But that’s what happened this week in Prague. And the Baroque Czernin Palace that houses the Czech Foreign Ministry could not have been a more emblematic venue for the two-day gathering.
It was from a top window here, in 1948, that communist revolutionaries are believed to have pushed to his death Jan Masaryk, democratic Czechoslovakia’s last foreign minister before the communists took power.
Yet where the Soviet darkness symbolically descended, it also lifted. In 1991, the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet military grouping, was formally dissolved in this palace near Prague Castle.
The June 5-6 conference took place in the very hall where that happened.
Rising Concerns Over Russia
Still, amid rising concern, particularly in Eastern Europe over Russian backsliding on democracy and human rights, there was more on offer here than mere symbolism of past struggles between freedom and tyranny.
Dissidents from Belarus to Syria, and from Cuba to China, confirmed that political persecution is alive and thriving. Joining them were past and present leaders, including former dissident playwright Vaclav Havel, former Spanish premier Jose Maria Aznar, and former Israeli minister Natan Sharansky, himself a former Soviet dissident born in Ukraine.
But it was U.S. President George W. Bush who set the tone with one of his strongest criticisms yet of Russia under President Vladimir Putin.
“In Russia, reforms that were once promised to empower citizens have been derailed, with troubling implications for democratic development," Bush said in his address to the conference. "Part of a good relationship is the ability to talk openly about our disagreements. So, the United States will continue to build our relationships with these countries, and we will do it without abandoning our principles or our values.”
Bush's criticism of Russian backsliding on democracy came as Western relations with Moscow have frayed in recent weeks, amid strident opposition by Putin to U.S. plans to install a missile-defense system
in Eastern Europe.
Dissidents here were clearly emboldened by Bush’s presence and message. And in a final, 10-point statement issued today called the ‘Prague Document
,’ the gathering’s participants urged greater Western support for dissidents and human rights.
The non-official document also calls on democratic states to help build free societies by “isolating and ostracizing governments” that suppress their domestic opponents by force, violence, or intimidation.
West 'Should Back Words With Actions'
Yet some dissidents taking part in the Prague talks had concerns that the West isn’t living up to its democratic rhetoric by truly backing them in their often-dangerous battle for freedom.
Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, a key Russian opposition leader, told RFE/RL on the sidelines of the conference that despite Bush’s strong words on Russia and democracy, he offered no serious criticism of Washington’s non-democratic allies in the war on terrorism, including Pakistan, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia.
Kasparov also said Bush’s recent invitation to Putin to visit him early next month at his former U.S. president father’s residence in the United States hardly benefits Russian democrats, who are gearing up for next year’s presidential elections:
"We are not asking for any help for ourselves," Kasparov said. "We are asking for an end to this de facto unspoken, informal support for Putin. It is clear that receiving him at his personal ranch -- that is support. In one way or another, these are the contacts that allow Putin to strengthen his domestic position in Russia."
Making a similar point was President Toomas Henrik Ilves of Estonia
, who spoke after Putin this week threatened that Russia could point its nuclear arsenal at European capitals in response to U.S. plans for the missile-defense system.
Relations between Estonia and Moscow deteriorated this spring, after a row and riots over the removal of a Soviet-era World War II monument from central Tallinn. In the following weeks, Estonia accused Russia of attacking its government websites.
Ilves said Estonia -- like Ukraine, Georgia, and Latvia before it -- had become the latest neighbor of Russia to suffer its wrath. To applause from the audience, he pointedly asked why the free world continued to allow Moscow to be part of the Group of Eight.
"If it is true that democracies do not go to war with each other," Ilves said, "then what the hell is a country that threatens to target its nuclear missiles at Europe doing in the G8, the club of industrial democracies?"
Bush, for his part, will be talking directly Putin at the G8 summit that began today in Germany and runs through June 8.
The U.S. missile-defense system is likely to figure in the talks.
While in Prague, Bush discussed with Czech leaders plans for the system, which call for a radar station in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland. Washington says the system is only designed to defend against future threats from rogue states such as Iran, and has offered Russia to cooperate in its development.
The U.S. antimissile plans were recently called the “joke of the year” by senior Iranian diplomat Ali Larijani. RFE/RL on June 5 asked former Czech President Havel, one of the most respected European leaders of the last 15 years, about Larijani’s remark.
“I think that we live in a world that we have to be prepared for violence," Havel said. "It would have been perfect, if no weapons were needed -- neither for attack, nor for defense. We don’t live in a such a world now, and that’s why that each state has to be respected as it protects its own security and builds its defense in its own way.”
Respect, in a word, sums up what the message this week from Prague: respect for human rights, respect for democratic norms.
Participants won’t be holding their breath that regimes in Iran or Uzbekistan, to name just two, will heed that message any time soon.
Instead, they are more concerned that Washington and the West follow through on their lofty rhetoric here with action, so that the darkness of dictatorship can someday be lifted as it was here almost two decades ago.