Democracy advocates are mourning the loss of Jiri Dienstbier, a leading figure in the 1989 Velvet Revolution who went on to become post-communist Czechoslovakia’s first foreign minister.
“A friend of mine for many years has died,” said former Czech President Vaclav Havel. “We experienced so much together.”
His life “encapsulated an era in which hopes once invested in Communism gave way to disillusionment, outright dissent, punishment and, finally, the crumbling of Communist rule.”
Dienstbier, who died on Saturday, was one of the first signatories of the Charter 77 declaration which demanded compliance with UN human rights conventions and the 1975 Helsinki Accords. He was imprisoned from 1979-82 for his activities in support of the Committee in Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted (VONS).
“Jiri Dienstbier played an important role in the history of Czech modern journalism, politics and opposition movements,” he said. “Even in the toughest moments, his good humor was a great encouragement for us all the time,” said Havel.
In 1991, Dienstbier accepted the National Endowment for Democracy’s prestigious award on Havel’s behalf.
The former journalist recognized the vital role that international solidarity and assistance played in undermining communist rule, especially in challenging the regime’s monopoly of information.
“The influence of samizdat newspapers in Czechoslovakia was strengthened by cooperation with world media and international press organizations,” he said. “Without this understanding from members of the international community, we could never have succeeded.”
As a leading force in the broader anti-Soviet dissident movement, Dienstbier’s influence extended beyond his homeland.
Former dissident Adam Michnik recalled that Czechoslovakian and Polish activists held strategy meetings in the Krkonoše (Giant Mountains) on the border between the two states.
“We had to have the revolution because we were fed up climbing to the summit every time we wanted to meet with Jacek Kuron and other Polish friends,” Dienstbier joked.
“It was typical of Jirka (Jiri): intelligent, witty, full of self-irony. He was like this,” said Michnik.
He recalled Dienstbier’s first visit to Poland in his capacity as Czechoslovak foreign minister in early 1990.
“Yesterday we were still criminal elements, while now we met as free people who contributed to the fall of the dictatorship,” he said.
The dissidents’ cross-border collaboration led to the formation of the Polish-Czech-Slovak Solidarity Foundation in Wroclaw in early November of 1989 which, the NED’s Carl Gershman recalled, Havel was later to credit with helping to inspire the Velvet Revolution.