The changes that took place in East-Central Europe in 1989 were not just an inflection point for people in the region. The lives of many outsiders were profoundly altered by what happened year. I was 25 years old in January 1989 and living in Warsaw. I had no clear idea of what to do with my life. By the end of the year – after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Ceausescu regime in Romania – I was officially obsessed with the region.
My first stop in East-Central Europe, when I returned in March 1990 to establish the groundwork for the East-West Program of the American Friends Service Committee to set up an office in the region, was East Berlin. I arrived on the eve of the GDR’s first (and only) democratic elections. And the first person I called was Fred Abrahams.
I didn’t speak German, and I had few contacts in the GDR. Fred had contacted AFSC prior to leaving for Germany and offered his services. I eagerly took him up on the offer. He became my translator, my fixer, and a closer friend. We also conducted interviews together in Czechoslovakia. He went on to work in Prague, then in Albania and throughout the Balkans. He has written extensively on human rights issues in Eastern Europe and testified at The Hague against Slobodan Milosevic. Today he travels around the world for Human Rights Watch on fact-finding missions in crisis areas.
“I was lucky to have graduated from college in 1989,” he told me in an interview in his apartment in Berlin in January. “And by chance, I studied German. But I totally believe—and I hope to impart this to my children—that you have to jump at these opportunities. And I was lucky enough to have good options: once-in-a-lifetime-type historic options. I didn’t have to come to Germany. I didn’t have to go to Prague with you. I didn’t have to go to Albania. Each of those things was a decision.”
In the GDR that March, people in the opposition movement told me about the Helsinki Citizens Assembly, an organization in Prague that would be bringing together political activists from East and West that fall to discuss the transformation of Europe from below. So, the first stop in Prague for Fred and me was the HCA offices where we talked with Ivan Fiala, who was once the head of the international department of the Czechoslovak Peace Committee. He had transitioned into working for an authentic NGO (I’ve put my description of that meeting below).
“We went to the Helsinki Citizens Assembly on Panksa Street — through that courtyard, to the left, up the stairs, passed Majenka the octogenarian cleaning lady who was an institution there,” Fred remembers. “We interviewed Ivan Fiala, who has since passed away. That place seemed like the most exciting organization I had ever seen. There were all these dissidents from the East and all these activists from the West. It was my world in one place. The office had Juliana Matrai and Dieter Esche, and Jan Kavan, all of them great characters. We walked out of there, and we walked down the steps one level, and you stopped to put your notebook in your bag. I was saying, ‘That’s great stuff, you know, I’d love to do some work for them.’ And you said, ‘Why don’t you ask them? You should go ask them.’ So I turned around and went back in and said to Ivan Fiala, ‘Listen, do you guys need any help? I’ll work for free. Could I be of assistance?’ And he said, ‘Actually, we could use help. That would be great.’”
There was an extraordinary sense of opportunity in the air during that spring of 1990 – for individuals, for countries, for social movements. It was something more felt than understood.
“It’s amusing to think back on those times now and what I didn’t understand,” Fred told me. “There were large chunks of it that were un- or under-appreciated by me. I felt like the spirit of the dissident movement was going to prevail, and for me, that was what the HCA was about. Maybe I couldn’t articulate what that meant in terms of policies, but it was something that I smelled more than tasted—if that’s the right distinction. I was enthralled with a group of people who would risk their wellbeing because they believed in something, and I hoped that this constructive passion for their countries and societies would permeate across Europe. It was that spirit that I found compelling.
We talked about Albanian politics, the best ways of handling secret police files, and what it was like to be the Forrest Gump of Eastern Europe.
Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I do remember very well because I graduated from college in 1989, and I consider myself very much a 1989er. I moved to San Francisco where I was doing odd jobs including playing Santa Claus at Macy’s.
Really, I didn’t know that. So, you were a Jewish Santa….
Forget Jewish! I was just the skinniest Santa! I was living in the Haight with four or five people in an apartment. I turned on the news one night to see Tom Brokaw—or one of the iconic U.S. newsmen—in Berlin. And there were people sledge-hammering the Wall in front of the Brandenburg gate, and Trabis going down Kurfurstendamm.
I had a German connection already, because I majored in German at university. And in 1985, I did a summer at the Goethe Institut in Göttingen, and during that time they organized a one-week trip to the GDR. We went on a tour that was state-sponsored, but I remember having little pocketed conversations with people who were venting their frustrations. It wasn’t just a propaganda tour: you were able to get a taste of some of the deeper issues. Then in 1988, I studied in Tübingen and at that time I somehow got a visa to go to East Germany, and I went with a friend for two weeks. That time we really did get to meet people who were — I wouldn’t say any of them were dissidents, because we didn’t have contacts, we were just backpackers – but they were whispering about things. Although, interestingly, in 1988, there was no whiff of an impending uprising or crash. It was the winter or early spring of 1988. It was very cold. We went to Dresden, Leipzig, and Berlin.
So when I saw the Berlin Wall fell, it wasn’t just a news item. It resonated deeply, and I knew pretty much right away that I wanted to be a part of it somehow.
And what did you think was going to happen, when you saw it?
My analysis was very rudimentary at the time. I already understood that people in the Eastern Bloc were not happy just in terms of basic freedoms: not being able to travel, not being able to read the publications they wanted. So my first reaction was joyous that they would now have access to these basic rights. My political perspective was also left-oriented, so I remember hoping that not all specifics of the system would be swallowed up by the West. Then, jumping ahead a little bit, I found the victory march distasteful. I felt like there had to be some balance between enjoying the freedoms that the West was known for and avoiding the pitfalls, like consumerism, corporatization. Nationalism was not on my radar, not until later. It didn’t occur to me that nationalism would be bubbling up. Or issues of minority rights. The other thing that was not on my radar was the notion that some of these dissidents, people whom I held in godly status, would turn out to be nationalists, or neocons, or whatever. Being against communism didn’t mean that you were then necessarily agreeing with me! That was a shock.
Was there a particular moment or conversation when you made that realization?
I don’t remember a person, but I remember a place and it was Prague. I was working with the Helsinki Citizens Assembly then, and there were all of these Charter 77 folks, plus people coming from Poland, Hungary, and whatnot. The debates were beginning to emerge about the direction of the economy, about lustration. Maybe the Jan Kavan case was an eye-opener for me.
I’m dealing with lustration now in Libya, an anti-Gaddafi lustration, and I’m really drawing on that earlier experience: about where it didn’t work and what it means. I’ve even come around to where I can see the perspective better of people who do want the lustration. I was knee-jerk against it in 1990-91. But I see that it stems from a desire for justice, and it’s not like people didn’t commit crimes. And maybe there are some people that should be excluded from political life—with proper checks and balances.
You majored in German. Did anybody at any point say to you: “Fred, a good Jewish boy like you, why are you studying German?”
My uncle. He fought in World War II and fought in Germany. He was the first one. He wrote me a letter when I was studying in my year abroad. I wish I had saved the letter – maybe it’s in my basement somewhere. But he said, “I will never set foot in that country again, and I was surprised that my nephew has chosen this route. But I trust you’ve done it for genuine reasons and I wish you the best.” You can’t ask for more than that. Otherwise I think people understood, more or less.
For me, back then, maybe it was more of an adventure. I was 20 years old, the Wall came down, I spoke German: let’s jump into this thing! But now I’m more cognizant of what went down here in Berlin on a deeper level, and I’ve paid closer attention to what it is that allowed the Holocaust to happen in this place, how in such a sophisticated culture and society such barbarity developed. I’m appreciating that on a much deeper level now. My Jewish identity isn’t so strong that I feel it’s something that happened to my people. Rather, it’s something terrible that happened.
How long did it take for you to break away from San Francisco and Macy’s?
It took two months. I just had to figure out a way to make it doable financially. Actually, you played a big role in that. I went to a Quaker high school and knew about the American Friends Service Committee. So I cold-called the AFSC’s East-West program, and the director Michael Simmons being a gregarious person said, “Oh, we have this guy who’s going to Eastern Europe on this project and you two should hook up.”
Michael gave me your contact information so that when I arrived in West Berlin, I had your phone number.
I was staying with a friend, so maybe I gave Michael my number where I was staying.
It’s hard to imagine these days how difficult it was to actually get in touch with people in those days. So, you basically spent a couple of months in Berlin?
I guess I came to Berlin in early January, maybe early February. Before I went to Germany I went to Stanford and UC Berkeley, to their libraries. They both had East European collections. Both of the librarians were interested in archival material from die Wende, as the Germans called it: the Change. We had an arrangement where I would collect materials, and they would buy it. That was my project, which was a perfect entre into meeting people and being in the mix. The libraries wanted anything and everything: audiotapes of the first demonstrations, the manifestos of the opposition groups, the platforms of the different parties, books, or documents. I gathered it all and then packed it up and sent it from Berlin. I had to price everything. You know: “peace march speech” — $20.
Wait, who came up with the pricing?
And how did you come up with these prices?
Because I had to bill them, I just kind of…made it up. I was like, “how much is a photograph of the first Neues Forum meeting in Pankow?” “That’s gotta be $15—$16! That’s definitely $16.” So I wrote it all down and charged them. I must have undercharged because they accepted everything. A box of material would get me $500. At that time it was still East German marks, so you could run on that for a long time.
You were getting material from before you had arrived. In other words, you were able to get material, pamphlets, that had been released in November or December 1989.
I tried. Old stuff, new stuff, whatever.
What kind of reaction did you get from people when you came looking for materials? Were they like, “please, take this stuff,” or were they suspicious?
No, they were totally helpful. If I think about it now, I would have done research. I didn’t actively conduct research. I didn’t track down the original tape of the first demonstration, no. I’d just go into the House of Democracy and say, “Oh, you have a platform? Great.” And that was $20 bucks.
You were harvesting.
Yes. And it was easy harvesting. But it wasn’t like I would do it now. If I had thought about it more, I would have tried to find more unique material, which I’m sure is out there.
Have you had the chance to go back and see the stuff in the Stanford library?
No, I haven’t.
It would be interesting to see how the materials have been used. That would be interesting. So, it was still difficult to get into East Germany when you arrived in early 1990.
When I was in San Francisco, I was interning with Michael Lerner at Tikkun magazine, which is in the Berkeley Hills. Before I left, I asked Tikkun to write me a letter saying I would do some reporting for them. And I took that to the press office in East Berlin, and it worked. I didn’t write a single thing. But it helped get me a multi-entry visa, although pretty quickly they stopped checking. I still have that passport: it was like eight pages of just the East, West, East, West, East, West stamps. I usually went through Friedrichstrasse, because you could change from the U-Bahn to the the S-Bahn. I remember writing about this in my journal at the time. At first, they checked. Then, the guy was there but he didn’t check. Then, the guy wasn’t there. Then, the construction you had to go through, the first barrier was gone. Then, the whole barrier was gone and you could just walk through. And then at some point they removed the guard booths. And for a long time you could see the imprint of the booth on the tiles of the floor. It was a melting away of the Wall.
When I first came, I had no place to stay. I just showed up at the airport. And for some reason I couldn’t find a hostel, so I called my Ultimate Frisbee friends. The Frisbee network hooked me up. I called up this guy named Georg Brown, and I said, “I’m a Frisbee player and I’m at the airport.”
You didn’t know these guys?
No! I just said, “I’m at the airport!” I was on the pay phone. And they ended up being really cool guys, so I stayed with them for probably a month. And then I found a room in a house, just around the corner from here. The guy was a lawyer with two kids. I think I paid 50 Western marks for the room. He was probably in his low 40s and worried about his future. He told me, “I studied law and I worked as a lawyer. Is this law going to continue to apply? Will I still be able to work?” I spent time with him. I don’t think he was a Party member, but he was in the “neighborhood watch” organzation – I think called the Stammgruppe. He certainly wasn’t a party official. But I went with him to the last symbolic meeting of his group, a let’s-say-goodbye kind of meeting. It was right in this neighborhood. We went to a bar, and everyone got plastered. I had to help him home, staggering drunk. This whole area had all the besetzte cafes, the occupied cafes, and he was fascinated by them. That’s why I liked him. He’d say, “Come on, let’s go check it out!”
I arrived in Germany the Saturday before the elections in the East. Do you remember the elections? Do you remember where you were and what you were doing?
I do, because I worked with a Western journalist whose name I forget, an American woman who was writing for, I think, the L.A. Times, and I was her translator. The night of the elections I was in the electoral commission’s headquarters. I think they were in the Palace of the Republic, which has now been torn down. There’s a controversy over that building being destroyed. It was the East German parliament, and it sat on Unter Den Linden.
It was an ugly building.
It was a big ugly building, although I’ve heard people say that it had its own special charm. It had this sort of brownish tinged glass exterior. A big boxy building. It had a couple of concert halls or theaters, it had a disco in the basement, and it was a culture center in East Germany. There was a heated debate about tearing it down, because it was a symbolic building, not just politically, but culturally. A lot of people were upset with it being torn down. Even I think it reeks of revanchism. Anyway, I think it was there where I was running around with the journalist. The highlight of the evening was interviewing the last East German leader Egon Krenz, who later got arrested, and I have photos of him on that night. She got mad at me. I’d never worked with a journalist who was on deadline. At some point it was so fascinating that I drifted off, and she caught some official who she needed to interview, and I wasn’t around. She was like, “You’ve got to stay with me!”
When the results came in, was it a surprise to you? The CDU getting so many votes, and Alliance 90 just squeaking into Parliament?
It was a surprise. It was a surprise only because of my naivety. I think anybody who was watching closely would have predicted that. I just wrongly and sweetly assumed that peace movements and green groups would seize the day, and that obviously wasn’t what was happening. The CDU played a smarter campaign too. They appealed to people’s patriotism, to security: themes that play well and did play well. Also, it was an outright rejection of what people had.
After Berlin, we rendezvoused in Prague.
You were going to Prague, and I thought it would be fun to hang out, be a sidekick. I loved it because you had a reason to be interviewing and talking with these people. But I had to get the visa.
I remember getting it at the very last minute. The embassy was closing, and I couldn’t find it. I finally ran up, and they wouldn’t let me in, and then I got in. This was a Friday, and we were supposed to meet on Sunday, it came down to a fraction of a second. And then I took the train down, and we met in front of Obecni Dom.
At that point, you were like, “I’ve had enough of Germany”? Or…
I wouldn’t say I was fed up with it, but I thought, “Let’s branch out.”
Did you think that Stanford and Berkeley were no longer interested in what was going on in Germany?
No, I don’t think so. I felt like they were satisfied. I wasn’t on a contract with them. I guess at that time I thought I would come back.
Well, you got hooked up in Prague within 12 minutes.
We went to the Helsinki Citizens Assembly on Panksa Street — through that courtyard, to the left, up the stairs, passed Majenka the octogenarian cleaning lady who was an institution there. We interviewed Ivan Fiala, who has since passed away. That place seemed like the most exciting organization I had ever seen. There were all these dissidents from the East and all these activists from the West. It was my world in one place. The office had Juliana Matrai and Dieter Esche, and Jan Kavan, all of them great characters. We walked out of there, and we walked down the steps one level, and you stopped to put your notebook in your bag. I was saying, “That’s great stuff, you know, I’d love to do some work for them.” And you said, “Why don’t you ask them? You should go ask them.” So I turned around and went back in and said to Ivan Fiala, “Listen, do you guys need any help? I’ll work for free. Could I be of assistance?” And he said, “Actually, we could use help. That would be great.”
And then within a day you got a job at an English teaching center.
And an apartment.
Because you had a contact for Misha, who was going to be at the same camp the following summer.
That’s right. Before I left Berlin, I was in the post office. I was mailing one of these packages to the university—actually two packages because I sent the universities the same stuff so I could get double payment — and at the post office they have the phones for overseas calls. You could give the person at the front desk the number and they would connect you. I called the director of the summer camp where I had been working and said, “Hey, I want to let you know, I’m not coming back this summer.” It was obvious that things were just too exciting. I wasn’t going to go back to Vermont for a summer camp. And for some reason I told him that I was going to Prague. I didn’t have to tell him that, but I was excited or whatever. “You’re going to Prague?” he said. “We have a counselor from Prague who’s coming this summer! Here’s Misha’s number.” So then in Prague, I found a pay phone. Now I remember exactly having to find coins for the phone. You probably set up half your interviews on those phones.
You had to figure out, first of all, what the coin was for the pay phones. In some cities you couldn’t find that coin: it was like they didn’t make them anymore! There was this constant mystery, “How did people get these coins?” It was like they saved them, for years, and then passed them on to each other.
Misha was a sweetheart, and she was leaving for Vermont, and she was living in her parents’ apartment. Her parents were working in a hospital outside of Prague. Her father was running the psych ward in this new hospital, so they lived on the grounds of the hospital, so the apartment was empty for the summer. She said, “Live in my apartment.” And she was teaching English in a private school, so they were always looking for young native speakers who could teach English. At that time, 1990, every Czech wanted to learn English.
And the tourists hadn’t arrived yet.
Exactly. Private schools were doing a booming business. I got a job teaching English right away. I worked at the HCA in the morning until 3 pm, and then I taught from 4 to 7, and that went through the summer. And then after the summer, HCA asked me to come on board.
How long did you ultimately work for the HCA?
About two years. It was 1990-92. I went to grad school in September 1992.
What were your responsibilities for HCA?
It was mostly administrative, although we were all involved in the discussions too. So it wasn’t strictly secretarial. One of the big things was English. I was the only native English speaker, so for the first year I was the main editor, polishing the English of the other staff. And then we started organizing the assemblies, these big international conferences, and that took a lot of legwork. Also, every country had its committee, so I was the liaison for the committees. That was my job. And it was a lot of work. Although some of the country committees were more active than others, and the ones that were active tended to be pretty self-sufficient. They weren’t relying on us for a whole lot.
What did you think was going to happen as a result of all this? There were some pretty big aspirations for HCA, back at that first assembly. Did you think Europe was going to be re-made?
I did. It was not a very sophisticated thought process, and it’s amusing to think back on those times now and what I didn’t understand. There were large chunks of it that were un- or under-appreciated by me. I felt like the spirit of the dissident movement was going to prevail, and for me, that was what the HCA was about. Maybe I couldn’t articulate what that meant in terms of policies, but it was something that I smelled more than tasted—if that’s the right distinction. I was enthralled with a group of people who would risk their wellbeing because they believed in something, and I hoped that this constructive passion for their countries and societies would permeate across Europe. It was that spirit that I found compelling.
But, as you said, there were some pretty significant disagreements.
It was surprising and disappointing for me to see these differences. On one level, it was wonderful because it was a rich intellectual debate. These characters were articulate and smart, and the discussions were enthralling for a young guy like me. But the differences at some point became very large. Especially the nationalism debate on Yugoslavia. It was the start of the Yugoslav debates when the language I heard people using didn’t resonate with me: a language of victimization or victimhood, a language of exclusivity, a language of aggression. The nationalists in the HCA of course weren’t organizing paramilitaries. But still, I felt confused by it. Now, I look back on it and understand it better. At the time, I felt like, “Wow, maybe this is going to be trickier than we thought.”
At any point, did anybody ever say to you, “Look, you’re just an American. You don’t really understand the situation over here”?
All the time, though perhaps less with me, because I was a young punk. I was an observer to this process more than a participant. But there was definitely that, “You don’t know what the Hungarian people have been through. Now is the time to reach back into the richness of our history.” And I could appreciate those arguments too. They aren’t without merit. And I did know enough about what life was like here — more than most Americans. And the Westerners at the HCA, they got it. Still, I found those discussions off-putting.
Were there any particular times during your HCA years when you thought, “This is amazing. I can’t believe I am here at this moment, with these people, talking about these things”?
When Vaclav Havel addressed the HCA here in the Prague, at the first assembly in 1990. That was an awesome moment for me. I held him in the highest regard.
Do you remember when we went up to see Havel be installed at the castle? It was so packed! We got three -quarters of the way and then we just said, “Forget it, this is insane.”
It was his first day in office. Or he was being sworn in.
We had no idea it was going to be like that. I don’t know what we thought, that it was just going to be like 15 people there?
Yeah, that they’d say, “Please, come on in!”
I also remember when George Bush, Sr. visited Prague. I was having these discussions with people all the time and saying, “Hold on!” Because there was a rapid and wholly accepting pro-Americanism in Prague. He got a hero’s welcome on Wenceslas Square, and I found that distasteful, the uncritical acceptance. It was like in Albania today, the only country in the world that has a statue of George W. Bush. Anyway, that was a common theme for me back then. I felt that there was not an appreciation for the nuance of the U.S. political and economic system.
But I also remember the individuals, people around whom I felt like I was in the presence of something powerful. I remember that about Jirina Siklova and Jaroslav Sabata. He was probably in his 60s, back then. He was a sort of elder statesman in the HCA. He definitely had gravitas. Jiri Dienstbier was already foreign minister, I think, so we didn’t see him much. I met him later in Kosovo, when he was a special rapporteur—for Yugoslavia. He was terrible at that job.
When you left, did you feel like you were leaving a going concern, or did you feel like HCA was on the decline at that point?
By the time I left, it was still moving but had also plateaued. Stephanie Baker and Yahya Said came onboard and they were both hard workers and smart people. There were some good projects, and some of the national committees were doing good work. But it slowly petered out.
Why did it peter out? Was it a matter of the times, or was it a matter of something within the organization?
A bit of both, but more the former. It was almost like the HCA was a victory party for all of the individuals and groups who had struggled on this issue. There was a natural and hopeful euphoria. But it was normal that this celebratory front would fissure, and the issues became more complex. Yugoslavia was the first big one, and that drew attention down to the Balkans, and then came the Caucuses. The issues and positions became so disparate that it became harder to stay together as an organization. All good institutions require powerful individuals, and the HCA’s powerful individuals were not in Prague: Mary Kaldor, Mient Jan Faber, Sonja Licht. They were spread all over and doing their own things. If they had been in Prague running the organization, it probably would have continued for a few more years, and maybe it would have found its direction, or a couple of directions.
After HCA, you did the Master’s at Columbia, and then…?
While in Prague I became aware of Helsinki Watch, and in particular, Jeri Laber. It caught my attention immediately as a New York-based group working on the issues that I was interested in. When I went to grad school, I went to Helsinki Watch—it was still called Helsinki Watch—and I did an internship. I helped a researcher on a report about violence against foreigners in Germany. Then I took the year off and went to Albania in 1993.
Under what auspices did you go to Albania in 1993? Open Society?
It was a summer project to help open a student newspaper at the university in Tirana. We got money from Columbia University. We raised a little money from something called the IMF, the International Media Fund, and we got some support from Soros. That’s how I met my friend, Fron Nahzi, because he was the director of the foundation’s Albania office at the time. We went to Tirana for the summer. The university let us in, gave us an office, and the IMF provided a couple Apple computers to train the students. And we got the first issue out. Then they shut us down two days after the first issue!
At the time, Albanian President Sali Berisha was proposing a media law, which was draconian or “not up to international standards,” as I might phrase it now. The students wrote an editorial that was against the new law. I asked a professor at the arts academy, a former political prisoner, if he knew a good, talented student because we should have some cartoons in this paper. There were no cartoons or drawings in Albanian papers at the time. He said, “I know this student, she’s really, really good.” We met her, me and at least one of the Albanian students, and we explained that we needed an editorial cartoon. We explained the press law. We said, “This law, they say it’s to help the press, but it’s really not good.” And she was like, “Mmhm, mmhm.” I walked away thinking, “This will be interesting.” She came back with an awesome cartoon. She cut three or four figures out of newsprint and had them in contorted positions. You could tell the arms and legs were cut from newspaper. Then she drew this huge boot stomping down on them. I said, “Wow, that’s good!” It was really well done, maybe not so subtle, but this law wasn’t subtle, and so we ran it.
So you think the editorial cartoon was what led to the newspaper being shut down.
It was a couple of things. It was the editorial. But the real issue was not the paper. The real issue was Fron Nahzi and the foundation, because the foundation was supporting the paper. It was a student newspaper with a circulation of 2,000. If we hadn’t had financing, the circulation would have been two people! If Berisha had ignored it, it would’ve done nothing. But Berisha was already furious at Fron, because Fron had started criticizing him and had become close with the people Berisha kicked out of the ruling party. So Berisha saw this as an opportunity to stick it to Fron. The paper was closed, and we were kicked out of the university.
I didn’t understand it was about Fron. We thought, “Hey, we came here to set up a newspaper and you just shut us down?” We went to the U.S. embassy and said, “This is IMF money, which is U.S. government money. This is nuts!” But the United States was backing Berisha 100 percent. And they said, “Just stay calm. Don’t make a big deal, let me look into it for you. These deans, you know how they do crazy things.” But we were so pissed off that we wrote a press release that condemned the shutting down of the newspaper. Of course the opposition newpaper loved it: “three American students got kicked out of the university.”. Then the evening news read a statement denouncing the Soros Foundation and Fron for meddling in university affairs. From there it escalated. Berisha wrote a letter to Soros, saying “Your guy has to go,” and he actually accused Fron of having ties to Serbian intelligence. I saw the exchange of letters. Soros was good on that one. He said, “Well, prove it. That’s a serious allegation.” Which they never did. But Fron was squeezed out. It was quite clear to me that Soros had to choose between his foundation and his director. And he chose. When the director left, so did the soul of the office.
What did you do for the rest of your time? You were supposed be running a student newspaper!
Fron was kicked out, but we thought, “Forget it, we want to stay.” It was only a summer project, but we decided to defer for a year. At the same time, Soros and Fron were just setting up s Media Center in Tirana, so they hired us. Soros came to Albania, met Berisha and then they hired us at this media center. We continued the student newspaper out of the media center. The media center was the only place in the country besides ATA, the Albanian Telegraphic Agency, and the government, that had the wire services. In 1993, no journalist had access to international news. They could only get Albanian media, and an occasional Italian newspaper, plus Euronews on TV. That was a huge issue. There was a war in Yugoslavia and monumental issues going on in their own country, and they could only read the bullshit party newspapers. So it was a fight to get the Soros Media Center up and running with the satellite dish. And then any journalist could come in and read the wires. It’s amazing to think about that time. Now, Albanians are all on Twitter.
I worked on that project for the year. Because I had interned at Helsinki Watch, I said to the organization, “I’m going to be in Albania for a while. If there’s anything I can do for you while I’m there, just let me know.” The woman who was Balkans researcher was completely obsessed with Bosnia. This was 1993. She had no time, so she welcomed anything I sent her. I was doing the media stuff and the media training, so I knew all the journalists and the editors, and I was on top of what was happening in the Albanian media. So I sent information for a press release on the media law and other attacks on journalists.
Then there was a HCA delegation to southern Albania to look at the status of the ethnic Greeks, which was an issue at that time. I set up their trip, and we went down there together. I went back and did a round of research on my own. When I got back to Columbia in 1994, I wrote a report about the ethnic Greeks of Albania for Helsinki Watch. They hadn’t promised anything. They said, “Write it and we’ll see.” But anyway, it worked out. So that was my first report: The Ethnic Greeks of Albania. Then they asked, “Can you do something else on Albania? Or Macedonia?” I became a consultant.
When I graduated from Columbia, Human Rights Watch asked if I could do some Roma work. That lasted for about two years, and I did a big report on Roma rights in the Czech Republic. The key issue was the citizenship law. The government there was basically trying to strip citizenship from Roma, and it would have made a lot of people stateless. We did a big report on that, and the Czech government backed down. It wasn’t just because of our work. There was a lot of pressure on them so they amended the law. After Roma work it was the pyramid schemes in Albania, then Kosovo in 1998 and 1999 and then Macedonia in 2000.
When you look at your professional trajectory, it’s remarkable: you were just in these places at the right times.
Like the Forest Gump of Eastern Europe.
There are probably pictures of you with Havel, Berisha, in all the major events in the region. Do you think back on just how remarkable all that was? I mean, you could have stayed in San Francisco and continued on as Santa.
I’m completely appreciative of it. That’s why I said, “I am a child of 1989.” I was lucky to have graduated from college in 1989. And by chance, I studied German. But I totally believe—and I hope to impart this to my children—that you have to jump at these opportunities. And I was lucky enough to have good options: once-in-a-lifetime-type historic options. I didn’t have to come to Germany. I didn’t have to go to Prague with you. I didn’t have to go to Albania. Each of those things was a decision.
Were there any decisions at this point that you regret you made?
I certainly had fuck-ups here and there, all over the place. But big decisions, no. I can’t imagine having done it really any other way. When I think back on the big issues, I remember how naïve I was and how much I didn’t understand. But that’s not a decision, that was my youth.
Are there any things that you have rethought from that period, any fundamental assumptions you had about politics, or about people, or about life, that you now have second thoughts about?
The one thing I’ve thought about, because it’s changed in me as well, is a better appreciation of people’s need for stability and security. I under-appreciated how tumultuous the transitions were in those days, like that lawyer in Berlin not knowing if he was going to be able to practice his own profession with a wife and two kids. I understood that at the time but I didn’t absorb it to the extent that it affected my politics. Nationalism is a similar emotion, a grasping onto something known and identifiable in the midst of chaos. And just the need to have a steady job and to provide for your family.
There are lessons in there for progressive politicians, or people who want to see more justice in society. You have to address those issues. When people don’t have a stable life, they fall back on some of our more aggressive or less kind tendencies. I understand it better, and I also appreciate it at the same time. I’ve seen the ugliness and how it leads to killing. I’ve seen that in all its horrible nastiness, but at the same time I sympathize with it more because it’s a fundamental need. It’s like lustration. I’m still firmly on the side of due process, but I’m more sympathetic now to those who feel the need for justice. In the end, my arguments on that are better, because my starting point is, “I get you. Let’s find a way to do it properly. But let’s do it, because those guys are monsters!”
Berlin, January 29, 2013
Helsinki Citizens Assembly (1990)
The Czechoslovak Peace Committee has, like many of its socialist brethren, been restructured. Unlike Poland’s or the GDR’s committees, however, the Czechoslovak organization seems to be truly independent. When I dropped by the offices on Panska street, I first met Juliana Matrai, a Hungarian activist now working with the Helsinki Citizens Assembly. She is fresh from the Hungarian elections where she led the Alliance of Young Democrats (FIDESZ) to a strong showing in Budapest. She told me that she had worked so hard during the campaign that after election night, she was hospitalized for three days. There, she said, she slept just like a baby.
Now she, Jaroslav Sabata, Jan Kavan, Mient Jan Faber, Dieter Esche and Ivan Fiala are putting together the first Citizens Assembly for October 19-21 in Prague. Sabata, now a member of Parliament, is busy and sick; Kavan, working at Civic Forum, is simply busy; Matrai was on her way to Holland. So I talked with Ivan Fiala.
The idea of the Assembly came out of discussions in Prague in 1988 at a meeting of activists East and West. Though the meeting was disrupted by the Czech police and the Western participants thrown out of the country, the group managed to draft a proposal calling for a “parliament from below.” These were independent activists designing the Prague ’88 conference in the spirit of Charter 77. The culmination of this process is the 1990 Prague Appeal: “Let Us Found a Helsinki Citizens Assembly.” The appeal states the problems: military blocs still function; nuclear and conventional weapons are still deployed; major differences exist in the standards of living East-West, North-South and within countries; environmental problems; threat of nationalism. The solutions to these problems should not simply be in the hands of the governments but should be continually pressed by citizens: “Let us therefore found a Helsinki Citizens Assembly as a permanent forum of the public at which peace and civic groups as well as individuals and institutions representing a broad spectrum of views can exchange experiences, discuss common concerns, and, where possible, formulate joint campaigns and strategies.”
Fiala talked about the different tendencies among the conference organizers. One group wanted the largest number of citizens represented, which meant a wide diversity of political views. Another group wanted to concentrate on traditional left concerns. Some of these latter issues, for instance an emphasis on the rights of sexual minorities, might alienate participants from conservative Poland, Fiala pointed out. Nevertheless, a working agenda has been formulated. There will be an opening plenary and then the political commission will present the question of how civil society will pave the way to broad European integration. Then there will be five working groups–demilitarization, civic society and political culture, ecology, minorities (ethnic, sexual), and federation vs. confederation. Finally, there will be a closing plenary. The conference will take place in the Municipal Hall in downtown Prague (this is a truly amazing building, perhaps the leading example of Art Nouveau architecture in the world; in the rooms on the second floor are murals done by Alfons Mucha among others and had not been open to the public for 50 years until August 1989–when I had the fortune to be in Prague to see them; the conference would be worthwhile simply to be able to see this building!).
Assembly organizers hope to establish national committees in each of the 35 countries of the Helsinki agreement. A major question, of course, is the relationship between the new Eastern European governments and this assembly. After all, many of the people who were the champions of civil society–of a non-governmental movement–are now in government: Michnik, Havel, Dienstbier, Ullman. On April 6, Dienstbier, now the Czechoslovak foreign minister, distributed to all 35 ambassadors a memorandum on European security that demonstrated that the Czech government would be advocating from above what the Citizens Assembly would be pushing from below. But, Fiala stressed, if Havel or Walesa or Dienstbier support the Assembly, they are doing so as private citizens, not as government representatives.
Turnout is expected at 800-900, or roughly 20-25 from each country. Ethnic minorities will also be represented–whether Gypsies, Bulgarian Turks or Lithuanians. [I suspect that 800 is a vastly underestimated figure–1500 might be closer to the truth–after all, the assembly is completely open to anyone who wants to attend and can pay the probably small conference fees]. The conference hall can accommodate 3000 people.
The hope is that the 1991 conference will be more detailed, that the working groups established in 1990 will put forward more concrete plans at this time. The Helsinki Citizens Assembly will be an international organization, with headquarters in Prague. It will not simply put forward positions that will be easy for governments to accept but rather, function like other non-governmental organizations. What about the dilemma faced by citizen movements in Eastern Europe, in which civic activists are fast becoming government politicians? On the one hand, he replied, you don’t want to leave the problems to the technocrats; on the other hand, you don’t want to keep the best qualified people out of government.
We then talked briefly about Czechoslovak issues. There are now four groups working out of the peace committee offices: the John Lennon peace club, the International Peace Association, Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament, Czechoslovak Peace Association. Several of these organizations work on the issue of alternative service to the draft. The issue of the Czech arms trade is a pressing one. At first, Havel announced that Czechoslovakia would cease all arms trade. Then, the government announced that it will fulfill treaties and then stop. But there is no talk of conversion going on at the moment. Workers earn more in the arms industry and are reluctant to lose these jobs.