Havelite politics overshadowed in CR today but can bounce back, says Forum 2000 chief Jakub Klepal
Forum 2000 was started 20 years ago this year as an annual conference on global issues. But where is the organisation at today, nearly five years after the death of founder Václav Havel? And – given developments on the Czech political scene in recent years – what shape is Havel’s own legacy now in? I discussed those questions and more with Forum 2000’s executive director Jakub Klepal. My opening question centred on how the organisation had developed since Klepal first joined in 2004, after stints living and studying in Mexico and the US.
“As you are aware, Forum 2000 started as a conference, convened by Václav Havel and Eli Wiesel in Prague on the issues challenging human kind at the turn of the millennium; that’s where the Forum 2000 name comes from.
“Over the years it has turned into a big NGO that deals mostly with human rights and democracy, supports civil society and works globally.
“Currently Forum 2000 is also one of the key global platforms to annually discuss democracy, its challenges, its developments and its potential future.
“It has become the place to meet activists and dissidents, to start projects new in this field, to meet donors and discuss future strategies of democracy assistance, etc.
“So I think it has become much more focused over the years on the democracy agenda, and we would like to keep it that way and develop it that way.”
Given that Václav Havel was so closely associated with Forum 2000, what did his death mean for your organisation?
“Václav Havel’s death was obviously a huge blow, not just for the organisation but for many people here personally and for the country.
“And, I believe, for the whole world, because there are not many people like he was and we feel it today in the current difficult environment, internationally.
“This thinking was actually quite quickly abandoned due to immediate reactions from within the organisation and from outside, from the rest of the world.
“People came to us and said that Forum 2000 was one of the key legacies of Václav Havel, one of the platforms that can discuss his values and his convictions and his plans for the Czech Republic and the world.
“For me one of the key moments was when after Havel’s funeral his holiness the Dalai Lama’s envoy came to me and said, I have only one message from his holiness – he asks me to send him a list of things that Forum 2000 needs from him, so that he can help Forum 2000 continue its work.
“This kind of response convinced us that we needed to continue. But still we felt that we needed to reconsider our strategy, we needed to reconsider our focus.
“That’s why we gradually narrowed our focus to the issues that I have already mentioned – democracy, human rights and civil society – which we felt were the key items Václav Havel had in mind when he established Forum 2000.
“The second challenge was financial survival. Because after Václav Havel passed away we lost our major donor, the Nippon Foundation from Japan.
“It had been kindly supporting Forum 2000 but its support was very heavily connected with Václav Havel; it was a personal commitment by the leader of the Nippon Foundation, Mr. Sasakawa, to President Havel.
“He decided that with Václav Havel’s passing it was probably time to stop his support also, which was completely legitimate but we had to look for other sources.
Forum 2000 is one of a number of organisations that today represents the legacy of Václav Havel. What shape is his legacy in today in the Czech Republic?
“Well, you can see it around. At the moment it’s not a very optimistic picture at first sight, at least.
“You see that the Czech government, the Czech president and many other important forces leading the Czech Republic at the moment are moving the country in directions that I think would not be welcomed and would definitely not be endorsed by Václav Havel.
“In terms of human rights, foreign policy, in terms of respecting the constitutional framework of the country, respect for political culture, etc., etc.
“On the other hand, we see that there is still a vibrant civil society and that Havel’s legacy is very deep in the minds of many, many people here.
“When things happen that people feel should not be happening – in terms of democratic governance, in terms of the political direction of the country – then people come out and express their disagreement and engage in discussions about the issues.
“I think that is tremendously important. So Havel’s legacy is under pressure, but it’s definitely not gone.”
But isn’t there a sense that the Havelites have kind of been forgotten or marginalised – or maybe even defeated?
“I think there is no such thing as permanent defeat, in democracies at least.
“There are periods. At some points things go this way, and then at other points they go the other way. This is exactly the situation here.
“The last measurable moment was probably the presidential election, when the two public camps were quite clearly defined.
“There was a minority of people who we can probably identify with Havel’s legacy and those were the people who supported Karel Schwarzenberg. And there was a small majority who voted for Mr. Zeman.
“I think that was one illustration of where things are at the moment. But that doesn’t mean that this will not change again. That’s part of democracy – that things go forward and back again.”
Recently Forum 2000 was involved in protests against the Chinese president’s visit to Prague. It was a major event and many people were surprised by some of things that went on around it. What lessons do you think we can take from this event and everything surrounding it?
“First of all, we were not protesting against President Xi’s visit. It was the visit of a foreign statesman. Many foreign statesmen come here even probably worse than President Xi. Countries have to have contact with other countries.
“The problem is we feel that this is not just about the visit. There are a number of other issues that are problematic.
“First of all, we feel that the Czech Republic should be very open about the issue of human rights in China, about minority rights in China, including the case of Tibet – which is not the only problem became the sort of symbol of many problems in China.
“So we feel that the Czech Republic should have a partnership with China but not hide its convictions about these issues.
“This may be a positive thing, but only if the country decides to do it based on a substantive discussion, based on substantive knowledge of what such a partnership can mean for us. And I think this has not happened.
“We were just suddenly moved in a certain direction by the president and people around him, without any public consultation.
“It was done in a way that I think that even sort of questioned our long-term alliances with other countries which are true friends and have clearly supported us in difficult moments, like the US, like the European Union.
“We are part of the EU, so I think if an official of a country that is part of the EU starts to say that we are oppressed or bullied by the EU it’s a very, very strange thing to do.
“So we felt that there were a number of issues like this and others that needed to be raised during the visit. That’s why we tried to open a public discussion.
“And one of the things that we did was obviously to support the symbols of Tibet and to support symbols of human rights issues in China.
“We opened an Information Centre that should discuss the situation in China and the global situation. So this is the context of what has been happening around Xi’s visit.”
I saw on Facebook that Forum 2000 supported an event entitled “Zeman No, We Don’t Want Xi Jingping in the Czech Republic”. Is there a risk of you being overly politically engaged when you do something like that?
“I felt that expressing support for people like Martin Bursík and Kateřina Jacques, who meant to raise the issue of the visit and to open a discussion about it… I felt support for this initiative should be there.”
This Wednesday, April 27, Forum 2000 is running the annual NGO Market – one of the biggest events of its kind in Europe – at Prague’s Forum Karlín. Admission is free.