Jaroslav Basta - student activist, weekend archeologist, political diplomat

Jaroslav Basta, photo: www.bbc.co.uk

In this week's One on One, my guest is Deputy Foreign Minister, Jaroslav Basta. Born in May 1948, Jaroslav Basta has many credits to his name: historian, political prisoner, archeologist, construction worker, Charter 77 signatory, politician, and diplomat, to name just a few. Before the recent elections, I met with Jaroslav Basta in his office at Cernin Palace, home to the Czech Foreign Ministry. We began by talking about his time in Moscow between the years 2000 - 2005 when he was Czech Ambassador to the Russian Federation, and Mr. Basta told me how he views the current state of Czech - Russian relations:

"When I came to Moscow, in the beginning our political relations were a little frozen, but now I think that they are the best since the beginning of relations between the Czech Republic and the Russian Federation. I am glad that I had the possibility to be involved in this process. I hope that this situation, when we have quite a normal relationship with the Russian Federation, will also be the case in the future. For us—and for our relationship with the Russian Federation—joining the European Union was very important. From this date, economic ties are different, and political relations are better."

Does the Russian Foreign Ministry take the Czech Republic seriously? Are we important to them?

"We are not only a middle-sized country in central Europe. We are also a member of the European Union—and I think quite an important member—and also a member of NATO. I think these are also important qualities. One Russian political scientist said to me that the Czech Republic has something he called 'soft power.' This soft power is known, and it's strange, but in relationships between states it functions."

In terms of historical reconciliation and the year 1968, this is obviously an issue for Czechs with regards to Russians. You were a student in 1968—tell me about that time in your life.

"I was one of the students who protested against the Soviet and Warsaw Pact occupation of Czechoslovakia. After more than one year I was arrested, and I received more than two and a half years in prison. I served the full sentence, and afterwards I was a dissident until 1989. But I think that my own example shows that the past does not have to determine relationships to other countries and other nationalities."

As a historian, did you write for the underground culture? Did you produce "for the drawer," as they used to say?

"Yes, but I also wrote articles for Listy and Svedectvi [which were published in the West], but I'm afraid that not everything appeared under my own name."

You also have an active interest in archeology. How did that come about? How did you make the switch from historian to archeologist?

"I studied historical archeology, so I was educated in both fields. But after my arrest in 1968, I worked as a construction worker. I built bridges for about eighteen years, and archeology was only my hobby. Back then I described myself as a weekend archeologist. Together with my wife we explored sites and excavated, and I wrote a couple of articles on the subject. I was also part of a West Bohemian archeological group, and I found about 100 new archeological sites—some of them are very important."

Let's fast-forward to 1989. You became involved in politics as soon as the Velvet Revolution began to gain pace here. What was your role in those early years?

"It was a little strange for me. In the beginning I did not want to be involved in politics. I tried to take part in archeology, and for a very short time I was the director of a museum. But after some time I changed my mind and began working at our Ministry of the Interior, at an institution which was a part of this ministry but is now independent—BIS—but at that time it was the Czechoslovak Intelligence Service. I began to work as the director of the department in charge of the fight against terrorism. Afterwards I was deputy director of counter-intelligence, and in another few months I became the deputy director of the entire service, and in another few months I was kicked out and then I became the chairman of the so-called Independent Commission, which was a federal lustration commission. I worked as chairman of this commission until the end of 1992, in other words until the end of Czechoslovakia."

What were your impressions of how the lustration process unfolded? Has your opinion of lustration and the need for it changed over time? Where do you stand on the issue now?

"I changed my mind during this process. It's quite clear, if you looked back, I was not against the lustration law. After my experiences—I spent 20 years in opposition as a dissident, I was in jail, I was very familiar with the state security service, the StB—but very quickly I noticed that a part of the lustration law which was administered by the Independent Commission was not fair. I think that at this time I made an important decision, and I'm proud of this decision. I told the constitutional court that a part of the lustration law is unfair, which did away with this part of the law, and also the Independent Commission, and also my post [laughs]."

I'll end by asking how you see your career developing? What are your own hopes for your career in Czech politics, or for the rest of your working life?

"I must say that I don't know right now. In this time before the election I have several possibilities, and some of them depend on the election result. I am a political diplomat, which means that I am also depending a little on the election results. For me there are now only two possibilities: one is to be a career diplomat, or to continue in my political career."

You have an incredible amount of good experience to perhaps do some good work for the Czech Republic in relations with Ukraine, which is becoming a very important state in this sphere. Is this something that you would be interested in pursuing?

"Yes, also."