Martin Palouš was one of the first signatories of the Charter 77 protest document. Since 1989 he has been a parliamentary deputy, an academic, and Czech ambassador to Washington. Now, however, Mr Palouš represents the Czech Republic at the United Nations in New York. When we spoke last week at his office on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue, we began with the subject of Charter 77 and his days as a dissident.
“Obviously after 1968 there were different options. People had I think three basic choices: to leave the country, to conform to the normalisation regime, or to try to do something else. I was inclined for years to look for this third alternative.
“Obviously, if you are a student you have your friends, you observe them how they want to just conceive their futures and get themselves ready for the future careers.
“I was doing the same thing, but at the same time I found it difficult to…adapt myself to the political requirements, such as entering the Socialist Union of Youth, or doing things like that.
“So it was bringing me step by step to the circles of first future dissidents and then dissidents themselves. I signed Charter 77 in December 1976 and that was basically it.”
Looking back, how important was the Charter 77 movement in terms of the communist regime finally falling, many years later?
“It is rather a question for future historians, to make a sound, healthy and balanced judgement about this.
“I think at least for those who participated in it, it was an existentially extremely important decision.
“But I think that for the regime it was a real signal that not everybody was ready to accept all the rules that were set out by the normalisation regime, that there were still some people willing to raise questions, to express themselves freely. This concept, for this type of regime – monolithical, with no public space available – was quite a significant…element.”
You were one of many spokespeople for the Charter 77. Why were there so many, and who were they speaking to, who were you communicating with?
“Well, I wouldn’t say there were so many of them. There was a practice, or tradition if you will, then created that each year three new spokespersons of Charter 77 were nominated. This practice started during the late ‘70s, ’78 or ’79. It went on until 1989 or 1990, so how many spokespersons are we talking about? Thirty-five, 40 people.
“Obviously our role was to speak on behalf of Charter 77 to the public. We were kind of public spokespersons, so we communicated with everybody who was out there. We signed documents of Charter 77 to be sent to the government, if Charter 77 wanted to present some views and letters all these documents were signed by spokespersons.”
How do you look back on that era today?
“I think when you look back to the decades when one was younger, there is always a certain element of nostalgia. I have to admit quite openly it was a kind of adventurous part of my life. I think it was quite informative and important for many reasons…
“It was very important for me. It’s still something I think about; I have to admit if I want to understand politics or political ideas, I very often find myself thinking through the lense of my experience in Charter 77.”
Moving forward, after 1989 you became a deputy in the Federal Assembly with Civic Forum. Then you joined the Czech Foreign Ministry, then you took a break, then you came back and became the Czech ambassador to the US in Washington. Now you’re Czech ambassador to the UN, here in New York. How do those two jobs compare – Czech ambassador to the United States, and Czech ambassador to the United Nations?
“Obviously it’s not that far from Washington to New York, but I think in general terms if you want to compare bilateral and multilateral diplomacy it’s a hell of a distance.
“In this particular case, US-UN, it’s a very special relationship. The UN, sometimes people say, lives in a kind of bubble here in New York, as a world in itself.
“Certainly it’s a different approach, but still there is one foreign policy of the Czech Republic, and one and the same situation in the first years of the 21st century.
“There are many differences but obviously I can tremendously benefit from the fact I had more than four years in Washington. Now I’m here in the United Nations…both are very interesting and I would say challenging diplomatic tasks.”
Last year the Czech Republic stood for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, though in the end you were beaten by Croatia. Do you regard that today as a significant defeat for Czech diplomacy?
“Certainly it wasn’t a victory. At the same time you have to see it in the context. First it’s true to admit that the Czech Republic had already been a member of the Security Council in the early ‘90s, and for Croatia it was the first time.
“There were some other factors that decided it in the end, and if you go for this competition you always need to be prepared for the fact you are not going to win.
“Croatia really wanted it a lot, and they invested a lot of energy to make it. I think we had a good fight, we made our case very clear.
“We managed to have very friendly relations with our competitors, with Croatia – one must not understand that you’re in a kind of diplomatic war with your opponent. I would take it calmly, politely. It’s a part of life.”
You’ve now been several years in the US. What have you learned about the differences or similarities between Europeans like yourself and Americans?
“First of all, I like America. Americans are a little different. I think that the basis of this difference is…actually you can see it on Ellis Island, when you visit the museum of immigration. There is something in your genetic…equipment, the experience of uprooting yourself somewhere and bringing yourself to a new world. This is what makes the Old World and the New World different.
“At the same time, there are so many similarities. And the differences can be very refreshing.
“I’m a very strong pro-Atlanticist, and I think that this is expressed not only on the level of policy or political relations between governments, but wherever you go you have very open communication between Americans and Europeans. Certainly in spite of the Atlantic that divides them they belong together.”
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