In the north-eastern settlements of Slovakia, people did not know who Havel was

One of the organisers of the Velvet Revolution in Bardejov reminisces about November 1989.

Vladimír Savčinský. (Source: Post Bellum)

As the Velvet Revolution took hold throughout Slovakia, its leaders in the regions took a much greater risk than those in Bratislava because they could not know what turn events had taken in the city.

Characteristic of those times is the fate of the scientist Vladimír Savčinský. Following the cautious opposition to the communist regime, under which he had lived before the revolution, he found himself in the crowded square of Bardejov, suddenly embroiled in "big" politics.

"I would never have imagined that I would speak to a crowd of people packed into the square," he said. "I didn't think about what would happen if they found out who was printing the leaflets and who was organising the gathering. It was not until much later that I learned what could have happened. Mostly people become heroes due to ignorance."

I can't imagine what would have happened had Mečiar achieved his goal and we had become a member of the triple block with Belarus and Russia.

Vladimír Savčinský on Slovakia in the nineties

Savčinský was born on March 10, 1963 in the town of Bardejov, although his family did not originally come from this north-eastern part of Slovakia. His paternal ancestor, Grigorij Savčinský, was one of the great Ukrainian awakeners in and around Lviv. The family fled Galicia, now western Ukraine, and ended up in Bardejov.

His father's mother belonged to the influential Czech middle class. On his mother's side, he was a pure "Rusnák" [Ruthenian]. Ruthenians are residents of north-eastern Slovakia, parts of Poland and Ukraine.

"My family background also predestined the fact that I lived according to the traditions of the First Republic [Czechoslovakia 1918-1938]. I knew what [the 1940] Katyn [Massacre] was, I knew what the conditions in Galicia were like."

The symbolism of the crane

In addition, Savčinský's father was a Czechoslovak athlete, who represented his country in the high jump and had the opportunity to travel to the West.

"My father liked to say that our propaganda held the crane as a symbol of socialism. He also pointed out that there were a lot of such cranes everywhere in bombed-out Berlin."

After graduating from the Bardejov grammar school in 1981, he continued his studies at the university, in the Faculty of Science in Košice. Savčinský studied biology and mathematics; space physics interested him the most.

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During his university studies, he did not engage in political activities. However, the period of perestroika and glasnost was emerging, and at the same time Savčinský became acquainted with Soviet literature.

"Compared to Czechoslovakia, even Gorbachev's Soviet Union seemed like a reforming country."

After graduating from university, in 1985, Savčinský returned to his hometown.

Life in Bardejov

He began to teach maths, biology, and IT at the grammar school.

"I started getting involved in the local community. I went to the City Youth Club," Savčinský said.

There he met a group of young people. Folk singers used to play concerts in the club as well. The young people received information about what was happening outside Bardejov from them.

Sometimes I feel like people have the impression that it all happened spontaneously. Few people realise that someone had to organise it.

Vladimír Savčinský on the November 1989 revolution

At the same time, Savčinský also became the chair of a film club in Bardejov. Greater freedom came with the club, as they could obtain films that were not officially distributed.

"My father used to listen to the Voice of America and because of that we knew a little bit of what was going on in the world. But it was like news from another dimension.

I do not think people in Bardejov even knew about the [March 1988] Candle Demonstration. The news did not reach them. Maybe a few people in the Catholic Church knew something. Awareness was not great. The people in the villages knew very little about it."

November 1989

After November 17 thanks to contacts in the youth club - there were no SMS or mobile phones, only landlines - the first information came from Prague.

"We at the youth club started to organise and prepare for 'something.' But we had no idea what it would be," Savčinský said.

The whole of the following week Bardejov went quiet but by the end of the week, more information had reached the town. A general strike was declared on Monday, November 27. However, this too had to be prepared and organised.

"Sometimes I feel like people have the impression that it all happened spontaneously. Few people realise that someone had to organise it – the leaflets, hanging around the town and calling on people to come to the square, someone handing out ribbons, although they were patterned like the French tricolour as at that time there were no other ribbons in the store. It did not happen by itself. We printed out a statement at our grammar school. There was a dot matrix printer there."

The general strike was scheduled for Monday at twelve. Television had already informed people about the events.

"The first days were seen as a student affair. Not like a revolution. They massacred the students, and in my opinion this fact outraged the people here in Bardejov as well," Savčinský said.

The first meeting in the town was unorganised. Several thousand people gathered there and after the speeches, a group of about 20 people met in the youth club and signed up to the creation of the Public Against Violence (VPN) – a Slovak democratic political movement founded on November 20, 1989 - coordination centre in Bardejov.

The next day, two people withdrew their signatures. It was not clear what would happen next.

First organised gathering in Bardejov

After the general strike, the youth club organised a discussion in a crowded Bardejov sports hall, where four activists debated with representatives of the local branch of the Communist Party.

"It wasn't such a problem, because the regional communist elite was not of any intellectual or educational quality," Savčinský said.

Directors of the Bardejov plants also came to the sports hall. Following the discussion, they began preparing the first organised gathering in the town, which was to be held on Friday, December 1, 1989.

"I lived on adrenaline in 1989 and did things I wouldn't normally have the courage to do," Savčinský said. "It was up to me to host the gathering. Under normal circumstances, I would not have taken it on."

"There have never been so many people in the square as on that Friday," he added.

Gradually, VPN centres became established in every factory and school. For about a month Savčinský formed a partnership with Fero Chrzan. They went around the villages together.

"I taught in the morning and in the afternoon, we went either to a factory or to a school and in the evening to the villages again. I came back at night," Savčinský said.

When he got home, he turned on Štúdio dialóg - a televised debate between VPN representatives, students, directors of factories, and communist officials. They discussed the November 1989 political climate.

"That was my only source of information," Savčinský claimed.

In the villages, they explained to people what was happening.

"No one in the villages of north-eastern Slovakia had any idea who [Václav] Havel was, what perestroika was, what had happened in Poland. No one was ready for change," Savčinský said. "They were ready to listen to the secretary of the district national committee, and that was all."

People did not understand the impact of the changes and the issue of regime change came only at the end of the discussion. Students also took part. At the end of 1989, the VPN and the Czech democratic political movement Občanské forum [Civic Forum] agreed with the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia that co-optations would begin - first at the highest levels and later in individual cities.

In Bardejov, the people who were involved in the 1968 Prague Spring – a short liberalisation period in Czechoslovakia crushed by Warsaw Pact troops - were invited to the negotiations.

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Savčinský recalls this time: “There was a feeling of tension between them. I later learnt how it worked in 1968. First, they fired those who were involved. The less involved fired them, and the less involved were also fired in the end. Until the period of normalization came."

Entering "big" politics

At the end of January 1990, the first VPN assembly was held in Bratislava. In February, Savčinský became a member of the VPN board. Marcel Strýko from Košice, then an MP, was already a member.

Savčinský often travelled with him to Bratislava. Strýko became his source of information.

"It was then that it came to my notice what real dissent was, how Strýko, who was connected directly to Prague, worked. However, he was not a simple character. Thanks to him, I didn't trust Vladimír Mečiar from the beginning," Savčinský said.

In the 1990 elections, Bardejov nominated its candidates for the Slovak National Council in Bratislava and the Federal Assembly in Prague. The first non-communist Czechoslovak President Václav Havel and Marián Čalfa, among others, came to Bardejov as part of the election campaign. Čalfa was the last communist PM of Czechoslovakia. He had joined the VPN prior to the 1990 elections.

My effort was put into transforming a socialist Czechoslovakia into a capitalist Czechoslovakia. That came true. The transformation was complicated, but in the end it succeeded. The only thing that could not be changed was people's thinking.

Vladimír Savčinský

"However, the district coordinating committee of the VPN was suspended from this pre-election event," Savčinský said. "The worst thing that can happen is when a high-ranking official thinks he can mould political will. As VPN representatives, we were cut off. They told us that they could handle the town hall."

None of the Bardejov candidates for the Slovak National Council were approved. They nominated Savčinský as a member of the Federal Assembly, though. He was elected to the House of Commons.

"I became a member of the most important parliamentary group. But I needed to learn a lot, so to speak. I spent the evenings with a group that would become the Občiansko-demokratická aliancia [Civic-Democratic Alliance, ODA]. In conversations with them, I caught up with what I had missed."

In the autumn of 1990, Savčinský became the secretary of the VPN parliamentary group. Jozef Bakšaj became its chair. When Bakšaj became the Minister of Foreign Trade of the Czechoslovak Federative Republic in January 1991, Savčinský replaced him as chair of the VPN parliamentary group.

"In my opinion, one of the reasons for this was that I didn't belong to any wing," Savčinský said.

At the beginning of 1991, Martin Kontra, Roman Zelenay and Hvezdoň Kočtúch were trying to convince Savčinský that he should join them, because a liberal wing around Ján Langoš and František Šebej was not suitable.

"This was when our parliamentary group began to split. Before the 1992 elections, we wanted to help Václav Havel. We wanted to change the constitution so that Czechoslovakia could be federalised and avoid decline. We wanted a referendum, but that did not work out. We lacked support from the start," Savčinský said.

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When the HZDS political party was established in April 1991 and important representatives left the VPN parliamentary group, it all became "complicated". Savčinský then became a member of the Board of the Federal Assembly.

"Before the [1992] elections, we also had to deal with Ján Budaj. He had been positively screened. Nobody wanted to liquidate him, and he was offered the chance to withdraw and go on study leave abroad. However, he was convinced that the truth was on his side and a split occurred in the VPN party.

Suddenly the Slovak National Party appeared, a group that formed around Vladimír Mečiar within the VPN… Fedor Gál, Peter Tatár and Jano Langoš [VPN members] were portrayed as devils. A new movement was formed, with significant help from Ján Budaj and Milan Kňažko [VPN members]. Even with my level of knowledge, it was clear who Mečiar was."

After a VPN assembly in Topoľčany, at which unity was declared, the HZDS, led by Mečiar, came into being. The VPN-ODÚ did not get into parliament after the 1992 elections; the HZDS won the vote.

"It was a desperate period for me. Following a VPN-ODÚ assembly in Košice, people threw stones at us, and had there been no police, there might have been a lynching. This was the final swan song of the VPN.

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We all want a decent Slovakia, we want decent politicians, but people in 1992 chose the bad ones," Savčinský said.

Split of Czechoslovakia

"The split of Czechoslovakia was a heavy blow for me personally," he added.

Most Slovaks did not wish for the breakup in 1993. The country was relatively federalised. The number of competencies was in the hands of the two republics. However, a law on competences was not passed in the parliament due to political games.

"Václav Klaus [of the Czech Civic Democratic Party] wanted to be the prime minister of a Czechoslovakia of 15 million people. He did not want the split. However, he understood that nothing reasonable could be agreed with Mečiar. They thus agreed to separate. The Czechs were ready to do it quickly and efficiently but Mečiar had incompetent people around him who were not ready to manage anything. It was a disappointment for me," Savčinský said.

An ending in big politics

After the decline of the VPN, Savčinský became a member of the Party of Conservative Democrats (SKD), which merged with the Democratic Party (DS). In the 1994 snap election the Democratic Party did not get into parliament.

"For me, 1989 did not end until 1998. At that time, I said that big politics is no longer for me," Savčinský said.

Instead, he became a councillor back at home. For the last two terms he has served as deputy mayor.

"I completed the dramatic stage of my life in the 90s. It is the period I am personally proud of. My effort was put into transforming a socialist Czechoslovakia into a capitalist Czechoslovakia. That came true. The transformation was complicated, but in the end it succeeded.

The only thing that could not be changed was people's thinking. I am disappointed by that. Bad things continue to happen here, but we are still members of the European Union. I can't imagine what would have happened had Mečiar achieved his goal and we had become a member of the triple block with Belarus and Russia," Savčinský said.

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