In the top left-hand corner of Pragues Wenceslas (Vaclav) Square youll find a singularly unattractive office block positioned between the National Museum, the main railway station (affectionately named after U.S. President Woodrow Wilson) and the wide boulevard itself. So often the epicentre of important Czech (-Slovak) events during the 20th century, the Square has now become a rather downmarket version of Piccadilly Circus, littered with tourists (Italians, Germans, Americans and New Russians), the detritus of their passing, and the occasional native inhabitant.
This particular building, in its severe communist style, actually forms a link between Radio Free Europe, the CIA, the dissident movement Charter 77, and the current political and economic state of the Republic. The connection is meandering, but there is a common thread that ties them together, which I stumbled across (literally) whilst visiting Prague a few weeks ago.
In the Czech netherworld
Radio Free Europe (RFE) began broadcasting to countries behind the Iron Curtain in 1950, and was designed to promote democratic values and institutions in the communist bloc. Interestingly, one of the prime movers behind the stations establishment was a certain George Kennan (one of the Cold Wars intellectual architects), who was in no small measure encouraged by the success of Britains Political Warfare Executive (PWE) during the Second World War.
PWE had been headed by Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, supporter and confidant of the Czechoslovak Government-in-exile in London, which itself had produced some of the best propaganda of the war. From the very outset much of RFEs efforts were directed against the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia (after its seizure of power in February 1948). Indeed, its first editor was the Czech journalist and dissident Pavel Tigrid, himself a former member of the BBCs wartime Czech section in London.
Although the funds for the stations establishment were originally sanctioned by the US Congress, until 1971 the money was always channelled through the CIA. Even after that date the Company retained a measure of control over RFEs policies. A dubious advantage given the CIAs oft-proven inability to predict momentous events accurately.
Thus, with hardly a pause, the techniques of anti-Nazi agitation were pressed into service against the Soviet menace, a process that the late Lord Annan delicately referred to as changing enemies.
Vaclav Havel, now the perpetually ailing Czech President, fondly remembers RFE for its reports on the disturbances and riots that shocked the west before trouble moved east during that heady, and ultimately tragic, year of 1968. RFEs previous role in urging Hungarians to fight the Soviets in 1956, in the expectation of western support, remains a more controversial subject, however. (The station seems to have lost most of the relevant documents from the period).
Havel was of course a founding signatory of Charter 77, signed in the wake of that famous Cold War Trojan horse, the Helsinki Final Agreement in 1975. The Charter had at its launch a grand total of 243 signatures (and around 1000 at its height). It was naively designed to hold the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic to its obligations in international and domestic law, most importantly those that guaranteed human rights and basic freedoms demands that grated with the all-encompassing nature of Party and State.
Charter 77 was THE dissident movement in Czechoslovakia, but it was one that was probably better known and had more effect abroad than it did domestically, not least due to its heavy promotion by western intellectuals, the press and RFE. Its ringleaders were regularly tortured, imprisoned and persecuted by the secret police, the StB, as was Havel.
Indeed, his continued ill health is probably a result of his imprisonment in the late 1970s and early 1980s, facts that seem to generate little sympathy for the man these days. Havel's current unpopularity appears to stem from his arbitrary implementation of presidential policy, reticence over the massive amounts of restitution his family received after 1989 and widespread hostility towards his second wife Dagmar (nee Veskrnova) whose tenure as ''First Lady'' has produced a raft of adverse commentary.
Charter 77 was never, however, a mass movement like Polands Solidarity, and its impact on the Communists hold on power was, and is, distinctly questionable. Even though many of its leaders were heavily involved in the revolution of 1989, and the first post-Communist governments, Charter 77 was not the root cause of the regimes downfall. Today the Charter seems to have been largely forgotten in the Republic.
Perhaps this isnt too surprising. It is, after all, twenty-five years on. The work of the Chartists is now largely ignored and the current Helsinki Commission (a direct descendant of the 1975 agreement) has recently criticised the attitudes of certain Czech politicians towards freedom of speech in the Republic.
RFEs good propaganda?
I hasten to add that I dont have a problem with RFEs setup; after all, we (the west) were at war with Communism, and information and news were, and still are, vital commodities in any conflict, and anyone who fails to grasp this fact is merely deluding him/herself.
Having said that, you do have to wonder what effects the ideals of the stations many fanatical anti-Communists and lashings of CIA-controlled money actually had on editorial independence. RFEs news reports were renowned for being studiously objective, but that was hardly a difficult task when the news behind the Iron Curtain usually consisted of: Comrade Chairman XX today visited a tractor factory in Omsk, production was up 700% and the five-year plan was doubled... or variations upon that theme.
We shouldnt forget, however, that this was all an exercise in propaganda from start to finish, and that all the best propaganda sticks as closely to the truth as possible. As PWE once knew full well, and many a government still does today.
One, unnamed, former CIA officer involved with RFE recently noted, As we begin the new millennium, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Radio Asia, and the Voice of America continue to play a unique and vital role in Americas ongoing struggle to bring freedom to the world.
Im not sure though that all the inhabitants of Guatemala, Nicaragua or possibly even Afghanistan would necessarily agree. In any case, there is an interesting essay about the CIA-RFE relationship on the Psywar Society website, while Robert Baers revealing autobiography about his time in the CIA, is especially notable for his allegations on the links between Caspian Oil interests and the White House: Part 1, Part 2.
In or around 1995, Havel rented RFE the old communist Parliament building at the edge of Wenceslas Square for thats what the bleak office block once was for the princely sum of $1 a year. Presumably by way of thanks for RFEs and the CIAs help in winning the Cold War.
Even if youve never been to Prague, you can see the building in HBOs film version of Robert Harriss book Fatherland, in which it served as the SSs Berlin HQ, circa 1965 (the book, of course, was based on the fictional premise that Germany didnt lose the war in 1945). A delicious example of that central Cold War myth that Fascism and Communism were basically one and the same thing.
Since late 1996, Radio Asia began broadcasting to those countries that remained under the jackboot of totalitarianism Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. After 11 September, however, many Czechs have become increasingly nervous at the thought of having such a juicy terrorist target in their midst. Especially since Mohammed Atta was alleged to have met members of Iraqi Intelligence in Prague just before the attack, allegations that havent yet been confirmed.
More than a few people have now suggested moving the whole organisation to a safer location, most notably Petr Pithart (dissident, Charter 77 signatory, prime mover in the revolution of 1989, and former Czechoslovak Prime Minister). Pithart is also a member of the Republics National Security Council, which recently voted to move RFE elsewhere. Quite where to has yet to be agreed.
Its something that the RFEs current programming director, Jeffrey Trimble, currently refuses to do. In theory, the Czech government may have to force RFE out of the capital admittedly an unlikely scenario, but one Id pay good money to watch. The Republics commitment to an organisation that itself braved attacks during the Cold War (the KGB once tried to poison the salt in the canteen of its Munich offices) in order to bring the voice of freedom to the oppressed seems to be, at least on the face of it, a pretty fair weather affair.
The Czech army: a national joke?
In late September the Czech government sent a number of armoured personnel carriers (APCs, Soviet-era six wheelers, possibly BTR-60/70s) from Hodonin, in eastern Moravia, to protect the RFE building from terrorist attack. Which is about as far away from the capital as you can get, and also happens to be the birthplace of the first Czechoslovak President, T. G. Masaryk.
These APCs were in such a bad condition, as is most of the Republics military equipment, that the majority broke down on the way. Only a handful actually made it to Prague four in all and it is still unclear exactly what sort of protection they offered from suicidal terrorists in Boeing 757s.
Though many Czech politicians are immensely proud of the Republics membership of NATO and the armys role in Kosovo, Macedonia and now Kuwait, its equipment is falling apart and there are few funds to replace it. Helicopters regularly fall out of the sky killing astronauts as do planes, while APCs and tanks constantly break down. In one hilarious incident, gleefully replayed on the evening news, a tank got stuck in a snow drift whilst clearing a road during the storms in December and had to be guarded by local villagers until the army could come and rescue it.
Perhaps as a result of these humiliations, the government is now in the process of trying to buy a batch of modern fighter aircraft for the military (Saab JAS-39 Gripens), to replace its ageing Warsaw Pact planes, at a cost of 50 billion koruna (EUR 1.57 billion). Whether theyre really needed, and whether that money wouldnt be better spent on the Republics hospitals, pensions, schools and universities, all of which need funds just as desperately, has been a subject of (limited) debate.
But, regardless of the real need and costs, the deal now looks set to move Ahead, no doubt encouraged by the successes of the current war on terrorism and the highly attractive deal (the sort that only arms manufacturers seem able to offer) that Saab/ British Aerospace consortium are offering the country.
All in all the Czech army has become a national joke, and their protection of the RFE building has merely added to the continuing farce. The Czechs revel in their anti-militaristic heritage when it suits them; The Good Soldier Svejk has always been far more than just a richly comic novel. Though the unwary should be warned this same stance can rapidly be reservedif the occasion merits it but, for now, the emphasis seems firmly on the inherent humour of the militarys sorry predicament.
My wife and I experienced this at first hand when we arrived in Prague from Moravia earlier this year and spent our first afternoon in the capital drinking with friends in a favourite pub good beer and even better potato pancakes and were told that if we wanted a good laugh to go up to the RFE building and take a look at the tanks protecting it.
They were right.
Im not sure if it was the beer and fine Moravian wine wed ingested that afternoon, or the truly pathetic sight of that single, ancient, APC sitting outside the RFE building, with all its hatches closed and accompanied by a solitary policeman that made us laugh the most. But laugh we did until the policeman caught sight of us and we beat a hasty retreat.
Outside one of the former bastions of the dictatorship of the proletariat, recently rented by a former dissident to a CIA-backed group of objective, freedom-loving journalists whod once helped bring down an evil empire and now preach the gospel of capitalism and democracy to fanatical Muslims, the little tank stood guard, and stands there still as far as I know.
You couldnt spread the irony any thicker if you tried.
It remains to be seen what the fate of RFEs building (and perhaps even RFE itself) and its protective tank will be.