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Interviews : Martin Bútora

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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.

They basically led to the fact that in March 1994 Mečiar’s movement split, some politicians left with the help of President Kováč who also originated from the Movement for Democratic Slovakia, from Mečiar’s movement, but soon became the opponent of Vladimír Mečiar. [Vladimir Meciar led three governments as Slovak prime minister, from 1990-1991, 1992-1994, and 1994-1998.] [Michal Kovac was the first president of independent Slovakia, serving from 1993-1998. Originally an ally of Meciar, Kovac broke with the prime minister and allied himself with the democratic opposition.]

So with the help of Kováč and by splitting and separating some people from the Movement for Democratic Slovakia, the situation arose in Slovakia that the Parliament removed Mečiar. So for half a year we had a relatively decent government, a centrist government, you could say, where we had the right, where we had the center, where we had the left. [Meciar’s government lost a vote of confidence in the spring of 1994 and was replaced by a coalition of opposition parties.] And then the elections came when Mečiar won again [in September 1998], and he created this strange coalition, it rarely happens in the world and sometimes it happens, that of course the head of this whole thing was his party, who, I say, showed the elements of national social populism, and at the same time the second partner was the extreme trotskyist, almost trotskyist Union of the Workers of Slovakia, and on the right, there was this radical, nationalist Slovak National Party.

And that is when another period started which was later called Mečiarism. And this Mečiarism basically meant a system of a semi-authoritarian state that limited the rights of the opposition, violated the constitution, tried to censor the press, tried to suppress the civil society and its organizations, tried to suppress any greater rights of ethnicities and nationalities. You could say that at that time it developed in full and Slovakia entered a problematic period of time, this non-consolidated democracy. And no one really knew how it would end, I think they easily could have placed us somewhere between Belarus and Ukraine, if the things that happened later did not happen. In the beginning, in Slovakia, in that segment that was against Mečiar and that basically disagreed with the separation of the state, basically we all wanted a more equal partnership because that way of Prague-centrism repeatedly appeared in the Czechoslovak history, so I think that it was that principle of equal partnership, we had it in our political program, I was the editor of a political program called Chance for Slovakia, and it fairly clearly stated that we needed to find a partnership cooperation, divide competencies, etc.

But we did not want to split the country, we could imagine doing it all in Czechoslovakia and that was a confluence of two things; that it was a double frustration for the people that the country got split up, and the country was run by the people who really were not democratic. So now the mood in Slovakia was not good because it happened again, like I was mentioning in the 1970s and 1980s that the opposition was fragmented, there was no real hope that it would change easily, Mečiar took problematic steps, it looked like the secret service participated in the kidnapping of the president’s son, there was much evidence to that effect, and justified suspicions.

The society became really polarized. In this situation I think it was extremely important that besides the party-line environment, civil society started to get active. They founded something that was called the Civic Campaign or OK ‘98, incidentally the name of the campaign was saying up front that we believed that it would turn out OK, yes, even though it was called the Civic Campaign, which gradually became organized as a significant, strong and definitely one of the deciding elements that contributed to the change.

That was fantastic, because in one of the first statements this Civic Campaign clearly said that in the spirit of the Slovak Constitution we will consider violating the free and democratic elections a violation of the Constitution, and we will fight it with full civil disobedience. So it was a clear political challenge, and you could say that astounding things happened because several dozens of different types of campaigns started, round tables, discussions, debates, concerts, theatrical performances, different forms, different ways that spoke to different classes.

The March Across Slovakia, which lasted for 15 days, during those 15 days the activists visited almost 1,000 Slovak cities and towns, incidentally, the Institute for Public Affairs where I worked at the time, a think tank, where we published some thousand page reports at the time, we suddenly had to condense them into three pages, into these packages. But these three pages, half a million copies were distributed by these activists all over Slovakia. I think this campaign was well prepared, well organized, learned from the experience of other campaigns that we lost in ‘96 and in ‘97, and was a clear expression that the civil society would no longer remain silent and they managed to create something called a pro-democratic alliance, which included political parties, unions, some churches, some media, and included this civil sector which contributed to this very high election turnout, and I think it was the key and important contribution. Many people said that it was basically the second Velvet Revolution in Slovakia. 

Slovakia is a landlocked country in Central Europe, with a population of 5.4 million. Ethnic Slovaks comprise 80 percent of the population, ethnic Hungarians about 8 percent, and other groups make up the balance.

Slovakia was part of Austria-Hungary until World War I. In 1917, it joined with what is now the Czech Republic to form Czechoslovakia. Czechs and Slovaks are distinct nations, but with many similarities and historical ties. During World War II, Czechoslovakia was dismembered by Nazi Germany and a German-allied puppet state was established in Slovakia. Following the war, Czechoslovakia was reunited. A brief period of democracy lasted until 1948, when a Soviet-backed communist government seized power. While communism robbed Czechoslovakia of democracy and freedom, it also brought economic development and industrialization.

In 1968, Alexander Dubcek became leader of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. During his brief time in power, Dubcek unleashed a series of reforms known as the Prague Spring. These steps toward greater freedom were crushed by the August 1968 Soviet invasion. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Czechoslovakia was governed by hardline, orthodox communists.

In 1989, the communists’ grip on power in Central Europe faltered and citizens began pushing for change. In Slovakia, the first major anti-communist protest was organized by Catholics, pushing for greater religious freedom. Artists, intellectuals, dissidents, students and others organized civic opposition groups. Slovakia’s Public Against Violence and the Czech Civic Forum organized a series of peaceful protests against the communist government in the Velvet Revolution of November 1989. With rising public support for the opposition and no support from their Soviet patrons, Czechoslovakia’s communists ceded power.

Czechoslovakia moved quickly toward democracy and the free market. But tensions developed between the Czechs and Slovaks over the pace of reforms and the structure of the government. After several years of squabbling, Czechoslovakia was peacefully dissolved into two countries on January 1, 1993.

Once independent, Slovakia struggled to consolidate its democracy. Vladimir Meciar won three free elections. But as prime minister, he abused state power to strike out at opposition parties, independent media, unions, and civil society. His actions caused Slovakia to be sidelined as a candidate for membership in the European Union and NATO. Before the 1998 elections, civil society and opposition parties united in a broad coalition promoting democratic reforms. A record voter turnout ousted Meciar from power and returned Slovakia to a democratic path.

Today, Slovakia is a consolidated democracy with a growing economy, firmly anchored in the European Union and NATO. 

More from Martin Bútora

Martin Butora: Meciarism and the Civic Campaign 1998 was basically the second Velvet Revolution in Slovakia. Martin Butora: Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution “We as citizens took our own matters into our own hands.” Martin Butora: Gorbachev, Reagan and John Paul II Martin discusses how three leaders helped end communism in Europe. More + Martin Butora: The Prague Spring “The Soviet invasion was a shock.” Martin Butora: Heroes Martin Bútora discusses the people who have inspired him. Martin Butora: Charter 77 “There is a moment when someone says ‘enough.’” Martin Butora: Normalization Martin describes conditions in the 1970s, after the Soviet invasion. Martin Butora: Working with Vaclav Havel “I had to pinch myself to see if it was really true that Vaclav Havel was the president.” Martin Butora: The Velvet Divorce In 1993, Czechoslovakia is peacefully divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Martin Butora: Message to Dissidents Martin Bútora shares a message for dissidents.