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Twenty Years Later, And The Communists Are Still With Us

Czechoslovak students holding a picture of Vaclav Havel and poster reading "The Truth Will Win" march in support of Havel for president in December 1989 in Prague.
Czechoslovak students holding a picture of Vaclav Havel and poster reading "The Truth Will Win" march in support of Havel for president in December 1989 in Prague.
Time has passed so quickly. Twenty years. And are we satisfied? What did we imagine in the first days of the revolution of November 1989? What did we expect to happen after communism fell? Was it really us who brought it down?

During the communist dictatorship, 264,000 Czechoslovak citizens were convicted in trumped-up political trials. Two hundred forty-eight of them were sentenced to death and executed. It is estimated that as many as 8,000 died in communist prisons and labor camps. At least 240,000 Czechoslovaks fled the country -- the elite of the nation, which is still missing today.

Some 320 citizens were killed on the country's borders, trying to escape to the free world. One hundred of them fried to death on the electric wires of the Iron Curtain. During the 1968 occupation and the demonstrations the following year, 113 people were shot to death. In communist prisons, untold dozens of newly born or unborn children died because during the so-called proletarian regime, pregnant women were sentenced to prison as well and their children were "undesirable."

At least 2,000 family farms were destroyed -- the farms seized and pillaged and the families forced to move elsewhere. The communists executed priests and stole the property of the church and religious orders. Communists were responsible for the kidnappings and murders of their political opponents at home and abroad. In the 1970s and 1980s, they supported international terrorism with the goal of destabilizing Western democratic countries.

Political opponents of the regime were often barred from practicing their professions. Their families had no access to higher education. Freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom to travel were denied. People were deprived of the right to hold elective office. Political activities were banned.

Cut Off From The World

Leaving aside for a moment these direct victims of totalitarianism, I would argue that perhaps the most serious crime of the communists was that they cut all of us -- 15 million people -- off from the surrounding world. For more than 40 years, we were raised in a hermetic greenhouse as part of a horrific experiment. We could not travel. We were deprived of information about what was happening in the normal, democratic world.

We were brainwashed by a constant, daily barrage of idiotic propaganda. Schools and universities were isolated from the global academic community. There were no Western lecturers visiting here. There were no common Western textbooks or academic journals. Literature, film, the fine arts, music, and theater were all censored. They jammed all the Western radio stations, even those that only played music. They confiscated Western newspapers and magazines. It was absolute, total isolation.

Students face riot police on November 19, 1989 in Prague.
In the space of 40 years, the communists ruined this country. They ruined the economy, the environment, the society. And maybe it was society that they damaged the most. They ruined the Czech and Slovak elites. What the Nazis failed to do, the communists finished.

In just 40 years, they destroyed the legal system, the legislature, the law-based state. They erased any notion of legalistic thinking from our consciousnesses. We unlearned the habit of taking responsibility for our lives and our decisions, because they knew best and anyone who showed initiative was punished.

During those 40 years, our nations forgot what freedom and democracy are. True, we longed for freedom, for a certain idea of freedom. But when we were let out of our cage, we were not able to move about in freedom. Even 20 years later, part of the nation still cannot do this -- and probably never will.

Communist Hangover

In 1989, we were given a chance, and we are doing relatively well. We are part of the broader world. Our children are growing up in a sort of democracy. They can travel and study abroad. They speak many languages and so hold the keys to open other worlds. Nonetheless, all is not right.

One could go on for a long time about our disappointment at the betrayal of the "elites," the so-called People of '68, in the 1990s. About the absurd follow-up to the crimes of communism (and the legal continuity of former communist Pavel Rychetsky, who co-founded the Civic Forum and now heads the Constitutional Court; of former communist Zdenek Jicinsky, a co-author of the Czech Constitution and now a deputy in parliament; and of many others).

About the billions of crowns stolen or squandered by captains of industry who were lauded at the time. About the hidden bank accounts of political parties that everyone knew about but no one did anything about because, as they say, "a carp will never drain his own pond." About mafias metastasizing into police, the legal system, politics. But there is no point in speaking about these things. After 20 years, our media are full of this information, although nothing is done about any of it.

I'd rather try to go deeper -- to look at why things are like this. I was one of the student leaders of 1989. Despite several attempts by the Civic Forum to persuade university students to end their strike, I persuaded them to continue it until Vaclav Havel was elected president on December 29, 1989. That was the moment when it was clear that the end of communism in Czechoslovakia was irreversible. The Civic Forum actually began asking us to end the strike as early as November 24, when the politburo resigned.

But we didn't want a government of made-over communists. We didn't want longtime communists like Jiri Hajek, Ladislav Adamec, or Cestmir Cisar. We wanted Havel. He was the guarantee that we would have free elections and a real democracy.

We stayed on strike for a long time, but now it seems to me we did not stay on strike long enough. Now, after 20 years, it is clear to me that we were not the ones who won in 1989, but the communists. They remain communists and will be communists forever, no matter how they repaint over their red color again and again. And we ourselves did not manage to eradicate communist-style thinking from our heads.

The Real Winners

After 20 years, it is clear to me that we students (and the whole Civic Forum and Public Against Violence movement) -- even when we were in opposition -- were playing roles in a script written by someone else. I don't have time to be systematic here, but I would mention the communist Prognostics Institute, from which the postrevolutionary political spectrum emerged: Vaclav Klaus's rightists, Milos Zeman's leftists, Vladimir Dlouhy's centrists. Longtime communist Marian Calfa ended up right beside Havel, serving as prime minister from 1989 to 1992.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus
In a real revolution (even a bloodless one), there are winners and there are losers. And winners usually behave like winners. "We have taken over power and responsibility," we might have said. "We declare the communist dictatorship illegal. We establish a democratic, law-based system. We take on the obligation to judge and punish those who served the dictatorship and who committed provable crimes."

But this did not happen. Instead, democrats sat down with former criminals in parliament, in government, and in universities. Private, semi-private, and state companies are infested with former agents of the communist secret police and former communist bureaucrats. And we tried to build a democracy and a market economy together with these reformed comrades.

The current generation has learned many things from the postrevolutionary one. To take one example, what were the lessons of the February 2008 reelection of Klaus as president?

That victory was secured by means of brutal pressure on legislators -- heavy-handed manipulation, terrorization, and possibly even bribery. Media reports at the time spoke of sums in the millions of crowns.

But even if there was no bribery (none has been proven), what we did see ourselves was sufficient. After each round of voting, we left Vladislavsky Hall feeling that a car might easily run us over the moment we turned the corner. Lawmakers received bullets in anonymous envelopes (the police, of course, never did determine who sent them).

During the first round, journalists using directional microphones caught Interior Minister and Klaus-backer Ivan Langer threatening that "someone will go to prison." So no one was surprised when the "organizers" of the election responded by banning the use of such microphones in subsequent rounds. None of the harassed lawmakers had the energy to oppose this.

Klaus is in the castle today not because he is the best of us. He is there because the courage of some electors failed. Because some fell mysteriously ill. Because some were invited for a chat over dinner. Because some were obliquely threatened with prison. Because some received bullets in the mail at their homes.

In any normal country, such an election would have been declared unconstitutional and nullified. But here, no one protested. The dog barks and the caravan moves on, as the saying goes. And in the castle sits a man whose main qualification to be president may be that he speaks good Russian.

What Has Been Achieved

I entered the Senate in 2002 and over my six-year term I tried to make real the expectations that we formed 20 years ago. I tried to shine a spotlight on the communists and to erase the thick line drawn by Klaus against our past, to prepare the moral atmosphere for building a genuine democracy. Ultimately, doing so would mean cleansing the three pillars of democracy -- state administration, local government, and the justice system -- of former and present communists and their influence.

Have the hopes for "Liberty" been answered?
In my final speech in the Senate on October 30, 2008, I summarized what had been accomplished. I noted that the Senate had adopted a law granting high state honors to the Masin brothers, saluting all the brave Czechs and Slovaks who refused to be broken and who took up arms against the communists. I highlighted the adoption of the law on the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes and the beginning of its important work.

During my term, the upper chamber adopted a regulation banning the promotion of communism in the same terms as the promotion of Nazism is banned. The Senate also sought a ban on communist symbols, just like the ban on Nazi symbols.

The Senate hosted a conference called "The Conscience Of Europe And Communism" at which experts from across Europe adopted the Prague Declaration, asking that communism be condemned on a Europe-wide level just as Nazism has been. This was an important moment because with it politicians began to realize that decommunization is not just an issue for Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, or Romanians. It is finally becoming a major European and global topic.

I am proud that, despite the long years since 1989, I managed to bring the topic of decommunization into serious public and political debate. I cannot help but think that my successes in this effort are the main reason why I lost my Senate mandate.

I began this article by listing some of the innumerable crimes committed during the 40-year communist reign in Czechoslovakia. In the 20 years since communism fell, 173 people have been accused of perpetrating these crimes. Seventy-four were formally charged and brought to trial. Twenty-two of them received suspended sentences. In all, only eight perpetrators of those countless crimes were convicted and sent to prison.

I do not regret my years in politics or the fact that I am no longer there. But my 20 years of political activity have convinced me that we still have some time to wait before the dreams of 1989 -- the dream of living in a functional, normal democracy -- will come true. My guess is that it will be another 20 years. Some of us might live to see this. But many who believed so fervently in 1989 will not.

Martin Mejstrik was a student leader during the 1989 revolution and served in the Czech Senate from 2002 until 2008. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

Revolutions Of '89

When The Wall Came Down
Revolutions Of '89
In the fall of 1989, a singular wind of change swept across the continent, blowing down the Iron Curtain and revealing the public's yearning for freedom. Click here for RFE/RL's look back at the year communism collapsed.