Jiri Dienstbier, jailed dissident turned minister: "If you do nothing, you will not influence anything"

Jiri Dienstbier

With all of the hullabaloo surrounding the opposing parties and their campaign promises, pledges and other jockeying for support from Czech voters, it's perhaps its easy to forget that free elections are a relatively young phenomenon here. Jiri Dienstbier knows this. He was a dissident under communist rule, during which time he published several underground newspapers and later spent three years in prison with his friend Vaclav Havel.

Jiri Dienstbier
Following the Velvet Revolution, Jiri Dienstbier became the first post-Communist Czech foreign affairs minister. Radio Prague sat down with the former minister, now a commentator, and started by asking what voting means to him and how his outlook on elections has changed during his lifetime.

"Well it cannot be compared because before 1989 there were no elections. It was just mass support of the candidates of the national party; and I didn't participate in it because I refused this farce. And so I didn't go to vote, and there were a lot of us who didn't do it.

Now these are normal elections, and elections are of course important. It's by now the only way to influence the political situation in the country. But of course, democracy is not just a question of elections."

Indeed. Now, has your outlook on voting changed now that there have been a few elections?

"Now, 16 or almost 17 years after the revolution, we have a system of political parties and you can see a lot of deficiencies of democracy too. You could see it in this year's election campaign, where even political parties used more negativism than presentation of their real programs."

Do you see the same sort of enthusiasm today in voters that you saw in the beginning?

"No. There was enthusiasm in 1990. Maybe somehow even in '92. There is practically no enthusiasm, you see. A lot of people refuse to go to the elections. They are dissatisfied with the politics."

With that in mind, I know that you and many of your friends worked very hard to bring about a democratic society here. You even spent time in jail. Now that you see how it works, was it worth it?

"Well, now you see it is hardly possible to compare it, because before if you spoke openly you could go to jail - and many of us went to jail. Now you have the freedom to say whatever you want, to travel and all these things.

It's especially important for young people. When I meet our students in America, Paris and Oxford - if this would have been the only result of the fall of the previous regime, it would be absolutely excellent, because these young people will have a totally different approach then people who just moved between Zatec and Ostrava."

Photo: CTK
And what would you like to see in Czech elections in the future? You say that the interest has sort of dropped off since the revolution. What would you like to see to raise awareness and raise interest in politics here?

"I'm afraid this is not only a Czech problem. It's a problem of modern mediocratic democracy.

A lot of people just don't feel that they can influence a situation by participating in the elections. But I am not pessimistic. I think that you always have the possibility to try to influence events.

You can't tell if you will be successful or not, but if you do nothing you will not influence anything."