A Czechered meeting
A conference in Prague gives food for thought
ASSEMBLING a bunch of the world’s most famous dissidents in Prague to discuss security and democracy with top politicians and think-tankers should have been a sure-fire success. Among the heroes of the anti-communist resistance gathered in the Cernin Palace this week was Natan Sharansky, who as Anatoly Shcharansky founded the “Refusenik” movement of Soviet Jews. A few seats away sat the equally formidable Lyudmila Alekseyeva, founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group, now a doughty Putin-basher. Swapping prison reminiscences with them from the home team were Vaclav Havel, a former president, and Jan Urban, a former Charter 77 activist.
Lesser-known in eastern Europe, but no less impressive, were figures such as Mudawi Ibrahim Adam from Sudan and Bassem Eid from Palestine. From the non-dissident side, Sir Richard Dearlove, former chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, gave a tantalisingly brief presentation on how to promote democracy (briefly: rule of law first, then elections). Toomas Ilves, Estonia’s president, demanded democracy without adjectives, especially of Russia’s “sovereign” and “managed” variety. Kanan Makiya, an American expert on Iraq, tried to explain why things had gone wrong there (briefly: too many years of sanctions before the invasion).
Yet just as in Czech cuisine delicious ingredients and splendid ambience combine all too often in an ill-presented, tepid and flavourless result, the conference was disappointing.
One reason was poor organisation. The Czernin Palace—home to the Czech foreign ministry—has splendid atmospherics, both tragic and triumphant. The much-lamented Jan Masaryk fell to his death from a top-floor window after the communist putsch in 1948. The much-unlamented bullies’ charter of the Warsaw Pact wound up in 1990 in the same hall where the conference took place.
But the acoustics were abominable. Only those lucky enough to sit in VIP rows at the front could hear the insights from the podium. The organisers had failed to realise that the best bit of a conference of this kind is the hobnobbing during the coffee breaks, not sitting quietly while listening to people read prepared statements. The panels were too big, the speeches too long, the timekeeping poor.
Even worse were the oppressive security measures. After George Bush, America’s president, gave a speech, the participants were corralled inside the hall for an hour. There was nothing to eat or drink; no access even to lavatories. If the Czech hosts and their Israeli partners had offered champagne and canapés, nobody would have wanted to leave—the company was excellent. But nobody likes being locked up.
Sharansky gets antsy
Even Sasha Vondra, a former political prisoner and dissident who is now a deputy prime minister of the Czech Republic, was unable to persuade the American secret servicemen to let him leave. Staunch Atlanticists grew tetchy. “I did not expect that I would be incarcerated by a foreign power in a government building in my own country,” Mr Urban said. Later, Mr Sharansky’s attempts to leave the building were stymied in order to allow masked sharpshooters to move their equipment from the rooftops. “Got your exit stamp?” his aide asked dryly as the doors were finally unlocked.
Such gripes are emblematic of more serious problems. First, ex-dissidents are not good at running things—countries or conferences. The story of eastern Europe since 1989 is of incompetent heroes losing out to wily spooks and crooks. Second, American moral power is not what it was. As Gary Kasparov, a chess champion and critic of the Kremlin, noted testily, Mr Bush’s talk of freedom gets tiresome when it is not backed up with anything practical. Third, talking about spreading democracy sounds fanciful. Even safeguarding the gains of the past 15 years from an assertive and authoritarian Russia is looking increasingly difficult.