In 1989, Ambassador Bútora was a cofounder of the Public Against Violence movement, the leading Slovak force in the Velvet Revolution against communism. Following the revolution he served as a human rights advisor to President Vaclav Havel. After the “velvet divorce,” during which the Czech and Slovak republics peacefully separated into two countries, Bútora continued his democratic activism in Slovakia, eventually becoming a co-founder of OK ’98, the coalition of nongovernmental organizations that played a key role in restoring Slovakia’s democratic transition. Wendy Luers, president of the Foundation for a Civil Society, presented NED’s award to Bútora, describing both him and his wife, Zora Bútorová, as “incredibly important leaders of the NGO sector” in Slovakia. Luers said that despite Slovakia’s difficult times following its split with the Czech Republic, the Bútoras chose to remain there. Instead of leaving, “they used their rooftop as a place for intellectuals, for the politicians, [and] the NGO leaders of Slovakia, and talked about the future,” she said.
In his acceptance remarks, Bútora asked the audience not to forget the sacrifices made by many individuals for the sake of democratic change. “We should pay tribute to them and never, never forget them,” he said. Bútora proudly went on to report that during Slovakia’s last election, 80 percent of the 380,000 voters aged 18 to 21 voted, compared with 20 percent in the 1994 elections, thanks to programs such as the NED-supported “Rock the Vote” campaign. More than two-thirds of those young voters supported the opposition, helping to oust authoritarian president Vladimir Meciar.
Ambassador Vondra’s entire adult life has been focused on bringing democracy to the Czech Republic. After graduating from college in 1985 he became involved in the democratic opposition, working on samizdat publications and helping to build coalitions with democrats in other eastern bloc countries, including Poland and Hungary. He signed the pro-freedom document, Charter 77, and as a result was forced to take jobs outside his profession, including one as a boilermaker. By 1989 Vondra had become a spokesperson for the organization Charter 77 and a co-founder of the Civic Forum movement, eventually earning himself two months in prison for his role in organizing opposition demonstrations in January 1989. Since the revolution, Vondra has served as a foreign policy advisor to President Havel in several capacities, including Deputy Foreign Minister.
Irena Kirkland, the widow of former AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland and a native Czech who was imprisoned for three weeks following the Communist takeover because of her democratic activism, presented the Democracy Service Medal to Ambassador Vondra. In her remarks she quipped that Vondra had lived out the Soviet dream, rising from a boilermaker to become Ambassador to the United States.