The Washington Post

March 19, 1990, The Washington Post

Former Dissidents in Czechoslovakia Meet to Chart Future

PRAGUE – Long so isolated from Czechoslovak society that they were compared to the Christians in the catacombs of ancient Rome, more than 1,500 Charter 77 activists met openly today for the first time since the human rights movement began 13 years ago.

“For many years I, and probably not only me, used to have a dream when I was free but more often when I was in prison,” Charter’s best known co-founder, President Vaclav Havel, told the gathering.

“It was a dream that one day all the signatories of Charter 77 would meet in some Prague hall and would talk without being disturbed by the police. This dream, this archetypal vision, is being fulfilled today.”

Like Havel, many of those who signed the Charter manifesto, initiated in January 1977 to urge the compliance of the then hard-line Communist leadership with the 1975 Helsinki accords on security, cooperation and human rights in Europe, are now helping lead Czechoslovakia toward free elections scheduled for June 8. Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier and Deputy Prime Minister Jan Carnogursky are leading Charter activists.

Until last November, when hundreds of thousands of protesters forced the Communists to surrender their monopoly on power, signing the Charter frequently spelled dismissal from employment, detention or imprisonment and denial of university education for one’s children. Many Charter signatories emigrated because of this. Most endured as members of a society as closely knit as it was tightly monitored by the secret police.

Shunned by the vast majority of Czechoslovaks, who in the years following the 1968 Soviet invasion that crushed the Prague Spring opted to focus on private concerns, the so-called Chartists created what became Eastern Europe’s oldest human rights movement. But by the time demands for political reform had swept through neighboring East Germany, Poland and Hungary, they had earned the respect of their fellow citizens, and the massive protests during Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution” resounded with chants of “Long Live Charter!”

Now widely recognized for having acted as Czechoslovakia’s national conscience, a wide range of Charter activists met in Prague’s ornate Citizens’ Hall, partly for old times’ sake but also to discuss the future of their movement in a democratic society.

Havel opened today’s session with a moment of silence in memory of Charter co-founder Jan Patocka, a philosopher who died following police interrogation three months after the movement was born, and of “all those who did not live long enough to see this day.”

Many Charter activists also helped create the Civic Forum, which spearheaded the revolution. Unlike Civic Forum, Charter does not intend to become a political party with candidates in the June elections. Those addressing today’s meeting stressed the need for Charter to retain its standing as a moral guardian.

“I would not like Charter to become, step-by-step, a society bound up with its glorious memory, to say: `We were courageous guys in dark times,’ ” said Martin Palous, a signatory who is now a deputy in the Federal Assembly. “We want to have a goal for the future. The movement will become more organized . . . . It is important to have some power which is not actively engaged in the political process, speaking out for principles like human rights . . . . These are not issues that are being debated in parliament. There are some things more important than following a strategy toward victory at the polls.”

Former foreign minister Jiri Hajek, another Charter co-founder, also saw a new role for the movement in preparing Czechoslovakia for difficult times ahead when unpopular economic decisions will be needed to revitalize the nation after 40 years of Communist rule.

“One of the lessons we have learned from all these events here is that power is a very dangerous element if it is not under control. Power corrupts not only those who hold it but those who do not control it. The way of thinking of passive citizens is also an indirect corruption of power. We need to build a democratic commonwealth. This task requires a solid basis of citizenry.”

A major problem facing Charter is the disparate nature of its activists. Opposition to a common enemy brought together reform Communists, Catholics, liberals, anarchists, young countercultural enthusiasts and elderly academics who may not be able to remain a coherent grouping in a more open society.

“It was easier when the enemy was clear and could be pointed to,” said Ivan Havel, brother of the president. “Now we should concern ourselves with the culture of politics and personal behavior in the new situation of freedom. Charter will have a different role now. It is still searching for it.”