Interviewed April 2010
Alexandr "Sasha" Vondra is a former Czech dissident who later became a leading figure in Czech politics. In the 1980s, Vondra was a member of the Charter 77 movement. Charter 77 was a document published in 1977 to criticize the government of Czechoslovakia for failing to abide by its obligations under the human rights provisions of the Czechoslovak Constitution, the Helsinki Accords, and United Nations covenants. Vondra was one of the original signers of Charter 77.
Vondra remained active in the anti-Communist movement in Czechoslovakia and later was a leader of the Velvet Revolution, the non-violent movement in 1989 that caused the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia to relinquish power. Following Václav Havel's election as President of Czechoslovakia, Vondra became his foreign policy advisor. He served as Czech ambassador to the United States from 1997 to 2001.
I think that the support from the United States was very important. I personally could feel that many times in 1980´s, when we were invited to the U.S. Embassy, we felt that we are under certain protection. I was risking to be jailed. I was jailed. But because my name was known [in] the western media, due to the US and some other support also in Western Europe, in particular for example the Dutch and the Scandinavians were good there, so we were somehow protected.
In the 1950s there were many examples when somebody was really killed in prison. We were risking years of prison but we were relatively safe from being killed due to that support and solidarity. And from the US presidents or the Administrations I would put on the pedestal certainly President Reagan because with his offensive towards the Soviet Union, [with] the policy of strength he forced the Soviets into a defensive mode - this was the most important element and certainly the support for Solidarity [the pro-democracy Polish labor organization] by Reagan´s administration but also by AFL-CIO was very, very important because it helped Solidarnosc [Solidarity] to survive in the underground.
I would also mention President Carter. Maybe it is a different or strange contradiction here. He was idealistic as a President, but there was one important moment – it was the policy of human rights in the late 1970s or in the mid and late 1970s - which helped to bring this human rights basket into the Helsinki process. So it was not just about disarmament or economic cooperation, that was not anything serious, but the human rights helped us to raise the flag.
The Czech Republic is a democratic country in Central Europe with a population of approximately 10.5 million people.
From 1918 until 1993, the territory now comprising the Czech Republic was part of Czechoslovakia, which from 1948 to 1989 was part of the communist bloc controlled by the Soviet Union. During this period, the communist government nationalized industry and imposed a highly repressive political system that included the use of secret police and the imprisonment of individuals who challenged the authority of the state.
In 1968, the First Secretary of the Communist Party, Alexander Dubcek, attempted to relax some of the more oppressive limitations on Czechoslovak citizens by allowing greater freedom of expression and association. This period, which was known as the “Prague Spring,” ended when Warsaw Pact armies led by the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and forced the country to abandon the reforms.
In 1977, a group of dissidents led by playwright Vaclav Havel published a document known as Charter 77, which called attention to abuses of human rights by the Czechoslovak government. The initiative called upon the government to respect its international commitments on human rights as elaborated in the 1975 Helsinki Accords. Charter 77 helped draw international attention to conditions within the country.
The rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union in 1985 began a process of limited reform in the communist bloc. In 1989, Poland held partially free elections that saw the opposition come to power. Hungary’s communist government opened its borders and began a negotiated transition to democracy. And in November 1989, hundreds of thousands of Czechoslovak citizens took to the streets to peacefully protest communist rule in what became known as the “Velvet Revolution.” On November 28, 1989, the Communist Party was forced to announce that it would cede power and allow free elections. The new parliament elected former dissident Vaclav Havel as president on December 29, 1989. As president, Havel made his country a leader in defending and supporting human rights around the world. In 1993, Czechoslovakia peacefully divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, both of which later joined the European Union and NATO.
Since its transition to democracy, the Czech Republic has developed stable and democratic systems of governance and a free market economy. Political power has rotated among several strong and competitive political parties, and free and fair elections are held. In 2013, Miloš Zeman was elected president in the first direct presidential election in the country’s history.
In the most recent Freedom in the World report from Freedom House, the Czech Republic earned a rating of “free.” The country earned the highest possible scores in overall freedom, civil liberties, and political rights.