On 21 August 2020 the Prague office of Heinrich Böll Stiftung celebrates its 30th anniversary. As the first office of the foundation abroad, it both witnessed and provided support for the long transition of Czechoslovakia, and later the Czech Republic, from the Velvet Revolution through the economic transformation of the 1990’s to Czech membership in the EU and beyond. Also covering activities in Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia, the unique experience and institutional memory of the Prague Office of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung continues to provide valuable support for environmentalism, democracy, and human rights in Central Europe.
“The idea to start activities in Czechoslovakia was already there before the Velvet Revolution,” says Milan Horáček, one of the founders of the German Green Party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) and the first director of the Prague office. “There had been ongoing cooperation with local dissidents at least since 1986, when I travelled to meet them for the first time. It soon became clear that if a revolution were to break out, there would be a new foundation office in Prague. The city was also important for us because of Heinrich Böll, who always supported local writers and other persecuted individuals,” Horáček says of the first steps towards the establishment of the new office.
Finally, on 21 August 1990 (the symbolic day of the 22nd anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968), the office was opened and immediately started to provide support for the burgeoning civil society in the country. The close relations between the foundation and the new government also helped to quickly integrate the office into local political and social life - for example, its new offices were immediately provided by a local firefighters’ organization in their headquarters.
During the 1990s, the Prague office focused not just on democratic transition, but also on the issues of sustainable agriculture and organic farming, on the prevention of sex trafficking, and on support for a renewed, independent culture sector. Either through the foundation’s own projects or through various partnerships, large funds were successfully invested into the development of the nascent Czech NGO sector, and a solar-powered house with an organic garden in Prague’s Barrandov district became one of the foundation’s most visible undertakings of that time.
Towards EU membership and beyond
“Thanks to many years of work and to Milan’s contacts throughout the region, the office was incredibly well-networked and set up. When I took over the management, we were still working in the solar eco pavilion with an exhibition on energy and water saving. Even then, the focus of the work was democracy and human rights, the environment, especially ecological agriculture and renewable energies, and the future of Europe. Another particular focus was, among other matters, on German-Czech and Czech-Slovak relations. Many activities took place in a regional context with the participation of experts from the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary,” explains Eva van de Rakt, who led the Prague office between 2004 and 2018 and currently serves as the Head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation's European Union Office in Brussels.
The year 2004 also marked an important step for the entire country, which joined the EU after years of negotiations. The democratic transition of the whole region went into a new phase, and so the Prague office changed its approach and some of its priorities. “It would be presumptuous to say that our work influenced the Czech Republic's accession to the EU. But I think that the years of activities leading up to accession contributed to a not insignificant strengthening of pro-European voices. The referendum on joining the EU was clear: 77.3 percent voted in 2003, with a turnout of around 55 percent. Such approval seems a long way off today,” says van de Rakt.
Gender equality and the issues of clean energy and decarbonisation of the economy became quite prominent, and as the climate crisis gathered pace, sustainable urbanism and the social and gender aspects of climate mitigation were analysed and dealt with through various workshops, conferences and publications. The office also continued its support of independent cultural activities such as the One World International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in Prague or the International Documentary Film Festival in Jihlava.
“What has changed over the years are our partner structures and the needs of civil society organizations in general. In the 1990s, it was about setting up non-governmental organizations, which we also supported institutionally at the beginning. A decade later, of course, civil society was organized differently and was much more pluralistic. Since then, our main task has been to provide intensive, content-related cooperation and advice in the context of joint projects and the European networking of our partner organizations,” adds van de Rakt.
As the political situation in the region becomes more volatile, more and more capacities have to be dedicated to the sector of foreign affairs, security and human rights, especially in regard to the developments in Hungary. In 2019, Nino Lejava, who previously served as the Head of the foundation’s South Caucasus Regional Office, became the new director of the Prague office and has continued to create synergies and solidarity spaces in cooperation with partners from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Croatia and to promote exchange with actors outside the region.
“In comparison to the first two decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, which were much more optimistic about future liberties and prospects for the nations of Central Europe, nowadays, everybody has to take a much more sober view of the future. Globally, we are confronted with climate change and the rise of inequalities. Locally, after the enthusiastic nineties and a period of essential enlargement of the European Union, we are observing emerging negative trends such as euroscepticism, nationalism, erosion of the institutions of the rule of law, political apathy, and also the hybrid war in Eastern Europe,” explains Lejava.
“Nowadays, Europewide, we are observing the rollback of achievements in the field of gender democracy. Parliaments refuse to ratify the Istanbul Convention, gender studies at universities are under threat, and feminists and LGBTQ+ activists are under pressure. Therefore, in the areas where women are underrepresented, we will endeavour to build up this specialist expertise, also by supporting their family needs when they are carrying out their activities. We want to pay more attention to intersectionality wherever possible. In the Energy and Climate Policy program, we actively promote a young generation of female experts, as they are underrepresented in this area. The women's network in the field of sustainability and climate policy, which was initiated in 2019 and consolidated in 2020, is to be further strengthened next year. We also intend to focus more on helping our project partners explicitly formulate gender-specific issues within our cooperation framework,” says Lejava about some of the office’s plans for 2021, which had to be partially reshaped due to the effects of COVID-19 pandemic.
“Given the asymmetrical problems in the region and the limited options for action under the pandemic conditions, we will include country-specific projects and promote initiatives with regional approaches. The great mistrust towards the state and the rule of law in the V4 countries on the one hand, and the lack of understanding about EU procedures, on the other, complicate the debate about possible ways out of corruption, which in the long term run very deep with political representation in the region and the discussion about how a future-oriented democracy should work. Therefore, we would like to enrich the debate about possible solutions from the perspective of local societies, and also promote European dialogue on the rule of law by doing so,” adds Lejava regarding the new challenges that keep increasing due to the illiberal tendencies of regional governments and the impacts of the current economic crisis.
As the first and longest-functioning office of the Heinrich Böll foundation abroad, the Prague office still strives to develop and expand its activities according to the ever-changing situations on the ground, and proving thereby that the values of freedom, civic courage, tolerance and open debate cannot be ever taken for granted and must be continually fought for in cooperation with all willing partners.