It’s hard to forget the invasion. My mother, myself and two of my sisters were sitting in the kitchen. My two brothers, driving around Europe, had just left Czechoslovakia. My mother, who loathed the communist system and the division of Europe was relieved they were on the way home but also so saddened by the crushing of the Prague Spring. Over a decade later I visited Prague. Helped by some wonderful émigrés in London, I sought out Vaclav Havel (who had just been imprisoned), Ludvik Vaculik, Ivan Klima, Dana Nemcova and others. The secret police were ubiquitous and intimidating. I saw how the small band of dissidents and later the Plastic People of the Universe were unceasingly harassed. But also how the shops were full. No shortages. The trade off for acquiescence.
What inspired the dissidents was not the Prague Spring but the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. This document brought together the United States, Canada, Western European countries, the Soviet Union and its satellites. Havel, Adam Michnik, Jacek Kuron, Jan Litynski, and other Central European intellectuals used the HFA’s third basket which focused on human rights and humanitarian issues to legitimate their defense of these values. HFA also led to the birth of Charter 77 and KOR. And in Russia, Andrei Sakharov and other dissidents used the the HFA to campaign for human rights, dignity and freedom. Given what’s happening in Europe, in the Balkans, in Russia and in Turkey, its high time to update the Helsinki Final Act.
Judy Dempsey, editor of Carnegie Europe’s Strategiv Europe blog, has been covering Eastern Europe for decades, first for the Irish Times then later for the FT – with interval postings in Vienna, Jerusalem, Brussels and Berlin.