The Legacy of Charter 77

Charter 77 did not stop in November 1989. Recently, those who signed it have met after forty years, this time just to remember and reflect. The both nostalgic and very matter-of-fact conference entitled “CH 77 with One’s Own Eyes” in the Lucerna Grand Hall in Prague was reminiscent – as one of us put it in saddened sarcasm – of a museum of more or less shabby specimens with the guides and curators of the museum being still the exact same somewhat shabby specimens.

Both the meeting and the conference were held in a friendly atmosphere. Such long embraces between both men and women have I not seen in a long time: embraces with even some tears here and there and often times, embraces of disobedient and ill bodies. Many Prague non-residents came as well who have always been in the shade. Good feelings were apparent in all of these encounters: my man, I have not seen you for twenty, thirty, even forty years, but I know about you, you took a different path than me but you have acquitted yourself well all through and certainly did the best you knew and could.

In the final reflection, I said: none of us ever thought that it was us who demolished the Communist system – it collapsed on itself – one likes to call that an implosion – but we were right there and we arranged for something important to happen, namely that those very first steps were taken in the right direction. They were not contentious or competitive, but consensual; we gathered with all our strength the people of the grey zone (by them, we then meant the opponents of the regime who for various reasons did not sign Charter 77), even to the highest positions; we did not allow power to divide among super-new parties that only sprung up that morning until legitimate mandates were available. We only gained those mandates along with the others in the first free election in June 1990.

The legacy of Charter 77? This lower level. Underneath the usual, day to day, shifting, tiresome, unintelligible, but necessary politics (all compromise over tax rates, deductions and depreciation, benefits and subsidies, and also investments and tenders, over personal disputes…) there lies another level. Who knows, maybe even two.

There should not be much stirring there; it should be a level of stability and security. The foundations of the liberal-democratic state. There, proven institutions and rules protect the rights that guarantee the dignity of people as people, the rights of citizens; the rights of minorities of all kinds and of their members. All of them must certainly be upheld in order for the visible upper level of day-to-day politics to make sense, to be predictable and to guarantee more securities than uncertainties. And not only the rights of citizens, but also their responsibilities.

It is at this lower level that the “Charterers” were preparing an era of which they did not know whether at all or when it would come. Nowadays, there is too much focus on the day-to-day politics, necessarily partisan, of which we get sick.

The last two “Charterers” who are still holding highest-level statutory positions epitomize this strife for the lower-level, retaining their places in the very foundations of the state where they guard the fundamental laws: the guardian of the public rights, ombudsman Hana Šabatová, and the President of the Constitutional Court, Pavel Rychetský. They are doing what they used to those forty years ago and thus, it is the two of them who clearly express the essence of the Charter ethos: rules and institutions are more important than all party policies. The free competition of parties is irreplaceable, however, the rights of the party members as citizens are even more important. They need to be protected.

It also shows that not all of the “Charterers” are just some museum specimens.