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7 November 2019, Gateway House

Inadequate dissent at Forum 2000

Peaceful dissent was the original animus for the formation of the Forum 2000 Foundation. Started by the late Czech dissident Vaclav Havel, the conference, held in Prague every September, offers a platform to experts and activists from around the world to revisit ideas about pacifism and protest

Director, Gateway House

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Protests seem to be the order of the day, but even otherwise, the annual conference in September, in Prague, of the Forum 2000 Foundation invariably brings together experts and activists from around the world, including dissidents from ongoing protest movements.  It was set up in 1996 as a legacy of Vaclav Havel’s, former dissident and former president of Czechoslovakia.

Thus, the keynote speaker was an opposition Member of Parliament from Azerbaijan, who felt that his country ought to be held to the principles of the Council of Europe. But there were others, including speakers from Hong Kong, Xinziang, and the Sikyong Lobsang Tsangay, president of the Tibetan government in exile, to represent the long friendship between the Dalai Lama and Vaclav Havel.

Vaclav Havel was himself an often-imprisoned activist, who encouraged civil activism, direct democracy, and importantly, the power of peaceful dissent. He created the blueprint for the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, with his philosophy captured in the concepts of ‘the power of the powerless’ and ‘living in truth’, echoing the Satyagraha and Ahimsa of Mahatma Gandhi.

There was a larger backdrop also to the way the 1989 liberation movements in Eastern Europe played out. Perhaps the most important of them was the decision of the USSR, the overlord of the region, to renounce the use of force to counter the will of the people. This pacifism flowed out of Gorbachev’s efforts to reform the USSR itself, acting on his ideas of transparency and opening up (Glasnost and Perestroika) within his own country.  In hindsight, these transformations were initiated by the groundwork laid by Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik (Eastern Politics), which had reduced hostility between the West and the USSR.

Dissenting ideas have been the original impetus of the Forum 2000, but a recurrent shortcoming of an otherwise well-organised event has been inadequate representation of official points of view. For instance, this year, there were no Chinese experts to react to the criticisms put forth by dissidents and activists, many of them living in the West and heading foundations. They recalled the anniversary of the Tiananmen killings, commending the protesters in Hong Kong and their use of the term, Chinazi, as an expletive. The activists also predicted an imminent implosion of China because of rising inequality.

This year there were no dissidents from Russia, which had been the focus of critical examination in previous editions of the Forum. This was in keeping with the current concentration on China and the by now urgent overtures from Germany and France to resume normal relations with Russia.

In a panel discussion on ‘Asian Middle Powers and Democracy Promotion’, speakers from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and India argued that their governments deliberately refrained from using the phrase, ‘democracy promotion’, in deference to Chinese sensitivities.

Security concerns around the globe are high, owing to Trump’s disruptive statements and actions. The direction of trade talks is equally uncertain. The threat from China through its state-owned enterprises and their ability to appropriate Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and technology is one of the many reasons for other nations to be concerned. The National Basketball Association saga was on everyone’s mind, having happened just the week before as a full-spectrum display of powerful Western corporates bending to the imperative of the lucrative Chinese market.

Amidst all this, interest in India has risen, as evident from the discussions in the conference.  I was on a panel, titled ‘America First! But What About the Rest?’ The perspective of Europe about the ‘rest’ is confined to the Continent.  But it must broaden the horizon to include Asia, Africa, and Latin America – the developing world, in short.  I pointed out that Donald Trump, the first Tweet President, has a unique style of communicating. But he is yet another in a long line of American Presidents, who have run rough-shod over the interests of other countries – unconstrained by ethical considerations. I reminded the audience that the Nixon-Kissinger duo was ready to look away from the genocide in Bangladesh because they were negotiating a rapprochement with China, mediated by Pakistan. The U.S. even sent their Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal to threaten India.

Today, Europe is uneasy because Trump has been dismissive of the trans-Atlantic relationship, including questioning the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) commitments. But Europe often acts in divergence from American interests. For instance, the Europeans want their corporations to be able to profit from their Chinese operations, are wary of the American call for the banning of Huawei and reluctant to raise their contribution to NATO funding, but complain about Trump’s recalcitrance on NATO.

I also spoke at a breakfast meeting on India. The discussion largely revolved around whether the Modi government is fascistic or not. Although tempted to ask the Italian moderator whether Italian Fascism was identical to German Nazism, I, instead argued that one cannot understand Prime Minister Modi’s wild popularity while trying to squash the Indian situation into a theoretical European framework. An important contributing factor to the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India is the ideological impoverishment of the Communist parties and the disintegration of the dynastic Congress opposition.

I agreed that the situation in Kashmir is worrisome. But Kashmir is also a fallout of geopolitics and great power politics. America and Soviet Russia had brought the Cold War into South Asia via Afghanistan. And today, the abrupt announcement of the pulling out of the American forces from Afghanistan sets off reminders of their pull-out from Afghanistan in 1990, which started the radicalisation in Kashmir. Pakistan will certainly strive to steer the Jihadi forces of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and Daesh towards Kashmir. So, it is a tricky situation where there could be some violence, but it is Pakistan that is threatening Jihad and a nuclear conflagration.

Within Europe, despite the shift in focus away from Russia towards the threat from China, the Europeans remain tethered to the U.S. for their defence. They are unable to accept that the threat to Europe’s prosperity comes from their internal divisions. These include: Brexit, the slow departure of Angela Merkel from Germany, and the rise of right-wing parties in Central Europe, especially Poland, along with demographic decline and slowing economies. These hobble Europe’s ability to make coherent policies and act decisively.

Neelam Deo is C0-Founder and Director, Gateway House.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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