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Czech Republic: New Group Strives For Civil Society

By Don Hill and Ina Navazelskis

A group of Czech thinkers and leaders have formed a new organization they say will labor to rebuild lively civic institutions in their country. The group, called Impuls '99, invokes memories of Charter 77, a dissident group that helped bring about the death of communism in Czechoslovakia 10 years ago. Its aim, they say, will be to bring democracy to life in the Czech Republic. Our correspondent, reports.

Prague, 29 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Impuls '99 says its first step will be to study what's happened to government, politics, and Czech society in the 10 years since the fall of the Communist Party. The group's founders plan to call a meeting next month and appoint a working group to prepare and publish the study.

One of the spokesmen, Jiri Pehe, told RFE/RL in an interview that in order to move toward their goal, they first need to determine where they are starting from.

Pehe, a former political analyst for RFE/RL, said:

"We came up with the intent to do exactly this -- we came up to tell people, 'Look, your future is in your hands. If you leave everything in the hands of politicians, many of whom are really still influenced by the patterns of behavior that were common under the Communist system, you will not be living in a truly democratic society.' "

Earlier this week, the founders of Impuls '99 called a press conference to issue a manifesto that they entitled "An Invitation to All Members of Society."

Signed by more than 200 intellectuals, academics, writers, and religious leaders, the document said that Impuls '99 seeks to be a voice ringing out at what it called "an important moment of history from within our cultural and spiritual lives."

The writer said that many Czechs have lost faith in democratic institutions because of failures of the Czech political leadership.

Political scientists use the term "civil society" to describe a society in which people participate effectively in groups, such as associations, charities, churches and interest groups to mediate between themselves and their governments, balancing the powers of government and enhancing the power of citizens.

Another of the Impuls '99 spokesmen, sociologist and theologian Tomas Halik, said in a radio interview this week that the group doesn't intend to become a mass movement or political party. Halik said: "[We don't want] to transform ourselves into a political party. That would be a shame, and I think we have the potential to do more. It's a much broader grouping, which certainly doesn't pretend to be capable of providing set answers to every controversial question. But it can, by initiating debate and bringing up certain arguments both pro and con on issues, revitalize political discussion in society."

Although both Halik and Pehe are advisors to Czech President Vaclav Havel, they say Havel wasn't involved in forming Impuls '99. Pehe says the group's founders informed Havel and political leaders of the group's details a day before their public declaration.

Pehe says Czech citizens, Czech emigres living abroad, and others internationally have showered the group with expressions of interest, offers of support and requests to participate. He says that all are told that new participants are welcome but only if they intend to participate actively in the group's work.

In the interview, Pehe said that Czechs may face greater difficulties than Poles and Hungarians in re-establishing active civil participation in public affairs. Pehe said:

"The Czech Republic differs from Poland and Hungary in that Czechoslovakia experienced something that we called the period of normalization. That means that after the invasion of the Soviet-led armies in 1968, basically, a new Stalinist regime was installed in this country and civil society was suddenly suppressed."

Pehe says he doesn't blame Czech political leaders alone for the failure to develop mechanisms by which ordinary Czechs could be involved in public policy issues. He says the politicians, as Pehe put it, "simply were filling a vacuum left by the passivity of the intellectual community and the indifference of the public."

Besides the study to be launched next month, Impuls '99's leaders say they plan to publish other documents, organize conferences and launch public debate on issues such as the rule of law, European integration and educational opportunity.