It was a dream that we thought was never going to come true, Wendy Luers, the woman who stood at the birth of the civil society movement in Czechoslovakia and later in Slovakia, says about the Velvet Revolution 20 years on. Luers, who as the wife of former US Ambassador to Czechoslovakia Bill Luers lived in Prague between 1983 and 1986, founded the Foundation for Civil Society only months after the revolution. For her valuable contribution to the creation of the non-governmental sector in the country she was awarded the Dual White Cross, the highest state order of the Slovak Republic. During a recent visit to Bratislava, where she took part in a Central European Forum conference, Wendy Luers and her husband Bill gave an interview jointly to The Slovak Spectator and the Hospodárske Noviny daily about their views of Slovakia’s challenges and achievements over the last 20 years, but also about what was the value of the Velvet Revolution for the USA.
Q: How was it to see the Velvet Revolution happening in Prague and Bratislava for you?
Wendy Luers (WL): Well, we were living in New York at that time and had had constant connections, coming back since we left in 1986 with our friends both here in Slovakia and in the Czech Republic – back then it was Czechoslovakia. Zdeněk Urbánek, the wonderful translator from Prague, was actually staying with us in New York and my husband was asked by the Washington Post to write an op-ed piece about what was happening on November 17. And we called Havel’s apartment and Ivan Havel [Václav’s brother] answered the phone and he said ‘Oh, call back in a couple of months, nothing’s going to happen’.
Bill Luers (BL): It will be interesting in a couple of months, he said.
WL: So that was where we watched it hour by hour, day by day; we were in touch with people. And then we made our reservations to come back on Christmas Day and we gave a dinner on December 28, which we had given every year for the dissidents since we left Czechoslovakia in 1986 to go to New York, where Bill had become president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and I had started to work for Human Rights Watch. And that was the inaugural dinner for Václav Havel. He became president the day after. So for us it was a dream that we never thought was going to come true.
BL: And all these people who came, all these dissidents, writers and so on, made up the cabinet of the new government.
WL: So it was very exciting. And then I started the office of the Foundation for Civil Society in January 1990 with many young Americans and many more young Czechs and Slovaks, and then in 1993 when the country split we opened an office here in Bratislava with a woman named Carrie Slease. I gave her a whole lot of dollars and she stuck them in her underwear and she came across the border and started an office.
Q: So that was the beginning of civil society in Slovakia...
WL: Well, I think civil society was already beginning, and we were very much in touch with that. We were very serious about making sure that this was not Prague-centric or Bratislava-centric. But it was very important when the split came to have an office here.
Also, we were asked by Ján Čarnogurský on January 1, 1990, when he was deputy prime minister of Czechoslovakia, if we could help to write the constitution and the bill of rights of Czechoslovakia. I’m not a lawyer and how was I to help to write the constitution? But we had taken a major American lawyer named Lloyd Cutler, who had been general counsel to President Jimmy Carter, and then counsel to President Clinton, to meet Havel already in the summer of 1989.
And so when Čarnogurský asked if we could do something with the constitution and the bill of rights, we got Lloyd Cutler and another man named Herman Schwartz to pull all the major jurors and judges from all the parliamentary countries in Europe to come to Prague with the Czechoslovak parliamentarians to learn. And that’s how the first constitution was written, drawing on these experiences. And they chose the US Bill of Rights [as a model]. And then we did the same thing here in Slovakia.
Q: How do you see democracy here now, 20 years after the revolution?
WL: The point is that when you’re involved deeply in your country, you see all the negatives and all the problems. But certainly from the general point of view and the American point of view: Hey guys, you’ve made it. You’re on your way. There are going to be lots of backs-and-forths. There are lots of backs-and-forths in our country too. There are lots of poor people in the US, there are lots of people without health care, there are lots of right-wing, redneck, racist people. The problem that I see in both countries is that you have very vulnerable institutions, because they’re so young. And so when the waves of change go back and forth, the institutions can move more than they would in a place that has 250 years of democracy. That doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. It just means that it’s difficult, the slippage is greater. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have democracy. You will forever have democracy, as far as I’m concerned. Because you’re intelligent, you’re well-educated, you have a very strong economy, you’re part of Europe. There’s no other way of looking at it.
Q: How about the state of civil society in Slovakia? Has it come a long way?
WL: Yes, it’s come a very long way. Civil society, particularly in Slovakia, has always been very professional. The people at Pontis, which was my former office, are extraordinarily successful, as are the people at Nadácia Via and other NGOs. There are many, many NGOs. Sustainability is a problem, always, but it’s a problem for our NGOs too. Many of the NGOs in the US have closed because of the crisis. But civil society is and will remain strong here, because of young people, because they are interested in it. And that will continue. And what we heard from Lenka [Surotchak, the current director of Pontis] and the others is that they are sustainable. They are fighting in whatever they feel is the problem [area], a dump or corruption or whatever, but the civil society is active, involved and very professional. It’s a very, very exciting thing to see.
BL: Let me say one thing, because this is her message. None of you have any idea how important what you did here is for us. And a whole generation of Americans began to believe again in their own system because of what they saw happening in central Europe, whether it’s Wendy and me, because we are so closely involved, or young people Wendy brought here for the foundations and institutions that felt you affirmed what we stood for.
And that’s the part of what is missing in this. It’s what you did here that really was transforming to us.
WL: I was just speaking to people from Prague and Bratislava to hold a meeting to talk about what you did for us. In 1990 there was not a single Xerox machine in the whole Czechoslovakia that we could use. There were some at the police and some at the ministries, but nothing else. So we sent all these young people over to teach English, who paid their own way, they lived with Czechoslovak families. Three of our children came, two stayed. There was no computer, there was nothing. And so the skills that the young people in their early twenties could bring, and be respected because they had these skills, I cannot tell you what it does for them. Twenty years later these people are in many positions of importance.
BL: And they will never forget these experiences.
WL: So we hope to bring some of these stories back. Because I think it’s a very important piece of the two-way street.
This sounds a bit self-serving, but when there was a party to say thank you to me in Prague, Díky Wendy, after the offices became indigenous, nobody said how much money have you raised, how many proposal did you write, they said ‘You just said go do it. You believed in us.’ And that’s, I think, the important part: that the Czechs and Slovaks had an opportunity to do something and they did it. Nobody failed, nobody stopped, they just said ‘Sure, let’s go’ and they did it.
Q: In the Slovak National Museum now we’ve got an exhibition about what the revolution took and what the revolution gave to Slovaks. So what do you think the revolution gave or took away from the Slovaks?
WL: We live in a country of 300 million people. 46 million people do not have health care. Everybody in your countries had healthcare, although not great. They knew they were going to be taken care of. And you had a society in which people had time, they had the babička, the mamička, they had somebody to help with the children, they had free education, they had a lot of things that are very hard to give up. And all of a sudden commercialism, and entrepreneurship and BMWs and Mercedes in no time. And television, and the sale of books dropped in no time to practically nothing. So this transformation is not all positive, but one of the reasons why it’s difficult is because there was no economy. It was so amazing to us Americans when we lived her for three years in the mid-1980s nobody ever said ‘It’s too expensive, I can’t afford it’. That’s something Americans say every two minutes. So this ‘classless society’: your chalupa, your chata, your apartment, and these little pieces you had more in Slovakia then the Czechs did. They didn’t have anything to do with economic entrepreneurship, with getting money and showing off, having all this. So it’s balancing, and it takes a while. And yet we have what we call the masters of the universe: investment bankers with huge salaries and bonuses, yachts and airplanes. You know, that’s crashed a lot now.
BL: To put it very simply, what you lost is dependency on the state. If the state does everything for you, people get to like that. So you lost that. What you gained was freedom, the possibility to be responsible for your lives. And many people don’t like that, to be responsible for their own lives. So it seems to me that the big challenge and the big opportunity is the degree to which each Slovak becomes responsible for what he or she does, how they vote, how the government works. Democracy isn’t easy without responsible citizenship.
WL: And it’s very messy. We don’t in any way mean to belittle the problems that your pensioners have or people that live on very low salaries. That’s really something that’s very hard for people to accept. That’s a real challenge, but that doesn’t mean that your democracy is not going to survive.
And I’d like to say one more thing. We helped to establish the Čepár award for young artists in Slovakia. And one of the things that has been very interesting with the Slovak artists we bring to New York for a fellowship has been how the young people and the artists are looking at their past and their present. And I think that the intellectual and artistic and cultural looking at what it means for all of you is a very responsible activity on the part of creative people, to really care about ‘where do I come from, where am I going and how do I look at it?’. And I’m surprised; I would’ve thought that people would just move on, but in fact they are interested.
BL: The government is moving on and forgetting the past, but it’s the artists that are saying ‘Let’s pay attention to where we were and what problems we had’.
WL: For us it’s a wonderful thing, what Slovakia is – it’s humour, it’s intelligence, it’s looking back and looking forward and we love being here.
BL: And you’ve got to know: Never undervalue the treasure you gave to us. Not just me and Wendy, but thousands of people. Of the things that have happened since World War II ended I think the Velvet Revolution is inspirational.
Q: You sound very nicely optimistic in contrast with the public debate in Slovakia that nowadays tends to be full of disillusionment.
WL: And that’s exactly the point: Go for it, you can do it.