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Czech Republic: Former Leaders Argue Over Meaning Of 1989

  • Jeremy Bransten

Leaders from East and West, who helped end communist rule in Eastern Europe, gathered in Prague today to mark the 10th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in what was then Czechoslovakia. But far from being just a photo opportunity, the meeting triggered sharp debate about the legacy of the anniversary, and the way forward into the next millenium. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten files this report.

Prague, 17 November 1999 (RFE/RL) - Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, former U.S. President George Bush, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, former Polish President and Solidarity union leader Lech Walesa and the wife of the late French President Francois Mitterand are all being awarded high state honors in Prague today. The awards are being conferred by former dissident and current Czech President Vaclav Havel in ceremonies in Prague Castle's medieval Vladislav Hall.

The visit of the former leaders was planned as a largely-ceremonial occasion. But in a panel discusssion at Prague Castle this afternoon, participants sharply disagreed about the significance of the anti-Communist revolutions and their aftermath. The talk laid bare the ideological rifts which still exist among some former adversaries, and which could threaten to bring more divisions between East and West into the 21st century.

Thatcher called the fall of communism a triumph of freedom and capitalism, especially as espoused by Britain and the United States. She took a large measure of credit for the collapse of communism and said the two countries had provided a shining example for the East to follow. Thatcher said the best thing the United States and Britain could do would be to continue exporting their values and way of life abroad.

"I think our task today is not to ponder on what happened in the last 10 years, but to see how we extend liberty to those countries that do not know it."

Thatcher cautioned that freedom cannot exist in a vacuum, but hinges on key institutions such as an uncorrupt parliament and judiciary, which can give citizens the confidence they need to achieve and thus enrich their respectiuve communities and societies.

"People talk a lot about liberty as if it could exist just on its own. It's desirable but it can't. You cannot have liberty or freedom unless you have a rule of law. And I don't mean a rule of law by a dictator. I mean a rule of law that has been developed under the best principles of equity and fairness over centuries. That law has been put into practice by a parliament and very honorable judges. We and America have had all of that. And we are very fortunate. So you cannot have freedom without a rule of law."

Thatcher's outspoken views earned silence from former Chancellor Kohl, seated next to her, and a gentle rebuke from the moderator, Oxford history professor Timothy Garton Ash. Garton Ash noted that other European democracies had also perhaps contributed to inspiring the East's quest for freedom.

But it was Gorbachev who took Thatcher on directly, accusing her of communist-style rhetoric in the service of a narrow ideology. He said that if anything, the past 10 years had proven that new ideas where needed -- something approaching a synthesis between capitalism and communism, to solve problems in an increasingly global world economy.

"I think that just as an inferiority complex is a bad thing," he said. "A victor's complex is no less harmful. I think we should say that no single ideology at the end of the 20th century can answer the challenges of the 21st century and the global problems which stand before us -- neither liberal, nor communist, nor conservative."

Gorbachev reminded Thatcher that it was the communists who saw everything in black and white, through ideological blinders, and he questioned whether she had not stumbled down the same path.

"It was the communists who wanted to establish universal happiness, to spread their ideology and organize the world according to the communist model. So, we got rid of one model and now they want to establish universal happiness with another model."

Danielle Mitterand, a human rights advocate and wife of the late Francois Mitterand, warned that the ideology of profit was taking over the world, masquerading as "globalization." Gorbachev agreed, pointing out that in many parts of the non-Western world, especially Asia and the Middle East, the term "globalization" was often perceived as a new form of Western colonialism.

Former union leader and Polish president Lech Walesa used his allotted time to chastize the West for congratulating itself over the end of Communism without providing sufficient aid and assistance to those countries now trying to transform their economies. He drew a parallel to the end of World War Two and said Western Europe had benefitted from American assistance through the generosity of the Marshall Plan.

But Walesa noted that ten years after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, no comprehensive assistance had been forthcoming from America and a now prosperous Western Europe. He warned that in many countries across the East, democracy is now endangered by the failure of economic reform, crime, corruption and a nostalgia by some for the certainties of the old regime.

Czech President Vaclav Havel, master of ceremonies, as well as the only major figure of 1989 still in power, called the year of revolutions a magic moment. But he said that it was not, as some once predicted, the end of history. The revolutions of Eastern Europe, he said, marked a victory for human dignity and universal human values, not any particular ideology.

"If I posed myself the question: what triumphed over what or who triumphed over whom 10 years ago, then I wouldn't answer that it was the victory of one ideology over another, of one state over another state, or of one superpower over another," he said. "But I say certain values triumphed. Freedom triumphed over oppression. Respect for human dignity triumphed over humiliation. Respect for human rights triumphed over disdain for human rights. But it was one small battle in an unending chain of battles, because the war continues."

Havel reminded his audience that most of the world's citizens still face poverty and injustice and the struggle for their freedom must continue.
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