Oldřich Černý is executive director of the Forum 2000 Foundation, which every year invites some of the world’s leading thinkers to a conference in Prague. Forum 2000 was cofounded by Václav Havel, with whom Mr. Černý was closely involved for many years. Indeed, he organised what was to be the former president’s final public appearance, a meeting with the Dalai Lama, a week before his death last month.
We discussed his cooperation with Mr. Havel when I met Oldřich Černý at his office in Hradčany. But our conversation first touched on his job before the Velvet Revolution, translating American and British films. What kind of Western movies were being shown in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s?
“Well, there were no political movies, as you can imagine, no movies critical of anything but capitalism. And light comedies. That was the end of the ‘80s and these movies always came with one or two or three years’ delay. But we got our portion of Spielbergs and Lucases, and so on.”
So E.T., for instance, would have been here in the ‘80s?
“I did the subtitles for E.T.”
The 1980s of course culminated with the Velvet Revolution here in what was then Czechoslovakia. What are your strongest memories of that time?
“It is difficult to single out one strongest memory, because there are so many of them. It was a very moving time. People cried a lot.
“I was working in the coordination centre of the Civic Forum, running various errands for Václav Havel and other people, because I was the one who spoke English. Not many revolutionaries spoke English in those days. That has changed; there are no revolutionaries, and everybody speaks English these days.”
You became Václav Havel’s national security advisor. Was security an area you had previously taken an interest in prior to the revolution?
“National security advisor is a too lofty and unreal title. I was certainly no Condoleezza Rice, or anyone like that. I was more or less a messenger. I was Václav Havel’s link between the president’s office and the military and intelligence community, law enforcement. I kept him aware of what was happening.”
“I had to learn very fast. Because up to then – if we exclude the bad ones, the Communist secret police, the StB – I had absolutely no experience with security. None of us had any experience with security from the other side of the crosshairs.
“We all had to learn very fast in whatever field we were responsible for, but I think in my case it was even faster, because you couldn’t afford too many mistakes. I came late to the Castle and nobody wanted to do security, so that’s how I landed with this job [laughs]. By pure chance, by pure accident.”
You went from there to I guess a very hands-on job as the director general of the Czech Foreign Intelligence Service. What exactly was that agency doing?
“Well, according to the law – which wasn’t adopted when I started there, it was adopted two or three years later, under pressure – this agency is supposed to collect and disseminate information vital for the economic, security and foreign political interests of the Czech Republic.
“That’s it, that’s the only sentence allotted to the activities of this service, and I think the lawmakers knew what they were doing when they didn’t go too far into greater detail.”
But you were there for five years – what was the service actually doing?
“When I came it was doing nothing at all. It was hanging in the void. The division of the state was the biggest task of those days, and that was nearly completed.
“When I came to the service, even though my subordinates tried to make it otherwise, it didn’t take me too long to realise that the agency was producing some kind of reporting, but nobody was interested it.
“When I asked them who was the recipient of the reports before I came to the service, they said, you! You at the Castle were the only one who took interest in what we produced [laughs], and from time to time presented it to the president. Paradoxically, by coming to the service I robbed it of the sole recipient of its reporting!”
So was it a frustrating job, if you felt like you weren’t achieving anything?
“If you are a director of the Foreign Intelligence Service and you have no ties whatsoever, even negative ties, with the minister of foreign affairs, you just can’t do this job. So one of my first meetings was with the then Czech minister of foreign affairs and I told him I couldn’t do the job unless we started to cooperate.”
You are now the head of the Prague Institute for Security Studies and you’re the executive director of the Forum 2000 Foundation. For our listeners who don’t know it, what is Forum 2000? And how has it developed over the years?
“The Forum 2000 Foundation was founded in 1996 when Eli Wiesel and Václav Havel went for a walk during a conference and one of them said, wouldn’t it be nice if we invited to Prague people from different walks of life, different religious denominations and so on, because it’s the end of the century? Let’s take stock of what happened to us in the last century, and what we can expect in the next century and in the next millennium.
“Neither of them expected that conference would develop into a highly successful conference series. It somehow got out of hand and right now, despite Václav Havel’s death, we are in preparations for the 16th Forum 2000 conference.
“Forum 2000 survives thanks to a series of lucky accidents, breaks, miracles, and also the determination of people like myself and my team to keep it going. Gradually it became very popular in this country. It took 15 years, but at least it happened.
“It’s one of those accidents and miracles that happened to me – one of the many in a series of accidents and miracles that happened to me since the autumn of 1989.”
Now, of course, Václav Havel is sadly no longer with us. Do you think that Forum 2000 can continue without him?
“I certainly think so, although I can’t be a hundred percent sure. Václav Havel is the author or father of quite a few initiatives. Some were one-shot events – conferences, seminars and so on.
“But three of his initiatives stand out. That is VIZE 97, which he started together with Dagmar Havlová, which focuses on humanitarian issues. Then there is the Václav Havel Library. And the third one with an international dimension is Forum 2000.
“So I suppose that if we do what we say we want to do, which is to cherish and take care of the legacy of Václav Havel, that’s a very important part of the legacy, the free exchange of views and ideas on some very important issues facing mankind in a civilised atmosphere on an international scale; it doesn’t really matter whether it’s in Prague or Budapest or wherever.
“Anyway, we would like to continue. Of course, it depends on how successful we will be. It depends on many factors. I’ll try to stay realist, and I know that some sponsors, when it comes to the nitty gritty, can be very, very pragmatic, and so on. But we won’t know unless we try, and I think that we must try.”
How hard did Mr. Havel’s death hit you personally? I see here, for instance, in front of us there’s a picture of Mr. Havel meeting the Dalai Lama a week before he died, and I know you organised that meeting.
“I’m glad it worked out..........well [close to tears], it hit me personally so much that I still can’t talk about it.”
Could I possibly ask you what you think Mr. Havel’s legacy will be for the Czech Republic?
“His legacy will be very simple, after this mania of renaming streets and airports and building monuments blows her. His legacy will be his ideas. His philosophy as you know was very simple. It’s life in truth, respect for human rights, support for emerging democracies, and this is basically it!
“It’s easy to say, but life in truth for example is not such an easy thing to practise. I don’t know whether I’d be able to practise it.”