Former Czech dissidents back on the outside after brief spell at the top

PRAGUE — PRAGUE -- Before Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution," Zdenek Urbanek recalls being greeted by his neighbors with respect, however clandestinely, for his activities as one of the few who dared to speak out against the Communist system.

Three years later, many of those same neighbors still nod or smile, but then slip away, as if they no longer want to know him.


"The dissidents are now the bad conscience of the general populace," says Mr. Urbanek, a writer who was an original signer of Charter 77, a breakthrough 1977 document that demanded the Communist government adhere to the international Helsinki Accords on human rights. "The people now know that they didn't do anything to change the situation."

Yesterday, the third anniversary of Czechoslovakia's revolution, Mr. Urbanek and many of the 2,000 "Chartists" and other dissidents found themselves increasingly on the outside, or at least out of a job, after a brief period in the political limelight.


Vaclav Havel, playwright and author of the original draft of the charter, was spurned by Parliament in his bid for re-election to the presidency of Czechoslovakia. (But he announced Monday that he would run for president of an independent Czech Republic after the split of Czechoslovakia.)

Jiri Dienstbier was removed as foreign minister in the wake of his party's poor performance in the June elections.

And Petr Uhl, who served five years in prison for subversion, recently was removed as head of the Czechoslovak News Agency and replaced with a member of the ruling Civic Democratic Party.

"We've become marginalized because we're less adaptable to a system of political parties, because we were always free thinkers," says Mr. Uhl.

"We respond much more to an internal sense of justice than to obedience to a political party."

Of course, not all of the dissidents are out of the limelight.

Pavel Bratinka, an underground publisher and Charter 77 signer, is now a vice chairman of the conservative Civic Democratic Alliance party, which holds 14 seats in the Czech provincial parliament.

Mr. Bratinka asserts that any dissident who finds himself on the fringe is there because he has not joined the prevailing rightward drift in Czechoslovak politics.


Indeed, many of the dissidents were critical of the Communist system but remained committed to the ideals of social democracy.

But for those who have embraced conservatism, Mr. Bratinka says, powerful positions are still available.

"These people are now implementing the very principles they were fighting for before," Mr. Bratinka says.

The Charter 77 organization itself disbanded this month, saying its aims had been accomplished. With respect for human rights and basic freedoms guaranteed in Czechoslovakia, the organization felt the idea of an organized dissident movement had outlived its usefulness.

At the same time, the wave of dissident intellectuals, artists and writers that swept into power after the revolution is breaking up.

Czech Premier Vaclav Klaus, although never a member of the Communist Party, worked in an official economics institute before 1989 and could hardly be called a dissident. Mr. Klaus' party has two members of Parliament who were prominent dissidents, but it has scores who were not, and the public seems more interested in what people have done since the revolution than in what they had done before it.


"Before the revolution, dissidents were respected as opponents of the regime," says Emil Komarik, a leader of the Slovak Christian Democratic Movement who calls his pre-1989 activities more "subversive" than dissident. "Now they have to earn their respect as builders of the new regime."

This situation seems to suit many of the former dissidents just fine. Like many of their less politically active compatriots, they believe that they had served their purpose by helping usher the communists from power, and that now they should go back to doing what they do best -- analyzing the political situation from outside the corridors of power.

"It is not a good position for a dissenter, to be in power. I know it from my own experience," said Miroslav Kusy, the only Slovak among the original signers of Charter 77.

Mr. Kusy was rector of Comenius University in Bratislava for a time after the revolution, but now heads the university's political science department.

"Many of the dissidents are intellectuals, and intellectuals are not the best people for positions of power," Mr. Kusy said.

"Their best position is to be critical of power."