Czechoslovak minister who cut through Iron Curtain dies

Jiří Dienstbier, the first post-communist foreign minister of Czechoslovakia, died on 8 January 2011 at the age of 73 years after a long illness, said the Czech Press Agency.

Dienstbier (born 1937) directed the foreign policy of Czechoslovakia in the all-important period of 1989-1992 – the years when the Cold War ended, the Iron Curtain fell, Germany reunified, the Warsaw Pact dissolved and the USSR desintegrated.

A photo of Dienstbier and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who was Germany’s foreign minister at the time, cutting a fence on the border between Czechoslovakia and West Germany, was seen all over the world and became a symbol of the collapse of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe.

“With the death of Jiří Dienstbier, I lost a great friend. Not only the Czech Republic, but all Europe is affected,” Hans-Dietrich Genscher said to “Jiří Dienstbier dedicated his life to the freedom of his nation. He was a devoted European. He contributed to the understanding between Germans and Czechs,” added Genscher, whose comment was mediated by Hans-Jörg Schmidt, a correspondent for the German daily Die Welt in Prague.

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In the 1970s and 1980s, Dienstbier was one of the most important critics of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. He was among the first to sign the Charter 77, in 1979-1985 he was a spokesman of the civic initiative.

For his anti-regime activities, Dienstbier was imprisoned together with other dissidents such as Václav Havel, who became the president after the regime fell, or Petr Uhl. Dienstbier spent three years in prison.

Dienstbier became the foreign minister of Czechoslovakia in 10 December 1989, in the transition government of “national understanding”, representing the pro-democratic Civic Forum (Občanské fórum). He had the same post in a new government that emerged from the first free elections in June 1990.

As the minister, Dienstbier negotiated the departure of Soviet troops from Czechoslovakia, stationed in the country in the aftermath of the invasion in 1968, and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact.

In 1998-2001, he was a special rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights in the former Yugoslavia.

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He returned to the national politics in 2008 when he was elected Senator for his native city, Kladno, Central Bohemia. In the upper chamber of the Czech parliament, he was the chairman of the Foreign Affairs, Defense and Security Committee. In this post, Dienstbier participated in delegation to Afghanistan led by Defense Minister Alexandr Vondra and Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg in November 2010.

Current Foreign Affairs Minister Schwarzenberg said that at the time of the delegation, he already worried about Dienstbier’s health.

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