Strangling Democracy

By VACLAV HAVEL, from Prague
Published: June 24, 2004
The New York Times

Last month the Czech Republic joined the European Union. Our country now has the same democratic principles and freedoms, brought here by the "velvet revolution" 15 years ago, as the community of nations that was built on the basis of respect for these values. This transition to democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, the outcome of a wider movement against totalitarianism, would never have succeeded without the support of a democratically minded world public.

Just five years after the changes that led to a new Europe, democracy made another huge step forward in South Africa. Under the leadership of Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk, the apartheid regime was defeated. Two months ago the world celebrated the 10th anniversary of South African democracy and South African democracy, like Czech and Slovak democracy, is of utmost importance to other countries of the region. The ideal of freedom must remain an inspiration and motivation for those fighting for human rights in Zimbabwe.

I can still remember vividly what it is like to live in a country where a party controlled by a politburo rules, where basic human rights and civil freedoms are trampled on, where public discourse is controlled by ideology that is expediently explained and applied by the chosen few. The state controls everything, even citizens' private lives. Opposition is suppressed or criminalized. Freedom of speech is seriously curtailed or nonexistent.

These feelings, however, do not exist merely in my memory. Much to my regret, they are a living reality in various parts of the world.

Zimbabwe's leaders know that the international community will cooperate with them only if they meet certain conditions. That is why they are trying to give the impression of democracy and thus escape international isolation, and why they distort the standard democratic mechanisms in order to create a semblance of citizens' participation. At the same time, they create legal instruments that violate human rights. Democratic institutions are partly controlled by the leadership, partly circumvented by it.

A report published this year by the International Crisis Group, an international nonprofit group that works to resolve conflict, showed that many opposition members of Parliament in Zimbabwe have been subject to murder attempts, torture, assault and arrest. In parliamentary elections, President Robert Mugabe nominates 20 percent of members, who then become parliamentarians without a democratic mandate. Elections are regularly accompanied by organized violence and intimidation. The independent judiciary, one of the pillars of democracy, has been severely compromised, with the benches packed with Mr. Mugabe's supporters.

A law adopted before the presidential elections in 2002 requires journalists to provide detailed information about themselves. If they do not, they will not receive a journalist license. The law, called the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, has been used to close Zimbabwe's only independent daily newspaper and to arrest people for "suspicion of journalism." The state now claims a virtual monopoly of written and broadcast media; foreign correspondents, meanwhile, are a thing of the past.

Another law restricts the freedom of association. The government in Zimbabwe has used this law, called the Public Order and Security Act, to stamp out any form of protest, to block practically any public activity of opposition groups. Under this law, women have been arrested for giving out flowers on Valentine's Day.

The Orwellian names of these laws are both chilling and relevant. Totalitarian regimes may differ in small details by the nature of their deviations, the degree of their representatives' contrivance, the degree of their cruelty and brutality but their nature is the same. And so is the manner of resisting such regimes.

Like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, I have been shocked and saddened to see the decline of the once prosperous and democratic country of Zimbabwe, where millions of people now depend on international food aid. The country, Mr. Tutu has said, is now a shadow of what it used to be. My hope for Zimbabwe is that one day it will drive away the shadows and return to the community of democratic nations.

Vaclav Havel was president of Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic from 1989 to 2003.