Her Majesty’s Petty Man

By November 28, 2008Article, Atlantic Eye

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia, Oct. 28 (UPI) — Your Majesty:
I would have been pleased to meet you in person last Thursday on the occasion of your visit to the Slovak Republic. You are, Your Majesty, greatly respected in this part of the world. Czechs and Slovaks remember what the United Kingdom did for them during the Cold War.

On this day, I had hoped to introduce you to two heroes of the underground movement against communism — Barbara Day from the United Kingdom and former Minister Pavel Bratinka, a Czech who hails from a Slovak family.

Both were stalwarts in the fight for freedom and democracy. They belonged to a network whose U.K. branch was the Jan Hus Educational Foundation, based in Oxford. It included Jessica Douglas-Home and Baroness Cox, as well as Roger Scruton. The Prague Society for International Cooperation grew from this network.

The Prague Society has become a leading NGO in Central and Eastern Europe. It strives to create a new generation of well-informed leaders in this part of the world. It acts as a mirror against those who were responsible for communism and have failed to be punished. It works with students, our next generation of leaders.

Pavel Bratinka is the vice president of the Prague Society. He was born in Bratislava of a Slovak family. He is the epitome of a Czechoslovak, a national of that brave country founded by Tomas Masaryk in 1918 and ended by Premiers Klaus and Meciar in 1992. By education a physicist, Bratinka spent much of his working life stoking a boiler in a Prague cellar. He was followed and interrogated, as was his family. Bugs were put in the walls of his flat. He was regularly harassed. To study English and read banned books, he crossed the dangerous threshold of the American Library.

After 1989 Bratinka entered politics. He became deputy foreign minister of Czechoslovakia and later a Cabinet minister in the first Czech government in 1993. (It was, ironically, a working visit abroad that caused him to miss Your Majesty on your visit in 1996.) He oversaw the law that put the proceeds from the property the communists had stolen into a National Endowment Fund. The interest from the fund supports NGOs working for the renewal of civil society.

When communism fell in 1989, Vaclav Havel and others who had been helped called upon the likes of the Jan Hus Educational Foundation to advise the nascent democracy. Dissidents became ministers. Couriers began to run NGOs.

For her work, Day was presented with the highest personal honor President Havel could give — the Commemorative Medal of the President of the Czech Republic. Day’s book “The Velvet Philosophers” describes the underground movement and her heroes in Czechoslovakia. It has been translated into Czech and Hungarian.

Day received the MBE from Your Majesty in the New Year’s Honors of 2002. It was presented by Ambassador Anne Pringle, a superb diplomat and now Your Majesty’s ambassador in Moscow. Day was greatly honored to be presented the medal at the British Embassy in Prague at a small private ceremony. It was coordinated by Deputy Head of Mission Denis Keefe, now Your Majesty’s ambassador to Georgia. Keefe won the trust of Czechs and Slovaks back in the 1980s, when he was the first British diplomat with a brief to make contact with Vaclav Havel and the other dissidents.

Both Day and Pavel Bratinka had secret police files. Photos taken with secret cameras document that they were followed, spied upon, taped and targeted for “subversive activities.” Bratinka was a co-organizer of the underground seminars supported by the Jan Hus Educational Foundation. In 1990 the foundation established its headquarters in Brno, specifically choosing a midway point between Prague and Bratislava.

Which begs the question, Your Majesty, why your representative in Slovakia, Michael Roberts, rejected the request for Bratinka and Day to meet you. The request was submitted in due time. It was resubmitted two weeks before Your Majesty’s visit. The request was supported by a sitting Slovak ambassador and by a former Slovak foreign minister. I was told that Roberts’ response was to belittle the request and to add, “Do you know how many people from Prague want to see the Queen?” A British diplomat making a discrete inquiry was told, “The list is closed.”

As I found out for myself in Bratislava during those days, it was not only “people from Prague” who were overlooked by Your Majesty’s representative. Among those not honored with an invitation was a former deputy prime minister of Czechoslovakia and prime minister of Slovakia, Jan Carnogursky.

Carnogursky, a lawyer by profession, was forbidden to practice in the 1980s after he defended dissidents in court — thus becoming one himself. He missed the beginning of the Velvet Revolution because he was in prison awaiting trial — as soon as he was released, he took a leading part in the revival of democracy. His pro-British stance largely stems from his admiration of the British visitors who used to risk arrest to lecture at his seminars.

Also absent was Miroslav Kusy, a member of the underground seminars and subsequently rector of the Comenius University in Bratislava. Neither invited was Miroslav Lehky, a co-founder of the National Memory Institute in Slovakia and now first deputy director of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in the Czech Republic — “the keeper of the files” — nor Frantisek Sebej, a dissident, former chairman of the Slovak Foreign Affairs Committee and now editor of the widely respected weekly Tyzden.

All of them Cold War warriors; as though the fight against communism had never been.

Czechs and Slovaks see themselves as brothers and sisters. Czechoslovakia was not torn apart by Balkan-style feuds but by two politicians reluctant to share the limelight.

The generation that fought communism makes little distinction between those Czechoslovaks who are now Czech and those who are now Slovaks. It was one country. The dissidents fought for freedom regardless of whether they were Czech or Slovak.

My last meeting of the day was with Prime Minister Robert Fico, Parliament President Pavol Paska, Interior Minister Robert Kalinak and Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Boris Zala. Prime Minister Fico and President Paska reported glowingly of their lunch with Your Majesty.

It is a shame that petty small-mindedness has prevented you from meeting some marvelous individuals. They would have been greatly honored to meet you as well.

As for me, if I had a representative with such poor judgment, I would retire him with haste.

(UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. He has advised political candidates and participated in the underground fight against communism.)