Civic Forum: An Unconventional--but Effective--Engine for Reform : Czechoslovakia: The opposition group’s objective is ‘not to be very specific about our objectives,’ its leaders say.


The only requirement for Civic Forum membership, the opposition group’s spokesman, Jiri Dienstbier, said the other day, is a desire to be rid of the constitutional “leading role” of any political party.

By that standard, the entire, Communist-dominated Czechoslovak Parliament became eligible Wednesday, when it voted unanimously to amend this country’s basic law to eliminate the controversial clause that for 41 years has given the Communists a monopoly on power.

That the vote came only 10 days after Civic Forum declared its existence is testimony to the effectiveness of what has, virtually overnight, become Eastern Europe’s fastest-growing and most talked about democratic movement.

It’s an amorphous movement--and not only proud of it but determined to stay that way.


“It’s growing spontaneously,” said Martin Palous, a political scientist and Civic Forum adviser during a 90-second “interview” as he raced to meet an American diplomat. “I can’t tell you how its organized, because it’s not organized at all. People are forming local centers, and we’re putting pins in a map.”

As much as its leaders joke about their lack of organization, however, they’re planning a national congress, possibly in as soon as two weeks.

They talk about their objective being “not to be very specific about our objectives"--it keeps everybody on their toes, particularly the representatives of the system they’re determined to overthrow.

They claim to be political amateurs, but their tactics have so far won nothing but praise, even from grudging admirers among their Communist Party adversaries.


“They’re using the same strategies against us as we used in 1948,” when the Communists took over Czechoslovakia, a party activist said to a diplomatic acquaintance the other day.

Not quite. As far as anyone knows, Civic Forum hasn’t shot anyone yet--which makes its record all the more impressive.

The group’s temporary headquarters at Prague’s Magic Lantern Theater attracts a constant crush of visitors. On Wednesday, scores were watching a live television broadcast from an extraordinary session of the Czechoslovak Parliament on one of two outdoor sets.

Others read the latest handbills posted on the theater walls or taped to the windows of the clothing store and bookstore on either side. “We Need a Merry Christmas With a New Government,” read one.

Another steady stream of visitors lined up for free literature. “Though I’m Communist, I fully identify with the demands of Civic Forum,” said Karel Ksandr, 23, who was one of about 50 people queuing up at mid-afternoon Wednesday. “It seems that these proclamations truly mirror the ideas of a vast majority of people around me.”

There are no dues for Civic Forum membership, although there are cardboard boxes for donations.

When he announced its formation at a press conference in his living room barely 10 days ago, dissident playwright Vaclav Havel said that “perhaps something like New Forum in East Germany can develop out of this,” though he quickly added that was probably too optimistic. In fact, the Czechoslovak group has far surpassed its East German counterpart, and Havel’s comment today seems an extraordinary understatement.

While in the broadest sense both Civic Forum and Poland’s Solidarity are social movements, Czechoslovak activists strongly reject comparison with their counterparts one country to the north.


“Solidarity had to struggle not for 10 days but for 10 years,” said Dienstbier. “And today there are problems whether Solidarity is a trade union or a political party. This would certainly represent an obstacle to our main objective, which is to establish a real plurality of forces.”

“Civic Forum is a very loose grouping--a broad forum,” said Havel. “It is not and cannot be a political party.”

While it is negotiating with the government over the membership and program of a new Cabinet to be nominated by next Sunday, Havel has pledged that “in no case” will representatives of the group be directly represented.

Civic Forum’s leaders appear genuinely uninterested in political roles for themselves. Their concern is to see the society energized.

Its members scold people who ask them what to do. “We are not your superior body,” the group said in a statement addressed to burgeoning local Civic Forum groups Wednesday. “You yourselves know what must be done today and what should be done tomorrow.”

Its own personnel seem to change jobs “from day to day,” said a diplomat. “The only thing that seems to be at the center is Vaclav Havel. And even he doesn’t have any formal role. They call him ‘chief.’ ”

“There are a few people on top who consult with a body of about 100 other people. And that’s it,” said Jan Urban, one of those 100 advisers. “It’s a group of amateurs, most of them dissidents” associated with the Charter 77 human rights movement here. For example, Urban, a former schoolteacher, was fired for refusing to sign a condemnation of the original Charter 77 signatories and spent the next dozen years tending horses, working in a factory and laying bricks.

Then there are the scores of volunteers, like Vladimira Zakova, 28, a Russian and English translator. “It’s just this feeling that we must all do something to help,” she explained Wednesday, during her fifth day on the job. “Earlier, I was just going to the demonstrations. But then I realized that my knowledge and abilities could be better used here.”


Zakova said she was in the midst of translating an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel into Czech when the revolution broke out. Because of her activity, “I’m horribly late” with the job. However, she said, “I think this is more important. F. Scott Fitzgerald is the only person who would regret this.”

Urban describes Civic Forum’s decision-making process as “theater revolution. . . . People sit in the theater, and they discuss. Then they go into different rooms and discuss in committees. They they join together again, discuss some more and issue proclamations.”

While they may not be practiced politicians, their political instincts have been unerring so far.

After the brutal police suppression of a student demonstration on Nov. 17, they recognized a political turning point and organized their movement before most of the Communist leadership, unaware, returned to town from weekend homes in the country.

This week, after leading an enormously successful two-hour nationwide strike Monday, Civic Forum suddenly called off further demonstrations so as not to risk dulling its main weapon through overuse.

Meeting with an Italian Communist delegation earlier this week, Havel stressed that Civic Forum is not anti-Communist but anti-totalitarian. In fact, he said, the group hopes that reform-minded Communists will “rejuvenate” the Czechoslovak party.

This weekend, the group is supposed to move into new quarters arranged by Prague’s Communist Party leadership. Civic Forum’s members were offered space in the Palace of Culture--which, ironically, was the site of a major Prague party meeting last weekend. But they turned it down as too far from the center of the city.

Despite the speed with which the democratic revolution here has unfolded, Forum activists figure that much work remains to be done.

“Civic Forum has declared itself a guarantee of holding free elections, and under no circumstances will it terminate its own activities unless a free election is held,” said Dienstbier.

And what role will it play in those elections?

An amorphous one, it would appear. “History began to develop very quickly in . . . a country that has had 20 years of timelessness,” Havel said earlier this week while apologizing to journalists for not offering specific answers to questions about the future. “So don’t ask more of us than we are capable of delivering.”