Jiri Dienstbier - from prisoner to foreign minister

After years as a dissident, Jiri Dienstbier's life changed overnight during the 1989 Velvet Revolution when he became the foreign minister of Czechoslovakia. He was later appointed United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in the former Yugoslavia, and was opposed to the NATO bombing of Serbia and Kosovo. When I spoke to Jiri Dienstbier at his Prague flat, our conversation was wide-ranging.

Mr Dientsbier, you're a journalist by profession and you were working at Czech Radio when the Soviets invaded on August 21, 1968. You also wrote a samizdat book about your experiences, entitled 'Radio Against the Tanks'; what is your strongest recollection of that time?

Jiri DienstbierJiri Dienstbier "I went to bed after midnight and in five minutes I was called from the Radio that the Russians are occupying the country, so I immediately went there. And in half an hour there were 400 people in the Radio. When the representatives of the occupiers came with ten security people they thought there must be one 'service' and one technician...so we closed them in one room and didn't permit them to act. What was very fine was that we were able to keep the broadcasting the whole week before Dubcek and the others came back from Moscow."

How much did you personally believe in the Prague Spring?

"Whoever lived here in 1968 knows well that it was a national upheaval, very peaceful, and it was absolutely clear that the whole nation wanted a change of the regime. Even in the Communist Party the majority of people worked for the changes. The Soviets came only after they understood that they must prevent the 14th party congress in the middle of September, because all these Soviet-type functionaries would have been removed and replaced by totally new people. I believed then, as always, that life may be decent and the only problem is that it sometimes takes decades before you get to it (laughs)."

You were one of the first signatories of Charter 77. Could you tell us a little bit about the dissident world at that time? Was it hard for dissidents to meet, for example?

"These dissidents were, most of them, very old friends, and schoolmates and journalists and writers. We could meet as friends. But sometimes the police just prevented us from meeting or they took us for 24 hours, for 48 hours and twice 48, and things like that. Once when I was kept the whole day in some premises of the state security, not to be able to meet American senators, I told these guys 'you made me a lot of money. Because if I met the senators there would be a short news story somewhere. But if you prevented us from meeting the senators, they will talk about it in the Senate, it will be on television'. I said 'do you know how much half a minute costs on CNN or on American TV?' (laughs)."

In 1979 you were tried along with Vaclav Havel and others and sent prison for three years. How hard was that experience?

"I said many times, even to my mates in prison, that life is everywhere, and I always tried to use every experience as something positive. It doesn't mean that I would like to go to prison, but if you are there, there are a lot of interesting people you would never meet otherwise. De facto it depends on you, if you are crying all the time and unhappy, or if you say 'I am here for three years and I must profit from it as much as possible'."

After you were released from prison you worked as a stoker for many years, and then in December 1989 you became the foreign minister. Did the speed of those changes surprise you?

"I was interested in foreign policy, I bought my first history of diplomacy, three books, at the age of ten, so I studied it all my life."

But were you surprised how quickly the revolution happened and how quickly the changes came about?

"You see, in a situation like this you don't have time to be surprised. When the people on Vaclavske namesti (Wenceslas Square) started to demand that Civic Forum go into government, we just had to propose a government. When we went to negotiate with the designated prime minister Calfa, I even didn't believe that they would give us the Foreign Ministry. Even Havel asked me if I want something else. I said no, if not I will work as a journalist, its no problem. But in two hours the government was formed (laughs). Because Mr Calfa understood that we were not some hippies and we understood that he was no Belak or Jakes and in two hours the government was formed and it was necessary to work. We had no time to have impressions, we had to work."

Speaking of Vaclav Havel, between 1997 and 2001 you were the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in former Yugoslavia, and you and Mr Havel had different opinions when NATO bombed Kosovo and Yugoslavia. Did your difference of opinion affect your friendship?

"Put it this way, we of course almost don't have time to meet because he is busy, I am always somewhere abroad, so we don't have time to go to the pubs (laughs). It didn't affect my friendship and I don't think it affected his friendship. Of course there was a difference of views, but it's normal in a democracy."

What do you do these days?

"Well, I just published a book about my experiences in the Balkans. I'm writing. I'm working also as ambassador at large, as former foreign minister for specific negotiations, because some things are better negotiated in unofficial discussions."

Thirteen years after the Velvet Revolution, how satisfied are you with how Czech society has developed over that period?

"I am satisfied of course, because it's a normal development of democracy. Of course it's democracy thirteen years so it is in the sixth class of elementary school. I am dissatisfied with many things and it's necessary. We don't have communism any more...I am even against this fight against communism because I tell people 'if you wished to fight communism you had a lot of opportunities to do it before November '89' (laughs). Now we have totally different problems and we have to solve them. Of course, if someone asks me the basic question if I am satisfied I say 'of course' because I only lived after so many decades of my activities, that this activity was for me honoured by the end of the former regime. It's enough for one life."

I've heard you're a very good cook. What's your speciality?

"I've been a cook since my childhood, also since the age of nine, ten. I make everything, Czech cuisine and Chinese cuisine and Italian...maybe something is my cuisine, because I've read a lot of cookbooks but I never cook according to the recipes. It's just to know what others do. And moreover, people ask me sometimes for some recipe and I tell them 'I can give you something but it doesn't make sense', because if I give the same recipe to ten people and they will follow it exactly, everybody will cook something different, because it depends on your instincts. First of all you must like it, because if not it's better to go to the restaurant."