European Waves

Digging in your heels when democracy is backsliding

On the 31st of January, Greta Scott and Aria Guevara interviewed Jakub Klepal, Executive Director of the Forum 2000 Foundation, on the role of the NGO in promoting democracy, the challenges of continuing Václav Havel’s legacy, and democratic backsliding across the world.

       Jakub Klepal is the Executive Director of the Forum 2000 Foundation, a non-governmental organization which pursues the legacy of Václav Havel (dissident and former president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic) by supporting democracy and human rights worldwide. Jakub Klepal is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Association for Democracy Assistance and Human Rights and the Founding Curator of the Prague Hub of Global Shapers of the World Economic Forum. Preceding his time in the field of democracy and human rights, Klepal has worked as a journalist and a research scholar at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Greta Scott: Do you feel that NGOs are capable of improving democracy worldwide? And more specifically, do you feel that Forum 2000 is able to accomplish its goals?

Jakub Klepal: Civil society is an element of democracy that is absolutely vital, and without it, democracy cannot function. NGOs are an important part of civil society. So yes, they are a part of democracy and they can change and then help democracy in this regard.

Aria Guevara: Following that thought, working for NGOs can be extremely challenging and sometimes exhausting, especially for a sustained amount of time, but there are always rewarding moments to it. What was the most rewarding experience that you’ve had since you started at Forum 2000 and how does it perhaps help motivate you to continue working on this part of Václav Havel’s legacy?

JK: You’re right, it is a tough job, it’s complicated. But it is really very rewarding. Although, you sometimes don’t see it for a long time and sometimes it is very intangible (the results that you are achieving). But if you ask about concrete examples, for us, luckily as we are in contact with our partners, participants, delegates, we are getting constant feedback from them that they are happy to participate. They are very encouraged by how they can work within the Forum 2000 structures and events. Just today, I received a message from one of our long-term participants from Venezuela, who has been hiding in Venezuela because he was threatened with arrest by the current authoritarian regime of Nicolas Maduro. We were working with him while he was in hiding, trying to get him support of different kinds. And today he wrote to me that he is actually out of Venezuela and he is going to Europe to study for a while, so he’s fortunately safe for the moment. That’s rewarding. On the other hand, it is very depressing to see that people like that have to leave their countries because of the regimes that are governing there and because they just want to live in freedom and voice their opinions, and because of that they cannot continue living in their countries, and have to go somewhere else to lead a normal life.

AG: I have a follow-up question: I saw somewhere that you were in Mexico City as a researcher. I was curious about your experience in Latin America and the political state that Mexico is in?

JK: The current situation is fairly difficult in terms of democratic governance and in terms of the longer-term future of the country. I was in Mexico during a very exciting time, in 2001, freshly after Vicente Fox became President, when the 70-year rule of the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party] ended, and it was a moment of big expectations, many changes, many things happening. That was really inspiring to see. I also saw many problems in Mexico. As you know, Mexico is a very unequal society, with many internal problems, so it needs a lot of effort in terms of safeguarding democracy and securing democratic governance. And seeing the current President and the current administration ruling as they are ruling, I think it is a testimony to the fact that a lot of work needs to be done on that front. Unfortunately,  AMLO [President Andrés Manuel López Obrador] is not unique to Mexico and we have seen in other countries and many other developed democracies similar leaders. It’s unfortunately one of the features of democracy today that people that are not exactly fit for the job – or at least I think are not exactly fit for the job, many people think otherwise of course – are able to get to the top positions, and sometimes that can be very threatening for the future of democracy.

We work on bringing different opinions and different points of view to the conference, but we also try to always keep the dialogue in a shape that it actually is a dialogue. So we try to bring in people that are open, that are willing to discuss, that share the ability to [engage in dialogue], and trust in the power of dialogue, in the exchange of views, in opinions, and are able to be tolerant in listening to the other side.

AG: Focusing on the Forum 2000 Conferences, can you tell us a little bit more about the brainstorming that goes on when you are picking the panellists or the recruitment for keynote speakers and academics?

JK: We have a Programme Council, which is a group of intellectuals, scholars, and former participants of the Forum 2000 Conferences, and this Council meets usually at the Forum 2000 Conference and brainstorms. They do an initial brainstorming on the current state of affairs, on the conference that is ongoing when they meet. And we also take as a basis the ongoing discussions and developments within the conference and within other Forum 2000 projects and we try to bring all those inputs together and then we submit them to a smaller Programme Group, which meets usually at the turn of the year and starts working on these inputs and suggestions. We are now in the middle of starting with that group and they, together with us, the Forum 2000 Secretariat, form the programme, form the topics, pick up speakers. It is a continuous process, which is both fed into internally, and, of course, we constantly look around us, see what is happening, follow relevant trends and discussions, and try to incorporate those inputs as well. So the programme is rather fluid until the very last moment before the conference as we try to always incorporate the most recent developments as well.

AG: One of the comments about the last conference was that there was too much agreement and echoing of other discussants’ thoughts and not so much “critical” discussion over how to actually implement ideas in order to protect and promote democracy. What are your thoughts on this, and is this something the organisation is working on addressing at the next conference? If so, how? 

JK: That is one of the issues we know about and constantly tackle. We work on bringing different opinions and different points of view to the conference, but we also try to always keep the dialogue in a shape that it actually is a dialogue. So we try to bring in people that are open, that are willing to discuss, that share the ability to [engage in dialogue], and trust in the power of dialogue, in the exchange of views, in opinions, and are able to be tolerant in listening to the other side. So there is a very fragile balance between having this, having a constructive dialogue, and not having it, sort of too in unison, too [similar], or that people agree too much with one another. Sometimes we strike it well, and we invite people and then put on the panels people with sufficiently different opinions so that there is a dialogue, but sometimes it is not as great. We are trying to improve on it, but at the same time, we don’t want any shouting matches. We want people to actually try to look for solutions.

GS: On that note, I wonder how possible is it to have that big of a dialogue? Would people with significantly different values from the ones Forum 2000 represents even come if you invited them?

JK: We have different experiences and mixed results in that regard. We have had people in the past, whose views are not in line with how the majority of participants would think, probably. But they were able to participate quite well, and some of them participate even regularly. In some cases where we tried to invite people – especially in cases where people are actually in political positions – they may be concerned that the discussion would be unequal, which we try not to have. We always aim to have a balanced playing field, where there is a moderator that keeps the rules of the game the same for both sides. But some people just decide not to come because they, I think, just feel it is not worth their time. It happens. But often we have had very good participation of people that actually brought completely opposing views.

….having a China that would be a normal member of the international community, not bullying anybody, respecting the rules, not pursuing its citizens all around the world and trying to either kidnap them or force them to spy on their host country, would be beneficial for all of us.

GS: There has been a lot of talk about democratic backsliding across the world. What do you feel, and indeed what does Forum 2000 feel, are the most important steps to take in order to improve democracy?

JK: There are many different aspects. You have, of course, the internal weaknesses of democracies which need to be addressed, and that is what we touched upon a while ago discussing Mexico. Where we think that we can contribute is by helping to bring people together internationally, bringing democratic actors together, to work together to support each other, both on the international stage and the domestic arena. We have had a number of situations where participants got inspired by one another and you have the Belarussians and Venezuelans who face similar tactics by their government, very oppressive, and they as activists or as dissidents are in difficult positions, difficult situations. They can help each other, look at how the other is doing their work, and support each other. Even moral support is important. Some of the authoritarian regimes are very oppressive, and, to be very frank, sometimes even the general population is a bit resigned or is afraid to support freedom fighters and democracy activists. They don’t want to have problems, they want their children to be able to study at a university or they just want to have a decent job. So often activists and dissidents in places like Cuba or Belarus or Russia just feel very isolated, especially if they are not in the big cities, but in smaller towns. It is important for them to come to Forum 2000 or similar events and find out that they are not alone, that there are many other people fighting for the same causes around the world and facing the same problems. Then, of course, even the practical ways of doing things can help and make people more effective in what they are doing.

GS: I would like to ask about the general population. I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about the post-Communist transition and how in certain countries it seems as if citizens were force-fed democracy and freedom and now they are almost choking on it. So I wonder how you assess the state of democracy in the Czech Republic, and what you say to the people that are nostalgic for Communism?

JK: I would tell them to go visit North Korea or go visit Cuba. I was in Cuba some years ago, and although I was a kid when Communism fell here, all the memories came back: seeing the empty stores and seeing the policemen on every corner, and seeing the body language of the people and the way they behave. Even talking to a foreigner can be suspicious, so they do it carefully or they do it in a way that would not be normal in a free country. 

AG: Speaking of people that are in difficult situations, we wanted to ask what your view was on how we can work around (or work with) China to protect democracy, given that a lot of people are of the opinion that China is a threat to democracy around the world?

JK: That is a very complex issue and many smarter people than I are trying to figure it out. From our perspective here, what is important is to stick to our values, stick to our principles, and also stick to our interests. Because even if you look at it in real political terms, having a China that would be a normal member of the international community, not bullying anybody, respecting the rules, not pursuing its citizens all around the world and trying to either kidnap them or force them to spy on their host country, would be beneficial for all of us. Having a democratic China would be in our best interest. Since that is not going to happen very soon, I think what we need to do is just stick to our values, not sell our values. We have to keep, of course, communication with China. It’s an important country, so having normal diplomatic and economic relations is a must, but not allowing those relations to force us to abandon our own principles.

If China tries to bully us, as we have seen recently in the case of Lithuania [when China responded with a purported boycott of Lithuanian goods and a downgrading of diplomatic relations after Lithuania allowed Taiwan to open an embassy there], we [democratic states] are many more than China. And that is what I spoke about a while ago, the international cooperation of democratic forces. If we support each other and if we cooperate, I think we are stronger than any of these regimes and we can easily survive all this bullying and pressure. So just sticking to what we are doing. Doing it smartly, not being extremist even in our defence of human rights and freedom, but being persistent and principled. Chinese people will prevail because we are talking about “China,” but we have to realise that China is a large, populous nation. And there is a relatively small group of ruling elite which is called the Communist Party of China, and they are the bad guys. The rest are just regular people. And if they have a chance to live in a democracy, they will grab it.

AG: So following up on that, we saw on social media that Forum 2000 called on world leaders to boycott the Beijing 2022 Olympics. What impact did you hope that this would have and what was the motivation for this diplomatic boycott?

JK: It is unfortunate that the International Olympic Committee has decided to award the Olympic Games to China, a totalitarian country that abuses human rights on a massive scale. But it’s done. For the athletes, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity. As a sporting event, it has been decided, so I would just let it happen. But I don’t see any reason why any prime minister, minister, or president of a democratic country should go. It sends such a terrible message to the Uighurs, to the Tibetans, and to the citizens of Hong Kong who are suffering under the Communist regime. Again, it has happened, so let’s let it take place, but let’s keep our presence at the necessary minimum.

Since conducting this interview, Jakub Klepal’s words have remained pertinent, and the importance of fighting for democracy and human rights is clear. As Václav Havel’s words remind us: “Human rights are universal and indivisible. Human freedom is also indivisible: if it is denied to anyone in the world, it is therefore denied, indirectly, to all people. This is why we cannot remain silent in the face of evil or violence; silence merely encourages them.”

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