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Appointment in Prague

To the Editors:

Charter 77, the human rights movement in Czechoslovakia, has invited political scientists, historians and cultural figures from the United States and Europe to come to Prague for an unofficial symposium entitled “Czechoslovakia in the European Context, 1918–1988.” The invitation, signed by the Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, is for November 11–13.

The Prague meeting is part of a process that has been developing in Eastern Europe since 1985 when an independent cultural seminar was held in a private apartment in Budapest, attended by several hundred participants including cultural figures from Europe and the United States. Similar meetings have since taken place in Warsaw, Moscow, Lyublyana and Cracow, each tolerated with varying degrees of discomfort by the state authorities. The spirit of glasnost has infected a good part of Eastern Europe, encouraging private citizens to take matters into their own hands, to test and expand the limits of their freedom.

The importance of Western participation in such meetings cannot be overestimated, both for the infusion of new ideas and information that is so essential in such an interchange and because the presence of foreign participants, especially when such participants are of international stature, provides a source of protection in case the authorities are inclined to prevent a meeting from taking place.

The Prague meeting comes after an extraordinary meeting that took place in late August in a church near Cracow, Poland. More than 1,100 people showed up, including some 240 foreigners from places as far away as Chile and Guyana and as “forbidden” as Afghanistan, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the USSR. The authorities indulged in some petty harassments, but nevertheless allowed the meeting to proceed. And the entire city of Cracow seemed to rise to the occasion, providing hot lunches to more than 1,000 people each day, despite desperate food shortages and the absence of kitchen facilities in the church. Taxi drivers bringing foreign participants to the meeting refused to take payment. Beds were available in 500 private homes for those who could not find, or afford, hotel accommodations.

The Prague meeting scheduled for November has so far taken on a very different complexion, for the Czechoslovak government has less tolerance for independence and dissent than many of its neighbors in Eastern Europe. On two occasions in recent weeks the authorities have broken up meetings in Prague that were called to discuss plans for the seminar. The participants were warned to abandon their plans. Nevertheless, they intend to proceed.

The organizers of the Prague seminar are counting on Western participation and are urging writers and cultural figures to come to Prague in November. We will be happy to provide further information to anyone who is interested.

Jeri Laber

Executive Director

Helsinki Watch

36 West 44th Street

New York, New York 10036

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