Salman Rushdie in Prague: Helsinki Citizens Assembly

By Metta Spencer

At a castle near Prague the coordinating committee of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly gathered in early September. As guests of President Havel, we were joined on this occasion by a new member, novelist Salman Rushdie, who, for the first time since the fatwa began, spent a leisurely weekend with a group of activists and writers. After giving us his thoughts about Kafka's book, The Castle, he took a seat behind me and doodled while listening to the other speakers. Later he and a few other writers such as Milan Simecka and Jan Urban stayed a their dinner table drinking wine until the late night.

Our topic was nationalistic chauvinism. An objective of HCA is to break down the walls surrounding nation-states, but the founding members have felt obliged to practice tact in dealing the nationalists who quickly joined them, claiming the high ground of democracy and self-determination for their secessionist causes.

Not Rushdie. Despite the evident sweetness of his disposition, when he spoke again, he made short work of the democratic pretensions of religious and nationalistic chauvinists alike. After the weekend, he held a press conference with Vaclav Havel and spent a day in the streets of Prague as a regular tourist.

Later President Havel exchanged words through the press with Prime Minister Klaus, who had not known that Rushdie was to visit. Klaus fretted that the Arab states might infer that the Czechs tolerate sacrilege and take offence. Havel, who still gets high from taking principled positions when he can afford to, seized this chance to make a moral pronouncement and came off looking better than Klaus. The next day I saw the former Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier, who chuckled about the dust-up. "Our prime minister often speaks without thinking. If he had given it a moment's thought, he would not have said it."

Dienstbier himself has had to endure a shocking political reversal. The same can be said of all the former dissidents who were swept to power immediately after the Velvet Revolution. At the next election they were swept out again. As dissidents they had never expected to hold office and had no program at all. The office of practical political issues quickly divided those who had been loyal to each other during the long period of repression. Charter 77 is no longer a community and most of the old timers seem depressed.

Dienstbier did not seem depressed, though he had more reason to do so than anyone else. Since losing his scat in parliament he has led a coalition of center-left parties that have no political clout. Moreover, he did not oppose the break-up of Czechoslovakia.

dissident friends who split from him politically. One of his old allies told me he had committed political suicide. He looked too cheerful for that. He was leaving for New York, where he is collaborating privately with a group of other European statesmen in writing a proposal for U.N. reform. It is not ready yet, so he did not explain its content.

The Czech dissidents were not the only demoralized ones. 1 talked at the HCA meeting with an Estonian woman who worries because Tallinn has become the center of an arms trade, exporting stolen Soviet weapons. I talked with Konstanty Gebert, a columnist with Wyborza-Adam Michnik's newspaper, who said that his beloved Solidarnosc has discredited itself. He was right; just days later the Polish electorate returned Communists to power. Shock therapy may be working on paper, but the voters don't see it.

Anyway, HCA itself seems to be on a roll in Europe (not in North America). It is the only citizens group, so far as I know, addressing the post-communist conflicts. Teams were going on from Prague to Moldova and Georgia, and another team is going to Azerbaijan, Nagorno Karabakh, and Armenia. They talk to all sides and try to find solutions. Then they meet with NATO and European Community leaders-people such as Jacques Delors-and try to be useful. HCA headquarters in Prague is running a "Balkans project" that not only works politically but is organizing donations of books for Sarajevo's library and blankets for Bosnians.

From December 2-11 an HCA assembly will be held in Ankara, Turkey. Some 800 people are expected to attend. I am sure it will be rewarding. If you are interested in participating, do contact HCA at Panska 7, Prague I, Czech Republic CS 116 69. Ph 48 2/220181. Fax 42 2/220948.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1993

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1993, page 21. Some rights reserved.

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