earlier of staunch local Stalinists and halfhearted Gorbachev supporters. Jakeš and those behind him had no plans to change to their style of government – particularly after the Russians promised their little perestroika game wouldn’t substantially affect power arrangements inside the Czechoslovak regime, which had remained largely unchanged since the 1968 Soviet invasion. Yet it was also clear that local Stalinists could no longer rely on the fallback of more interventions by Russian tanks.

Who were the opposition? In his remarkable book Labyrintem revoluce (Through the Labyrinth of Revolution), historian Jiří Suk notes that in early 1989 there were around 500 active opponents to the regime and another 5,000 or so sympathisers who attended rallies and signed occasional petitions for the release of political prisoners and the like. While opposition was coming into its own in Poland and Hungary, the movement in Czechoslovakia was clearly taking a slower course. The cornerstone of the opposition remained Charter 77, a 12-year-old initiative drafted by intellectuals and later signed by 1,800 people that called on the regime to honour its commitments to protecting human rights. By 1989, the dissidents were claiming that the apolitical Charter 77 was insufficient to counter new developments and that they needed to move on. The only question was how. Most of the appeals winning widespread support were little more than sociological critiques and calls on regime chieftains to enter into dialogue with the opposition.

The winter and spring saw the launch of a petition for the release of Václav Havel, who had been jailed for nine months after placing flowers at the site of Jan Palach’s self-immolation. An additional petition backing Havel’s nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize was signed by many artists and academics – groups previously reluctant to register their support, fearing the ruin of their careers. Even so, these appeals on behalf of the well-known Havel each received only a few thousand signatures. Suk writes: “The regime leaders greatly overestimated the power and impact of these civic initiatives. They mistook them for a purposeful and well-organised political opposition (which in essence they were not) that sought to achieve a political coup (which in fact they had no plans to carry out).”

Should we protest?
After many appeals from the west, the ailing Havel was released on parole in mid-May. “Outside jail, he encountered a different reality,” Suk writes. “The public had failed to unite in a spirit of civic disobedience in contrast to the situation in January; instead, there was a strange and pervasive apathy and unclear expectations about the turnover of power.” In a comment broadcast by RFE, the exiled Czech academic Antonín M칝ťan described this situation as “equilibrium rooted in fear”: The opposition worried that any protest for freedom might be suppressed in a massacre (as had occurred in China), while the communists feared a surge of public discontent and protests.

The Několik vět petition came in the midst of this stupor. The appeal, led once again by Havel, was unexpectedly successful, attracting 40,000 signatures, including those of several TV celebrities. The signatories’ names were read on RFE and VoA, and anyone caught up in the whirlpool of events might have felt for a while that this was a breakthrough. In the meantime, the Hungarian communists chose voluntarily to end their power monopoly, and – in what must have seemed like a bad joke to Jakeš & Co – an official state delegation from Poland included former Polish dissidents, by this time already respected members of the nascent Polish democratic establishment.

But no similarly striking developments took place in Czechoslovakia. Několik vět had little impact on other anti-regime activities: Rallies held on 21 August and 28 October drew only a few thousand daredevils. Aside from these traditional anniversaries, no one even tried to call a rally, and the dissidents themselves were split on the matter of how useful these actions were. Rumours before the 21 August rally (based on apparent false leads from the secret police) suggested that police planned to open fire on the protesters. Havel called on the public to stay away from Wenceslas Square. In contrast, young dissidents – who mobilised in new groups such as České děti (Czech Children), Nezávislé mírové sdružení (Independent Peace Association) and Klub Johna Lennona (the John Lennon Club) – claimed that demonstrations were the right way to oust the regime and boost civic self-confidence. They were not alone. “One day we may find that we are no longer surrounded by barbed wire, but we have done nothing to achieve that,” wrote Jan Ruml, a supporter of demonstrations and opponent of dialogue with what he called an “illegitimate regime” in the illegal monthly journal Sport.

The feeling was intensified when refugees from East Germany descended on the West German embassy in Prague in a bid to migrate to freedom. The East Germans eventually won out in their campaign against an exceptionally repressive regime; the refugees boarded a special westbound train just as their compatriots in Berlin and Leipzig took to the streets en masse. Still, there was little change in Czechoslovakia. Suk notes that even local regime leaders were not too worried, knowing that the Czech opposition was weak and Slovak dissidents almost nonexistent: “It was only when the chair started rocking under GDR leader Erich Honecker that they perceived the threat. Until that time, they entertained dreams of a Berlin-Prague-Bucharest conservative communist axis; after the fall of Berlin, this was no longer possible.”

No one believed
“Despite a recent surge in activity, the Czechoslovak opposition remains fragmented, lacking unity and a political agenda. Most observers in Prague say it is too weak to steer the government towards compromises,” Neue Zürcher Zeitung reported as late as early November 1989. Between 1968 and 1989, the Czech opposition had no political programme, and it lacked a clearly defined leader. Havel was seen as the natural leader by all branches of the dissident movement – including former communists, Catholics and underground activists – and he was well-known abroad. The catch was that Havel did not see himself as a political leader. “I want to be a writer, which is my original occupation. All my life I have done nothing besides writing. … I simply write the truth, and this bare fact has made me into some kind of political celebrity or political phenomenon,” he told RFE in July. Interviewing Havel for Sport, the journalist and future founder of Respekt, Ivan Lamper, suggested that, by renouncing social responsibility and insisting on his “apolitical politics”, Havel’s social influence was “unpredictable and defying regulation”. Havel replied: “I am not responsible for the moral and political state of society, which has to create its own political structures.”

Without a unifying personality, the opposition was too fragmented. The left wing Obroda (Renewal) group, including former pro-reform communists from 1968, held the first talks with the regime, and the prominent dissident Petr Pithart, called for slow and gradual change. A few rather timid political projects remained in the works, including Rudolf Battěk’s Hnutí za občanskou svobodu (Civic Freedom Movement), Emanuel Mandler’s and Bohumil Doležal’s Demokratická iniciativa (Democratic Initiative), and Václav Benda and Pavel Bratinka’s planned conservative party.

Looking back, it may seem curious that no united opposition movement formed to present a political programme, demand official registration, reach out to those in grey zones and counter the communists, as Občanské fórum (Civic Forum) would later do. “We lacked a blueprint, and there was no agreement on how to proceed. No one even believed the regime would collapse any time soon,” Jan Ruml says. Despite the relative success of Několik vět, the dissidents had no sense of more widespread public support until the very last minute. The Czechs stayed asleep even after the East Germans woke up in October 1989. “We need rebellions, strikes, revolts,” Pavel Tigrid urged the slumbering nation over the RFE airwaves.

The initiators of Několik vět chose to schedule another rally for the next major anniversary, Human Rights Day on 10 December, fearing that no one would show up on a less-prominent day. In the end, the awakening came when it was least expected.

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