Czechoslovakia: From Unity to Federation and Divorce

By Simon, Jeffrey | McNair Papers, April 1995 | Go to article overview

Czechoslovakia: From Unity to Federation and Divorce


Simon, Jeffrey, McNair Papers


Czechoslovakia did not have a powerful set of opposition forces like the Catholic Church and Solidarity in Poland. Nor did it have reformers in the Communist Party like Hungary. Nor did Czechoslovakia have by November 1989 a mass popular movement like the one that toppled the seemingly immovable Honecker and the Wall in East Germany. Despite this, and because of population expectations and lack of support for the Communist Party, Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution" was extremely swift. Peaceful demonstrations and revolt, which erupted suddenly on 17 November 1989, ended the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CPCS)'s dominance, President Gustav Husak's rule, and led to the naming of a federal government dominated by non-communists on 10 December 1989.

After the Communist government used security troops to suppress a large public demonstration in Prague on 17 November, within days Vaclav Havel united opposition groups to create an umbrella organization, Civic Forum, to press their demands. After five days of strikes, the Communist government led by Prime Minister Ladislaw Adamec held its first meeting with Civic Forum representatives. (1) Then after only one week of mass demonstrations, Communist reformer Karel Urbanek replaced Milos Jakes as CPCS leader on 25 November 1989 and ten of the 13 members of the Communist Party presidium resigned. (2)

On the following day Civic Forum issued a political program entitled "What We Want." Citing the deep moral, spiritual, ecological, social, economic, and political crisis resulting from the ineffectiveness of Czechoslovakia's then existing political and economic system, the Civic Forum political program set forth a number of objectives. Regarding the political system, it called for all political parties to have an equal opportunity to participate in free elections and for the CPCS to abandon its constitutionally guaranteed leading role within society. Regarding the law, the program called for a new constitution, to be adopted by a newly elected legislative assembly, to make relations more precise between the citizens and state. Finally, regarding the economy the Civic Forum program called for abandoning existing methods and creating a developed market. (3)

On 29 November the Federal Assembly voted unanimously to abolish the constitutionally guaranteed "leading" role of the Communist Party in government and society. (4) As pressures continued to deepen between Civic Forum and Prime Minister Adamec over the formation of a new government, which would include Civic Forum representatives, Adamec resigned in frustration on 7 December to be replaced by Marian Calfa, a Slovak. (5) When the new government was finally formed on 9 December, for the first time since 1948 the Communists became a minority, holding only ten of 21 Cabinet posts. The ministry of interior post was left vacant. Slovak dissident Jan Camogursky, recently released from prison, became deputy prime minister and headed a new commission overseeing the secret police. Jiri Dienstbier, a dissident who had been imprisoned with Vaclav Havel, became foreign minister. Vaclav Klaus, a Civic Forum strategist, became finance minister. (6)

When President Gustav Husak resigned on 9 December, Civic Forum and its Slovak counterpart Public Against Violence announced that Forum leader Havel was their candidate for president, which according to the Constitution, the Federal Assembly had to elect within two weeks upon a vacancy. (7) On 29 December 1989, the Federal Assembly elected Vaclav Havel, a distinguished playwright and essayist and one of the spiritual leaders of the opposition to Communist rule, President of the Republic and, as such, took over as commander in chief of the armed forces.

In his new year's address to the Czechoslovak people President Havel set the tone for Czechoslovakia, when he noted:

   My dear fellow citizens. For the past 40 years on this
   day you have heard my predecessors utter variations on
   the same theme: how our country is prospering. 

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