Helsinki Citizens Assembly

Soul-Searching in Bratislava

By Metta Spencer | 1992-05-01 12:00:00

Bratislava, a Slovak city of half a million, straddles the Danube about an hour's drive from Vienna. Here at the end of March about 700 activists from 40 countries met for the second ntajor conference of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly (HCA). The theme was 4'Nationalism and Racism"- a title that was both timely and unwisely provocative, given that we were meeting where a referendum will soon be held on the Slovak nationalists' demand for separation from Czechoslovakia. Slovaks stayed away from the conference in droves, reportedly taking offence at the implied linkage of their cause to racism. Despite the poor local attendance, the audience consisted largely of Eastern Europeans and former Soviets.

But nationalism was not the only contentious issue at this meeting; there were enough projects for all the would-be conflict managers, of whom I was one. Instead of attendmg sessions, I spent most of my time conducting a poll and interviewing HCA participants. As chair of the structure committee, I am supposed to find out what kind of structure the members want.

Hard Times and War Time

Th contrast to the celebratory mood of 1990, when the founding convention was held in Prague, this was a time of lamentation and resentment. HCA has run into organizational snags and is caught up in the general angst that prevails tlffoughout Eastern Europe today. Stress was palpable around the conference building, where a Latvian woman was mugged and another delegate was attacked by a skinhead, and where there was an undercurrent of recrimination and rivalry among activists. For example, Slovaks allege that Prague activists appropriated the large fund that had been amassed by the Communist peace organization in the old days when all citizens were pressured to contribute at the workplace, much as Canadians are pressured to contribute to the United Way.

Easterners seem to invent rationales for excluding each other from their groups. For example, a Romanian woman friend of mine is excluded frorn her national delegation because, without knowing her at all, they concluded that she must be a former Securitate agent. Another friend, who has been excluded from the Slovak committee, was falsely described to me first as a nationalist and later as a former communist. The most famous such slander is that against a Czech Member of Parliament, Jan Kavan, who has been officially labelled as an informer to the secret police. Because he cannot clear his name until after the spring elections, he is not even running again. (He would be defeated anyway because he is a social democrat; the right wing is expected to win decisively.)

Careful interviewing was required to ferret out the misinformation. Fortunately, most people were willing to come to my beautifully furnished temporary office and bare their souls to my tape recorder. There I came to understand a little about the painful enmities that have resulted from the war in Yugoslavia, and also a little about the plight of social democratic politicians in Eastern Europe.

I am grateful to a Croatian woman, Vesna, and a Serbian named Vuk, for the cultivated calm with which they compared their differing views of the war. Vesna, an activist who lives in Zagreb, explained that her group and their Slovenian friends had felt abandoned and betrayed because peace workers in other countries had not supported them as soon as the war broke out. Vuk replied that because the conflict had been described as a "civil war," many activists felt unable to take sides especially after some of the Croatians and Slovenians had become "infected by the nationalism virus" and had insulted some of their former friends. Later the "civil war" was widely redefined as the Yugoslav army's one-sided aggression against the Croatians. This new interpretation enabled many who had been ambivalent to take sides, but by then friendships that had been broken seemingly could not be restored. At any rate, some Slovenians who had been active in HCA-notably Marko Hren-did not attend this time.

Saving HCA from the Right

Another old issue was also clarified for me by Jaroslav Sabata, a Slovak former dissident, now a Member of Parliament, who can be called the "father of HCA." During the founding assembly there had been a lively debate between the Czecho-slovakian delegates and most of the Western delegates over the inclusion of politicians in HCA leadersnip roles. HCA had been developed largely by members of Charta 77, the human rights activists who had opposed the communist regime in Czechooslovakia; after the revolution of November, 1989 they became the leaders of the new government, stating that "civil society is now in power." Sabata, who was prominent among those new politicians, explained to me how HCA had almost been taken over by right-wing nationalists as a resuit of the policies of Western members. 1 had actually been one of those Western delegates who opposed including Members of Parliament as leaders of HCA, on the grounds that organizations of civil society by definition should consist of private citizens. But now Sabata explained the political context of that debate, "In the first free elections in Czechoslovakia, members of the parties that were not elected took a hostile attitude toward parliamentarian democcacy and toward those who had been elected to parliament. They maintained that the HCA should work as a body of those parties (that were defeated in the parliamentary election) that they, these enemy parties, are the ones representing the real civil society. These parties now constitute the right wing bloc, especially the group known as 'The Club of People who are not Organized in Parties.' These militant people claimed that the HCA should belong to them, since they, and not parliament, are the real civil society. They regarded the position of Western delegates, who sometimes oppose governments, as their own position, and they looked for support in the Western position. Everything eonnected with the criticism of parliament they understood as a position that supports their opinion. It was not a conflict between civil society and the establishment, but rather it was a political conflict."

So Charter 77 politicians had insisted on participating in HCA to keep this new organization from being taken over by their political enemies!

The political situation in 1992 seems quite different from that of 1990, but even here there were different interpretations. A staff member of the HCA secretariat had explained to me that HCA is now unpopular in Prague sinee it is thought to be controlled by the Western European left, whereas public opinion throughout Eastern Europe has shifted far to the right. According to her, the Charter 77 politicians now find it dangerous to be seen as too close to the HCA, which is a source of internal strain within HCA. She said that the Czech Members of Parliament have recently created a more conservative new organization, the International Network for Democratic Solidarity. By identifying publicly with it instead of with HCA, they may be able to save their own political reputations and also relieve some of the strains within HCA.

When I asked Sabata about this, he was flabbergasted by this interpretation, which seemed exactly opposite to his own.

"I wouldn't like for you to imagine the strong words that I could use!" he said. "The International Network for Democratic Solidarity is a project to make contact between parliamentarians from several countries who support the initiatives of civil society and are positive toward the Helsinki process.The idea was created by Russian and Bulgarian M.P.s [who needed mutual] support for democracy. (We] met for the first time here in Prague three days after the putsch in Russia was defeated. Unfortunately, some of our friends from the HCA's International Coordinating Committee don't believe in it; I am sure that many of them don't understand it. ... The aim is to [link] parliamentarians in those post-communist countries who react in the same ways, to overcome nationalistic positions in the parliaments. [We will cooperatej with academic political scientists who understand democracy as humanitarian-oriented and based in civil society. Post-communist society here is in real danger from radical anti-communists. We are opposed to the right wing."

A Europe of Regions and of the CSCE

Like Kavan, Sabata is not standing for reelection to parliament, which in the present climate would be futile. He is active in other campaigns, however, notably the formation of local organizations to overcome national prejudices. This project, "Europe of Regions: Transfrontier Cooperation" is fulfilling a plan that was discussed in the first HCA General Assembly. It brings together representatives of people from ecological and cultural regions that cross various national frontiers around Europe. On the edges of the Czech Republic there will be seven such regions on the frontiers with Germany, Austria, and Poland. Sabata wants to form a chain of Euro-regions for people from below as a step toward abolishing frontiers. These projects should arise from the initiative of local people who are interested in cooperating with people on the other side of the border.

Sabata expects the governments to cooperate within the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and hopes that HCA will work there as a consultative body. "That means that each national committee in HCA should influence its national government and also the General Assembly," he said. "But some members of government do not even know what CSCE is and they assume it is unnecessary. For example, the [Czech and Slovak] Finance Minister, Mr. Klaus, expresses his doubts repeatedly about the necessity of the functioning of CSCE. He opposes sending missions of CSCE to other countries."

The Argument that Canadians Won't Buy

Although Sabata stilt seems committed to promoting the CSCE, many others who attended the conference seemed less optimistic about its role in the future governance of Europe, and among them there was considerable discussion about NATO. A year ago, as the Cold War was ending, it seemed inevitable that NATO would collapse too, but it has found a convincing rationale for continuing. Indeed, one of the most-prominent former members of Charter 77, Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier, now cheerfully supports NATO and has sought admission to it for the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic. In a small session on disarmament, an Englishwoman, Pat Chilton, dramatically recounted a conversation with Dienstbier on the subject, shaking her hands as if she had him by both lapels: "How could you!"

"Look, what would you have me do?" he is supposed to have replied. Chilton filled out the rest of his explanation from her imagination: This is what the Americans want and they have all that money!

And Chilton herself seems to have come around. She suggested tentatively that, since NATO is not going away and has actually made some significant concessions, perhaps the peace movement should work with it and try to make it function to our own liking. All three Canadians who were present shook our heads and Marion Mathieson said, "I'd never be able to sell that argument in Canada."

But many European activists have accepted that view. There was even talk of sending a delegation to NATO. Most of the people with whom I spoke did not like the idea, but it is unclear whether this is because they still abhor NATO or whether it is because no mandate had been given or even requested for this project.

Mient Jan Faber brought some of us up-to-date on NATO's doings, especially the creation of a new, wider organization, the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC). This organization is an outcome of a summit meeting last November in Rome by the Allied heads of state. It was a response to the request by several newly independent states for admission to NATO. Though they will not be admitted as full members of NATO, they will be partners in NACC, which is to be a forum of consultation and cooperation, chiefly on security matters. The Rome Declaration on Peace and Cooperation and the subsequent meeting at Maastricht of the European community proposed that several organizations, including CSCE and the Western European Union (WEU), become interlocking institutions that complement each other. The WEU will be the military entity for the emerging European Political Union, which at first will be limited to Western Europe. NACC is to be wider and to complement the CSCE.

Although these proposals endorse an expanded role for CSCE (which now has 51 members) the real intention and probable outcome may be otherwise; it seems plausible that by founding NACC, NATO is trying to limit CSCE by creating an alternative organization that will perform many of its functions.

Manhattan Project II

Finally, I want to mention a preliminary proposal that was circulated in Bratislava, Daniel Ellsberg's "Manhattan Project II: The End of the Threat of Nuclear War." Ellsberg, who was not present, forwarded the proposal by some American delegates. It notes that 1992, the fiftieth anniversary of the original Manhattan Project, is an appropriate time to undo its legacy by reducing nuclear weapons to near zero. Ellsberg proposes that, among other things, by the end of 1993, the U.S. government should end nuclear testing, negotiate a permanent Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, adopt the principles of minimum deterrence and no-first-use, and commit itself to dismantle all tactical nuclear weapons by the end of the decade and to put all fissile material from warheads under international safeguards.

By mid-1995, all nuclear states should end nuclear testing permanently and sign a CTB; end production of weapons-grade fissile material; adopt the principles of minimum deterrence and no-first-use; and commit to abolishing tactical weapons by the year 2000 and to reducing strategic warheads to 500 at most in any nuclear state by 2000. Ellsberg can be reached at the Center for Psychological Studies in the Nuclear Age at Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts. He is working full time on this proposal.

For all its growing pains, the HCA may be the most promising forum for participation by grassroots citizens in global processes of reform. If you wish to join its Canadian affiliate, the Canadian Citizens Assembly for the Helsinki Process, contact Steve Dankowich at Act for Disarmament, 736 Bathurst Street, Toronto. Phone 416 531-6154.

Metta Spencer is Editor of PEACE and Coordinator of Peace and Conflict Studies at Erindale College, U. of Toronto.

Peace Magazine May-Jun 1992

Peace Magazine May-Jun 1992, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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