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Jiri Dienstbier: From Dissident To Diplomat

Jiri Dienstbier Sr., Czech journalist, dissident, and first post-revolution Czechoslovak Minister of Foreign Affairs. Undated.

Jiri Dienstbier Sr., Czech journalist, dissident, and first post-revolution Czechoslovak Minister of Foreign Affairs. Undated.

As Czechs celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the peaceful demonstrations that toppled communism in Czechoslovakia in November 1989, the absence of the democratic movement’s most prominent leader and first post-revolution president Vaclav Havel, who died in 2011, was felt.

While Havel is well-known internationally as the “philosopher king,” a former political prisoner who became president, there is another, less well-known figure in many of the iconic photographs of Havel from that time pictured with him, smiling warmly under a thick, tobacco-stained mustache.

Jiri Dienstbier Sr.’s work was central to how Czechs, as citizens of a nascent democracy, would come to define their responsibilities to other countries still ruled by autocratic regimes. The extent of those responsibilities and how to uphold them is still a subject of debate in Czech society today.

Dienstbier was born in the Central Bohemian town of Kladno in 1937, and is described by contemporaries as a “faithful communist,” but one who believed the party could be reformed from within. He lost that faith, however, after the 1968 Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, which was carried out in retaliation for efforts by Dienstbier and other reformers to build “Socialism with a human face.”

His talent as a journalist and deep knowledge of foreign affairs, coupled with his party affiliation, had allowed him to report as a foreign correspondent for state-run Czechoslovak Radio from Western Europe, the Far East, and even the United States, but he was promptly fired and expelled from the Union of Journalists after denouncing the invasion on the air.

Called back to Czechoslovakia and forced to take menial jobs as punishment for his public dissent, Dienstbier authored many samizdat articles on the poor state of human rights in Czechoslovakia that were circulated underground. He was among the first signatories of Charter 77, a document criticizing the Czechoslovak government for failing to implement human rights protections in accordance with international treaties. Charter 77 would help galvanize the movement that later overturned the regime.

In 1979, he was imprisoned for three years for “subversion of the republic.”

Jefim Fistejn, former director of RFE/RL’s Russian Service, who worked as a translator in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and also risked prison for signing Charter 77, remembers Dienstbier as a gregarious conversationalist and a humble politician.

“I visited his home a few times in the Charter 77 days. It was the typical apartment of an intellectual, with books strewn all over the floor, and of course some hard alcohol on the table, usually domestic rum,” said Fistejn.

WATCH: Jiri Dienstbier's son, current Czech Human Rights Minister Jiri Dienstbier Jr., speaks about his father's legacy.

In 1988, Dienstbier and fellow dissidents Jiri Ruml and Ladislav Hejdanek began publishing a samizdat version of “Lidove noviny” or “Peoples’ News,” which had been one of the most popular Czech dailies before it was closed in 1952. (It is again among the most read newspapers in the country).

He was a member and spokesperson of the Civic Forum, an organization that emerged out of the November 1989 demonstrations to manage the government transition, and was appointed Czechoslovakia’s first post-revolutionary Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Though in many respects he differed with Dienstbier, whose views generally leaned to the left, former Czech Foreign Minister and leader of the center-right party Top 09 Karel Schwarzenberg was nevertheless a friend and supporter.

“[Dienstbier] founded a noble tradition that we have had up until now, that the Czech Republic, because of its own experience, should always defend human rights around the world,”Schwarzenberg told RFE/RL. “That was his idea with Vaclav Havel, and until now it has been a tradition of our foreign policy, and it has had a huge impact.”

Though Dienstbier and Havel shared a deep respect for human rights as the paramount objective of foreign policy, disagreement over the means of protecting human rights in the case of Kosovo would cause one of the biggest rifts between the two men in their careers.

Dienstbier was appointed UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Former Yugoslavia in 1998, and was severely criticized for his opposition to sanctions against Serbia and NATO intervention, measures Havel supported in the hopes of preventing an escalation of ethnic cleansing against the Albanian population. It was often insinuated that Dienstbier’s Serb aunt was evidence of his bias in favor of Belgrade.

His defenders, however, say that he was influenced by his experience as Foreign Minister during the beginning of the breakup of Yugoslavia, when he believed a lack of diplomacy and unilateral, piecemeal recognition of independence fanned the flames of war in the region.

“He was always against partial recognition of individual states,” said Jirina Dienstbierova, his fourth wife and Chair of the Czech Council on Foreign Relations, an organization Dienstbier founded in part to support EU integration of Western Balkan countries. “He thought the breakup had to be handled comprehensively, otherwise it would end in civil conflict. Unfortunately, he was right.”

Though his stance on Kosovo cost Dienstbier the backing of some of his former allies, he continued to be an avid supporter of EU integration for countries of the former Yugoslavia, media freedom, and human rights until his death in 2011.

--Emily Thompson