Martin Butora: Working with Vaclav Havel

Source: The Freedom Collection /

Martin Bútora is a Slovak sociologist, writer, civil society activist and former diplomat. He was born in Bratislava in 1944. He studied sociology and philosophy at Bratislava’s Comenius University and at Charles University in Prague.

In the late 1960s, he was a writer and editor for several student newspapers that advocated reforms in communist Czechoslovakia. After the August 1968 Soviet invasion ended the Prague Spring period of liberalization, Martin worked as a sociologist and therapist, continuing to write for underground publications. In November 1989, Martin was one of the cofounders of Public Against Violence, a Slovak civic political and movement. Along with its Czech counterpart Civic Forum, Public Against Violence organized the peaceful mass demonstrations that brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime in what became known as the Velvet Revolution.

With the restoration of democracy in Czechoslovakia, Martin continued his engagement in public affairs. Between 1990 and 1992, he served as Human Rights Advisor to President Vaclav Havel and Director of the Human Rights Section in the president’s office.

Following the 1993 division of the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Martin turned his attention to teaching and civil society. In 1997, he founded the Institute for Public Affairs, a Bratislava think tank. He was a leader in Slovak civil society’s efforts to defeat autocratic Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar in the 1998 parliamentary elections. The civil society voter education and motivation campaigns helped convince nearly 85 percent of eligible voters to take part and secured a majority for a democratic and pro-reform government.

From 1999 to 2003, he served as Slovakia’s Ambassador to the United States, where he played a key role in securing his country’s membership in NATO. He ran as an independent candidate in Slovakia’s 2004 presidential elections.

Martin currently works as the Honorary President of the Institute for Public Affairs and Program Director of the institute’s European Integration and Transatlantic Relations program.

For me, it was a unique, amazing experience. Because, I admit, that the first weeks when I woke up in the morning, I had to pinch myself to see if it was really true that [Vaclav] Havel was the president. It was something so unbelievable and so impossible and so unimaginable that one was somehow processing it emotionally all the time. I think that right in the beginning, he did a great job entering the scene with his New Year’s speech and with his energy and charisma that he had, the charisma of his personality, but also with the intellectual component. [Just three days after becoming the first noncommunist President of Czechoslovakia in decades, Vaclav Havel gave a memorable address to the nation, proclaiming, “People, your government has returned to you!”]

I came there, not during the first term, but only after the elections in 1990, and became the advisor for human rights. [Havel was twice selected Czechoslovak President by the parliament, in 1989 for an interim term, and after the first free elections in 1990 for a two-year term. He later served two terms as Czech President, following the division of Czechoslovakia.] That was an area that was not particularly defined and I think my job was to communicate with various very diverse groups who thought that their human rights were infringed, or were violated during the previous regimes and who were coming to and looking up to Havel as a symbol that he could do something about it, that it was more like the position of an ombudsman who naturally did not have the authority.

But this is what the people thought when they came. And second, it was also the foreign communications, to somehow gradually explain to those really hundreds and hundreds of important people from foreign countries who were coming that Havel’s program very clearly and concisely includes that dimension of gradual restoration of human rights, obviously, in cooperation with the parliament who also approved the act. In addition, it was a personal experience of a man who was, I believe, in his nature, his disposition, his ability to listen, with his certain bashfulness, that he was not a hierarchical leader of some organization, but he was a man with whom everyone quickly felt at ease, felt normally, he was a man who clearly did not think of himself as a world champion, he always had this kind of gentle nervousness about him, and who was able to discuss things, debate, ask, and who could always create an amazing atmosphere along with others where something great was happening.

He was elected president for two years, and during this really short period of time he wanted to erect the key pillars of this new regime. That means, obviously, that one part dealt with the political and democratic institutions, and the other part dealt with a different economy. And the third thing, that was more complicated, that did not happen at that time the way Havel and others hoped for was to find some form of constitutional arrangement between the Czech and Slovak parts of the country. That was unsuccessful.

I think Václav Havel took this as his failure to do the job. Then when those countries first split and divorced, but then they started to get closer to each other again – accession to NATO, accession to the EU, so Havel was the one, just like Madeleine Albright [Then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and later Secretary of State. Albright was born in Prague and had a strong interest in Czechoslovakia.], who very much tried to help Slovakia to come back again, so that it would return, figuratively speaking, that those borders that were built would be torn down again, so the we would be a part of one community; the community of Euro-Atlantic democracies.

The Vaclav Havel Center