Vaclav Havel, Bill Clinton appearances highlight 'Club of Madrid' meeting in Prague

Vaclav Havel and Bill Clinton (right), photo: CTK

In many ways it could easily be dubbed the 'ultimate' NGO - the Club of Madrid founded as a non-governmental organisation making use of experience and know-how of former world leaders to promote democracy around the world, whether in the Middle East, North Korea, or the post-Milosevic Balkans. But, this year the organisation's annual assembly was also a look back, taking a look at countries since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Titled 'Democracy in a post communist world' - the meeting in Prague was the first held by the club outside of Spain. Jan Velinger attended discussions on Friday that included keynote appearances by several Club of Madrid members including former Czech President Vaclav Havel and former US president Bill Clinton.

Vaclav Havel and Bill Clinton  (right),  photo: CTK
RP: Jan, what can you tell us about the meeting?

JV: "Pavla, to take nothing away from dozens of important guests on Friday, Vaclav Havel and Bill Clinton in one room did grab much of the media spotlight. On the other hand, that was certainly the goal of organisers and the Club of Madrid in drawing attention to spreading democracy and drawing attention to policy recommendations and solutions. Friday afternoon the Czech Foreign Ministry was buzzing ahead of the arrival of the former US President Bill Clinton, who has very close ties to the Czech Republic. He first visited officially in 1994, and was a strong supporter of the country entering NATO as well as the European Union. On Friday he praised how the Czech Republic and the former communist countries had come in 16 years - but stressed that no journey towards democracy - by any country - was ever fully complete."

Former President Bill Clinton: "When I was on my way in a member of the media sitting back there asked 'how have we done, have we completed the democratic transformation, are we there yet?' And I said 'No, but neither are we in the United States.' I said 'This never ends'. Just when I think I've got it right we turn around and do something stupid again. Or we have a new challenge that we don't know how to meet again. This is a journey, a constant journey, and not a destination and it is important to tell the people that... in all these places in transition."

RP: I understand Mr Clinton also recalled his original meetings with Boris Yeltsin?

Bill Clinton,  photo: CTK
JV: "That's right: it was interesting, he described negotiations with the Russian president to get him to yield to the expansion of NATO, saying it was never easy. But, according to Mr Clinton, Russia, despite its problems, is a different country today."

Bill Clinton: "I said 'Boris, now, we've been working together all this time: I want you to look me in the eye and tell me you really believe that I'm going to put airplanes in Poland, Hungary, or the Czech Republic and from those bases drop bombs on Russia, you don't believe that, do you?' And he looked at me and he said 'Well, of course not! But, a lot of old ladies in Western Russia do!' {public laughs}

He said 'You have no idea what the psychology is of a country that was invaded by Napoleon and Hitler, you were never invaded. It was fascinating. So I said, 'Okay, I'll help you with the psychology, but we've got to work through this.' And we did. And it worked.

Then I supported the EU as I said. Then we supported economic development through this establishment of enterprise funds that included countries in the Baltics, Central Europe, and South-Eastern Europe. We supported the development of democracy and governance. And I don't want to be naïve here, but, for example, I like President Putin very much although I don't always agree with Russian policy but when I became president there were zero NGOs in Russia, today there are 63,000. This is not an insignificant thing.

We all have to realise that none of us will agree with each other all of the time. We won't agree with each others elections, with each others policies: one of the reasons why civil society is important is because it leavens and gives texture to a democracy."

Vaclav Havel and Kim Campbell,  photo: CTK
RP: If we talk about the development of civil society, how effective, for example, can an NGO like the Club of Madrid be?

JV: "I think it really depends on different circumstances, different situations, but members, like Kim Campbell stress that former leaders really can use their past experience and I suppose contacts and reputations to help on many different levels. With regards to a meeting like this one in Prague - of course it helps bring together countless movers and shakers and policy advisors in and out of government who can make a difference.

Here's what of the speakers on Friday - Czech political analyst Jiri Pehe - had to say:

"Well, I think that former leaders are "moral voices", people who experience who are in a way freed from the constraints of power and public office. They can speak out now more freely and they can say what they think they did well and what didn't go as well. This is something leaders in power now can learn from and that's very useful.

To wrap-up: Most of the real work goes on behind closed doors - in this case there were so-called 'working groups' set up to tackle various questions on transition on everything from markets and welfare policy or the role of the EU, or authoritarianism, run by people like a former prime minister of Sudan and a former prime minister in Bulgaria, and the results will eventually be posted on the club's website for further dialogue and response. Like Mr Clinton indicated on Friday, this is all part of a larger process, the mission of promoting and supporting democracies is a never-ending task.