“The difference between our country and the West in the sixties was not so immense as one might think. It involved mainly differences between the cuisine and the mentality of the people. Westerners were more direct, more relaxed. They were not afraid of others. “
Czech activist, after November 1989 he became well known as a leading NGO spokesperson and an expert on the NGO legal environment. In 1992 he co-founded and became the Executive Director of a company providing consultancy services to NGOs. From 1995 to 2000 he was the Deputy Director of the Centre for Democracy and Free Enterprise in Prague.
Could you tell me a bit about your first trips to the West?
I started to travel to the West relatively early on, first as a student, and then as an employee of the Institute of Nuclear Research. Already back then, in the early sixties, study-abroad programmes in the West for physicists and scientists in general started to develop. And our Institute succeeded in establishing cooperation with an institute in France, where I spent nearly a year. That was quite a formative experience. I was able to go there virtually every year, until 1968; that was the last time I was able to go.
Did you visit other countries too?
I visited Italy. One could cross the border into Yugoslavia rather easily. Once there, Czechoslovak citizens were allowed by the Yugoslav authorities to travel further. Otherwise, you were allowed to travel only as a private person, on a special permit that you were able to obtain only once a decade.
When did you go abroad for the first time?
So you used to travel to the West every year, from 1964 until 1968?
Yes, I did. I was also able to leave even in 1969. I went to the UK
with the help of my Institute. And stayed there until March. It was then that I made a very bad decision to return to Czechoslovakia. On my way back, when I crossed the border between Germany and Czechoslovakia, I saw soldiers everywhere and had a feeling that everything had gone badly wrong, although, the borders were still open at the turn of 1968 to 1969. The self-immolation of Jan Palach took place when I was in the UK. This was a very dramatic event. For me, it meant returning to a devastated country.
And there followed a tightening by the regime?
That did not actually come about until April 1969. I lost my job. I was sacked from the Institute along with several others.
Did you have to sign a statement that you approved of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact armies?
Whilst being dismissed, I was presented with two documents to sign: one relating to voluntary resignation, subject to their finding me a job somewhere else, and the other, a plain dismissal. I chose to sign the latter. It meant that from that point on my life wasn’t going to be easy. But I have no regrets.
Were you able to go abroad after that?
I never even tried as a private person to go through the procedure of applying to the Local Council and receiving permission to travel on my own, without my family, and then, at best, only to Yugoslavia. We went to East Germany and to Poland though. That was just about possible.
One had to obtain the permission from the country in question first though?
Well, there was the possibility of getting a visa and a passport. But having a visa from the country one wished to visit was not enough. One had to have the so-called “exit permit“ which authorised the holder to cross the Czechoslovak border, and committed him or her to return.
How did one go about getting a visa? Was it difficult to get one?
It was a normal visa procedure meaning one approached the Consulate in question. The Consulate usually took two to three weeks to process an application and issue a visa.
Was there a time when things were relatively relaxed as far as travelling was concerned?
Yes, there was – early 1969. It was great. There was a feeling among us Czechoslovaks that we were all in the same boat. And we were communicating with each other in a normal manner. Communication between us was great. In fact, many people were allowed to leave the country even without any documents, including all these exit permits. None of them were necessary.
But then didn’t the regime use the forced emigration to get rid of dissidents?
Yes, they did that too. But then they had already used that method during the fifties. However, they were more active in this respect during the period of the so-called “normalisation”.
What are your memories of your first trip abroad?
The difference between our country and the West in the sixties was not so immense as one might think. It involved mainly differences between the cuisine and the mentality of the people. Westerners were more direct, more relaxed. They were not afraid of others. One could talk freely to anyone and meet, in a single workplace, many interesting people from different countries. Such an atmosphere was totally unknown to us. Then, during the seventies, each time one left the country one was wondering whether to return to Czechoslovakia or stay permanently abroad. Each time you had to assure your wife and parents that you were going to come back, that you were not going to stay in the West permanently. But anyway, every time one planned for the eventuality that things would turn out differently.
What did you expect of the West before your first journey there? And were your expectations matched by the reality?
Firstly, I used to travel to the West as a researcher, and thus to work there. The moment you arrived at an Institute someone took care of you. I was assigned a desk. There was a minimum of red tape. I was free to do my work.
So you had an opportunity to observe everyday life there?
I had a lot of good moments. I was young, mind you, but I still spent most of my time at my desk.
Do you still stay in touch with anyone you met in the West back then?
Yes, I do. I maintain contact with some people in Italy. I have some personal friends abroad too.
Did you become aware of democracy and the freedom when you were in the West in the sixties?
Certainly, I did. The difference between them and us was that nobody told you what to do and nobody controlled you. You did everything of your own free will. You would see people demonstrating in the street, expressing agreement or dissent. And all of that took place without any intervention from the authorities.
There is much talk, nowadays, of the advantages of the Schengen Zone. There are two contrasting tendencies though. There is the European Neighbourhood Policy and the Eastern Partnership, with their declared priority to foster human relations across borders. And on the other hand, there is a rather restrictive Schengen regime. Do you think these tendencies could become amalgamated one day into one, resulting, for example, in the abolition of visa fees?
I hope so. I feel that there are categories of traveller – such as students or those wishing to visit for a short time – who should be entitled to pay a lower fee, or be able to obtain a visa free of charge. Naturally, for economic reasons there is a strong desire to derive revenues from issuing visas but it is important for citizens of the Eastern Partnership countries to have this financial barrier reduced. During the seventies and eighties, people started to draw conclusions about the differences between the East and the West, and find out about democracy, the free market economy. That is, of course, if they were able to go abroad.
That means an added value in that we were able to share this experience with our European partners when we were negotiating with them. It enabled us to tell them what helped us in various ways.
Yes, it’s true. For example, we were able to dispel their fears of an excessive influx of labour from the East. In reality, their fear of this is completely unfounded because from an economic point of view it’s not a problem at all. The Schengen regime can’t protect us from certain risks anyway. People can still get here illegally if they want to. As I have said, a reasonable policy would be to grant visas free of charge to those that qualify, those who need to travel for a specific purpose. Nevertheless we need some degree of protection.