Much of East-Central Europe was once ruled by monarchs. From the 16th century until the end of World War I, the Habsburgs presided over a territory that extended from parts of present-day Poland in the north to the Croatian coastline in the south. At the time, the subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire viewed it as either one of the most tolerant of monarchies or a “prisonhouse of nations.” Those nations would eventually achieve their independence after 1918.
After 1989, there was renewed enthusiasm for monarchy in the post-Communist lands. Royalists rallied in Bucharest in 1990 to support the return of King Michael. Otto von Habsburg, the head of the house of Habsburg who died in 2011 at the age of 98, resisted calls to rule in Hungary. Instead, he threw his lot in with the European Union, joining the European Parliament in 1979 and promoting EU expansion after 1990. King Simeon came the closest to some form of restoration when he returned to Bulgaria and served as prime minister from 2001 to 2005.
The monarchy movement is perhaps not as strong in the Czech Republic. There is a party that supports the transformation of the government into a constitutional monarchy, but it has been described as “one of the parties that could fit in an elevator.” But the principle of monarchy has appeal beyond the programs of specific parties.
“I’m a monarchist,” Dagmar Havlova told me in an interview in Prague last February. “I believe that some symbol of morality at a different level is important even if the symbol is just a vision of what we would like to achieve. When you have a king or a queen, who is a human being, you can understand that the symbol and the human being can differ, but you are more attached to the symbol than to the person. So I believe that monarchy is the right system. It continues over generations. It is also an issue of responsibility. Individual politicians are elected just for a few years, while a royal family lasts ages. Monarchs are responsible to the country, to history somehow.”
The last time we met in 1990, Havlova was working at Civic Forum. Her brother-in-law, Vaclav Havel, had helped form the movement during the Velvet Revolution and was then serving as Czechoslovakia’s first (and, as it turned out, only) post-Communist president. A computer scientist by training, Havlova followed the familiar trajectory of dissident, from life on the political margins to service in government in the early 1990s. She eventually left formal politics because she strongly disagreed with the direction Vaclav Klaus was taking Civic Forum and, later, the country.
These days she embraces monarchy more as a metaphor than a practical political program. “Transition to monarchy is more a metaphor than a realistic project,” she explained. “In the case of noble families, the upbringing in the traditions was an appropriate preparation for the task, while present-day people are not prepared even to take responsibility for themselves. There are no unselfish people around who would accept the mission and devote their lives to it.”
There was perhaps a trace of this enthusiasm in her support for Karel Schwarzenberg in the Czech presidential contest against Milos Zeman. Schwarzenberg, after all, is a prince who is related to the von Furstenbergs and Prince Rainier of Monaco. He served as Vaclav Havel’s chancellor from 1990-2 and then later as foreign minister. “Voters probably preferred his moral capabilities,” Havlova said by way of explaining the prince’s popularity and near-victory in the presidential race. “The prince is a rather experienced and world-renowned personality, a politician with a great knowledge of history, and able to distinguish the essential from the marginal.”
We met at a club in the lovely Art Nouveau Lucerna building, which Havlova is now beginning to renovate after a multi-year struggle over ownership with a realty company. The building was constructed in 1921 by Vaclav Havel’s grandfather. We talked about her plans for the Lucerna, her trips to the Antarctic, and how wide open policymaking was in that first year of government after the revolution.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Yes, we were walking through Mala Strana, a quarter of Old Prague, observing East Germans. Thousands of them had abandoned their typical Trabant cars somewhere in the streets and climbed for freedom over the fence of the West German embassy.
And what did you think when you heard that the Wall had fallen?
We were full of hope. We believed the changes would soon arrive to our country as well. During 1988 and 1989, we’d used any opportunity, any date, to have a demonstration, especially on Wenceslas Square. But we did not know when the break would come. Some people expected that it would happen on August 21, but there were not enough people around during the summer and, moreover, on that day police might have been well prepared.
How did your own personal connection to the opposition begin? Was it in 1968?
In 1968, I attended high school. In Slovakia, it was slightly different than in the Czech Republic. There’s a saying among Slovaks that every pub has two doors. Through one the Communists enter and through the other the Catholics — but they drink together. So, we knew each other very well. There were different political opinions, true, and different lifestyles. But there was not such a big antagonism, for whatever reason.
In Slovakia, political dissent was relatively tolerated, and there were only a few real dissenters expelled from society, like Milan Šimečka, Hana Ponická, Dominik Tatarka, Miro Kusý, and Jozef Jablonický. Bratislava and Vienna were very close cities. People commonly watched the Austrian television. In Bratislava you could listen regularly to radio broadcasting from abroad, which was not possible in Prague. There was jamming, for instance, of Radio Free Europe in Prague as late as 1987, just two years before the changes, while in Bratislava we could listen to news all the time. Thus everyone knew that we had full information from the West. There was no need to lie to us.
I entered the dissent movement soon after I met my husband. What followed was the usual persecution of anybody with contacts to politically “unreliable” persons, namely firing them from their jobs. This happened to me in 1983, just a few months after I got my Ph.D. in the former Soviet Union. Before that I spent more than two years in Kiev studying methods of long-term forecasting for complex systems at the Glushkov Institute of Cybernetics. There I earned a Ph.D. I came back to Bratislava and couldn’t find a job. I worked in different places but only for a short time because the secret police would come in a few days and force my employer to cancel the contract with me. Finally a high positioned official of the Communist Party informed me that I had no chance to get even a window-cleaning job in Slovakia. So this actually pushed me into the other camp. I moved to Prague in 1984.
The job you had before you met your husband was in cybernetics?
I studied mathematics and physics. After that I was an assistant professor at the Slovak Technical University, teaching math and computer science. Then I spent more than a year in Japan, at Kyushu University, studying methods of pattern recognition and programming of operating systems. Then I went to Kiev for my Ph.D.
Was it unusual at that time to go to both Japan and Kiev?
Yes, it was very unusual to go to Japan. At that time there existed the so-called Mombusho fellowship, by which four students from Czechoslovakia were invited each year to study mostly technical disciplines or Japanese language and history. I accompanied my former husband, who specialized in electronics and had received the Mombusho scholarship. And Kiev was not actually my choice, but it was hard to decline. In fact I did not want to go to Kiev. But I was asked by my superior to go. He said, “We agreed that you could travel to Japan, and now you must fulfill our agreement with the Soviet Union. There’s nobody else we can send to Kiev.” So I said okay.
In those days, did you feel that the level of expertise in cybernetics was higher in Czechoslovakia than in the rest of the countries in the region?
It’s difficult to compare. I was surrounded by a community that was at a very high level, especially in the field of system programming. There was a regular two-week intensive winter school program in cybernetics and computer science that started in the 1970s by Professor Gruska. Lecturers from abroad were invited. Moreover, I worked with a group in Bratislava founded by the UN, a special computer center for data processing. Together with them, we developed a new operating system called BPS (Bratislava Programing System) that was, in fact, based on the same philosophy behind the UNIX system that was developed later.
In the 1990s, what work that you did in Civic Forum and the government makes you the proudest?
When looking back on those times, I realize that every decision has transformed history in one or another way: bringing Prince Karel Schwarzenberg to the Prague Castle, meeting with Mr. Sasakawa (which initiated cooperation with Charles University in Prague and Comenius University in Bratislava as well as the long-lasting support of Forum 2000), and last but not least managing to push the restitution laws through the house.
Indeed, a lot of things were realized accidentally, by good luck, while some others, unfortunately, happened due to inexperience and excessive idealism.
There were even some humorous events with important consequences, for instance, the case of Antarctica. I didn’t know anything about Antarctica then. A certain person, Jaroslav Pavlicek, visited Civic Forum in the early 1990s and asked, “Who is in charge of Antarctica?”
“Who is in charge of South America?”
“Who’s in charge of America?”
Then he informed me that they were preparing an international agreement about Antarctica, and it would be advantageous for Czechoslovakia to sign it. So I immediately called Jiri Dienstbier (at that time the minister of foreign affairs) and he commissioned Jaroslav Pavlicek and Josef Vavrousek to sign the agreement on behalf of Czechoslovakia.
Let me ask about Antarctica, since you brought it up. At that time, when Jaroslav Pavlicek raised the issue of the agreement, you had not been to Antarctica?
The first time I went to Antarctica was in 1997.
That was your first visit to his center?
It is really just a small station.
Why did you decide to go?
Jaroslav invited me to his station because I helped to sign the Antarctic Agreement. I liked this unbelievably beautiful place, so I became a regular visitor of Eco Nelson station.
When he invited you, did you know much about his station?
No. I just knew that Antarctica is rocks and ice, and penguins.
But you had an extreme experience there?
Jaroslav always prepares the crew, so I had went through the necessary preparation. And he agreed that I could go. My father had educated me for outdoor life, so it was not a big problem for me.
What did you like the most about the experience?
It’s a very clean environment. The time is very different. You have no connection to civilization. And you can check yourself, your abilities, observe how your body behaves. You can study your own limits. You understand after a while that you mustn’t go beyond your limits. Because there’s no help there — from anybody. This understanding is very important. When you accept it, your body behaves very differently. Back in civilization, I can survive without any problems.
That’s the lesson that you brought back.
Yes: to have very different priorities.
When you went a second or third time, did you learn new things, or relearn the first important lesson?
This first lesson didn’t change. Now I am learning more about the country and how I can help at the station. I was asked to write an Antarctic cookbook. There is a very limited variety of goods, food and resources: fish, mussels, algae. And I prepared several photo exhibitions about minerals and animals in the South Shetland Islands. I myself take photographs too, and I had three exhibitions a few years ago.
I’m interested in the formation of Civic Forum and where it eventually went. Tell me a little bit about your involvement in Civic Forum and the different roles you played in the reorganization.
From the very beginning I worked on the logistics team. After the election, I was on the council of Civic Forum and was one of the four representatives of the council of the Civic Forum Coordination Centre. Then a diversity of opinions emerged, and various political streams appeared. Under the umbrella of Civic Forum there existed one rightist party, the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA). Later KDS, the Christian Democratic Party of Václav Benda was founded. Also, there was no unity of opinion about whether to transform Civic Forum into a regular political party or preserve it as a movement. Step by step Vaclav Klaus, who supported the party system, became a very visible person within Civic Forum.
In fall 1990, shortly before a general assembly, I happened to be in open conflict with Klaus. I did not agree with his political pragmatism, his inability to arrive at a consensus, his resistance to cooperation with the Slovak group Public Against Violence, and his opposition to the idea of civil society. Václav Klaus was one of the few of our economists with wider views, but I didn’t accept his attitudes and behavior as a leader – such as his not recognizing the difference between clean and dirty money or his policy on privatization. I wanted a broader variety of ownership and not just the coupon privatization. With the help of overseas development assistance, we managed to accomplish a successful restitution and the so-called “small” privatization. However, allowing a small but very rich community to emerge was not the approach I preferred. Even if it might require a longer time, I preferred the way that was fair and, moreover, would encourage the growth of a strong middle class.
When the assembly elected Klaus as the chairman of Civic Forum, I bowed out of active politics.
Why do you think Vaclav Klaus was successful politically?
He chose a very simple and publicly understandable approach. This was a time when people believed that they all would become rich and happy and everything would go well. There was a campaign to educate the masses about economics and the structure of shareholding companies, offering them the role of shareholders of privatized state enterprises. There was also the scam of a certain Viktor Kožený who offered to immediately purchase from citizens their shares for cash. And it all happened under the name of Václav Klaus. The fact that a great number of people decided to surrender their chances to own property and obtained instead instant petty cash, is another thing. It was an extraordinary opportunity that some used, some misused, but the majority did not participate in actively.
During the discussion within Civic Forum of party versus movement, which did you support?
I did not see this issue as essential. On the one hand I like movements, and I could not understand why a political party was so important for people as a supporting structure. However, even today quite a few people believe that politics is impossible without parties.
You’ve travelled a lot. Have you come across a political system that you find more transparent?
I’m a monarchist. I believe that some symbol of morality at a different level is important even if the symbol is just a vision of what we would like to achieve. When you have a king or a queen, who is a human being, you can understand that the symbol and the human being can differ, but you are more attached to the symbol than to the person. So I believe that monarchy is the right system. It continues over generations. It is also an issue of responsibility. Individual politicians are elected just for a few years, while a royal family lasts ages. Monarchs are responsible to the country, to history somehow.
Is there a country where you think that monarchy works well?
I don’t think it works well anywhere. But I believe that it works much better than any other system.
But here, there hasn’t been a king for a long time.
I hope there will be once again.
Is there still a descendent?
No. The crown prince Otto von Habsburg, the son of the Austrian emperor and the last Czech king Franz Joseph I, never reigned and died in 2011. His son, Karol, is living in Austria.
In Bulgaria, they brought back a king.
Yes, but for the position of prime minister. The ruler needs to have people around who are educated in the traditions of the family. The subjects, the gentry, had important positions in the government. There is no reason to have a king who is just a pawn in a vacuum. Even the Upper House of Great Britain is the House of Lords. Of course, transition to monarchy is more a metaphor than a realistic project.
In the case of noble families, the upbringing in the traditions was an appropriate preparation for the task, while present-day people are not prepared even to take responsibility for themselves. There are no unselfish people around who would accept the mission and devote their lives to it.
Do you see, other than this possible monarch, any other positive political forces here?
No, I don’t. Would you believe that a political party could endow its members with moral faculties that otherwise are formed in early childhood? Or select such people by a recruitment procedure?
However, I was very positively surprised by the enormous support for Karel Schwarzenberg in the presidential election last year. We didn’t believe that someone like him could have such big support.
Why did he have such big support?
Voters probably preferred his moral capabilities. The prince is a rather experienced and world-renowned personality, a politician with a great knowledge of history, and able to distinguish the essential from the marginal. Moreover, he had a very good campaign directed toward young people. There was no competition from other candidates. In the first round of the election there was prospective candidate, Jan Fischer, who’d served as a prime minister in the previous administrative cabinet. Unfortunately he was soon recognized as somebody lacking his own opinion. Zuzana Roithová is a very nice person but not distinctive enough. On the other hand, Vladimír Franz is very distinctive, but he never expressed himself concerning political affairs. So, many people considered Karel Schwarzenberg to be the best. Thus in the second round of the election, he faced only Miloš Zeman.
Mr. Zeman had a very expensive and not quite transparently financed campaign that was, moreover, negative and based on false arguments. No respectable politician would have behaved like him. At the last moment, when the tide turned for Karel Schwarzenberg, Václav Klaus intervened in the campaign. If there had been no negative campaign by Zeman and Klaus hadn’t interfered, everything could have been different.
Do you think Zeman won because he ran a negative campaign?
He was much better prepared. At a crucial moment he provoked the fear of an imaginary danger. Zeman was very tough. He smiled, but he was lying, which was very difficult to respond to. Schwarzenberg was fair, gentle, but clear, but there were no time and space to prove that his opponent was lying.
I expected the political culture here in the Czech Republic to be a little more sophisticated.
Why did you expect that?
In 1989 the revolution was nonviolent and many intellectuals participated in it.
Many intellectuals participated because before they had been in the dissident movement. They had lost jobs in their professions and therefore they had not too much to do. Now, after the changes, everyone who is educated or skilled is overworked and suffers from lack of time. They are not eager to be absorbed by politics and civic action.
There have been a number of opinion polls that suggest that a majority of Czechs who compare their life today with their life before 1989 say that their life today is not better.
Yes and no. A rather limited range of opportunities was easier to grasp.
In general, many people are not prepared to be independent. And it is much easier to be guided. People are quickly forgetting the negative side of their lives before the changes. There was no freedom of speech, of travel, of opinion, no room for the development of human individuality. Another question is: what does the word “majority” actually mean?
Many young people are university graduates but without any practical knowledge. Recently some programs to help graduates find jobs were introduced. In my opinion, everyone who really wants has the opportunity to find a job or to work on their own, to travel, to go for experiences abroad. We had no such possibilities under the Communists. Today I am not good in foreign languages because I didn’t have such possibilities earlier.
Some people would argue that the people who benefited after 1989 were people who weren’t able to travel or study. The class of people who benefited the most were intellectuals. After 1989, the working class lost whatever small privileges they had and didn’t gain any new privileges. Is that a fair characterization?
I’m not sure if that’s a fair opinion. Actually in those days we just had the working class and state employees, including the so-called working intelligentsia, to simplify matters. Those applying for university study who could claim a working class origin were easily accepted. We had a legal right to work, and in fact to work and earn money was obligatory. Now we have a business community, entrepreneurs, self-employed people, and above all, excellent craftsmen with their own small firms.
Of course, there is a problem with private firms getting into financial difficulties. It may happen that in some regions large numbers of people lose their jobs. Another serious problem is that an enormous number of people were coaxed by various advertisements into asking for bank loans. Later they were unable to pay back the loans and bankruptcy followed. Those people lost any motivation to pursue any career growth because whatever they might earn would be taken by executors. The estimate is that in addition to the 10 percent of unemployed living on welfare there is another 10 percent who have lost their motivation to find work.
That’s a very high percent of people who don’t have good prospects for the future.
What about the Czech entrance into the EU in the 1990s? Do you think the entrance into the EU was handled well?
Not quite well, because we don’t have a good position in the EU. It’s not as strong as it could be, especially in the field of agriculture.
In other words, Czech farmers can’t sell their products?
They’re not able to sell products and survive in competition with the French or the Germans, who are much better supported. The infrastructure for agriculture is more developed in the other European countries. And we are very influenced by the big companies, especially in manufacturing products. It’s very difficult for our people to get into these markets.
What do you think the Czech Republic can do now? It’s already part of the EU.
The most important issue in our country is how to handle the political problem of major corruption and an ineffective judiciary. This issue is most serious because it applies to all sectors. Under Zeman, I am not sure what might happen. The people surrounding him are not the people we would like to see in positions dealing with corruption or with the constitutional court.
Then there’s this amnesty put forward by Vaclav Klaus.
This is a tragedy.
I even talked to someone from Klaus’s own party who was shocked by it.
It was prepared in a very small group in order to set free a certain number of people involved in big corruption cases. Everything around it was just camouflage to distract attention from these central figures.
Are these central figures well known?
Yes. There are about 200-300 people who are mutual friends and are well connected among themselves.
Can it be reversed?
I don’t think so. There are attempts, but I am not too optimistic. There are some initiatives from some senators, but there were not enough senators to support it. And the judiciary still does not function. Also it is a well known fact that there is a connection to Milos Zeman. The connection leads to Russia and its energy interests in Central Europe. This might be very dangerous for all of Europe.
Has there been organized civic protest?
There are some small activities but nothing well organized.
What is your opinion of the lustration process? Do you think it was a fair process?
The lustration law was intended to eliminate from high public posts all perfidious people who collaborated with the Communist regime. However, there is a problem with lustration, namely that the most important files of the secret police were destroyed very early after the changes. In the Civic Forum we were even informed that the documents were being burned. But there was nothing we could do about it. Those who were really at the top were not touched: Marian Calfa, for instance. We had information about them at Civic Forum, but no proof.
That must have been frustrating.
Yes, it was very frustrating. It’s still a big question whether it was possible at all to get hold of power in a democratic way — that is, through voting in the Communist parliament — without the support of the highly positioned Communist Calfa who was a good manipulator of people and had extensive experience in the Communist political leadership. One possibility might have been that Vaclav consented to let Calfa help us through the first period, say, in exchange for not putting him “under the guillotine” — but as soon as Civic Forum would win in the elections to say goodbye to him forever. But to continue working with such people? Or Zdenek Jicinsky’s belief in the continuity of legislation? Well, it was a situation when everything was possible — like calling Dienstbier and arranging for Czechoslovakia to sign the Antarctic agreement.
What was Havel’s rationale for this kind of rapprochement with the old regime?
I don’t know.
President Obama in the United States has not sought prosecution of Bush-era politicians on the torture issue. Obama said that it was important to look to the future and not the past.
Maybe it was the same mistake.
This is also the 20th anniversary of the separation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. How do you feel about that separation?
It was very sad for me at that time. I just did not understand why I would need a passport to go to the country where I was born and lived most of my life. I didn’t go to Slovakia for two years. There were lots of questions at that time. But now for Slovakia it’s much better. Prague is no longer in charge of the minds of the people. There is nobody to blame in case things are not going well. Nowadays Slovaks are much more decisive. Of course they also have the same problems as we do.
I didn’t meet anyone in Slovakia who was sad about the split. But I did meet people here who miss Czechoslovakia.
Yes, many people here say that they miss Czechoslovakia. Because the country was bigger and they could, for instance, travel to the Tatras and still feel as if they were in their own country.
Do you think Czechoslovakia represented anything political for them?
No. Just the Tatras and so on. What could Czechoslovakia as a political entity represent before 1989? It was a Communist country.
You said that everything was possible in those days. Are there other examples from that period other than the Antarctica agreement?
Some people just showed my business card at the border instead of a visa and were free to come into Czechoslovakia. I was very angry that this happened!
That’s more freedom than you expected. But I meant within the government.
At that time, everything was easy, after decisions were made, the process of implementation went smoothly.
How long did that last?
A year maybe. For instance, with the first visit of Vaclav to East and West Germany. Vaclav came up with the idea of such a visit and Martin Palous and I executed it. We had contacts at the West German embassy. But with East Germany, we just rang the bell in front of the door and said who we were and that we wanted to talk with the ambassador. And then we said, “It will go like this. In three days Vaclav will become the president and he wishes to visit your country the very first day.” And it just happened like that. Now the state visit is prepared how many months in advance?
At that time everything was based on trust among people. There were no scores of officials to judge such proposals, evaluate them, and then bring in other officials to evaluate them too.
I was quite surprised that the German issue of the Sudetenland came up again in the recent presidential elections.
The Sudetenland issue was still sleeping in the collective unconscious. In the presidential elections, Mr. Zeman just appealed to irrational feelings that are immune to rational arguments. It was just a negative campaign that had nothing to do with the real situation. The Sudeten issue was just a message designed for ignorant people.
In his memoir, Vaclav Havel talks about the Sudeten decision as one of the most difficult ones that he made. It met with a lot of initial resistance. Does that resistance still exist, or is it merely manufactured?
It’s just manufactured. It referred to a rather old situation, and it has no actual relevance now. In Slovakia there is a strong Hungarian minority. In the Czech Republic, just the Germans were expelled, yet it is still a problem in the conscience of Czechs. In Slovakia, because they didn’t expel a minority, it remains a real and normal minority issue. But you can solve a real problem: you can have discussions with real people.
What do you think about Czech foreign policy and the influence of Vaclav Havel’s moral foreign policy?
I’m not the proper person to answer that.
You were involved in some foreign policy issues like Antarctica.
But this was more a reaction to a particular situation than a prepared long-term policy. I spent a lot of time in the former Soviet Union. When I first visited the United States, I was surprised at how similar the two countries were. Even the behavior of people is very similar. This is the similarity of big countries. We came out of the shadows of one big, powerful country and our goal was to become the friend of another big, powerful country. But not many people understand this.
This was something de Tocqueville also observed. He’d been in Russia and of course he visited America. He wrote that the two countries were very similar. This was back in the 1830s. For instance, both had a kind of manifest destiny.
I spent a year in Japan. Even though it is a big and strong country, their neighbors are Russia and China. So they feel as if they are very small. And so they are much closer to us in behavior.
When you think back to your own personal opinions from 1990, have you had any major changes in how you look at the world?
No. I was very positive then, and I am still very positive.
When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed since 1989 until now, how would you evaluate all that has happened?
This is a difficult but important question. The major problem is education. Young people are missing basic education in mathematics, philosophy, history. There are very few educated Renaissance people. Now it is not even clear what education should look like. I believe it is a wide, even global issue. Now everything is done by computers, and no one knows how this works. Computers were invented to be our servants, and even now it should be clear that the purpose of technology should be to help us. If technology dominated us and made us dependent, we would have a problem.
I studied in Kiev. My field was forecasting the behavior of complex systems. I was working with Professor Ivachnenko, the man who developed the heuristic system of data processing. His methods are still stronger than any other forecasting methods, especially methods developed by current economic theories. The Communist system was based on the idealization of human beings. Economic theories are based on the assumption that humans act rationally. This is the wrong premise, I believe. How can this work?
And how would you evaluate your own personal life over the last 23 years?
I had a very difficult period over the last 20 years even in my own personal life. Soon after the changes, when the restitution law was enacted, I asked my husband to sign his half of the Lucerna premises to me so that I could develop it. But I didn’t understand at the time how many people were eager to own the premises. And how many people were envious. There was a strong pressure on Vaclav not to allow me to run the building, and it was too presumptuous of me to suggest that he sell it to me. Even if he agreed to sell it, his advisors arranged that the price was beyond my means. Thus he sold his half to Chemapol Realty in spite of the fact that they were in debt.
However, the Chemapol people had good contacts in financial circles and secured a substantial loan. They didn’t pay back this loan just as they didn’t pay back their other debts. For two-and-a-half years, I lived fifty-fifty with Chemapol, and then I purchased it from them. Soon after, Chemapol went broke, which raised a legal issue over the purchase. Then for 12 years the court analyzed the issue. So, I spent 19 years just fighting for ownership. Back in 1990 I already planned to develop this famous property making a large-scale reconstruction, but instead I had to fight and fight. So only recently I’ve been able to start again to work.
It looks beautiful.
Yes and no. During the time I was able to make lot of small improvements in the building, so we have no technical problems and Lucerna is full of life. But there hasn’t been any systematic reconstruction. Now there is a different economic situation, so it’s not so easy as it was 23 years ago. We will do step-by-step reconstruction hopefully starting in about a year’s time. Now I am 23 years older, perhaps more experienced but rather tired.
There are a lot of businesses in this building that seem to be doing well. And this is a lovely club.
Yes, this club has been here for more than 20 years. Every Wednesday, people come, some regularly, some others occasionally.
Also a younger generation?
Yes. We have a meeting here once a year in the Marble Hall, and a lot of young people participate. The sense of community really means a lot. Young people especially like Lucerna Music bar and concert hall.
And how do you feel about the future?
We will see. I am unable to predict. The opposition and civic initiatives are dormant, but still something might happen. A lot of people are calling for new ideas and fair play, which was symbolized by the Schwarzenberg campaign. You saw a lot of young people involved in this.
Young people seem to stay here, compared to Bulgaria or Poland where many are leaving.
Young people here have visited various countries all around the world. They can gain some skills and experiences. Some settle down abroad, while others come back to be closer to their roots. Everybody is welcome to come back.
Prague, February 27, 2013
Civic Forum’s offices are located at the intersection of Na Prikope and Vaclavsky Namesti, in the heart of Prague. The building they occupy was once occupied by the Czech-Soviet Friendship Committee. In the office for journalists are the mailboxes for Civic Forum personnel and yes, the bigshots still have their slots: Vaclav Havel, Jiri Dienstbier and so on. The building has the feeling of East Berlin’s House for Democracy–many offices on many floors, exuberance, hectic activity. But with the exception of the East European Information Agency on the top floor, it is only Civic Forum in the building, not a group of different interest groups. When I first stopped by to find some contacts, I was told that the people whose names I had–Jan Kavan, Petr Uhl, Jaroslav Sabata–were either too busy or didn’t work at CF any more. Finally, I was directed to Dasa Havlova (Vaclav Havel’s sister-in-law) for a presentation on CF.
Civic Forum was formed on November 19, two days after the police conflict with students at Vaclavsky Namesti. The main purpose of Civic Forum at the time was protest against the government but gradually it became more like a shadow government. The organizers were generally people who had been longtime activists in parallel culture drawn from such groups as the Circle of Independent Intelligentsia. At first, Civic Forum simply began discussions with the government in November and early December. Then, of course, with Havel elected President, Civic Forum began sending people directly into government.
CF is structured by committee: education, health, social programs, environment, politics. The specialists who work on these committees often work with or even in the various appropriate ministries. Since Civic Forum still functions in some ways as a shadow government and because many of the ministries are still filled with dead wood, many proposals for changing Czechoslovak societies go through CF committees and are merely rubberstamped by the ministries. The political committee is running the electoral campaign, preparing posters, TV programs and so on. The Czech history exhibition described above is also a CF-facilitated event.
Civic Forum, Havlova explained, is not a political party but rather, a movement. It was designed to create space for political parties. Some parties which think that they can stand by themselves have subsequently broken away from CF–the Social Democrats, for instance, or the Christian Democratic movement which has since allied itself with the former Communist Party coalition partner the People’s Party (the National Front had consisted of the Communists, the Socialist Party, the Slovak Freedom party and the People’s party). Presently, Civic Forum serves as an umbrella for roughly 15 parties including:
HOS–Freedom of Citizens (also running independent candidates)
ODA–Citizens’ Democratic Alliance (mainly philosophers and scientists–Charter 77 signatories–“one of the most serious parties but until now not possessing a very large membership,” says Havlova)
Club of Active Non-partymembers–socialism with a human face
Obroda–former Communists–formed before November
Initiative of Gypsies–an early supporter of CF
Club of Social Democrats–remained after the Social Democrats left CF
In addition to sponsoring these parties, CF is also running a larger bloc of independent candidates. According to Havlova, CF doesn’t care how many spaces each of these parties and independent candidates receives. It is simply trying to put forward the best candidates, regardless of political perspective. Several of the parties on the CF list are left, some are right–but all subscribe to the general principles of CF. CF has no membership and no hierarchical structure. “We don’t want to control anything. People should find their own place in politics. It cannot be shown from the center. This is difficult. It will take a long time but the result in the future will be much better than if we made Civic Forum into a party with a strong center.”
What will happen to Civic Forum after the elections? She expects that CF will be asked to form a government and that as a citizens’ organization it will remain until after local elections in the Fall. Then, it will either become a party or simply content itself with sponsoring educational events. Normally, she said, citizens would not be expected to take on the functions of government–these are specialized tasks for politicians–doctors in hospitals, academics in university and politicians in government.
In Slovakia, CF’s counterpart is People Against Violence. But the Christian Democrats may have more support in this region. She would characterize the politics of both People AGainst Violence and Civic Forum as center-right. For instance, both parties strongly support the implementation of a free-market economy. The only differences that she sees between Czech parties is the pace of reform. Why were there no economists working in Civic Forum? They were all in government by now, she said, in the Ministry of Finance. A number of women’s groups have also sprung up. Abortion is legal and quite accessible. Too accessible, in her opinion since an abortion pill is given to anyone who asks.