Archive | November, 2009

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Gabor Demszky

Posted on 26 November 2009 by admin

Ex-underground publisher and liberal politician, 1952–

“I was public enemy No. 1. And that’s why I became mayor,” Gabor Demszky said in a 2006 interview. “The connection is clear.”

Indeed, Demszky parlayed his unpopularity with Hungary’s Communist regime into one of the longest-lasting sinecures in European politics. He is now in his fifth term as chief executive of the country’s capital city – although whether he could win re-election in an increasingly fractious Hungary next year is unclear.

Demszky (center) at a conference of EU mayors

Demszky (center) at a conference of EU mayors

In his youth Demszky flirted with Maoism and critiqued the government from the extreme left, but he turned against communism and in his 20s balanced law and sociology studies with dissident activity, attracting regular police attention and getting suspended from the University of Budapest. (For a time he worked as a taxi driver.) Nevertheless, through the 1980s he tirelessly published banned books and magazines, did work fighting poverty in a country where the condition official did not exist, and forged ties with Polish anti-communists. He also helped found the Alliance of Free Democrats, a liberal party in which he is still a key figure.

His prominence in the now-legal opposition that emerged in 1989 won Demszky a seat in parliament in the free elections of March 1990, then the top job in Budapest city government that October. Remarkably for a politician who learned the ropes in those anything-goes early days, he still holds the job, winning re-election in 1994, 1998, 2002, and 2006.

But as Hungarian politics grew increasingly polarized into socialist and conservative-nationalist camps, the Free Democrats’ liberal stance has become less popular. The party barely squeaked into parliament in the 2002 and 2006 national elections, and Demszky himself was only narrowly re-elected mayor in the 2006 Budapest balloting, which closely followed revelations that his coalition partner, Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, had deliberately misled the public about the country’s financial state.

Amid the scandal, Demszky was criticized for municipal actions seemingly aimed at limiting the size of anti-government protests. Two years later the Free Democrats broke with the increasingly unpopular Socialists, after 14 years as somewhat unlikely partners. Demszky’s party suffered another setback in this summer’s European Parliament elections, losing the two seats it won in 2004 and doing poorly even in its stronghold of Budapest. These days the darling of post-communist Hungarian politics is a regular target of eggs, tomatoes, and invective hurled by nationalist demonstrators at the annual 15 March celebrations of the 1848 revolution.

Betsy Mead

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Communism Redux

Posted on 26 November 2009 by admin

By Meagan Sneesby/Argus

Katerina Konecna

Konecna

On 28 November 1989, in the face of a peaceful mass revolt, the Czechoslovak Communist Party announced it would give up its constitutional monopoly on power.  Two decades on, its successor, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, is the third-most popular party in the Czech Republic and has been gaining in recent polls at the expense of the mainstream parties, the left-wing Social Democrats and the center-right Civic Democrats.

Though still reviled by much of the public, the Communists wield sufficient support to likely prevent either of the leading parties from forming a stable parliamentary majority in next year’s elections. With young leaders such as MP Katerina Konecna, elected to parliament in 2002 at age 21, at the forefront, the party is working to burnish its image and expand beyond its elderly base, downplaying its association with 40 years of totalitarian rule and claiming a commitment to the values of democratic socialism. In this video report from the Argus, an online magazine produced by students in the ePhotojournalism program at Australia’s Griffith University, Konecna and other modern Communists talk about the party’s platform and its place in today’s Czech Republic.

Click here to learn more about the Argus’ Velvet Revolution anniversary project and view other videos about the post-communist Czech experience.

20 YEARS AFTER:Communism Redux from MeaganSneesby on Vimeo.

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Fedor Gal

Posted on 25 November 2009 by admin

Slovak-born sociologist, publisher, and writer, 1945–

Slovak among Czechs, federalist vainly trying to stop the “velvet divorce,” Jewish intellectual who helped start a phenomenally successful private TV station – Fedor Gal’s life in the past 20 years has been a study in contrasts.

Gal was born in 1945 in Terezin, the Jewish ghetto in northern Bohemia where his pregnant mother had been transported from Slovakia in the last stages of World War II. His father died a month later in Germany during a forced march of concentration camp inmates, a journey Gal retraced for the 2009 documentary Krátka dlouhá cesta (Short Long Journey).

Gal (right) with fellow Public Against Violence leaders Milan Knazko and Jan Budaj in 1990.

Gal (right) with fellow Public Against Violence leaders Milan Knazko and Jan Budaj in 1990.

Gal went on to study chemical engineering and economics at universities in Bratislava and Prague. According to his website, in the mid-1980s he became one of the first scientific researchers to break loose from the rigid academic system and work on a freelance basis.

The quick fall of Czechoslovakia’s communist government and the rush to fill the resulting power vacuum made Gal a leading figure in Slovak politics, and by his own account a target for much vitriol and bigotry.

Along with figures such as actor Milan Knazko, lawyer Vladimir Meciar, and dissident activist Jan Budaj, Gal helped transform the main Slovak dissident group, Public Against Violence (VPN), from a free-floating anti-regime coalition into a broad-based political movement that easily won the first democratic vote in June 1990. Recently, on his own website, Gal recalled the welter of emotion and released tensions that accompanied the Velvet Revolution: “So many illusions, so much euphoric enthusiasm, naivety, amateurism, and at the same time human hyena-ism, collected frustrations, egoism broke through in the course of days and weeks to the surface of our daily lives.”

But the euphoria for Gal was short-lived. As splits began to appear in the VPN between the nationalist wing around Meciar and a more federalist-inclined faction, he found himself at the receiving end of grotesque anti-Semitic caricatures published in hard-line communist and nationalist newspapers. Disgusted, he decided to leave Slovakia and has lived on the Czech side of the former federation ever since.

Established in Prague, he returned to his academic career for a time, but more significantly, became part of the group that won the first license for a private television station in the former Czechoslovakia. Nova launched in Prague in 1994 with a diet of foreign shows, sensationalist news, and late-night porn, becoming by far the most-watched Czech station for many years and earning Gal enough money to devote his days to publishing (through the G plus G publishing house he started with his son Robert) and writing. He has published a string of books on travel, spirituality, and popular science, as well as collections of essays.

This year Gal jumped headlong into the pool of revolutionary retrospection, co-producing a series of online video documentaries on the events of 1989 and ‘90 for the Slovak magazine Tyzden. His own view of the legacy of the past 20 years was expressed in an April discussion at the Catholic University of Ruzomberok, Slovakia. “Democracy is not freedom,” Gal said, “only an environment where it is better to fly than during communism.”

Betsy Mead

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Emil Koshlukov

Posted on 25 November 2009 by admin

koshlukov1989-2Bulgarian student leader and liberal politician, 1965–

Earlier this year viewers of Bulgarian VIP-Brother, the country’s version of the U.K. reality show Celebrity Big Brother, were treated to a joke:

A Greek boy at the beach boasts to a Bulgarian playmate, “We have bananas and oranges at home!” The Bulgarian boy runs tearfully home to his father. “Well,” the man consoles his son, “tell him that when the Greeks build themselves socialism, they won’t have bananas and oranges anymore.”

On TV, Emil Koshlukov told the joke after his reality-show housemate Todor Slavkov – grandson of Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria’s last communist ruler – expressed nostalgia for the old regime. When Koshlukov told that joke some 25 years earlier, he was tossed in jail.

Known as a liberal and an idealist, Koshlukov has a place in modern Bulgarian legend as the student-rebel imprisoned in the 1980s on charges of anti-establishment activity for telling political jokes. Freed in 1989, the 24-year-old dissident was at the microphone on 14 December of that year when a 15,000-strong crowd formed a human ring around the National Assembly in Sofia. As Bulgaria’s Communist Party retreated and agreed to hold round table talks with the opposition, the 24-year-old called for an end to mandatory instruction of students in communism and Marxism-Leninism.

Of the students’ role in the Bulgarian revolution, Koshlukov would later describe a kind of love-in powered by cheap vodka and homemade rakia. “The whole country knew us,” he said. “The girls treated us like stars when we visited other universities.”

Koshlukov’s transition from student leader to national politician looked promising in the spring of 1990, when he participated in the round table talks, but it was interrupted by a dramatic event – a fire at Socialist Party headquarters in August. Fleeing what he said were false allegations that he was responsible, Koshlukov made his way to the United States, where he enrolled in university and kept in touch with Bulgaria’s new, democratically elected president, Zhelyu Zhelev.

He returned to Bulgaria in the late 1990s, not intending to take up politics again, but in 2001 he was lured back to the national stage to join the rising centrist National Movement Simeon II (NDSV), which governed from 2001 to 2005 under the premiership of former king in exile Simeon Saxe-Coburg. Internal disagreements led Koshlukov to quit the NDSV in 2004 and found the liberal New Time party. New Time fielded candidates in the 2005 parliamentary balloting but failed to elect any candidates. In the 2009 elections to the European and Bulgarian parliaments, Koshlukov headed the list for a coalition of New Time and the centrist LIDER (Liberal Initiative for Democratic European Government), which did not win a seat in either assembly. Observers attributed the poor showing to the unpopularity of LIDER founder Hristo Kovachki, a wealthy business mogul the government has pursued on tax-fraud charges.

The former anti-communist dissident is an outspoken critic of Bulgaria’s current leadership. “State capitalism has become oligarchism,” Koshlukov wrote in the daily Monitor in April 2007. Calling the country “only a democracy on paper,” he likened its leaders to the flamboyant, transvestite Bulgarian pop star Azis: “They are a travesty of what politicians should be – they talk like Azis sings.”

Daniela Ivanova

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Josef Glemp

Posted on 23 November 2009 by admin

Former primate of Poland, 1929-

Glemp_JózefToday the role of the Catholic Church in Polish statecraft is a matter of some debate, but 20 years ago it would have been unthinkable to overlook the church in the political arena. The ruling Communists recognized the church as a hostile yet powerful player; for Solidarity, it was a potent if at times uncertain ally.

In 1989 Josef Glemp was in his eighth year as the head of the Polish church, steering a careful course between the regime and opposition through difficult times, most notably the introduction of martial law in 1981 and the 1984 murder by state security officers of the popular dissident priest Jerzy Popieluszko. While Lech Walesa viewed the interests of the church and Solidarity as the same, some dissidents suspected the Catholic leadership was too willing to settle for peaceful coexistence with the Communist government.

But according to some historians, by 1989 Glemp recognized that an agreement with the regime was possible, and he didn’t want it to happen without church involvement. The primate played an important role in preparations for the Round Table, which paved the way for the multiparty elections of 4 June 1989. Following the peaceful transition of power, Glemp came to be seen less as a conservative unwilling to confront the regime in support of the opposition and more as a long-term strategist whose non-confrontational approach helped smooth the road to democracy.

Glemp, who had been made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1983, remained the primate of the Polish church until 2006, and as such played a role in the key social and cultural controversies of post-communist Poland. He has been dogged for yeas by allegations of antisemitism, accused by Jewish groups of insensitivity to their concerns during the rancorous arguments over the construction of a Catholic convent outside Auschwitz in 1989 and the unauthorized erection of crosses near the camp nine years laters.

His attitudes toward Poland’s all-but-vanished Jewish community resurfaced in the firestorm over Neighbors, [] a 2001 book detailing how Catholic Poles massacred hundreds of Jews in the town of Jedwabne during World War II. Pre-war conflicts between Poles and Jews had an “economic basis,” Glemp told the Catholic news agency KAI. “Jews were cleverer, and they knew how to take advantage of Poles. That, in any case, was the perception.”

In 2005 Glemp was publicly critical of the Catholic and stridently conservative Radio Maryja, saying it was causing a rift in the church. Politics intervened again just as he was leaving office, when the man named to succeed him as archbishop of Warsaw, Stanislaw Wielgus, was accused of collaboration with the communist-era secret police. Glemp defended Wielgus, saying the accusations against him were exaggerated, but Wielgus resigned only a month after his appointment.

Through the two decades of democracy, as the Polish Catholic Church gradually receded from its former position as the dominant reference point for many social groups, Glemp’s influence faded, but his presence is still felt. This year, remarkably for any cleric – much less a cardinal – he appeared in a feature film, playing himself in the biopic Popieluszko. In the view of some commentators, Glemp’s screen appearance was an act of homage to the charismatic priest by a church leader who had been criticized in the past for not doing enough to protect Popieluszko in the tense period leading up to his murder.

Wojciech Kosc

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Remembering ’89: Michal Horacek

Posted on 23 November 2009 by admin

horacekWhen Civic Forum emerged as the driving political force of the Velvet Revolution, its views were often relayed to the world by Michal Horacek. Then a 37-year-old journalist and co-founder (with singer Michael Kocab) of the civic initiative Most (Bridge), Horacek was a spokesman for Civic Forum and a key figure in talks with the tottering Communist regime. He would go on to become a successful lyricist, publicist, businessman, and public intellectual.

Horacek was never a darling of the Communist Party. At 22 he was expelled from journalism studies and jailed for forging an exit visa for the United States. Living in mid-70s Czechoslovakia, he says now, was like “living in a forced-labor camp, where one was constantly being discouraged from making a personal dream come true, even discouraging from dreaming itself. Risking a jail sentence then did not – and still doesn’t – strike me as risking so much.“

After his release, Horacek obtained a fake certification of mental illness, which enabled him avoid the unwanted attention from the authorities. In 1977 he started publishing abroad, and he eventually managed to secure a World Press Institute scholarship, which he used to study at Macalester College in Minnesota in 1984. Upon his return he went to work for the magazine Mlady svet (Young World), published articles abroad, and produced albums with the composer Petr Hapka.

Horacek continued making music after the revolution (his latest collaboration with Hapka, the verse opera Kudykam, premiered in October at Prague’s State Opera); a horse-racing enthusiast, he also founded Fortuna, the country’s first legal bookmaking firm. More recently he has entered academia as a teacher and doctoral candidate (in anthropology). In this e-mail interview with TOL contributor Lucie Kavanova, Horacek discussed his memories of 1989 and its impact on his life.

TOL: How did you manage to get your articles published abroad before 1989? What did you write about?

Horacek: I simply wrote them using my typewriter, put the result in an envelope, and mailed it to Australia, U.K., U.S.A. Such envelopes might have been opened by a secret-service officer from time to time – but that was not my problem. My problem was to put a feature together. In fact, all of my articles reached the magazines I was writing for. From the point of view of the Communist regime, they were harmless: I was writing about the history of horse racing and the thoroughbred horse.

How did your studies at the Macalester College change your life? How did you manage to get the Communist Party´s permission to study abroad then?

The Soviet Union and its satellites signed the Helsinki agreement. Therefore they had to observe the mutual visits of the closest kin, provided the sibling or parent lived in the West “legally” (meaning they did not “desert the camp of peace and socialism”). I was simply lucky. My sister got married and was legally living in France. On paper, I was going to visit her. In fact, I went to study in America. Those studies changed my life fundamentally; I got introduced to a world in which truth was observed as something not owned by a central committee of a party, but as an ideal courted and individually sought by anyone who felt like courting and seeking it.

Did you face any problems from the party when writing your columns called “Letters of Love and Hate” for Mlady Svet?

Sure I did. The magazine was being published by the Socialist Youth Union and many a member of its leadership protested against what I was writing. But I got another lucky break: the editor-in-chief was a stubborn, weathered woman capable of defending what she had approved of (my writing).

Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell, in terms of both your life and also literally, when it happened?

I was writing for what was then Czechoslovakia’s most popular weekly magazine, Mladý svět (circulation over 500,000) and also writing song lyrics. Two of my albums co-written with the composer Petr Hapka became best-sellers (selling over 150 000 copies each – something unthinkable today). I was living in three-bedroom apartment in Prague. When the Berlin Wall was being taken down I was busy preparing MOST, the civic initiative looking for providing grounds for eventual dialogue between the Communist Party and its opponents.

What were your thoughts and feelings at the time? What impact did you expect it to have on your country and you personally?

Thoughts were few, feelings many. In a time of such an upheaval the welled-up dreams burst the dam. I expected what I had never been able to truly expect: living in a country respecting the individual, observing the free-market rules, offering anybody a chance to seek and achieve a true knowledge, read whatever I feel like reading, formulating an opinion and freely stat[ing] it . . . and much more. All of that was eventually fully achieved. I do feel lucky.

What do you feel now when looking back at the Most initiative?

Pride. We did bring the two antagonistic parties together for talks, minimizing the very real chance of a bloodshed. And we did shake the monolithic nature of a totalitarian regime which can be totalitarian only when talking in one voice. When Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec did sit at the same table with Vaclav Havel, who had been jailed only months before, that monolith was gone. And, with it, the grip of the Communist Party over our lives.

Had the wall and the regime not fallen, how would your life have been different?

It would be a life of an aging inmate, frustrated at the loss of chances one living in a free world may expect to take. I would never [have achieved] material wealth, never traveled the world, never studied anthropology, never written what I eventually did write. Thank God for the miracle of anno domini 1989.

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Mircea Dinescu

Posted on 20 November 2009 by admin

Romanian poet and late-blooming dissident, 1950-

DinescuAn acclaimed poet in the 1970s and ’80s, Mircea Dinescu felt the sting of Romania’s communist regime just as it was dying, played a significant role in the 1989 revolution, and became widely known as a media mogul in the years that followed, maintaining his place as a fierce yet lyrical foe of conformity.

A journalism graduate of the Communist Party’s Stefan Gheorghiu Academy, Dinescu was catapulted into the cultural spotlight in 1971 with the publication of his first book of poetry. A prolific writer, he also served as of the prominent magazine Romania Literara (Literary Romania) and was a member of the Writers’ Union. According to literary critic Alex Stefanescu, Dinescu’s success was partly due to the support of “protectors” from the Communist Party. Secret police documents published in Cartea Alba a Securitatii (White Book of the Securitate) testify to the poet’s support and even enthusiasm for the Ceausescu regime.

Dinescu’s downfall came in March 1989 when, in an interview with the French newspaper Liberation, he acidly criticized Ceausescu and praised Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. He was fired from editorial post and placed under house arrest.

Nine months later he got his comeuppance. On 22 December, Dinescu took part in the peaceful seizure of Romanian Television. It was he who announced to the country that afternoon that Ceausescu and his wife had fled Bucharest.

A member of the newly founded National Salvation Front, Dinescu also became chairman of the Writers’ Union in 1990. He was forced to resign this position in 1994 in the wake of a scandal over a donated printing press that was diverted for the use of a foundation he chaired.

Dinescu invested earnings from his writing into media ownership, co-founding the influential satirical newspaper Academia Catavencu and buying or investing in several other publications, including the highbrow cultural magazine Dilema Veche. He also hosts a political talk show on the television channel Realitatea TV.

Both Dinescu’s poems and his on-air persona bear the mark of his sarcastic, inventive, and often shocking style. His 1976 volume Proprietarul de poduri (The Owner of Bridges) marked a sharp change in his youthful writing towards a subversive, politically charged lyricism that criticized the poverty and oppression of life in Romania. Years later the status quo under the new regime brought out Dinescu’s disappointment with the changes, or lack of changes, since 1989: “No revolution can change the world anymore,” he wrote. In a postmodern letter to Vaclav Havel, Dinescu describes how revolutions devour their children, while “the dissidents are unemployed/ and the protesters now queue at McDonald’s.”

His liberal use of slang and colloquialism led the prominent philosopher Gabriel Liiceanu to dub Dinescu “the symbol and flag bearer of the Romanian suburbs,” a compliment to his authenticity and his reputation as a cultural hero.

Ioana Caloianu

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Velvet Recall: ‘We Are Not Like Them’

Posted on 20 November 2009 by admin

By Natalia O’Hara

On 17 November 1989, police in Prague cracked down on a student demonstration, triggering 10 days of mass protest and political action that peacefully brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. To mark the anniversary, all this week TOL features prominent Czechs offering their recollections of the Velvet Revolution. Today: human rights activist and former student leader Simon Panek.

I was completely out of money. I’d just got back from Siberia, traveling overland and rushing to get back in time for the demonstration on 28 October. On the 17th of November I was in South Bohemia earning money. I heard what had happened on Radio Free Europe that night and returned to Prague the next day. Students from the Drama Faculty suggested a strike, and word spread quickly. Sitting in one of the faculties in the middle of the night on Sunday [19 November], we drafted our first statement. After that I went home, put on a warm coat, boots, and stuffed a few pairs of socks into my pockets. My father said to me, “Take enough warm clothes because you might not return for days, once you start.” I left home on Monday morning, and did not come back for three weeks.

On Monday morning we held a meeting outside the faculty. My friends found a rubbish bin, and I climbed up and asked the students if they agreed to a strike, which they did. After that I went to the Drama Faculty, which became our headquarters. On the second day of the strike I was elected co-chairman of the Central Strike Committee. Continue reading …

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Brotherhood Was Not Enough

Posted on 20 November 2009 by admin

By Tihomir Loza

Even though you couldn’t tell from media coverage in the region and internationally, 20 or so years ago communism collapsed in the former Yugoslavia, too.

The 20th anniversary of the momentous events of 1989 in Eastern Europe has been rightly framed mostly in celebratory terms. But there are very few things to celebrate in this regard in the former Yugoslavia.

The main action of 1989 was indeed elsewhere. The stumbling of the Yugoslav League of Communists in the late 1980s and its definitive end in January 1990 fade into near insignificance when looked upon against the backdrop of the fall of the Berlin Wall or the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia or indeed the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime in Romania.

Yet it would be wrong to say that Yugoslavia was one of those countries that the collapse of communism just happened to. Continue reading …

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Remembering ’89: Robert Troska

Posted on 19 November 2009 by admin

Robert Troska was born in Prague on May 1, 1930. A veteran of various technical and industrial fields, he worked during the communist era at the state Research Institute of Technology and at Czechoslovak Television. In 1992 he founded the industrial consultancy RITMO and remains its managing director. In this interview with TOL contributor Sarah Kunkler, he offers his view of the Czech Republic’s bumpy transition to private enterprise and a market economy.

Remembering ’89: Robert Troska from Transitions Online on Vimeo.

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