Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 9
6 March 2000

Student strike poster from 1989 I N T E R V I E W:
Martin Mejstřík

Kazi Stastna

Martin Mejstřík (age 37) was one of the leading figures and outspoken organisers of the student demonstrations and strikes that lead to the ousting of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia in November 1989. Following the revolution, he did not enter politics as some of his fellow activists but instead chose to continue with the publication he had established already in 1987, Kavárna A.F.F.A. Although functioning under the auspices of the Socialist Youth Wing, Mejstřík aimed to make the journal an open forum airing the concerns of students from his own dramatic arts department as well as other departments at Prague's Charles University and over time helped launch a series of similar student publications.

In November of last year, Mejstřík and five of his fellow student organisers from 1989 stepped out from the wings and presented an appeal calling for the resignation of corrupt politicians entitled "Thank You, Now Leave." A few weeks after it's launch, some 60,000 people gathered in Prague's Wenceslas Square to support the initiative and catapulted the "former student leaders" into a position they claimed not to want - that of political saviours of a frustrated and fed-up electorate.

The next three months were spent mostly fending off pressure to form a new political party. Two of the initiators have since retreated from the project and Mejstřík himself has declined to become an official member of the newly formed civic association which sprang out of the appeal.

At the end of February, "Thank You, Now Leave" held its second event - a protest against the February 1948 Communist takeover. In stark contrast to the December gathering, however, only a small spattering of people showed up for the strangely labelled event "Anti-únor" (anti-February), and although rumours of new parties and election strategies have surfaced, a clear political platform has yet to emerge.

Last week, I spoke with Martin Mejstřík about the original aims of the initiative and its future prospects.

Central Europe Review: What was the intention when you founded the movement in November, and has it changed in the past three months?

Martin Mejstřík: We didn't found anything. We published an appeal on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the revolution, in which we simply expressed that in those ten years, a lot was accomplished but that the current government has been here for a long time, the politicians are tired and should leave.

We had no other ambitions. We had a strong feeling that we have to express our opinion on the situation within the country. The embitterment and disillusionment with the development [of the past ten years] accelerated with the Opposition Agreement, in which the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which claimed to be a right-wing party, joined with the Social Democrats (ČSSD), that is, with it's opponent, and formed a monolithic block that divided up the power and checkmated the opposition out of the game. This solution was only the climax of the general development of the past five years, at least. This was why we published the appeal.

Did you have any idea of who should enter once these politicians have left?

We had no idea. As we said in our appeal: we do not want to resolve the situation we have no ambition, we each have our own profession, but we call on the members of these parties to think about the situation and draw conclusions from it. We naively thought that the parties themselves are capable of self-reflection and that we would perhaps be able to spur the party members involved - that is, ODS and ČSSD - to abolish the Opposition Agreement and implement a standard political climate.

Why didn't you want to take part in this solution?

Because I am a trained to work in the theatre and as a journalist; Igor Chaun is a film-director; Vlastimil Ježek was - at the time - a manager, let's say; Josef Brož is also a journalist; and Vráťa Řehák is a doctor. If we wanted to enter politics, then we would have done so after 1989. None of us wanted to, and we still don't want to. We want to practice our civic professions, and it seems to us that these situations should be resolved by the politicians who are paid for resolving them with our money and whose profession it is.

So from the beginning, this rock that they (especially Mr Klaus) tried to put on our shoulders - "Form a political party and we'll meet in the elections, and then if you win the elections, you can govern" - was an attempt to throw the responsibility onto us. And we said, and still say: we are not going to resolve this, resolve it yourselves.

We simply acted as citizens who have a right and in fact an obligation to criticise politicians and monitor them and express their opinion.

The reaction was, of course, unexpected for us. Our appeal received tremendous support, which is only a sign of how large the embitterment of the citizens of this country is. The disillusionment is widespread. Everyone you meet is dissatisfied, except for the 10,000 who are at the top and have the political and economic power.

At the time that you called for the politicians to step down, there was little sign that the major parties had any intention of changing their ranks. In fact, the very weekend of your demonstration, Klaus was unanimously re-elected leader of the ODS. So was it naive to call for the resignation of politicians without offering people an alternative?

We did give them an alternative. None of us are members of a political party, but we addressed members of these parties so that they, as members of the parties, would try to change the situation and put pressure on the party apparatus. That is also why we organised the demonstration directly before the ODS Party Congress, because we assumed that the elected representatives at this congress would perhaps hear this appeal.

It was naive. Maybe. But we think that the ones doing the lying, the ones who are arrogant and not capable and not willing to hear public opinion are the two parties. And their reactions only prove that the appeal made sense and that it grasped the very nature of the situation. Politics is not done morally [in this country]. Politicians are not interested in this country as much as they are in particular advantages. The interests of this country and its citizens are only in second, third, fourth fifth place. And the party congress clearly showed this. [Its participants] behaved like a mafia clique, which when in danger huddles around it's leader instead of trying to think about whether perhaps the citizens have a point. There was not a single voice that did not take the appeal as a direct attack against the party and that instead reflected on its text.

So when you found out on Monday that Klaus was re-elected, did you change your tactics?

We didn't have any tactics.

Okay then, did you formulate any?

We were pushed into this by the public opinion which we awoke. We did not have any strategy prepared. We were not a group of six people with political ambitions, who through the appeal [wanted to] open the doors into the world of politics.

So why do it in the framework of an appeal at all, why not do it through citizens' groups, lobbying, etc - each person in their own way?

Like what? Do what? You know how it came about - because the six founders are six relatively notable former students of ten years ago. They are people who helped organise the [students'] strike and helped to break the back of Communist rule. These are not six all that insignificant people.

The appeal originated in the atmosphere that it did - 17 Nov 1999, ten years after we had said that politics is going to be done differently, that it will be done more morally than Communist politics. And unfortunately, we had to come to the conclusion that ten years later that the current political elite, in some respects, behaves worse than the Communist elite. This was the very sad realisation of people who helped bring about the current system. That is why we didn't feel the need to appear under any kind of civic association and didn't even want to.

So you simply imagined that a reaction would come from the side of the government?

We didn't imagine anything. We just wanted to ease our conscience and say, "This is not what we wanted ten years ago."

And when the reaction was not what you expected...

Then we were faced with the decision, what next? Basically, there were two choices: resign from any further activity, thank those who supported us and go our separate ways, return to our professions (and more and more I almost think this is what we should have done); the second variation was to create some kind of structure that would attack the current politicians and attempt to reach the aims of the appeal. The structure could be twofold - either a civic association or a political party, and this is still being debated to this day.

And why has the initiative as a whole resisted the latter so much?

Unfortunately, people placed a tremendous amount of expectation on us. That is what we weren't prepared for. These expectations are unfulfillable. But then again, the public needs this hope. That is the sad part, that the developments of the past five years robbed people of this hope. They have completely given up. They say, "we don't have anyone to vote for"; voter turnout is decreasing. That means that they are getting into the same kid of apathy as under Communism, and we were the ones who they recognised from ten years ago and who they thought could overturn the situation. But the problem is, we didn't want to...we simply do not want to enter politics. And for this reason we disappointed their expectations.

Isn't it more a case of a vacuum ensuing with no one to fill it?

I don't know. I think we can't fulfil [the expectations]. The aim of the civic association that has now formed could be to teach people what rights they have, to teach them what to do with democracy, to show them that they are not just here to go vote every four years but that every day, ever week, of those four years, they should go see their MPs, pose questions and not let them fall asleep.

Is this enough of a goal as far as affecting change in the elections, for example?

Of course this is for the long haul. We said we want Klaus and Zeman to leave, and I think the majority of citizens want this. But of course Klaus very cleverly used this to his advantage... He tried to make us out to be some kind of permanent revolutionaries who haven't comprehended what democracy is all about.

Klaus was right in that if he doesn't leave and Zeman doesn't leave, then we will have no other choice but to wait until the elections. And we are still deliberating whether to retreat into the sidelines (or rather not the sidelines but back to where we were four months ago) or to attempt to help see to it that Klaus - because it is primarily Klaus who is the concern here - will lose in the next elections...

And here there are two possibilities again. Maybe they'll proceed in parallel and then come together. The founding of a political party is still an option - four groups of supporters of the appeal that I know of are already attempting this.

The second option is that we are communicating with the current opposition, which is, if we leave out the Communists, the Coalition of Four - particularly KDU-ČSL(Christian Democrats) and US (Freedom Union). I think that over the past four months we have managed to wake up them up... Their attitude changed, and on the basis of our appeal they started becoming active.

So why did you back down from running with them in the upcoming Senate elections?

That is something which I don't understand. You have to ask Mr Brož. Perhaps I haven't mentioned this yet, I signed the appeal and helped found the civic association, but from the beginning I said that I would not run as a candidate into its structures nor become a member. I support the association and help when I can but do not speak on its behalf. And unfortunately, I have to say that on this matter Josef Brož and I disagreed. I think it was a relatively big mistake.

If a party did emerge, you wouldn't want to play a role in it?

If a sensible party emerged, I would do everything to make sure the party ran a good election campaign and to convince voters to vote for it, but I will not be a member of that party.

Why do you have such an aversion to political parties?

I don't know. I can't explain it. That's just the way I am. The principle of political parties seems not perfect but, on the other hand, simple and understandable so I think it is good. Although I have to say that I am a monarchist by conviction. I would rather live in a system such as Sweden or the United Kingdom, although in Britain they are getting rid of it. We might have to invite the British queen here once they get rid of her... I am a conservative person. I miss that figure - be it symbolic - that is representative of an eternal institution, such as the king.

I told Václav Havel in 1992, or whenever he began searching for the identity of the Czech state and our contribution to Europe, "Mr President, institute a constitutional monarchy, and this will be our contribution to Europe."

So again, the two variants are: a new party emerges, probably on some generational basis...

Is that enough?

I don' t know. I'm saying "probably." Of course it's not enough. Although personally I don't think it would be so bad if a party - or at least some kind of political platform - emerged that would represent people who grew up after the revolution, who gained experience abroad, who worked in the West, who studied in the US, the UK, France, Germany, who have gained experience and have returned or who have been doing business here for ten years and have experiences from daily life, and who would be interested in changing the politics in this country.

The point is that we think that 90 per cent of the current political representation is simply marked by Communism, including Klaus... Klaus behaves as he does, and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that he hasn't developed any civilised standard of values.

And you blame that all on Communism?

I'm not saying everything can be blamed on Communism, but I think people who experienced Western democracy and didn't experience Communism - simply grew up in a normal society - will behave differently than these guys. This is simply a group of people who are only sponging off the fact that power fell - fully undeservedly - into their laps, on the basis of simple, demagogical slogans, which they have managed to violate several times, and the voters have always accepted it.

I think that the generation which is now growing up... will be much more clued in and will become voters that have grown up here and would wipe a party of this type off the face of the earth. Klaus only succeeded because he was addressing voters who did not have any experience with democracy and had no idea of what democracy is -or ethics, political ethics.

Communism damaged moral values. In Communism nothing had any worth. Only the Party membership card had worth. What is decent or indecent, the unwritten laws - to say nothing of the written ones - these were not valid here for 40 years. So why should they be valid in the ten years after the revolution?

When you speak of demagogical slogans, isn't the slogan "Communists Stay Home," which appeared on the posters for your December demonstration, also demagogical?

Of course it's demagogy, but what else would you put on there?

Why put anything on at all?

Why? Because Mr Grebeníček [leader of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, KSČM, ed]...that's exactly what this is about - it's about Communism. Those principles of behaviour were adopted by Klaus... he behaves in the same ways as Grebeníček, and before him Jakeš [General Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia up until 1989] and Brezhnev in Russia.

Grebeníček, in a completely opportunistic manner, attached himself to us - to our appeal. To us!? Grebeníček, the chairman of the Communist party, associates himself with us, those who fought against Communism. That is enough to simply make you either shoot the guy or at least tell him, "Look, stay home and count yourself lucky."

Out of the six of us [initiators], at least five are in favour of banning the Communist Party altogether

Even if 20 per cent of people voted for them?

I'm not interested in who is voting for them. Maybe if you didn't ban the NSDAP, then 30 per cent of people would still be voting for them today. Who knows?

Fascist, nationalist parties, Communist parties, which historically have so much blood on their hands, in a normal country should be placed outside of the law. I am not talking about France, for example, where the Communist party has a completely different historical background. I am talking about the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia which transformed itself into the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia and which is responsible for hundreds of thousands of destroyed human fates and tens of thousands of political murders.

Why expend so much energy on them then at all?

We didn't. We said three words: Communists stay home. Three.

But your second largest event was based around the 1948 Communist takeover.

Yes. In memory of February. Of course, that's what I've been talking about here for the past half hour. Because the parallel between 1948 and 1999/2000 is very strong. At that time, Communists took power basically also democratically. There wasn't any military takeover here... they managed to perfectly take advantage of public opinion, to take advantage of the fact that it was after the war, that prior to the war there had been a big crisis, to take advantage of Munich [1938].

So basically they took advantage of public opinion and took over... the government, and the purges began... They formed one National Front and eradicated the pluralist party system. It ended with totalitarianism, political murders, jails, camps and so on.

What Klaus did, of course, [was] a softer version. Nevertheless, a coalition agreement between the two largest parties is a very unconventional approach and could end up with this same model. Klaus, along with his advisors, behaves in the same way. They are demagogues; they lie just like the Communists, use demagogy just like the Communists did and are doing everything to stay in power and couldn't care less about the interests of the state and its citizens. Communists were also only interested in power. Nothing else.

A second reason for the demonstration was that we feel we owe something to the people who fought against Communism and fascism... who only lived to see democracy near the end of their lives. It seemed to us that throughout all the ten years since 1989, the state... not that it didn't thank them but that they didn't thank them enough.

There were a lot less people at this demonstration than the first one, do you think this was because the theme didn't strike as much of a chord as the last one?

The reason why less people came was twofold. One was that the subject of Communism does not bring out young people. It's a subject more for the older generation... I regret that, because it means we are not proud that our grandfathers and fathers, well some of some of our grandfathers and fathers, who were able to pick up a gun and go into a completely hopeless battle...

So the low participation wasn't a sign that the movement had lost momentum?

The second reason, of course, was that we had lost momentum. But more importantly this second event was organised by the civic association Thank You, Now Leave. It no longer had the spontaneity. It was now an institution. It was also prepared by a much smaller team, and, I don't want to say chaotically, but they didn't have the experience. So three days before, they were considering cancelling the demonstration. But in the end they didn't, and I'm glad.

Outside of deliberations on becoming a party, have there been any other concrete, direct initiatives?

No. The founding of the association was itself a fairly arduous and complicated process, because it is one thing to sign a petition, but when 100 people get together everyone has a different opinion of what next.

In what concrete ways has the support for the movement manifested itself?

One of the main objectives of the association was to promote interest in politics in the regions. That is something that really appealed to me, and I find it extremely important. To establish some kind of new politics based around the principle that we are going to listen to citizens and that politics will not be done in Prague.

That is why the civic association is very much needed and a good thing. Networks are being formed - in Brno, Hradec Kralové, Liberec, Olomouc etc. These centres should deal with politics at the regional level That means watch over their city halls, their MPs and so on. And if it is later necessary - for example at the elections - to organise a nation-wide event, then the co-ordination centre in Prague will call around and organise it.

Actually, I had a vision that the regions would work independently, but a slightly different model was chosen, and the centre was again established in Prague, unfortunately.

Do you think that this possible new party could draw upon this untapped potential of the regions?

The potential in the regions is tremendous. Unfortunately, so far we have hit upon the fact that Prague has a bad reputation there - it's almost an aversion - which isn't good. So far, what I've noticed that the regions have tremendous problems, and it's true that these can't be seen from Prague, and they are always looking to Prague, waiting for it to help them. It's a kind of contradiction: on one hand they talk of centralism and Prago-centrism, and on the other hand if there is trouble, they expect Prague to come help them. I think that the regions have to realise that there are things that they have to solve themselves.

But again this is because Klaus didn't want to carry out decentralisation. To this day, he is fighting against the regions. He doesn't want elected regional bodies. He needs to have people dependent on him and on Prague. We think otherwise. We think we should forget about Prague for a while and solve the problems in the regions.

So far, the movement that has sprung up around the appeal seems to have been centred around fairly abstract terms, such as "decent politics," and no concrete programme has emerged. Why is that?

Yes, I know, it's difficult. In the original version of the appeal there was something about Christianity as the basis of European culture and the principles which we [the six founders, ed] support. In the end, what remained was the pledge of internal decency which is perhaps an abstract concept. But it's interesting that this appeal struck such a strong chord among people. In the first days, when reactions were strongest, people were also reacting to this decency. The minute people like you came along - journalists and political scientists - and started carving it up, saying "what is decent? and "it's very vague and abstract" etc etc, then it turned wishy-washy.

If people reacted to the imperative of a decent politics, that means that they are lacking this decency. It's not a programme? I don't know, I guess it is a programme. Let's behave decently. It is a programme. There are a thousand examples of what is indecent. Is the agreement between Klaus and Zeman decent? Is the fact that managers who cause banks billions of crowns in losses get millions of crowns in severance pay? Is it decent that small businessmen are locked up for debts of a few thousand crowns and people who robbed billions of crowns in property have not even been attempted to be prosecuted? Is it decent that someone lies?

How does one realise this decency in daily political life?

Take the CDU finance scandal, it played into the hands of Klaus and all those who say politics can't do without this type of behaviour. "It happens to everyone, even us. Sorry, we won't leave," they say. Klaus says sorry or doesn't even say sorry but simply says I won't leave, period. In Germany, such a thing wipes the parties from the political scene. It shouldn't have happened, but if it did, then at least they leave. It's decent to leave. That doesn't happen here.

That is why we have to wait until the elections. Because indecent politicians are in power here... Which is not to say that Klaus will fall completely in the next elections, because many people are glad that Klaus is there. He impresses them, because he is charismatic in his way and gives the impression of being strong.

After all, he impressed even some of the initiators of your appeal...

Yes, some. Igor Chaun and I supported Klaus in 1990, when he formed the ODS.

Has he changed that much over the years?

I guess we didn't know him. If we had known him, then we wouldn't have supported him. I don't think he changed. He is simply a spoiled brat... a spoiled, immature man. What are you going to do? He's there. We elected him.

So what is the next step?

The most important one lies ahead of us - the elections. Of course, we could try one other alternative, of which Klaus is extremely afraid, and that's to get the people into the streets and force Klaus, respectively Zeman, to leave. But I think the time has passed. The atmosphere is no longer there.

I personally expected that [Richard] Falbr, supposed leader of the trade unions, would say something about our appeal, but then you find out that he became senator thanks to ČSSD, so he can't speak out against Zeman.

Everyone looked at us six like the white knights. But it's not about us. It's about the people. We are not going to travel around the regions and rile people up to overthrow Zeman and Klaus. Either it will happen spontaneously. People will riot. They can't always wait until someone gives the order.

The other alternative is the elections. And I have to say that if in two years from now, Klaus wins, then I think I am not the only one who is considering emigration.

Kazi Stastna, 5 March 2000

See this week's accompanying articles:

A book review of a collection of interviews with 100 "student leaders" of November 1989, inlcuding Martin Mejstřík.

How revolutionary were the "student revolutionaries" of 1989? A reprint of an article from the Czech weekly Respekt.

CER's spotlight on the December 1999 "Thank You, Now Leave" protest.

An interview with another initiator of "Thank You, Now Leave", Igor Chaun, conduted by Kazi Stastna.

An archive of articles by Kazi Stastna is here.



A Failed Protest

Martin Mejstřík
'89 Student Leader

Revolting Students?

Glory or Glorification
Book Review


Sam Vaknin:
Faustian Financiers

Catherine Lovatt:
Dirty Elections


Haider or History?

Aquatic Chernobyl

Balkan Burden

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