“I went to the West for the first time in 1989. I was 37. This first encounter with the West gave me a shock from which I have never really recovered, in a way. As soon as I crossed the border into Austria I got out of the car and started to stare at the incredible multitude and variety of goods. I had a coffee and felt by doing so that I was becoming free.”
Member of the Czech Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted (VONS). Involved in the work of the Provisional Coordinating Committee of the Movement for Civic Freedom. Co-founded the underground “Lidové noviny” and “Respekt”. From 1992 to 1997 he held the posts of the Minister of the Interior of the Czech Republic and the Head of the Government Task Force on Refugees.
Did anything change with regard to travelling to the West in the early nineties? Our country was more closed in this respect during the eighties than Poland or Hungary.
All I remember is that as soon as I was issued my first passport – after twenty years of not having one – I went to Austria. It was in 1989. I visited Germany and Italy next. That was in the early nineties. I did not need a visa to go there. It seems to me that the EU is making things more complicated nowadays.
So all you needed was your passport? Was a visa not required?
Yes, it’s true. Of course, I still needed a visa to go to the US. I also had to have one when I went to two Latin American countries and Syria. Now we have the Schengen regime that has somewhat closed our border to foreigners – especially from Eastern European countries – probably for very logical reasons. Our visa policy is stricter now. The price of a visa for someone from Belarusis, for example, so steep that it makes travelling difficult or impossible, especially for young people. I think that such apolicy is misguided. I do understand that the influx of people to the Czech Republic from other countries has to be limited. But such a policy deprives their young people of educational opportunities. I am in touch with some Belarusian non-governmental organisations. So when I look at the situation from the Belarusian perspective I see the need to lower the price of a visa. Thus, I would like to see some agreement being reached. With a view to this I contacted the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asking them to do something about it. But my efforts were in vain. I encountered a very rigid attitude at the former. All they were willing to do was to grant some visa-fee reductions in individual cases, and that is not a good approach. On the other hand, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wanted to solve this problem by way of student-exchange programmes and by making exceptions for students from Belarus, Moldova and the Ukraine, but that would do little to help. I have the impression that we are closing ourselves as a country to the world. And I have a very negative feeling about that. Why should we do that when the world has opened up to us?
What did you feel when you went to the West for the first time?
I went to the West for the first time in 1989. I was 37. This first encounter with the West gave me a shock from which I have never really recovered, in a way. As soon as I crossed the border into Austria I got out of the car and started to stare at the incredible multitude and variety of goods. I had a coffee and felt by doing so that I was becoming free. I was tremendously moved. My next journey to the West took me to Paris. I went there as a journalist, to do an interview with someone but this interview never materialised. So, instead, I roamed the streets of Paris watching people, observing how they behaved, how they were dressed. I sat in a café smoking a cigarette and drinking absinthe. And it was an absolutely unique experience for me. Even today, twenty years later, when I go abroad, I have the feeling that I am entering a free country. And upon return I have this oppressive feeling in my stomach. So for me nothing has changed in that respect, even after all these years.
What were your expectations of the West? And were they matched by the reality?
To put it simply, I was in shock. I was coming from a country surrounded by barbed wire, where everything was incredibly drab and seedy; particularly the Czechoslovak countryside. The difference seemed to me simply so irreconcilable. Though this difference is somehow less acute today, it seems to me that the Czechs are closing themselves from the outside world. There is this distrust among us of people who are different in some way, a form of xenophobia from the past that we seem unable to shake off. In contrast, wherever one travels in the world, one is struck by the openness and empathy people have for each other. It seems to me that we Czechs still carry some stifling fear within us. And that is the great difference. Naturally, when one goes abroad, one sees that other people have their problems too. Our situation twenty years ago was really nasty though.
How were your treated when you were crossing the borders?
Naturally the behaviour of our border guards and our customs officers was nothing to write home about. The same was true though of such services in other countries within the Soviet Block, like Hungary or Poland. The situation changed after November 1989, though the change was gradual. But whenever one was going abroad to work, the authorities still enjoyed giving one a hard time.
When was the visa regime for Czech citizens travelling to the EU lifted?
I believe it was lifted in the same year in which we applied for the EU membership, i.e. in 1995. Czech citizens still needed visas for some other countries though, such as the US. The US has lifted that obligation since then. This issue is, however, being much debated again now. On the other hand, Canada solved this visa problem without any sensitivity towards Czech citizens. I do hope that this will not lead to the introduction of some reciprocal measure. I understand that the situation in the US after 11 September 2001 necessitated the introduction of stricter security arrangements on their borders too, so as to eliminate risks relating to terrorism. But even excessive measures won’t work because those who want to get in illegally will find some means of doing so. We live in an era of advanced technologies and yet we seem to have gone back to the situation of twenty years ago.