The story starts out simply enough: “Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.” What follows, in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, is absurd, a comedy of errors, except that it is not funny and the ending can’t be more tragic. Joseph K. is subjected to a semi-legal nightmare – accusation, interrogation, endless trial, unseen judges, and a sentence executed in the evening on a stone in a quarry.
Kafka worked in an insurance company in the city of his birth, Prague. Although he does not mention any specific locale for The Trial, which adds to its universal quality, the novel reflects the time and place of its creation. Kafka studied law in the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He spent his days, miserably, among files and figures. He was a German-speaking Jew in a multi-ethnic society. He felt oppressed not by a specific set of individuals or even by his own government, but by a much larger system of social and political codes that he only dimly understood. The German critic Willy Haas once wrote of Kafka, “I cannot imagine how any man can understand him at all who was not born in Prague in the period 1880 to 1890.”
I would amend that comment. Anyone born in Prague later in the 20th century would also understand Kafka and The Trial all too well. Consider, for instance, the Slansky show trial that took place in Prague in 1952. There were 14 defendants, all of them arrested “one fine morning” and “without having done anything wrong.” They were all top-ranking Communist officials, arrested by the Communist government for alleged espionage and treason. Rudolf Slansky was the general secretary of the Communist Party. Another one of the 14 was a Kafka scholar. Eleven of them were Jews. Except for three who were given life sentences, all of them were executed after being forced to sign confessions.
One of the three given a life sentence was Pavel Kavan, an official in the foreign ministry. “I was five years old when the Secret Service people burst into our flat in the very early morning and searched it and arrested my father,” remembers his son Jan Kavan. “From the time I started to attend school, I was branded as the son of a traitor and an imperialist mother, and I somehow had to come to terms with that, to understand it.”
In part because of this experience, Jan Kavan became a political activist in the 1960s. “My main preoccupation was to find out the truth about the political trials of the 1950s: why they happened, who was responsible for these judicial murders, what in the system enabled them to take place, and why such injustice met with a deafening silence from a majority of the population,” he explains. “I wanted to help to create a system that would forever make such cruel injustice impossible.”
He became one of the leaders of the student movement in 1968 and then, in exile in the United Kingdom, a key organizer in dissident circles not only in Czechoslovakia but throughout the Soviet bloc. In November 1989, he was the first dissident émigré to return to Prague.
And that’s when history began to repeat itself. His father had returned to Prague from England after World War II only to find himself eventually accused of treason and put on trial. Although his son had an impeccable record as a dissident, he too had to suffer through charges of spying and collaboration. Kafka’s account is tame in comparison.
“The court proceedings took five years,” Jan Kavan recalls. “But very little happened during those five years. A court would be convened and then immediately adjourned. Or there would be only one session during the whole year. The court asked the ministry of interior, the other side, to produce its witnesses, but none were ever submitted. On the other hand, I gave the court quite a long list of witnesses I wished to call. However, the court decided to call only some of them. A number of well known witnesses, for example President Havel, the court rejected on the grounds that they knew me much better from mid-1970s onwards but not so well in the years in question, 1969-1970. All the witnesses who testified fully confirmed my own recollections of the events. From my point of view, it must have been obvious to the judges from the very beginning that the whole case was politically motivated and not based on any fact.”
After those five years, Jan Kavan was cleared of all charges. He went on to become Czech foreign minister and the president of the UN General Assembly.
We sat down in mid-February in the parliamentary dining room in the administrative building located in the Malostranska district below the Prague Castle. Kavan described the ordeal of his father and his own subsequent political trials. He also talked about key moments in his political career, from negotiating an agreement with Austria to ease the Czech Republic’s entry into the European Union to going up against the George W. Bush administration over the invasion of Iraq.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Yes, I do remember, quite well. I was in Wroclaw, in Poland, where there was a joint Solidarity meeting between the Czechs and the Poles organized by our Polish dissident friends. At the time, Poland was slowly on the way to democratic changes. In Czechoslovakia, it was still pretty tough under the so-called normalization rules. Quite a large number of young Czech students tried to make their way to Poland for the meeting. Many of them were stopped at the border. Some of them successfully made their way through East Germany. Other Czechs arrived from their different places of exile, including myself, from London.
The meeting was huge. Basically there were activities throughout the whole city: discussions with politicians and historians but also cultural events. And there was also some symbolic presence of our East German friends. Our Polish friends had very close contact with Berlin, so we knew what was happening there. The fall of the Wall was clearly an obvious encouragement, a sign that things were moving. Not everyone expected that they would move so fast, after early November 1989. But it was a question of not if but when.
Did you have a celebration in Wroclaw?
There was a kind of celebration every evening, but it was more a celebration of mutual solidarity, including solidarity with our East German friends. But the main emphasis was cooperation between Czechs and Slovaks and Poles.
After this meeting, you went back to London.
So you were in London when you heard about the events here in in Prague later that month?
Yes. I obviously followed it very closely. I was in touch with the Czechoslovak opposition for 20 years, on almost a daily basis. So it was relatively easy for me to get day-to-day, almost hour-by-hour information. As soon as it became very likely, bordering on certainty, that the then Communist Party leadership would fall and that there would be some sort of change — although it was difficult to estimate what kind of change – I went to the Czechoslovak embassy and asked for a visa. The problem was that I had used my British passport — I am British by birth — several times earlier. Each time I’d changed my name by deed poll, which is perfectly legal in the UK, so that the passport didn’t give any impression of having anything to do with Czechoslovakia.
In previous years, I primarily went to Hungary, Poland, and East Germany to meet both my Charter 77 Czech friends but also local opposition in those countries and tried to link them as closely as possible. I was one of the top editors of the East European Reporter, whose main purpose was to give voice to these oppositions and provide in particular coordination to their joint statements. However, in 1988, when I was in Czechoslovakia for the second time using this particular method, after my departure, during the interrogations of some of the dissidents, one of the ladies actually disclosed that I’d been there. Given that information, it wasn’t difficult for them to check retrospectively what passport I used. All the other information in the passport — date of birth, place of birth — were accurate. So, in November 1989, I didn’t have time to change my name again. I decided to take the risk.
When I arrived at the Prague airport on November 25, 1989 as the first Czech re-émigré — that was a strange term they gave us — I gave over my passport at the control desk and was immediately taken out of the queue. It became obvious that they knew who I was. So, after a short time of continuing my story and speaking English, it became obvious that this would not get me anywhere. I spent 16-17 hours of interrogation at the airport. It was quite interesting because the people questioning me were changing from time to time, and because the door to the next room was frequently opened, I could hear the radio in that room. The radio was full of information about demonstrations, meetings, the responses of institutions to the ongoing changes. The interrogators were getting more and more nervous. At one point, many hours later, one of the top guys questioning me said, “What’s happening just now is the result of the activities of you and your friends. You are one of the main protagonists. And you should tell us what the next steps will be.”
That was the highest praise he could give you!
Indeed. I don’t think he saw it like that, though. By 2 a.m., after threatening to put me on a plane back to the UK, they decided to let me into the country. In fact, they drove me to the center of Prague and dropped me in front of one of the luxury hotels. I didn’t want to give the name of the hotel where my couriers used to stay, which of course was much cheaper. I stayed the night at the luxury hotel. The following day I went to the Civic Forum headquarters and met my good friend Petr Uhl. I went to the big demonstration that day and got onto the platform where I talked to Petr, who had just recently been released from prison 24 hours earlier. He said something like, “History is being made every minute now.” I don’t know how much attention he paid to what I was telling him. The most important piece of information I wanted to relate to him was this: when the secret service people drove me to Prague, they made it very clear that they would contact me and would obviously ask me more questions. I was looking for some advice from him about how to respond. He took note of it, but I don’t think he attached too much importance to it. There were many more important things happening in those hours.
But the next morning, the secret service people did wake me up at my hotel (I had by then moved to the small inexpensive hotel that I used to recommend to my couriers) and drove me to one of the villas in the Dejvice district of Prague, one of the districts for the better off, and they continued to question me there. This time it was a much more pleasant environment. They were clearly trying to give me the impression that they knew everything about my London-based activities and contacts with Prague. They had some information but not as detailed as they were trying to convey. But they were clearly aware of the basic content of my activities. Halfway through this discussion, they made it clear that they already knew that I’d been at the Civic Forum headquarters, that I had a card that permitted me entrance there. They were asking me questions, and I was giving them general non-answers. Towards the end of this conversation, one of the two men asked me a relatively strange question: Did I want whiskey or champagne — to celebrate the changes. I thought that whiskey was a bit tough and would cloud my mind. So I said champagne, knowing it wouldn’t have influence on me.
When they poured the drinks, he said something like, “Let’s drink to the future.”
I said, “I think the future as I would like to see it is quite different from your own. But drinking to the future is no problem.”
So we had a drink. That was more or less it. In terms of content, it was pretty similar to what they were asking me at the airport. And I gave them very similar answers, which didn’t add to the knowledge they already had.
What I did not know, and discovered only much later, was that they placed me on a settee that faced a television and in the television they had an inbuilt camera. They were filming and recording the whole event. During the long interrogation at the airport, one guy openly walked around with a camera filming me, so there was no pretense. I knew that they had those tapes because from time to time they went to change these. I learned about the other taping months and months later, after the so-called lustration law was passed, when I was already a member of the federal assembly, our parliament. Then it was used frequently on the TV, to back up the argument that I was meeting StB [State Security] officers in their villa and drinking there with them. Obviously a top spy….
The idea of the lustration law was to check on the past of primarily members of parliament, top civil servants, and government officials to see if they had collaborated with the secret service and to make sure that the secret service would not infiltrate any of the new democratic institutions. I was then working again very closely with Petr Uhl. We both agreed that it was not a perfect piece of legislation, but we agreed that it would be useful to learn who out of our parliamentary colleagues was responsible for sending our friends to prison. And we both believed that the secret service would attempt to infiltrate the new authorities. We both voted for the law, with no hesitation. I had no idea that the law could be misused. I voted for it with a clear conscience.
The only debate was when Petr Uhl and several others had slightly different views than the majority of MPs. The legislation proposed by then Deputy Prime Minister Rychetsky clearly stipulated that each individual would have to be checked or examined. However, this provision contained in the preamble was removed by a series of amendments put forward by the right-wing members of the federal assembly. Therefore, the impact of the legislation as it was eventually passed was to create a kind of collective guilt and responsibility. There was no procedure for an individual assessment of the responsibilities of given officials as, for example, it was agreed in East Germany, where it had been clearly built into their legislation. Some of us fought against the amendments that introduced the notion of collective guilt, which I have always opposed, whether it applied to the Germans after World War II or all those who have been members of the Communist Party in the dreadful 1950s. It’s a very dangerous principle. However, we were defeated on that. But even then the warning signals didn’t quite penetrate my mind at that moment.
Several weeks later the Commission for the Investigation of the Events of 17th of November, the official name of the parliamentary lustration commission, asked me to come to their premises. I had no idea why I was being asked. When I got there, I was informed that the Commission had come across a secret service file on my contacts with the former educational attaché at the Czechoslovak embassy in London, Mr. Frantisek Zajicek, who, in fact, was a secret service agent. They concluded from the file that I might be guilty of collaborating with the former secret service StB. They asked me to resign my parliamentary mandate. I immediately refused. I perceived this request as absolutely ridiculous, as I did not feel in any way guilty of collaborating with my enemies and thus I had no intention of resigning. I wanted to confront whatever was in the file, and they agreed. I also got the impression from a relatively short conversation that they were not really aware of the content of the file. I later found out that there were two files for the two years (1969 and 1970), one for each year, and each one contained several hundred pages. The Commission hadn’t really studied them. For these new Jacobins, as we called them, it was sufficient to know that there were StB files on me. They said that the Commission would ask me questions and eventually they would reach a final conclusion that would be publicly announced and submitted to the parliament.
To cut the story short, I was invited again. I answered all their questions — not very sophisticated questions, I must say retrospectively. There were only a few people asking me questions. My suspicion today is that only one of the members read the entire file, and not very carefully at that.
I was in touch with the press spokesperson of the Commission, Mr. Toman, a lawyer and an MP, who was not among those questioning me. He informed me that the Commission perceived my file as very controversial and they were not quite sure how to interpret it. He himself thought that I would be cleared, which I have to say didn’t surprise me, since I knew my past much better that they did. At the time, I had slightly different preoccupations. I was getting married to a young girl I met in November 1989 in Wroclaw. I have never been married before. In fact, I had never considered the life of a political émigré to be suited to such a permanent status. In fact, it was during the wedding reception that I got a message that the Commission had voted. They couldn’t make up their mind if I was guilty or not. So, strangely, they took a vote. And I lost by one vote.
The vote was clearly divided ideologically, irrespective of the contents of the file. People to the Right voted against me, and people slightly to the Left voted for me. People with some legal education or at least legal awareness also voted for me because there was clearly no evidence against me in the file. I lost 7-6. Three weeks later, the list was published. There were 10 of us, members of parliament, who were discovered to have links with the StB, and we were, therefore, asked to resign. I again firmly refused to do so. I delivered a passionate speech in the parliament. I had a strange feeling of déjà vu. Like my father, I returned home from emigration in England to be accused by my colleagues of collaborating with the enemy. I took the whole matter to court. I still believed that the whole thing was a terrible misunderstanding and that when more objectively minded people would analyze the files, I would have to be cleared.
So I made a gesture: I would not collect my parliamentary salary until the end of the court investigation, which I assumed would take several months. But I wouldn’t resign because resignation would be an admission of guilt. I had no idea at the time that it would take five years: a very tough five years. The media attacked me every day. Of the 10, I was probably the most well known, the only person clearly linked to the dissident movement. So it was very advantageous for the opponents to suggest that Charter 77 had been infiltrated by the secret service. That some of the others among the 10 were members of the Communist Party was taken as natural. I became a sort of cause celebre. It made my life very difficult indeed: I could not find a job, and it was difficult to communicate with people who only knew me from the media as an StB agent. I was ostracized. Some people were afraid to be seen with me.
Interestingly enough, most of the friends of my wife, who were much younger and didn’t know me at all, automatically believed all the media accusations and concluded that I must really have been a terrible spy. I can think of only one exception among that group. On the other hand, most of the former Charter 77 spokespersons and other leading dissidents all rejected the accusations and expressed full solidarity with me. In my own microworld of people I was in touch with, no one questioned my story, which made sense and helped me to survive those terrible times.. If I had been a collaborator, then obviously many of them would have ended up in prison because I knew all about their activities. Some of them had been in prison but for different reasons, and it was clear to them that the authorities did not know about the activities that I was aware of.
The court proceedings took five years. But very little happened during those five years. A court would be convened and then immediately adjourned. Or there would be only one session during the whole year. The court asked the ministry of interior, the other side, to produce its witnesses, but none were ever submitted. On the other hand, I gave the court quite a long list of witnesses I wished to call. However, the court decided to call only some of them. A number of well known witnesses, for example President Havel, the court rejected on the grounds that they knew me much better from mid-1970s onwards but not so well in the years in question, 1969-1970. All the witnesses who testified fully confirmed my own recollections of the events. From my point of view, it must have been obvious to the judges from the very beginning that the whole case was politically motivated and not based on any fact.
But it took five years to clear my name. The ministry of interior immediately appealed the verdict. So I had to wait for the appeals court. Fortunately it took place relatively quickly, only a few months later. And so, in January 1996, I was finally completely cleared of this absurd accusation. This enabled me in November 1996 to run for the then newly created Senate (the upper house of the Parliament). I was elected to represent the Prostejov region in central Moravia, the birthplace of my Czech Jewish grandmother, whom I never met because she died in 1942 in Auschwitz.
However, despite the fact that I was clearly and unequivocally cleared by an independent court, and no one ever produced any shred of evidence against me, from time to time, some journalists still suggested that I could have been guilty and that evidence against me could have been destroyed. It’s also true that during those five years, the campaign against me frequently hit the headlines, and, especially, the electronic media were full of very unpleasant attacks that many people obviously remember until today. When I was finally cleared, there was only a small notice, tucked away on the bottom of last pages. So, there are still significant sections of the population, particularly younger people, who didn’t know me and my activities, who are prone to believe that maybe there was something: where there was smoke, there could have been fire. This doesn’t make my life easy even today, though officially there is no problem since I was cleared of all suspicions. The media still describe me as “controversial.”
Were you able to file for damages?
I didn’t file. I expected or hoped that some of the people who publicly declared, at the time, their strong conviction that I was guilty, including one top person from that Commission, would actually apologize. I expected this kind of public apology, but it never came. But I didn’t file for damages. I wanted an apology, not money.
Your decision to engage in dissident activities — was it a decision or more a function of circumstances, as a result of 1968, for instance?
My answer usually is that it wasn’t a decision. I was born into politics. I was born into a family that was highly political and in highly political times. My mother, an English teacher and supporter of the Labor Party, married during World War II. My father was an officer in the Czech army that was fighting alongside the British. He escaped from Nazi-occupied Prague in March 1939 just when the Gestapo came to arrest him. After the war, he became a charge d’affaires in the embassy in London, and he joined the Communist Party. In 1950, he was recalled from the embassy back to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Prague. By that time, many of his friends, almost all of them associated with activities in the West, had been imprisoned or had been under the shadow of suspicion. After six or seven months in Prague, he was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for being an alleged traitor, a sentence that was quickly commuted to 25 years in prison. He was one of the forced so-called witnesses at the trial of the “Conspiratorial Centre” led by Rudolf Slansky, the former general secretary of the Communist Party. A few months later, he became one of the defendants in the trial of Slansky´s alleged allies in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, together with one of his best friends, Prof. Eduard Goldstücker, our first ambassador to Israel.
I was five years old when the Secret Service people burst into our flat in the very early morning and searched it and arrested my father. From the time I started to attend school, I was branded as the son of a traitor and an imperialist mother, and I somehow had to come to terms with that, to understand it. My mother, along with the other wives of the prisoners or of the executed, had to make the difficult decision about what to tell their children. My mother decided it was best to tell me and my brother the truth. “Your father is in prison for something he hasn’t done,” she told us.. “He’s totally innocent. He’ll be cleared and will come home one day, but we don’t know when it will happen.”
At the same time, she tried hard to convince me not to become bitter against everything and everyone in society because they’d imprisoned my innocent father. She suggested that there were some nasty people at the top, who were guilty of this mistake, but that I have to believe that truth and justice will prevail one day. I am convinced that this was a very wise decision on the part of my mother. Her best friend Heda Margolius, whose husband Rudolf the Deputy Minister of Trade had been executed changed the surname of her son Ivan in order to protect him and told him that his father went abroad and died of malaria. Heda, herself a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, decided that she would tell him the truth when he was 18 and mature enough to come to terms with the enormity of this crime. By sheer coincidence, rummaging through some old papers, Ivan discovered the truth in his teens and became very angry and bitter. He emigrated in the 1960s to the UK and remained understandably bitter until today. It’s not for me to judge what would have been the best decision. All I can say is the way our mother explained this to me and my brother enabled us to avoid a possible later shock and to form our own standpoint towards these terrible events already as children.
When my father was eventually released, I didn’t recognize him. Unlike my brother, throughout his imprisonment, I was not able to see him. We were allowed to visit him for only one hour a year, and each time this permission was granted, I was ill in some hospital. So I never went to the prison, never saw him. So when he came out, it took me some time to recognize him as my father.
How old were you when he was released?
I was only 9, a schoolchild. He came out of prison with badly undermined health. As a prisoner, he had to work in the uranium mine. He was treated, like most of the political prisoners, as dispensable. He had a heart attack in prison that was not treated. Following his release on Christmas Day of 1955 he suffered another three heart attacks while fighting for the total rehabilitation of himself as well as his friends, some of whom were still in prison. That made his life very difficult. He did not survive the last heart attack and died at the age of 46, when I was 14, in May 1960.
This long story explains my sentence that I was born into politics. It was impossible for me not to think about politics. Teachers were asking me in school what I wanted to do when I grew up. I used to say that I wanted to be a medical doctor. During my frequent stays in hospitals I became a great admirer of doctors, who saved people’s lives. However, I couldn´t escape thinking about politics. My main preoccupation was to find out the truth about the political trials of the 1950s: why they happened, who was responsible for these judicial murders, what in the system enabled them to take place, and why such injustice met with a deafening silence from a majority of the population. I wanted to help to create a system that would forever make such cruel injustice impossible.
For this reason I applied to study politics at the university. Although my father was formally rehabilitated, the authorities understandably believed that I would not be very loyal. So I wasn’t even asked to go for an interview. The application was rejected out of hand. I was eventually accepted at the Faculty of journalism, which was my second choice. At the Charles University, I became very friendly with those radical students, who wanted to change things, who were critical of the travesty of socialism, critical of the whole political system and the authoritarian way the authorities treated its citizens. We formed a kind of a coordinating group throughout the Prague student community, later known as the Prague Radicals. We formed the political student leadership of what later would be called dissidents. But at that time the word “opposition” wasn’t allowed. A friend of mine Jiri Müller, leader of the Prague Radicals, at the student congress in December 1965, used the word oponentura (a term used primarily to describe an external examination that became immediately synonymous with opposition). It did not save Jiri, who a few months later was expelled from the university and drafted into the army. We immediately launched a movement of solidarity with him. One year later, another one of us, Lubos Holecek, met the same fate, and I became one of the two leaders of this group.
From 1963 to 1968, I was active in this radical student political group. In 1967, following the famous 4th Congress of writers where a number of well-known writers delivered very outspoken speeches against censorship, an informal alliance between persecuted writers and students emerged. I was in the middle of it. Also, I contacted some friends of my father who were active among the reform communists, for example Prof. Eduard Goldstücker and especially Dr. Frantisek Kriegel, who was later the only courageous Communist who, while detained in Moscow in August 1968, refused to sign the so-called Moscow Protocols that confirmed the capitulation of Dubcek reformist leadership.
We began to create this informal cooperation between the different political actors that spearheaded the Prague Spring of 1968. The student demonstration in October 1967 in fact played the role of catalyst for the changes that took place at the very end of 1967 and beginning of 1968 when Alexander Dubcek replaced Antonin Novotny as the leader of the Czechoslovak Communist party.
Once again I was active in politics. This time, during the Prague Spring, it was more open. Even looking back today, I remember this feeling of fantastic freedom. Quite a long time before the law banning censorship was passed, there was no censorship. The only censorship was self-imposed by journalists afraid of provoking the Soviet Union. In reality, you could say and write anything, which I, as a student in the Faculty of journalism and a contributor to several student and youth journals, made full use of.
In early August 1968, a representative of the U.S. Student Association (USSA) came to Prague and asked for one of the radical student leaders to attend their National Student Congress to be held in Kansas City in mid-August. This was the first congress since the USSA was discovered to have a link with the CIA, and the students wanted to reject this past and to express their sympathy with radical European student organizations. At the time, no one from the Czechoslovak students wanted to go to the USA because things were happening on the ground at home that were extremely interesting. My colleagues used the excuse of not speaking English and persuaded me to accept the invitation.
So this is why, on the day the Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia on August 21, 1968, I found myself in Kansas City, the one place I didn’t want to be. I phoned the Czechoslovak embassy in Washington, DC and explained that I had a three-week round-trip ticket, that I’d been in the States only for few days, that my country has been invaded, and that as a university student I was listed as a conscript and, therefore, I had to report to my army unit. Could they help me to get back immediately instead of waiting three weeks? The embassy official said, “We know where you are. We’ve been following your activities in the States. And you are in the best place you can be.” So, he didn’t help.
The following day, the chief editor of Ramparts magazine Robert Scheer arrived in Kansas City. He read in the paper about my speech delivered at the USSA congress and offered to fly me to San Francisco. We agreed that I would write a description of the developments up to the Soviet invasion and what, in my opinion, caused it, and in exchange he would buy me a return ticket to Prague in lieu of a fee for the article. So, I went to San Francisco and wrote the long article in three days in the office of Ramparts. He gave me a ticket, San Francisco-Chicago-London-Prague.
In Chicago he had to go to the Democratic Convention and offered to take me with him to show me the 1968 demonstrations that took place in the park outside the Convention. Once there, Scheer introduced me to the crowd and pushed me in front of the microphones. In my speech I compared the pictures I saw on TV of the Warsaw Pact tanks in Prague and the demonstrations against those tanks with the armored cars of Daley’s police in Chicago, suggesting that there should be international solidarity against such repressive measures and dictatorships. This speech was later used as part of an explanation not to give me a U.S. visa. It was subsequently cleared up, but in 1969 I was refused a visa.
I returned to Prague and immediately joined the emerging opposition network where all the student leaders of 1960s were very active. Radical students formed an alliance with practically all the industrial trade unions to create passive resistance against the concessions-making Dubcek government. I was there when Jan Palach died in protest against those concessions, against the censorship, against the broadcast of Russian radio station “Vltava,” and against the growing apathy of the people. This act of self-immolation succeeded in provoking the people to more openly and firmly resist the encroaching “normalization.” I took part in organizing the demonstrations following his sacrifice and his subsequent funeral. About half a million people came. The government was stunned. And I became a leading member of a student delegation that negotiated with the Czechoslovak government to allow us to speak on TV and radio to appeal to a group of students, who – according to Jan Palach – were apparently prepared to follow up with their own self-immolations if his demand was ignored.
Lubos Holecek, one of the leaders of the Prague Radicals, was asked by Jan Palach to his deathbed to give his final message. With that gesture, Palach indicated that he considered us, the Prague Radicals, as the most trustworthy section of society. He told us of a group of five students, who would continue self-immolations until their demands were met. We had misgivings that such a group existed. However, as Palach while in terrible pain wanted us to believe it and convey this message, we accepted it. I still think that it was a great act of courage to invent this group to increase the pressure on the government to meet the demands.
I eventually was forced to emigrate in late spring 1969. I went to London and began to work with the opposition in Prague from there. Jiri Müller, the main student leader, told me that I would need to accept the discipline to meet the needs of the opposition, as they would define them, and refrain from telling them what I thought they should do. I had no problem with that approach. With some of my British friends we established a Solidarity fund to buy printing machines and cars to smuggle literature and printing equipment into the country. Slightly later, when my couriers were smuggling lots of information, samizdat, and opposition statements out of the country, I created an agency I called Palach Press to distribute Charter 77 documents abroad. And Palach Press functioned as one of the main agencies of the opposition right up to November 1989.
During my 20 years of this work we were able to smuggle into Czechoslovakia about 22 tons of literature and to smuggle out of Czechoslovakia thousands of opposition documents, hundreds of manuscripts, many filmed interviews with leading dissidents including Vaclav Havel, a filmed performance of the underground Living Theatre, a film of the secret Congress of the Communist Party held in a Prague factory during the 1968 Soviet invasion, documents to back up the application for the Nobel Prize for Literature for Jaroslav Seifert, many hundreds of samizdat books, and so on.
Only one out almost 60 smuggling vans of literature and printing equipment was detained. This happened in April 1981 following a betrayal by a Ukrainian-born Slovak dissident. The smuggling operation had to be suspended for almost a year. I then travelled to Prague using my British passport and a changed name, a wig, colored contact lenses, etc. I met Jiri Dientsbier, Petr Uhl, Jirina Siklova, Vaclav Havel, and other dissidents and was able to reorganize the smuggling operation so that we could renew the transport in 1982.
Do you think there was a moment when this country and this region could have gone in a different direction in terms of a more distinct political and economic model? Perhaps more along the lines that activists within the Helsinki Citizens Assembly were advocating?
In November and December 1989 when I was here, there was tremendous enthusiasm and mutual support. The atmosphere in a way resembled the atmosphere of 1968. But again, this type of a solidarity feeling of mutual help and determination to jointly change things was relatively short-lived. I wasn’t here during the “normalization” of those 20 years after 1968, although I was in contact with the most active people. I knew about political details, about Charter 77 and other opposition groups, but I was not in touch with the ordinary people, who in their majority gave up, resigned, conformed, and were very demoralized. Two generations basically faced the occupations of their country and betrayals by their trusted leaders without any real resistance. That had a very significant demoralizing impact on people.
In spring of 1990, when I was active in the election campaign on behalf of the Civic Forum, it slowly became clear that the prevailing mood was the rejection of not just the “normalization” and the occupation, but also the rejection of Communism, simply everything the previous regime stood for. In principle, I didn’t have any major problem with that, as I belonged to some of the more determined opponents of that regime. It was psychologically understandable that people associated “normalization” with socialism and Soviet occupation forces with Communism. Therefore, since they perceived that the Prague Spring and “socialism with a human face” were failures, even though they were defeated by military force and not by internal weakness, they didn’t want any new reforms, any new “socialism with a human face.” They didn’t want “democratization,” which was the slogan of 1968, but democracy. They wanted a total rupture with the past. And they believed in the black-and-white thinking that the previous regime helped to instill in people’s minds, that the only alternative to “really existing socialism” is capitalism and the only alternative to the system that prevailed in the East is the system that prevails in the West. Let me stress that not everybody among the most active opposition people, including my friends, thought along those lines. But this was the prevailing thinking mainly among people who until then were quiet and prepared to conform over the previous 20 years.
Civic Forum was a strange political beast because for a long time it described itself as a political movement and rejected all political parties. Its main election slogan was “Political parties are here for their members, Civic Forum is here for the people.” This movement encompassed people such as my friend Petr Uhl, who only shortly before that called himself a revolutionary Marxist, and Vaclav Klaus, a Friedmanite and strong believer in Thatcherite capitalism or “capitalism without any adjectives” as he put it. When people at election meetings in 1990 asked us about this, we tried to explain that at that stage we needed a civic movement that comprised all the political forces that didn’t want a return to the pre-November 1989 regime. But Petr Uhl was saying all this time that we didn’t want a return of capitalism.
John Simpson of BBC interviewed me in November 1989 shortly after the fall of the Communist government, when there were still people demonstrating on the streets. He asked me how I perceived the future. I said that I believed in the first stage people would experience “Thatcherism with a human face”: basic Thatcherite principles such as rapid and widespread privatization that would be muted by our experience to give it a more gentle human face. I believed that once people experienced that and realized that it wasn’t the real answer to our problems that some form of social democracy would prevail. However, I had no idea when that would happen. That was my general belief. But eventually we were given Klausian Thatcherism without a human face. In fact, some of the measures introduced rather resembled capitalism of the late 19th century, that is, capitalism without all the modifications and corrections that the Western system eventually learned to introduce. It took until 1996 or 1997 — after the “shock therapy,” after the privatization without proper legal framework, following the spread of enormous corruption, of rising unemployment, closures of many Czech factories, and so on — for the first economic problems to emerge and for people to realize that this was not the answer.
By that time, you no longer had that spontaneous joyful atmosphere of the end of 1989. People were motivated to survive or conform and make as much money as possible. Suddenly, profit and money became the main gods and the main criteria of success. Young people believed that this was the best way for them to succeed in society. This is not the most conducive atmosphere in which to discuss how to create a different system. There was no belief that there is a different system. Articles about the Western concept of the “third way” were treated with disparagement. It came to me as a first sign of encouragement that things might change when in 1998 the Social Democratic Party became the largest party in parliament, though it was not big or strong enough to form a government majority in the parliament. Nevertheless, this was the first time that a party that was not an active proponent of Klausian unfettered capitalism got such a support from the people, and this indicated that the illusions of the early 1990s were giving way.
The then-leader of the Czech Social Democratic Party (SDP), Milos Zeman, had a difficult problem of how to form a government. The Communist Party (CP), which is the only Communist Party in this region that still calls itself a Communist Party, remained quite strong. But it wasn’t as strong then as it is today. So the combination of the MPs from the SDP and the CP could not form a majority in the parliament. Theoretically, Zeman could have formed a coalition government between the SDP and some of the smaller centrist and right-of-center parties. He offered that to those parties. One of the center-right parties was led by Jan Ruml, a dissident with whom I worked closely when I was in London. He is strongly anti-communist and believed that the Left is a real danger and should be stopped and that no one should ever collaborate with what he regarded as enemies. So he refused the offer that would have been fantastic. The Prime Minister would have come from a party that had a minority position in parliament. Another right-wing party that didn’t enjoy a major support would occupy the position of Foreign Minister. The leader of the party that won the election would not even be in the government. I suspect that Milos Zeman, knowing his opponents pretty well, made a calculated guess that they were not experienced enough, that they would let their emotions prevail and would reject this incredible offer. And he was right. They did.
Given that rejection, the only possibility was either to give up the fruits of the election and any attempt to form a government or to offer to the main right-wing party, the Civic Democratic party led by Vaclav Klaus, what Klaus later called the “opposition agreement.” This agreement was very simple. The main stipulation was that the right-wing majority in parliament would not bring down a minority Social Democratic government during its four years in office. That meant that there would be no vote of confidence in the government. However, there would be votes on everything else. And there were no stipulations on how the MPs should vote on this or that law. There was only a guarantee that the government would not be brought down. Secondly, although the right-wing MPs would not have any positions in the government, which would be a purely one-party minority government, they would be given positions of influence in the parliament and on the boards of important companies that had significant state involvement. Many such jobs were given to supporters of Vaclav Klaus. Representatives of smaller parties, especially supporters of President Havel, rejected this arrangement as allegedly undemocratic and corrupt.
Looking back, it was one of the very few Czech governments that survived for the full four years. Otherwise, governments here rise and fall, stumble from one crisis to another, and early elections are no longer something exceptional or unthinkable. And looking at some of the results of our government, given the economic malaise that we inherited in 1998, and then looking at the economic situation of 2002 when our period of office expired, we achieved a major improvement. Incidentally, some of the bank reforms that the Zeman government introduced were so successful that when the financial crisis of 2008 hit the world and many banks faced major problems, the Czech banks remained healthy and greatly supported their Western owners. By 2008 all our leading banks were foreign owned. So it was the Czech banks that ensured the survival of their foreign mothers in Austria, Belgium, and France.
I understand that a lot of liberals and other supporters of Vaclav Havel have criticized and still criticize the opposition agreement, calling it undemocratic, because in their eyes it cancelled the natural role of the opposition to try as frequently as possible to bring down the government of the day. I obviously respect their perception. On the other hand, I have to firmly reject the accusations that the government, thanks to this opposition agreement, brought in nepotism and corruption. Yes, we were unable to defeat corruption during our term of office. But the corruption then had never reached the current heights. Today the corruption is systemic. Its infection is absolutely everywhere. Our government gave the country well-needed stability.
Since 2002, our predominantly right-wing media have consistently condemned the opposition agreement, and so did the section of the Czech SDP led by people who had personal and political problems with the then Prime Minister Zeman. Some of them refused to vote for him when he ran for the Presidency in 2003. At that time President was elected by the two houses of the parliament. Few weeks ago Milos Zeman was elected President in the first direct free elections by the people. The tension between him and the current leaders of the SDP continues and will be a source of major problems in the future. It remains for the historians to evaluate the opposition agreement. It’s not on me to pass judgment. I’m just saying that it’s not as black and white as the Czech media, (almost all of them German-owned and very right wing), present it in their in their day-to-day reports.
It is true that the Helsinki Citizens Assembly (HCA) in the Czech Republic became dormant, although not immediately. We had a few years of major activities. None of the right-wing governments encouraged the emergence of civil society. In fact, Vaclav Klaus made several well-known statements against what he called “human rightism” and the activities of unelected representatives of civic organizations, including people he calls “eco-terrorists” (in other words, people who express concerns about environmental problems). The atmosphere of the 1990s was not conducive for the creation of a functioning civil society. Despite that, today it’s a well-flourishing sector. A number of NGOs operate throughout the country in different fields. And they are strong enough to survive any forms of pressure on them.
The current government is introducing very anti-social “reforms” that hit the livelihoods of the least privileged and poorest sections of the society. They use their current majority in the parliament to pass any legislation they wish, irrespective of what the majority of people think. Civil initiatives, along with civil society organizations, form the backbone of opposition. Last April we were able to get over 100,000 people in the center of Prague for a demonstration against the proposed austerity cuts and anti-social reforms affecting especially pensions, social security benefits, and health care as well as against the high tolerance for widespread corruption. The Czechs are not very prone to demonstrate, unlike our friends to the north of us, Poles, or to the south, Hungarians. To get people into the street is very difficult. To get 120,000 into the streets had never happened since 1989. Although the demonstration didn’t change the political reality, I’m mentioning it only to indicate that it would be wrong to underestimate the influence of civil society today. We don’t have the HCA, but we do have many other groups that express similar ideas. In that sense, the country is beginning to behave more in the tradition of a normal European country.
What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment and your greatest challenge at the UN?
An answer to that would take hours and hours. I wrote a chapter in a book called Diplomacy published here a few years ago. My chapter on the Czech presidency at the UN is well over 100 pages long. The UN, as you know, is a very complicated beast. To achieve anything within the context of the UN is very difficult. Once you are inside those structures, you use different criteria than when you are on the other side of the world and you’re just watching this beast act. This is not an easy question to answer in a way that would be understandable to people who have not worked inside the UN.
However, let me very briefly attempt to do that. I was faced with the biggest challenge the very first day I started. My first day at the UN as President of the General Assembly was September 12, 2002. Just before the opening of that session, I was told that U.S. President George W Bush wished to talk to me. President Bush arrived in my office with Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. I came with my Chief of the Cabinet Helena Opolecka and our Ambassador to the UN Hynek Kmonicek, my former Deputy Minister. The gist of the President´s message was that he would deliver a major speech highlighting the danger presented to mankind by Iraq. And the UN would have to make an important, historic decision whether to support the United States in the courageous fight against appeasement and dictatorship or go down in history and face the same demeaning role as the League of Nations did when it failed to stop Adolph Hitler. He appealed to me as a Czech politician, who obviously with the knowledge of Munich was fully aware of the dangers of appeasement, to do my very best to convince the UN to support a preventive war against Saddam Hussein. I was taken aback. Let me stress again: this was my first day at the UN. And the most powerful man in the world presented me with an idea that I disliked intensely.
However, I was brought up to be a polite and diplomatic person. I did point out that the failure of the League of Nations was not only because it didn’t understand the dangers of appeasement but it was very weak to fight appeasement. One of the reasons for its inherent weakness was the absence of the United States. President Bush gave me the impression that this was news to him. So I didn’t elaborate. However, I did stress that I don’t like the principle of preventive war, and I believed that diplomacy would be far preferable. However, we would all listen very carefully to President Bush’s arguments and then use whatever mechanisms the UN had to find a peaceful solution.
Most of my one year at the UN was colored by the issue of Iraq. Before March 2003, we were preoccupied with trying to prevent the intervention. As the head of the UN General Assembly I traveled around the world — from United States to Europe to Australia — trying to gather support for opposition to the invasion of Iraq. I didn’t succeed. But at least I tried. After it happened, we focused on how to condemn it, respond to it, and find a way of playing a role in the reconstruction of Iraq without being co-responsible for the occupation. In fact, as Secretary General Kofi Annan once made it very clear, this was one of the most difficult periods for the UN because it questioned the whole raison d’être of the organization, the whole philosophy on which the UN was based. I regarded it as a great UN success when the Security Council refused to legitimize the invasion. I regarded the position adopted by some of the smaller members of the Security Council — non-permanent members like Mexico, Chile, Cameroon — as very courageous indeed. It was clear that the General Assembly had no way of influencing the Permanent Five (P-5). But it was very important for us not to give a moral majority to a wrong decision. I regard the fact that the so-called coalition of the willing did not get the UN mandate for the invasion, even though we couldn’t stop the invasion, as a major success that enabled the UN not to be tainted by this unjust war.
I strongly disagree when I hear criticism, even from some friends of mine, that the UN is good for nothing because it failed to stop the invasion. The invasion took place without any mandate, either from the UN or from NATO. It was carried out only by a coalition of the willing. This prepared the ground for the delegitimation of the invasion. Years later, it made it easier for some countries to create a greater distance between themselves and the decision to invade without any convincing evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, at least by the beginning of 2003. If the Security Council had voted to give the invasion a mandate, that would have been a much greater violation of the principles on which the UN is based than what in fact happened. At the same time, it has been confirmed once again, if people needed another reminder, that the present system created in 1945 is terribly outdated and only ensures that the UN is ineffective against the will of the great powers.
But the fact that the UN system, particularly the Security Council, has not been reformed is not the fault of the UN itself. As President of the General Assembly, I presided over a committee with a very long name devoted to this issue of reconstructing the UN. I have read carefully the minutes of the previous meetings of this committee, which was established 10 years earlier, in 1993. The arguments were the same, frequently voiced by the same people or people representing the same countries. I admit that some minor reforms have been achieved but none of the major reforms that could change the system.. Such reforms can be only achieved with a breakthrough in some of the major capitals. Without a major change in the thinking in Washington, DC — as well as Moscow, Beijing and London — the UN system can only be cosmetically improved, but not changed. It would be wrong to blame the UN for decisions not taken within the UN by UN officials.
Although I am very critical of the UN, after my one year of experience there, I am sure that if the UN didn’t exist, it would have to be invented. What people underestimate is that the UN has many different roles. The maintenance of peace and security is only one of those roles, and that’s really the role of the Security Council. The UN has numerous agencies throughout the world that do a fantastic job that is not noted by the world’s public, be it reconstruction of post-conflict situations in war-torn countries, making food and drinking water available in some of the poorest countries, as well as helping to provide basic health care and education. It can play an important role as a mediator between warring parties and states, unless, of course, a major interest of a great power, such as the USA, is involved. It’s now 10 years since I left the UN, but I still warn people that before they start to criticize the UN, they should look at its entirety. I agree that the reform of the Security Council is more than necessary, has been long overdue and should be achieved as soon as feasible. But at the same time, you shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. The UN is indispensable. It plays a role in fields where other international organizations don’t.
One year is too short. The presidency of the General Assembly should be for two years, which would allow one to formulate proposals, find the support across 194 member states, and then to implement the decisions. During my presidency, even though it lasted for only one year, we pushed through the successful adoption of an important resolution on the prevention of armed conflict. Two of my predecessors had failed to get a consensus on this resolution because it touches on very sensitive topics such as the roots of armed conflicts, the occupation of foreign lands like Palestine, and religious conflicts in some parts of Asia. It’s particularly difficult to adopt such a resolution with a unanimous and not just a majority vote. To get the Americans and the Russians, the Indians and the Pakistanis, the Israelis and the Palestinians to agree to the same wording of a resolution on the prevention of armed conflict is a very difficult job. It took us six months of negotiations and hundreds of meetings, and Kofi Annan congratulated me personally on the success. I’m not saying that this resolution will stop any armed conflict. But it contributes to an atmosphere in which countries do try to prevent armed conflict. It creates mechanisms of cooperation and offers some useful tools that can be used if there is a minimum of political will present.
The second major accomplishment of the Czech Presidency was a resolution we passed that tried to reconcile the different positions of the South and the North. I understood these differences when I worked in Prague as the Czech Foreign Minister, but it was only when I moved to the UN in New York that I understood the enormity of the challenge of bridging the gap between the interests of the North and South, between developing and developed countries and to understand how powerful are the forces that are working against any cooperation between these two worlds. In advance of the Millennium Summit there was an urgent need to agree on a resolution on how to implement the Millennium Development Goals. Negotiations on it took us almost six months before were able to reach an acceptable compromise. Several of the rich developed countries were the most difficult partners, because at the end of the day, it’s all about money. It was very difficult for the rich countries to agree to even the very small percent of their GDP to be allocated in support of development, which for the South is absolutely crucial. But again, we passed that particular resolution, which facilitated the 2005 Millennium Summit, and I would regard that as a very significant success. We had some other successes — against AIDs, for example — but they less important than those two resolutions.
[Takes a phone call]
There’s currently a major conference being organized by the current Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg on Czechoslovak foreign policy of the last 20 years. He’s inviting all the Czechoslovak, Czech, and Slovak former foreign ministers. However, he did not invite me and some other former ministers. The telephone call was from the last Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda and he wanted to check if I was invited. Jiri Dienstbier has died, and Jozef Zieleniec was invited but cannot come. So out of Czech ministers, there’s practically no one left, only Jaroslav Sedivy, my immediate predecessor, who was Foreign Minister only for ten months.
It’s like the airbrushing of history that took place during the Communist era. Perhaps they will change their minds.
Highly unlikely. (NB. Following critical publicity Minister Schwarzenberg did change his mind and the rest of the foreign ministers were invited.)
What are the prospects for social democracy here in the Czech Republic given the two major constraints — the legacy of Vaclav Klaus, the institutions he created, and the philosophy he imposed and the parameters of EU membership? Is there wiggle room between those two constraints of Klaus and the EU? And what do you think your role can be?
The restrictions of the institutions created by Vaclav Klaus in the long term or even in the medium term will not represent a major obstacle. Their influence should not be exaggerated. More importantly, it’s the atmosphere in society that he and his supporters helped to create that will prove a much more important obstacle. Institutions, and I’m not underestimating or minimizing their importance, are basically shells. You can empty those shells and replace their content with something else without replacing the structures. Most of the civil servants working in those institutions — and I don’t want to be unfair to them — follow a simple motivation: if they earn enough money they will be satisfied and will not cause any problems, and they’ll work for anyone at any time. Very few of them have political, ideological, and even ethical scruples or restraints. That’s not to say that there aren’t a number of very loyal, hardworking civil servants, but more frequently at a lower level. We still don’t have the civil service that the UK has, which, although not perfect, is an unreachable goal for our civil service. However, we should continue to strive towards it, though I no longer believe that we could reach it in my lifetime. The civil service here is far too politicized, too controlled by political institutions, and many of the officials are not immune to corruption. And this corruption is getting worse and is dangerously widespread throughout the society.
Going back to your question, if people next year elect a different government, which borders on certainty, then the new leaders they could make these institutions healthier if they wish to do so. I do not believe, given my 20 years of post-1989 experience, that they will clean up all of the institutions and suddenly we will embark on the road to paradise. That will not happen. Even today’s opposition is full of people prone to use less democratic methods and they will not risk their careers to fight corruption. But whatever government will be elected it will be better than what we have today, so a slight improvement might take place. But it will be only a slow process, step by step. And I hope that at least some of the more decent people in the next government will work closely with civil society groups and the trade unions for a change towards greater participation of the people in the decision-making process. The disillusionment with the current right-wing government and the anger towards their anti- social reforms is such that whoever will offer any hope of a change for the better will receive significant support. I don’t think you need to change the institutions. You need to change the general atmosphere. That won’t be easy. Finally, the media are in the hands of right-wing owners who have no motivation to support a more open society. Media are also one of the biggest obstacles for the improvement of the perception of the EU.
I also hope that the education system will improve in the long term so that young people will be taught a less distorted history. There are attempts to distort especially the more recent history. I have two daughters in the educational system, and the way the Middle Ages or the Roman Empire are taught is fairly objective. The one slight exception might be the role of the Catholic Church, which is here quite a sensitive topic. The problem is 20th and 21st century history. However, I have been a lifelong cautious optimist, and so I believe that the worst distortions will be rectified in time.
I wouldn’t exaggerate the prospects for social democracy, but two things are worth mentioning. One, the SDP will probably be given a green light because of the rejection of the current government’s anti-social policies. On the other hand, the SDP, which is the largest party in the parliament but not large enough to form a government, is quite a heterogeneous party. It consists of a number of different groups. There are still some old people associated with the post-war SDP, which was then forced to merge with the Communist Party. Secondly, there are people who used to support Dubcek‘s “socialism with a human face,” the reform Communists who left their party after 1968 and later became social democrats. There are also people who came from smaller liberal and center-right parties that existed here in the 1990s. There are also different factions among the increasing number of young people and so on. Some members are prepared to consider some kind of cooperation with the current Communist Party, not a government coalition, but for example, a scenario in which Communist Party MPs support a minority SDP government. Other SDP members reject even such cooperation: the Communist Party is for them still an enemy, and so they may prefer a coalition with smaller right-wing parties. That for me is totally unacceptable.
It’s much easier to predict that in June 2014 the SDP will become the largest party in the parliament than to predict which tendency at that time will prevail inside the SDP. However, whatever leadership there will be, it will slowly introduce legislation that will be more socially oriented and less repressive against old age pensioners, people with disabilities, and minorities, including Roma, which is a very sensitive issue in this country. How far it will go toward implementing what I consider social democratic values remains to be seen. I belong to the leftwing part of the SDP, which is a very small group. We call ourselves the European Leftist Platform. We will almost certainly be critical towards whoever will be in the leadership. We will try to put gentle pressure on the top leaders, through the party structures, not to veer away too far from the program of the party and the values of social democracy. But I have no illusions that it will be easy.
In terms of the European Union, yes, our membership imposes some restrictions. But the current situation is that the current Czech government, in particular supporters of Vaclav Klaus inside the major government party, the Civic Democratic Party, represents one of the most skeptical groups in Europe. They represent the essence of Euroskepticism. Fortunately, they are not proposing that we should leave the EU. But that’s about all one can say about it. At the same time, they are proposing not to get involved in any of the integration processes. They are against the fiscal treaty, the banking union, let alone any form of political union. It’s not surprising that only two EU members have refused to sign the financial compact: the UK and the Czech Republic. The UK has some understandably strong reasons, but for the Czech government the reasons seem to be more ideological than pragmatic. On the continent of Europe, we are the only ones. Even though the terms of the compact won’t apply to us until we join the Euro! If we sign today, there’s no obligation. It’s a symbolic act in favor of integration. The present government doesn’t want to make even this symbolic move. As a leftist I would understand if they would be critical of the compact because it would give too much power to the banks and the European financial oligarchy, but their reasons stem from their skepticism toward the EU as such.
The increasing stress on nationalism — the suspicion created by the media and by the current President Klaus toward anything that comes from Brussels — is the greatest danger at the moment. Three years ago, 65 percent were still in favor of the Union. When we joined the EU in 2004, it was over 70 percent. I was the minister responsible for negotiating 29 out of 31 chapters. And support for our accession was high. Today we have one of the smallest levels of support for the EU: hovering around 30 percent. People got used to politicians blaming all problems on the EU, while at the same time not publicizing the fact that this country receives some of highest financial donations and subsidies from the EU per capita. If you ask people on the streets, in the pubs, no one would know this. They would all say that the problem of price increases, unemployment, taxes, and restrictions are all the fault of the EU. They don’t realize that if overnight the EU stopped all subsidies, industries here would have major problems and unemployment would double overnight.
To change the perception of the EU would be one of the first major tasks of any potential future SDP government. And yet while being a strong supporter of the EU as an entity, of the idea of European integration, of joint EU foreign and defense policies, I have made no bones of the fact that I don’t like the current decision-making process in the EU and some of the decisions that are made by the powerful financial oligarchy, an elite that has nothing to do with the interests of ordinary Europeans. But I am not prepared to equate unacceptable parts of the financial compact with the original principles of the EU going back to Jacques Delors. European SDPs have to try to change the EU from within. That’s easier said than done, I agree. The structures are not conducive to change.
As someone who worked in the UN, I’m sure you’re well aware of the challenges.
Exactly. But it’s precisely because of my experience at the UN and my experience of four years negotiating the accession of the Czech Republic into the EU, that I believe this is an uphill but essential struggle. We do need the EU. There are too many issues a single country of our size and resources cannot solve on its own. Given our geographic position, our ties to other EU member countries, the fact that around 80 percent of our exports go to the EU, it is clear that it is in our interests to stay in the Union and participate in its decisions than to risk isolation outside. The UK dreams of splendid isolation, but even there many people understand that the UK´s currently close links to the Union are far too valuable to simply ignore. Still, if any country can dream this way, it’s the UK. Here it’s simply not possible. We have to try to change the beast from within, not by staying at the periphery and shouting criticisms at the center that will be easily ignored. The EU can live without 10 million Czechs, but we could face survival problems without it.
To change the EU meaningfully, we have to cooperate with other countries, hopefully countries with SDP governments. And we have to be at the table where the decisions are made, not outside the door complaining. We have to know how exactly those institutions work. It´s the same situation with the UN. In a way, it should be easier – not easy, but easier — than UN reform. In the EU we may need an informal alliance of a larger number of like-minded middle-sized states, the determined support of their politicians and their people, and then we may have a tiny hope of a small change. I am aware that any change will be slow, frustrating, frequently only cosmetic. Those, who control the money have the power, the means, and the will to sabotage any process that may conflict with their interests. To resist these interests may be quixotic or even Sisyphean. But I am convinced that there is no other way. And, as I have said, the reform of the Security Council may be even more difficult.
When you look back to what you were thinking in the 1989-90 period, have you had any second thoughts? What did you think in terms of Czech foreign policy prior to taking the position of foreign minister and how did the position change your thinking?
It’s basically the same question as some of your earlier questions: the confrontation between one’s hopes and the reality. It’s the same way that I struggled for change at the UN, the same struggle to change our position within the EU, to at least get back to the mainstream and maybe eventually to become part of the decision-making hard core. It’s the same thing with foreign policy. The foreign policy of a medium-sized country like the Czech Republic has built-in restrictions, given its geographical position and its limited economic and political power. There are many axioms that you simply inherit and can’t change. As a Foreign Minister, you confront these limitations every day when you make decisions.
However, within these given restrictions, it should be possible to strive for what I used to call a “balanced foreign policy.” Before I became Foreign Minister, the previous government was so emotionally critical of Russia that it endangered our trade relations. I liked the concept of “ethical foreign policy” that was put forward by Robin Cook, then British Foreign Minister. But my predecessors criticized violations of human rights only in Cuba, China, or North Korea and said nothing about the situation, for example, in Saudi Arabia or some other allies of our allies. Let me illustrate my point on more recent examples. It must be possible to be a good ally of the USA and to reject the invasion of Iraq carried out under false premises and without any mandate. It must be possible to condemn President Assad´s dictatorial methods and to reject the Syrian opposition´s link to al-Qaeda terrorists as well as to refuse to whitewash the fact that this opposition has killed more than 45,000 government soldiers and many thousands of civilians, including women and children because they were Alawites or simply not Sunnis. It must be possible to defend Israel´s right to existence and the security of her borders and at the same time defend the rights of the Palestinians to their homeland and to be represented at the UN. My “balanced policy” towards the Middle East conflict later proved to be disastrous for my career.
As the Foreign Minister I based my policies, among other things, on my conviction that it is in the best interests of the country to have good relations with all the neighbors. This was one of the reasons why I fully supported the concept of the Visegrad countries, supported first by Vaclav Havel and then sabotaged by Vaclav Klaus who very much believed that the Visegrad countries should cooperate only on economic matters not on social, political, cultural matters. At the moment, there are major differences between the Visegrad Four, but the basic cooperation continues even though the current Hungarian government represents a standpoint that is very difficult to accept.
Despite some misgivings I am certain that it was a correct decision to join NATO, which happened in March 1999 when I was Foreign Minister. Hopefully, within NATO, we can convey our own perception of the future of the organization, while being fully aware that if people like myself determine foreign policy, not very likely, we would have different views on a number of issues.
To give you one example: in March 1999, six days after we joined NATO, Javier Solana phoned me up and informed me that NATO would start to bomb former Yugoslavia the following Monday, and we as a new member of NATO should formally accept that decision. Given the traditional friendship between the Czechs and the Serbs going back many many years, this was a very difficult decision. After a very acrimonious debate at the cabinet level that lasted until early in the morning, we finally agreed. But we only agreed to allow NATO planes to fly over our airspace, no other form of cooperation. Neither our air force nor the army played any role in an action that most of us had major problems with.
Even today when I occasionally face criticism for that decision, I kindly remind my opponents that for a country that had been a member state of NATO for only six days — and that had not been part of the earlier decision taken near the end of 1998 when NATO submitted an ultimatum to Milosevic — a veto would have been only a symbolic act. However, as soon as we made that decision, and because it took us such a long time and was obviously a reluctant decision, NATO made it clear that it was not happy with us.
Prime Minister Milos Zeman only few days later accepted my proposal that we should initiate discussion within NATO leading to an early ceasefire and an end of bombardment and return to the negotiating table to find new ways of cooperation across all of the Balkans. This eventually became the Stability Pact for Southeast Europe. I have to say that I was very glad that the Prime Minister gave me that opportunity without any hesitation. I approached many NATO foreign ministers, not always with great success, including friends of mine whom I had great respect for and from whom I expected more understanding. Instead, one of them gave me a lecture about the reality of the current world and the need to understand the role of a small country like the Czech Republic.
So, following several consultations, I found total agreement with only one of my colleagues, and that was Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou. We tried to formulate what we called a Czech-Greek Peace Initiative that would lead not only to a ceasefire and an end to bombardment, but would lay the groundwork for long-term peace and cooperation within the region. We both ran up against our own ministries and our own civil servants, so the whole process was far slower than I had originally expected. By May 1999 we did reach an agreement that I am still quite proud of and that clearly influenced the subsequent ceasefire and the formulation of the Stability Pact.
The Czech-Greek agreement provoked almost hysterical opposition from the Czech right-wing media. For technical reasons but also because of obstacles created by various officials, Papandreou and I were able to meet only in China where I was on an official visit and he was about to arrive. I decided to extend my stay for one more day to meet him. George had no problem signing the text at the Czech embassy in Beijing. This act of coincidence became one of the arguments against the agreement. There was even some absurd argument that it was influenced by China. The Chinese government had nothing to do with it. Understandably, we didn’t consult them as our discussions took place strictly within NATO. We sent the document, when it was signed and approved, only to NATO governments. I knew that the government of Ireland and several other non-NATO members thought as we did. But that was not the point. The point was to try to get an understanding within NATO. It is true that we failed to convince the Americans. On the other hand, several other governments understood and, for example, the then Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorbjorn Jagland (later Secretary General of the Council of Europe and Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee) publicly expressed his full support.
Let me give you one more example. As a Foreign Minister I inherited the situation of the Czech Republic being a member of the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva. Soon after the USA lost its own membership, the Americans turned to us with a request to submit to the Committee a draft of a resolution condemning Cuba for its violations of human rights. This resolution was earlier submitted by the USA and it was defeated primarily by the votes of delegates from the Third World. My officials passed on to me the draft prepared for us by the USA. I had no problem with the gist of the resolution, i.e., criticism of the human rights situation in Cuba. However, I considered the draft to be very one-sided. So, in order to be more “balanced,” I added a paragraph where I argued that blanket sanctions are not the best method to achieve an improvement in human rights. On the contrary, such a policy would hurt ordinary Cubans and not the dictators responsible for the violation of human rights. I, therefore, proposed the targeted “smart sanctions” favored by the UN. Our American allies disagreed very strongly. I experienced a great amount of pressure. To cut the story short, let me just say that at the end we proposed a draft where terms such as “sanctions” were replaced by more acceptable terms such as “measures,” but the principle I advocated remained in the text, which was then voted for by a majority of the Committee members. Once again, my attempt at “balanced policy” was rejected by Czech rightwing journalists, who accused me of being responsible for a certain deterioration of our relations with the USA. I remain convinced that small countries, such as ours, can and should put forward “balanced policies,” even if displeases a great power.
Acknowledging our loyal membership in NATO, I still supported good relations with Russia. I didn’t see any reason to follow in the footsteps of those who, for ideological reasons, treated the Russian Federation as if it were still the former Soviet Union. I supported a balanced position towards the great powers. This meant also a balanced policy towards the conflict in the Middle East. I believed that in such a way we might be able to contribute a little bit toward the search for a peaceful solution, using the fact that the Czechs for historical reasons have had very good relations with Israel but also good relations with a number of Arab countries. The one-sided policies of my predecessors and successors did not help in the search for a peaceful solution.
What did you think of Vaclav Havel’s “moral foreign policy” approach?
I did like President Havel’s approach expressed, for example, in his first major presidential speech in January 1990. The problem with that speech lies in the unfortunate fact that Havel never really implemented its content. The gap between what he promised in 1990 and the reality of his subsequent policies became quite enormous. As someone who smuggled Havel’s writings and texts from Czechoslovakia to Britain and also to his German publishers and helped to get published his most famous essay “The Power of the Powerless,” I knew every sentence he ever wrote. For me, the gap between Havel the dissident and Havel the President was very sad to note. I obviously understand that politicians sometimes have to make compromises. It simply depends on how they decide to go. The Czech lustration law is a bad law, and Havel was fully aware of it. Nevertheless he signed it. Then in interviews with Adam Michnik in Poland or with Bob Silvers in The New York Review of Books, he explained that he didn’t like it. Havel also endorsed the bombing of former Yugoslavia as “humanitarian bombardment” and four years later supported the invasion of Iraq. In my opinion these decisions had nothing to do with the moral and ethical principles he advocated earlier.
As I have said earlier, when I became Foreign Minister, as far as ethical and moral policies were concerned, I was inspired more by my friend British Foreign Minister Robin Cook, who when he came to 11 Downing Street, announced that he would implement an ethical foreign policy. It’s also true that when he was confronted with the harsh reality – and I know what I’m talking about here – probably not all of his steps would survive the very strict criteria of an ethical foreign policy, such as the export of arms to Indonesia or support for the bombardment of former Yugoslavia. But he was strongly opposed to the invasion of Iraq, and I would still maintain that the gap between his pronounced aims for an ethical foreign policy and the reality was smaller than between Havel’s words and Havel’s deeds.
My hope was that I would start with similar ideas and hopefully narrow this gap. But I had no illusions that there would be no gap. I simply wanted this gap in my own foreign policy to be as small as possible. I tried to do that, and as a result I created many enemies, be it on the Czech-Greek Peace Initiative or on the opposition to blanket sanctions against Cuba, be it my attitude towards the Middle East conflict or to the pressure we were put under not to help to complete the construction of a nuclear power station in Bushehr, Iran.
I am still very much in favor of close cooperation with China. Our trade deficit with China is one of the biggest in Europe, so we need to export to China. And I want to be on good terms with China. At the same time, I am convinced that as a former human rights activist one should not sacrifice basic ethical principles such as the need to respect human rights in order to have good trade relations. But there are different ways to respect human rights. Although I have a high respect for the Dalai Lama as a man, I don’t necessarily see that it is conducive to anything to have a meeting on the highest possible level with him in order to challenge the Chinese leadership. One can, for example, arrange for the Dalai Lama to give public lectures and media interviews so that his views will become known without insulting Chinese leaders. I am sure that there are many non-controversial ways to work for a greater scope for human rights in Tibet. One can make clear to the Chinese that economic wellbeing and trade agreements are linked to issues in other fields, be they political, cultural, or social, but there is no need to rub their noses in it. Small countries can’t do that to big ones. But they can still try to implement ethical changes without losing face. I believe that diplomats should be polite and respectful. I’m a firm believer in quiet diplomacy.
The last example I’ll give you relates to my EU accession negotiations. The principle of unanimity has to be respected and so each chapter has to be approved by all the member countries. We received a message from the government of Austria that unless we close our nuclear power station at Temelin, which is only 23 miles from the Austrian border, the Austrians would veto our energy chapter and, therefore, obstruct our accession to the EU. Prime Minister Zeman, given his temperament, was in favor of tough, public confrontation. I was against any confrontation. Once we agreed to negotiate with the Austrians, Zeman said, “I cannot name the Minister of Trade and Industry because he is so strongly pro-Temelin that the Austrians will not deal with him. I cannot name the Minister of Environment as his opposition to Temelin is well known and, therefore, he would not be trusted, even by me.” So he named me as the main negotiator.
It took several months of negotiations with Wilhelm Molterer, appointed by Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel as my Austrian partner. It was one of the few confidential negotiations that never reached the media. We met close to the Austrian-Czech border, close to the well-known wine city of Mikulov. As a result of these successful negotiations, Austria didn’t veto our energy chapter and we were able to join the EU. At the same time Temelin continued to be built with certain provisos, like an information hotline between Prague and Vienna to increase their feeling of security. This Melk Agreement, named after our last meeting at the Melk monastery in Austria, is an example that quiet diplomacy can be far more successful than confrontation. I’m not saying that it will be successful in every instance, but it has to be tried.
Prague, February 18, 2013