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Vaclav Havel speaking at the European Parliament on 12 November 2009. Photo: European Parliament
Vaclav Havel speaking at the European Parliament on 12 November 2009. Photo: European Parliament

Vaclav Havel, the dissident, playwright and later president of the Czech Republic (1993-2003) described the concept of "dissidents" in his 1984 essay "Politics and Conscience". There Havel argued that the impact of dissidents in authoritarian societies  may be difficult to measure precisely and it usually has a long-term nature, yet he stressed that even a single person daring to speak the truth may have a greater influence than a well-organized state propaganda apparatus:

"I am convinced that what is called 'dissent' in the Soviet bloc is a specific modern experience, the experience of life at the very ramparts of dehumanized power. As such, that 'dissent' has the opportunity and even the duty to reflect on this experience, to testify to it and to pass it on to those fortunate enough not to have to undergo it. Thus we too have a certain opportunity to help in some ways those who help us, to help them in our deeply shared interest, in the interest of mankind.

One such fundamental experience, which I called 'anti-political politics', is possible and can be effective, even though by its very nature it cannot calculate its effect beforehand. That effect, to be sure, is of a wholly different nature from what the West considers political success. It is hidden, indirect, long term and hard to measure; often it exists only in the invisible realm of social consciousness, conscience and subconsciousness and it can be almost impossible to determine what value it assumed therein and to what extent, if any, it contributes to shaping social development. It is, however, becoming evident—and I think that is an experience of an essential and universal importance—that a single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready to pay a high price, has, surprisingly, greater power, though formally disfranchised, than do thousands of anonymous voters."

Baku's facebook generation is aware of its historic predecessors. In December 2010 Emin Milli told ESI that his activism was initially intuitive but that "now that I have read books, I see that this very much resembles the way it has been done in many other places." In an e-mail sent to friends soon after his release, Emin listed the books he had read in prison and which had most impressed him: top of the list was Vaclav Havel's Power of the Powerless, which he described as "a must-read." Emin drew attention to one quote in particular:

"In the post-totalitarian system the line of conflict runs de facto through EACH PERSON, for everyone in his own way is both a victim and a supporter of the system."

Can today's situation in Azerbaijan be likened to the events presaging tension and social changes in Eastern Europe, as described by Havel in his 1978 essay "The Power of the Powerless"?

"A specter is haunting Eastern Europe: the specter of what in the West is called "dissent." This specter has not appeared out of thin air. It is a natural and inevitable consequence of the present historical phase of the system it is haunting.

It was born at a time when this system, for a thousand reasons, can no longer base itself on the unadulterated, brutal, and arbitrary application of power, eliminating all expressions of nonconformity. What is more, the system has become so ossified politically that there is practically no way for such nonconformity to be implemented within its official structures."

In the 1980s Havel had became one of the most prominent members of the dissident movement Charter 77, founded by Czechoslovak intellectuals to remind the communist government in Prague of human rights commitments it had entered into but which it failed to observer. The Charter's original declaration in 1977 described it as "a free, informal, open community of people of different convictions, different faiths, and different professions" standing up for the respect of human rights. "Responsibility for the observance of civil rights in the country naturally falls, in the first place, on the political and state power. But not on it alone," wrote the Charter's authors, including Vaclav

"Each and every one of us has a share of responsibility for the general situation and thus, too, for the observance of the pacts which have been enacted and are binding not only for the government but for all citizens."

Timothy Garton Ash. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Timothy Garton Ash. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Writing in the early 1980s, British historian Timothy Garton Ash, a chronicler of the Eastern European dissident movement, described communist Czechoslovakia as

"a lake permanently covered by a thick layer of ice. On the surface nothing moves. But under the ice, among the philosopher-labourers, the window-cleaning journalists, and nightwatchman-monks –here things are on the move."

Jan Patocka. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Jan Patocka, Czech philosopher and one of the founders of Charter 77.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In the end it was also a normative revolution which brought down Soviet communism in Eastern Europe. East European dissidents regularly referred to the human rights principles in the Helsinki Final Act, which their own governments had signed in 1975. One of the demands of Polish strikers in 1980 was that the government hand out and distribute 50,000 copies of the Helsinki Final Act. There were no bloggers then, no Facebook and no Twitter, but the struggle for full freedom of expression was as central then as now.

Adam Michnik (Poland) as a young man.
Adam Michnik as a young man.
Photo: University of Warsaw Archives

In 1985 Adam Michnik wrote his letter from the Gdansk Prison, outlining the dilemmas facing Poland's dissidents: 

"But what does it mean "to rule according to the old ways"? It means to hope that the society is or will soon become completely terrorized and thus wholly molded by the state. Changing this sort of rule means to accept the autonomy of society not as a passing inconvenience but as an integral part of social reality. This is the road to dialogue and compromise.

Is this realistic? Is a compromise between the persecutor and his victim possible? Aren't our "fundamentalists" correct in maintaining that no democratic evolution is possible without a prior, total destruction of the Communist system and, therefore, the only sensible program of action must reject hopes for a future compromise with the ruling group and opt instead for the integral idea of independence, i.e., full independence from the Soviet Union and complete removal of Communists from power? This is the central dilemma of the Polish opposition movement."

He also made a strong argument for normative revolutions as the key to regime change:

"No one in Poland is able to prove today that violence will help us to dislodge Soviet troops from Poland and to remove Communists from power. The USSR has such enormous military power that confrontation is simply unthinkable. In other words: we have no guns. Napoleon, upon hearing a similar reply, gave up on pursuing further questions. However, Napoleon was above all interested in military victories, and not in building democratic, pluralistic societies. We, by contrast, cannot leave it at that.

In our reasoning pragmatism is inseparably intertwined with idealism. Taught by history, we suspect that by using force to storm the Bastilles of old we shall unwittingly build new ones. It is true that social change is almost always accompanied by force. But it is not true to say that social change is merely an effect of the violent collision of various forces. Social changes follow above all from a confrontation of different moralities and visions of social order. Before the violence of rulers clashes with the violence of their subjects, values and systems of ethics clash inside human minds. Only when the old ideas of the rulers lose this moral duel will the subjects reach for force—sometimes."

Charter 77 and the democratic experience of Central and Eastern European countries continue to inspire democracy activists worldwide, from Belarus to Poland, from Azerbaijan to China. In 2008, Chinese dissidents published Charter 08. Charter 08 proclaims the same fundamental principles: freedom, human rights, equality, republicanism, democracy, and constitutional rule. As the authors state, the time for change has come:

"Authoritarianism is in general decline throughout the world; in China, too, the era of emperors and overlords is on the way out. The time is arriving everywhere for citizens to be masters of states. For China the path that leads out of our current predicament is to divest ourselves of the authoritarian notion of reliance on an "enlightened overlord" or an "honest official" and to turn instead toward a system of liberties, democracy, and the rule of law, and toward fostering the consciousness of modern citizens who see rights as fundamental and participation as a duty."

Lech Walesa. Photo: Solidarnosc
Lech Walesa. Photo: Solidarnosc

"One of the central freedoms at stake was freedom of expression (a direct corollary of the Helsinki Agreement). Without this basic freedom, human life becomes meaningless; and once the truth of this hit me, it became part of my whole way of thinking."

Lech Walesa

March 2011

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