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Czech Republic: Nation Quietly Marks 25th Anniversary Of Seminal Charter 77

  • Jolyon Naegele

Czechs are quietly marking the 25th anniversary of the seminal Charter 77 human rights document, a petition that called on the country's Communist authorities to respect Czechoslovakia's constitution and the international accords on human rights that the country had signed. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele examines the relative success of the petition and the human rights movement that grew around it in the face of ongoing repression.

Prague, 8 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Charter 77 petition, published on 1 January, 1977, was immediately perceived by the Czechoslovak Communist authorities as a direct threat to their monopoly on power.

Within a week, leading newspapers in the West published the full text, which circulated in Czechoslovakia and other Warsaw Pact member states only as samizdat.

Charter 77 described itself as "a free, informal, open community of people of different convictions, different faiths and different professions, united by the will to strive, individually and collectively, for the respect of civic and human rights in our own country and throughout the world...by the Final Act of the [1975] Helsinki conference and by numerous other international documents opposing war, violence and social or spiritual oppression."

The Charter 77 declaration said these documents "serve [as] an urgent reminder of the extent to which basic human rights in [Czechoslovakia] exist, regrettably, only on paper."

In the words of the original Charter 77 declaration: "The right to freedom of expression is, in our case, purely illusory. Tens of thousands of our citizens are prevented from working in their own fields for the sole reason that they hold views differing from official ones, and are discriminated against and harassed in all kinds of ways by the authorities and public organizations. Deprived as they are of any means to defend themselves, they become victims of a virtual apartheid."

The declaration said "hundreds of thousands of other citizens are...condemned to live in constant danger of unemployment or other penalties if they voice their own opinions."

Charter 77 and its offspring, a human rights monitoring group that called itself the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted (VONS), served Czechoslovakia's human rights activists as a beacon for 13 years until the collapse of Communist power.

Czechoslovak signatories were repeatedly detained for questioning and pressured to renounce their support for the document. The overwhelming majority of the more than 200 early signatories lived in Prague and Brno. Most lost their jobs. Some were forced to emigrate.

Many Slovak opposition figures, including ousted Communist Party First Secretary Alexander Dubcek and debarred lawyer Jan Carnogursky -- while agreeing with much of the content of the petition -- nevertheless shied away from the document and the movement that developed around it.

The Communist Party leadership launched what came to be known as the Anti-Charter -- a petition denouncing Charter 77 and its signatories. The leadership organized a "festive assembly" at Prague's National Theater on 28 January 1977, at which hundreds of state-approved pop singers, artists, actors, and other cultural figures signed the Anti-Charter. Many signed out of fear. This document -- like editorials in the party daily "Rude Pravo" -- denounced Charter 77 as an "anti-state, anti-Socialist, anti-human, and demagogic libel."

Charter 77's authors and original signatories were a diverse group of people. They included a former Communist Party politburo member, Zdenek Mlynar; an ex-Communist foreign minister, Jiri Hajek -- both of whom had been toppled from power after the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968; and a Trotskyite former student activist named Petr Uhl. There were also Christian-oriented philosophers such as Jan Patocka, Vaclav Benda, and outlawed priest Vaclav Maly, as well as banned playwright Vaclav Havel.

Havel, Hajek, and Patocka were Charter 77's first three spokesmen. But Patocka died following secret police interrogation several days after its publication. The signatories authorized the spokesmen, who changed every year, to represent them "vis-a-vis state and other bodies and the public at home and abroad."

Havel had spent more than five years in prison for his human rights activities by the time Communist rule collapsed. Despite being under constant surveillance by uniformed and plainclothes police, Havel spoke to this reporter in Prague on the 10th anniversary of Charter 77's publication, expressing satisfaction with its success.

"The importance that [the] Charter has today in many senses, surprisingly, has gone beyond its original intentions. Not that [the] Charter is something other than it wanted to be. It continues to maintain it original purpose -- to openly point out violations of human rights, [and] request compliance with the laws. This remains the main line of its work. Nevertheless, its 10 years of existence, quite spontaneously and freely without having been planned, have given [the] Charter such a special position that it is fulfilling even more functions. For example, it is a partner of various political forces on the international plane, leading a dialogue with peace movements."

Havel noted that Charter 77 had become a part of society and that Czechoslovakia's inhabitants, as well as the rest of the world, knew about it.

"Of course, in the conditions in which we live, everything has to be judged in view of the particular character of these conditions. This means, for example, the significance to society of [the] Charter cannot be measured by some curve showing a rising number of signatories or by some direct political impact -- that the government would submit to a dialogue with [the] Charter and discuss or respond to its proposals. It's not so simple," Havel said. "Nevertheless, de facto [the] Charter has become a kind of firm component of social life. It lives in the awareness of the public and of the current authorities."

Another leading signatory was a former Communist Party central committee member and university lecturer, Jaroslav Sabata, who spent eight years in prison in the 1970s and '80s for his human rights activities. The Brno-based dissident also spoke to this reporter on the 10th anniversary of Charter 77's founding, when he sensed the imminence of change.

"The political atmosphere [in Czechoslovakia] in the 1970s was, to put it mildly, gloomy. [The] Charter entered this situation with the aim of changing it -- understandably, with the prospect of radically changing it, but not with the prospect of this radical change in the democratic sense happening immediately," Sabata said. "Today we are standing on the threshold of a development when the possibility of a radical change in the political atmosphere is starting to take shape, not only in our country but in our part of Europe. And precisely because of this, [the] Charter -- which has been striving for this change for 10 years -- obviously is of key significance in this process, which is playing out before our eyes."

However, even 10 years after its publication, barely more than 1,000 people had signed the document, of whom only about one-quarter were active dissidents. Most Czechs were only able to read the Charter at the end of 1989, when students plastered it on walls during the Velvet Revolution that ended Communist rule and chanted "Charter! Charter!" at anti-Communist demonstrations.

Numerous Charter 77 signers entered government or were elected to parliament after the Velvet Revolution. But most went down to electoral defeat in 1992. In addition to Czech President Havel, other Charter 77 signatories in senior positions of Czech leadership today are Speaker of the Senate Petr Pithart and Deputy Prime Minister Pavel Rychetsky.

In addition, a few former "Chartists" are to be found in the opposition, including the Freedom Union's Hana Marvanova and Jan Ruml, and a number of diplomats, including ambassadors Martin Palous in Washington and Jaroslav Basta in Moscow.

The 25th anniversary of Charter 77 passed quietly in the Czech Republic, marked by a few newspaper articles noting that the wide political differences among active Chartists continue in today's political arena.

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