Jan Kavan - Part 2

Jan Kavan

Jan Kavan has been Czech foreign minister and president of the United Nations General Assembly. But Mr Kavan has also been involved in many controversies over the years, and for years fought a legal battle to clear his name after being accused of collaborating with the communist-era secret police. In the 1980s he won a case against a British TV station, which claimed dissidents had been arrested when their names were found in a van he used to smuggle banned literature into Czechoslovakia. Here, in the second of a two-part interview, Jan Kavan gives his side of the story.

Jan Kavan | Photo: Zdeněk Vališ,  Czech Radio
"Altogether I sent around 65 or 66 such vans during those 20 years. Only one was ever caught and that was this one in April 1981. As a result of betrayal; that's a strong word but one man began to talk to the Czech secret service, and the van was detained.

"It's true that at the time, or shortly after that, there was a British documentary which among other things claimed that there was a list of names and addresses of Czech dissidents, and that this list led to arrests of Czech dissidents.

"No one was arrested because his or her name was in the van. They arrested around seven Charter 77 signatories, some of them because they had informers. Some others because they were well known writers, in fact whose books were in large quantities in the van. The secret service clearly speculated - in some cases correctly, in some cases not correctly - that they had something to do with the distribution network.

"They couldn't really put together a convincing case. And also as a result of an international campaign that I helped to organise they were eventually all released, the last ones one year after detention, in spring 1982."

You came back here after the revolution, and not so long afterwards you were accused of collaborating with the StB secret police. You cleared your name in the courts but a lot of people have a kind of 'no smoke without fire' attitude...how does it feel to be officially cleared but, I think it's fair to say, suspected still by many people of having collaborated?

"I'm aware of this perception that there is no smoke without fire, there are similar Czech proverbs. On the other hand I wouldn't exaggerate what you said, the idea that many people still believe - in fact I now come across very few people who believe it.

"It was a very bitter disappointment when that happened in the early months of 1991, when I was a member of the Federal Parliament...to be accused by one's friends, by one's allies, to be accused of working allegedly for one's enemies is a very bitter thing.

"I had a kind of a strange feeling that history was being repeated, because on a different level the same thing happened to my father, when in the 1950s he was accused by his own comrades of allegedly working for the other side against the interests of his own country.

"And that was after losing his mother and his relatives who were killed in fascist concentration camps, and after spending the war fighting and being twice badly injured in the army. That must have been to him a terrible injustice, and I felt the accusation against me as a terrible injustice.

"Many friends told me, this is what happens after revolutions, revolutions begin to devour their own children. And the fact that unlike in the '50s there were no executions that was major progress. And as you have said yourself the courts eventually cleared me, although it took far longer than I expected, it took a good five years.

I think it's also fair to say, though, that you have been involved in several controversies over the years. Sometimes it seems there's a kind of unrelenting...wave of accusations of various kinds. Does it ever drive you to want to actually quit politics, for instance? I saw one time in a newspaper a headline 'Kavan is a liar' or 'Kavan lied', in Mlada fronta Dnes...

"Yeah, Mlada fronta is one of several newspapers which was involved in several media campaigns against me. And they are all very painful, despite the fact that over the years one does get used to political media campaigns. Sometimes it works, sometimes it works for some time.

"But then they usually overdo it. They usually go so far and exaggerate so much without any substance that people begin to get fed up and it turns against them and becomes counterproductive."

You've been Czech foreign minister, you've been president of the UN General Assembly. But more recently since the departure of your friend Milos Zeman as chairman of the Social Democrats you have been somewhat sidelined in the party. How is it adjusting to a life, relatively speaking, on the margins?

"It's not a problem at all. My life has been up and down more or less from my childhood to today. So I don't mind being sometimes at the top - minister, deputy prime minister, president of the UN General Assembly - and the next day being down.

"And if being down means being a member of parliament - and I'm at the moment the deputy president of the foreign affairs committee of parliament, which is an important one, and I was recently elected leader of the Social Democratic parliamentary fraction, that's a very important function - I don't think that many people in this country would perceive that as being really down.

"It gives me slightly more time than I had before. And as far as I'm concerned I continue to fight for the same ideals that I had as a teenager or in my early 20s, for a more just world. By those methods available to me at any given time.

"And if it's to be a student leader, a dissident, an émigré, or foreign minister, or a member of parliament - it makes no difference. I can always find methods which are adequate to the moment to fight for the same ideals, and frequently with the same people."