The 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution


  • Picture of Alastair Merrill FICPS FRSA
    Alastair Merrill FICPS FRSA
    Governance, Procurement, Higher Education and Public Sector reform
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This article is an abstract of a presentation given by Alastair to a conference at Charles University, Prague, to mark the 30th Anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and the 80th of the International Students’ Day.

A long way from academia

30 years ago I was working for the UK’s Ministry of Defence, on my first diplomatic posting to NATO's Headquarters in Brussels.  Back then, even with Gorbachev’s reforms, the Cold War appeared to be a permanent feature. NATO membership had been fixed at 16 since Spain had signed the Washington Treaty.  The purpose of the Alliance revolved around the Article 5 commitment that an attack on one would be treated as an attack on all; little had changed since Lord Ismay’s dictum that NATO existed “to keep the Germans down, the Russians out, and the Americans in”.

The techniques and tactics of the Cold War created a kind of stasis, and NATO was ill equipped to cope with the dramatic events in the autumn and winter of 1989.  It became fashionable to question the continued need for the North Atlantic Alliance.  It was in 1989 that Francis Fukayama first published his often mis-quoted essay, titled “The End of History”.

A decade of change

War in the Balkans in the first half of the 1990s gave NATO a new lease of life.  As a UN peacekeeper, I saw first hand the failure of the UNPROFOR mission at Srebrenica.  Back in the Ministry of Defence, I supported NATO’s deployment to implement the Dayton Peace Accords, which had brought an end to Milosevic’s campaign of ethnic cleansing.  NATO had responded to the formation of the Visegrad Group by creating the North Atlantic Co-operation Council as a forum for dialogue for the former members of the Warsaw Pact.  In 1994 this was given more substance and purpose through the launch of the Partnership for Peace as a means of developing more practical forms of military co-operation.

By the mid-1990s it was clear that NATO was not going to go away.

The question then became whether – and how – former members of the Warsaw Pact could join the North Atlantic Alliance and benefit from the protection afforded by Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. There was no mention of further NATO enlargement in the agreements on German Reunification that brought the former East Germany into the Alliance, but whilst it was a key Russian concern, it was not ruled out. 

The road to 1999 and The Madrid Communique

In 1996, I was again working in NATO’s international staff as one of the deputy directors of the cabinet of Secretary General Javier Solana.  By then, the prospect of NATO enlargement had become very real and it was not so much a case of “if” as of “when and who”.

Part of my job was to design and run the consultation process that would lead to a decision on which countries should be invited to join as the first post-Cold War members.  The plan was to be able to issue formal invitations by the time of NATO’s summit meeting in Madrid in the summer of 1997.

Negotiations in international bodies can be tortuous and hierarchical -  almost as much so as in universities!  Dr Solana held several rounds of informal consultations with individual NATO ambassadors, before NATO Foreign Ministers met at Sintra in Portugal in the May of 1997.  Whilst a general consensus emerged early on that the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary were obvious front runners, threats to block enlargement came from France, who backed Romanian candidacy, and Italy, who backed Slovenia.  Germany feared the reaction of Russia to the body's enlargement.  The US was being lobbied heavily by the Baltic states, but wanted the first tranche of new members to be kept to a minimum.

Negotiations continued throughout the Madrid Summit and eventually a formula was found:

6.          Today, we invite the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland to begin accession talks with NATO.  Our goal is to sign the Protocol of Accession at the time of the Miisterial `meetings in December 1997 and to see the ratification process completed in time for membership to become effective by the 50th anniversary of the Washington Treaty in April 1999…..

8.          We reaffirm that NATO remains open to new members…..The Alliance will continue to welcome new members in a position to further the principles of the treaty and contribute to security in the Euro-Atlantic area.  The Alliance expects to extend further invitations in coming years…..No European democratic country….will be excluded from consideration.

This finely balanced compromise made it clear that NATO’s door remained open to further new members, and explicitly stated the Alliance’s expectation to issue further invitations in the coming years.

President Havel, who was attending Madrid as a member of the North Atlantic Co-Operation Council, acknowledged the invitation graciously. Accession discussions continued until December of 1997 when the Foreign Ministers of the 16 - plus the three new states - met to sign the formal accession protocols.

The detail of the Czech Republic’s integration into NATO’s structures was elaborated through 1998 and in the spring of that year I accompanied Dr Solana on a visit to Prague where he was to be presented with the Order of the White Lion.  As well as the formal meetings, I had the privilege to attend the Secretary General’s working dinner with President Havel.  The menu records that we ate smoked duck, salmon with dumplings, and fruit salad - washed down, of course, with Pilsner Urquell!

Finally, in spring of 1999, at NATO’s 50th anniversary summit in Washington DC, the formal signature of the Washington Treaty took place. It was almost a decade since the momentous events of November 1989; the signing set the tone both for the subsequent expansion of NATO, now 29 members strong, as well as the accession of the Czech Republic, and other former Warsaw Pact states, to other international institutions, most notably the EU.


Thirty years on from 1989 and 20 years on from 1999, the Czech Republic is fully integrated into European economic, political and military structures – and has been for a generation.  But three decades ago, even two, none of this was certain, none of this was inevitable.

So as we commemorate the Velvet Revolution, it is important to remember just how hard fought that freedom was.  We take all this for granted at our peril.  At the end of that dinner with Javier Solana, when discussing the risk of NATO accession being used as a tool for political gain within the Czech Republic, President Havel warned of the “dangers of instant democracy and demagoguery”.  In my own country, I have seen how that can manifest itself through the agony of Brexit.  To protect the future, we must be vigilant about preserving the lessons and memories of the past.

Alastair Merrill FRSA is currently the Vice Principal of Governance at the University of St Andrews. His personal recollections of the decade since 1989 were first given at a conference at Charles University in Prague on 16 November and later written up in the current format.

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