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Themes Messages to Dissidents » 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.

I will try to sum it up in a few points. Perhaps the first thing would be for the people not to give up. Not to give up, and in this sense to have deep faith that even if it doesn’t work the first time, maybe even the second time, maybe not even the third time, but one day it will work because they are right. Because they are right in their absolute power of ideas, ideas of freedom, they are right to call for the human dignity, and they are right that things can be done differently and better.

Václav Havel wrote about it very beautifully when he said that hope is not a forecast of the future, that it is a type of orientation of the heart. I can do some things not because I expect for them to come true immediately, but because I am convinced that they need to be done this way. [A writer and dissident, Vaclav Havel was twice selected Czechoslovak President by the parliament, in 1989 for an interim term, and after the first free elections in 1990 for a two-year term.

He later served two terms as Czech President, following the division of Czechoslovakia.] That is the first thing. The second thing is that these activists are often young people for whom it is difficult to imagine, but as a man who experienced these cycles I think it is important to know and be aware of time. That means that what we leave here now, what they leave is something that others who come after them will build upon, and other people after them, and it is an unbelievable furrow that can be plowed, that can be dug out, and it simply makes sense to put it out there, and to have the ability to judge things in the context of time, that is extremely important.

And then I would perhaps say one more thing, that often there are people who are dissidents or prisoners of conscience, but operate in very polarized, fragmented societies. Sometimes it is really tragic how fragmented a society becomes, but they should never forget that there are people on the other side too who got there, and that not everyone is guilty of doing it, it means that one of the key things is always to remember where to find allies to support my cause.

Where I can talk to the unawakened people, where I forgive the people who have trespassed, where I invite those other people because I convince them that what I do makes sense, that these categories of dignity and freedom are better for their lives than what the other side is offering. 

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. 

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