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Czech Republic: Former Leaders Differ On Meaning Of 1989

Leaders from East and West, who helped end communist rule in Eastern Europe, gathered in Prague yesterday 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 millennium. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten presents more excerpts from the discussion, with remarks by former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, former Solidarity union leader and Polish President Lech Walesa, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and former U.S. President George Bush.

Prague, 18 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Helmut Kohl said the revolutions of 1989 were clearly interconnected, and he praised the bravery of those Central and Eastern Europeans who stood up against communism and overthrew it. But Kohl noted that both the former Soviet and American leaders deserve recognition for their role as catalysts to the process.

"I think one cannot separate the events of those days. I would also like to warn against this. It should all be seen as being interconnected in each of the countries. I begin by saying that I have always found it to be this way since the decisive change came about when Mikhail Gorbachev took office, when with his policy of perestroika he recognized that the old Communist cadre policy was doomed. On the other side of the Atlantic, Ronald Reagan and in particular George Bush -- two men were in office who recognized what the signs of the times meant, that it was time to stop the arms race, to disarm, to talk to each other and begin disarmament negotiations.

"No one in Europe, and this is my considered opinion, should think there would have been success had it not been that the two great powers set out on a rational road."

Kohl said there were times 10 years ago when others laughed at him for his optimism about the chances for democracy in Eastern Europe and for the successful reunification of Germany. But he said history had vindicated him and other visionaries.

"This was an [instance] of magnificent European concerted action, which was not agreed upon in the individual countries, but it was the desire for freedom which became pronounced in Europe. And for me personally, there is a dominant feeling of utter gratitude to all those who had the courage, who had the foresight ... I have experienced that the visionaries are the true realists in history. This is a message to be remembered."

Lech Walesa countered that, as far as he remembered, there were few leaders with much vision to be found 10 years ago.

"I remember holding talks with world leaders 10 years ago, and I have to say they didn't believe we would triumph. They didn't believe in such a far-reaching victory, and that's the truth."

The former Polish leader urged the West to demonstrate more foresight today, by providing generous and well-planned assistance to Eastern European countries during this difficult transition period.

"For me another question comes up. Today, we have to plan what to do with this victory. And Mr. Gorbachev raised the issue. The West has no idea, in the long term, of what to do with this victory. After World War II, it came up with the Marshall Plan. But ten years after this war, no one has done anything for us. Plans are needed like the Marshall Plan -- if we don't think one up, then there will be terrible problems for all of us."

Margaret Thatcher, known in Britain as the Iron Lady, was true to form. She urged all citizens -- East and West -- not to wait for a government handout, but to emulate the Anglo-Saxon model, based on voluntarism.

"Cheer up! Things are a lot better now than they were 50 years ago! (Applause...) The countries that have done the most to make that so, are also the countries that are doing the most voluntary giving to good causes. We are a volunteer society, America is a volunteer society, most of the people there will be involved with voluntary organizations. In fact, the country that gives most to voluntary organizations is, of course, the United States. Its voluntary giving, in the last year for which income tax returns are available, was $150 billion, in that year! They don't talk about helping children, they go and do it! They have a national society for the prevention of cruelty to children and many, many others go and give their voluntary time. And it is a much better world. And I think we should go away quite proud of the extension of freedom in the world. And the extension of responsibility in free societies. That's all."

George Bush, like Thatcher, noted the leadership of Britain and the United States in ending the Cold War. But he also spoke of Washington's initially cautious approach to the momentous events of 1989.

"The United States was concerned that if we provoke, needlessly provoke, then-President Gorbachev, who knows how the forces to his right, his military, might have reacted. And so we tried to be very careful about not dancing on the [Berlin] Wall, for example. I did, personally. I think people knew where the United States stood and incidentally I agree with Baroness Thatcher about her and Ronald Reagan's contribution. I think that's because they were so clear about freedom itself. Reagan, as we all know, got criticized for saying: 'Tear down that wall, Mr. Gorbachev!' Whether Mr. Gorbachev actually criticized him, I don't remember. But everyone knew where they stood, and I think that helped us."

Bush paid homage to his host, former dissident and current Czech President Vaclav Havel, and to Lech Walesa. He called both men heroes of the democratic revolutions of 1989, whose example personally inspired the American people.

"In terms of this one, the Velvet Revolution, and also Poland to a degree -- the fact that it was Walesa who captured the hearts of Americans -- not just Polish-Americans, of which there are more in Chicago than there are in Warsaw -- not just President Havel capturing the imagination of Czechoslovakian-Americans, in those days, of which there are plenty in our country.

"Someone said there are no heroes anymore. Look, we're halfway around the world, blessed by peaceful borders to the North and to the South, we're protected by two great oceans. But there are heroes. And what made it get through to the American people -- the need to support this freedom -- were the symbols of this freedom, in this case, Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa. So I do believe that there are heroes and I do believe that those things helped my country and perhaps other countries try to do the right thing."