Robert De Gendt (Belgian activist), 1990

Robert De Gendt, of the Flemish peace movement
Interview in Prague, October 22, 1990
Interviewer — Metta Spencer

De G: I was involved in IPCC from the very beginning.

Spencer: I need some history of the peace movement in Belgium during the 1980s.

DeG: There was in Belgium, already before those missile affairs came in, a good coordination of the organizations of peace, disarmament, human rights, Third World problems. In the Flemish part of our country, most people were stamped with the Third World problems and because they realized that we can only help our sisters and brothers in those countries, only if we have a reduction in the arms race. That was understood from the beginning.

In Belgium, two coordination bodies in Flanders and two in Wallonia. One was called the Concertation of Peace, OCV, another in Flanders is Vlakard [?], Flemish Committee Against Nuclear Weapons. And on the French side you have the National Committee for Peace and Development and the CPD, Concertation for Peace and Development. Those organizations have no members but do coordinate a lot of organizations. At the time we had about 44 — the trade unions, political parties, women’s organizations, church organizations (like Pax Christi, very important in Flanders). And that made the coordination body. In the past we noticed that typical peace organizations’ impact on public opinion was too weak. We tried to constitute the Concertation body for peace and to have in it all those other kinds of organizations that have other purposes — trade unions, etc. We thought, they might be able to do more for peace than straight “peace” organization. Using such channels it was much better for the commitment to peace. That went on, but not so strong in Wallonie as in Flanders. The peace movement in Belgium was strongly stimulated by the Flemish peace movement during those years. The campaign against the missiles was important in the Flemish part. In Wallonie there was a reason. Flanders is strongly Catholic, while Wallonie is strongly for the socialists. And with the commitment of a lot —20, 30—of Catholic organizations. The Wallonie could not get the same impact as the Flemish. For the big demonstrations in Brussels, and we had six, 80 percent were Flemish people.

Spencer: Do you tie that to the reasons why the peace movement in France has not been strong?

DeG: No, it is a Belgian phenomenon. In the past, demonstrations, actions and so on, the leading group was always Wallonie — social problems, trade unions, and so on — they are very combative, but for peace, it was more complicated. Socialist Parties at the time were against missiles, but not in the same way as in Flanders. Also, the socialist party in Flanders was much stronger in its commitment against those missiles, but not mobilizing their membership. Second, those Third World developments were always much stronger developed in the Flemish than in the Walloon part of the country. But in Flanders, that link with development had always existed more than in the Walloon side.

The International Committee for European Security and Cooperation started in Belgium. Belgians were the stimulants to the growth of this organization. Christians, socialists, etc coming together. That is the organization that you came to, and it is still coming. We will organize the 2nd and 3rd of November a new seminar in Paris explaining our point of view before the summit [CSCE] starts. We still believe that we have always to be before the officials. Always, during each meeting of the CSCE, we were always accompanying the process, being there with the mission, going to see the head of the delegations, etc. That is the organization that I worked with most closely. It was a challenge for us at first, for Catholic workers (of which I was national president) to participate in an initiative with communists. That was not easily accepted. Many of us were presented as crypto-communists. But we did talk, and it never stopped, even when it was from time to time very difficult. We talked about human rights.

When we proposed the first time to have a commission on human rights, the time was not ripe for them to accept it. I had to contact them, each time, to say, “When can we start on human rights?” And then after 6-7 years, they agreed that we could start a commission on human rights. The man they sent to us was Feodor Burlatsky. And that was very important because Burlatsky afterwards became advisor of Gorbachev on all that had to do with human rights policy in the Soviet Union itself. He became, in the Soviet Committee for European Security, the president of their committee on European Security and Cooperation. And at the time of Brezhnev, he organized the first meeting in the Soviet Union on human rights for the first time. Very openly about certain failures of their own about human rights policy. That would have been about 1983-84.

Spencer: That early? They weren’t all talking that way about human rights that early. It seems to me it was 85 or 86 before they did.

DeG: There was a conference organized by Mient Jan Faber of the Netherlands. Mrs. Carter was there. She came to our conference. The wife of Giscard of France was there. And Burlatsky was there. It was the time that he presented the view on the necessity of changes in the Soviet Union. It was in the Brezhnev period. He was very courageous, that man. It was not easy to talk about those matters in that period. They always used to think we were influenced by the CIA if we cared about human rights. We said, you have one of the most beautiful constitutions in the whole world, but you don’t practice it. You need to change many laws to assure people’s rights.

Spencer: Do you still have minutes of those meetings?

DeG: Certainly, in the secretariat. You give me your address and I will send it to you. We must have the text of the first meeting with the Soviets with Burlatsky.

Spencer: Do you think that’s the first time the Soviets made a gesture?

DeG: Yes. But before the conference in Holland, we had already seen signs of their “softening up” in private conversations. We had the first meeting in 81 or 82 of all those from East and West to talk about it. It might even have been 1980. The first document is from that time. International Committee for European Security and Cooperation.

This organization still continues now, but it has tremendous difficulties because of the change in the Eastern countries. We don’t have committees from the Eastern countries, except for the Soviet Union, which is still existing. Because the Party is no longer there, all the dependencies of the party — associations, committees — disappeared. And we must try again to bring small groups together to start against with new committees based on the new situation. It will be a different type of organization. And because of our financial problem (we are not supported by the state) committees were rather small and had no money at all. The secretariat got contributions from Eastern countries. We again now have to find money because over there they have no more money. We started, nearly a year ago, to create a foundation in Belgium, Europas Pacis Magna. We have to found a movement, so we have nearly all the presidents of political parties as members of that organization, all important big enterprises, managers, banks, and so on. The social world — women’s movement, religious, peace movements, human rights movements. They pay 100,00 Belgian francs. And that foundation has mandates for security. They are working out a lot of activities. We will organize a big seminar on minorities, ecological problems. We can give some elements on how to resolve living together. It was very difficult in Belgium, and we found solutions without bloodshed. We want to reach a real pan-Europe.

Spencer: When I saw you, the missiles had not gone in, and there was a presidential election which turned on the missiles. Can you refresh my memory?

DeG: That was ’85. We went as a Belgian committee on European Security and Cooperation to Moscow to talk at a high level. Gromyko was not there at the time, normally we would have talked to him. It was election period so he was in his district. We had to talk to Zagladin, the number two in the department of the party on foreign affairs. He had a mandate from a high level. And they agreed that, if Belgium and Holland (they took us together) do not deploy missiles, then they would do a very clear gesture on our side, diminishing SS20s. But they could not just do it with the peace movement; this is a state affair. So they requested us to tell our Prime Minister that he should make contacts with them on that matter and that, when that contact occurs, there would be a big possibility that neither in Belgium nor in Holland should the missiles be deployed and they should have done a very clear gesture. Of course, when we came back from that mission, we were strongly attacked by the minister of foreign affairs, Tinemans, “They are mixing into diplomacy!” and so on. And then because Belgium did not accept to contact Moscow to discuss these matters, the proposal was lost.

Spencer: Was this to be kept private?

DeG: All except for certain agreements which made to our Prime Minister. We could only stimulate certain things, but it is the politicians who have to act.

Spencer: Were you able to use that politically later on? If they screwed it up that way, I would have thought that you could trounce them in the election.

DeG: That was a big problem as well, but we solved it. The peace movement from the very beginning stated that we are a peace movement, not a political party. And if the political parties participate, they may not use the peace movement for electoral reasons. They accepted that and were very loyal. One famous example: at a certain moment, we prepared a demonstration in Brussels. Suddenly, finished with the government. A lot of people said, let’s organize demonstrations before the elections. But we said, if we do this, we are playing the part of the opposition parties. And we will be known in the future as a peace movement inside this or that party, and we will have to struggle for many years to overcome that. Even political parties in opposition, which normally would have supported them, they understood. I know that afterwards, the first President said, Yes, I respect the peace movement. But after all, there were elections. [… unclear here — leaving some out].

And because of that, we are still existing, without exaggerating, as the strongest coordination of the peace movement.

Spencer: Were you able to get the support of all parties?

DeG: No, not the government party. They would have been hitting their own nose that way. The Belgian government at that time had to decide whether to deploy or not. It was a long discussion because they were not sure. After certain information they got about the financial matters played informally by the United States at that moment, they decided, okay, we deploy. And they deployed the missiles on Saturday just before we organized a new demonstration in Brussels. So we had the protest demonstration the day afterward. There was fear of violence at that time. We even requested that parliament should liquidate that government.

Spencer: There was an election and that government was re-elected, no?

DeG: Yes, nearly the same. The Prime Minster was (and still is) [Wilfried] Martens from the Christian Democrats.

Spencer: Who were some of the main activists in the Belgian movement at that time?

DeG: The President of VAKA was André Gobart????. I was president of OCV — Concertation for Peace. Pierre Gallant [?] was president of CPD, French-speaking movement. And Albert ______, De Dubet [?] was president of CNAPD, French speaking. And meanwhile came a fusion between VAKA and OCV. It will be called, Flemish Peace cupola.

Spencer: Were these groups always able to work together?

DeG: It is such a pluralistic movement that were sometimes problems. Left-wingers, Trotskyists, communists, Christians, liberals, all kinds, regularly around the same table. We always tried to have consensus, but sometimes we had abstentions. The complications arose when we started the fusion. At that moment, they didn’t like the new structures, so some of them made their own coordination. But talks are going on even now, so I hope that next year we will have a single group.

Spencer: On your trips to the Soviet Union, do you remember which officials you met?

DeG: On the Soviet Committee on Security and Cooperation, I can say without exaggerating that perestroika was strongly present in certain parts of the committee without always speaking openly about it. Sustaining many things we liked to do. They had a little bit of freedom to do things that the Peace Committee could not do. The Peace Committee at that time was not allowed to do the same thing. For instance, when we tried to come to that Soviet gesture for the missiles, it would never have been possible for the Soviet Peace Committee to sponsored that. After many years, there was a certain climate, a certain framework, where people came together and took over new ideas of how to cooperate. We had to contest them from time to time, like Afghanistan. We said: we cannot accept this! And some of them said personally that it was not a good thing for them.

Spencer: Who were those people on that committee?

DeG: The most important people were those in the secretariat, where they were working. Vice President, Selin [?]. Then were strongly sustained in our perspectives with frank discussions on human rights affairs, certainly by Zagladin.

Spencer: What has happened to him?

DeG: Oh, he is a counsellor to Gorbachev for European affairs. He is no more in the Party. … [changed tape here]

At the beginning of the initiative, when we organized a meeting, they always came from Moscow with prepared texts to be adopted. So we regularly had all the communiqués and appeals and the stuff like the World Peace Council was used to doing. They didn’t know how you could do it otherwise; they had their customs. And then it was about the 3rd or 4th year, already, I said, we have to finish that. Humorously during a secretariat meeting I told them, “When we come we speak always about dialogues, but you are only making monologues. Let’s go to real dialogue.” A little bit laughing (they were not used to such a sense of humor of course) I said, “Well, we will prepare a stamp, and on that stamp will be written, ‘He said it.’ You come with your texts, we’ll put that stamp on it, and then you can put aside the papers and start talking.” They could laugh a little about it and after that, they never came back with texts. That was a new view. And afterwards, three or four years ago, we said, “It could be useful this time to prepare a text.” They said, “Texts? But what is the meaning of a text?”

This is just to say that processes are going slowly, but after a period you come to new habits than before. All such things were approved by a man like Zagladin and others who said, “We cannot do things in the old style.” I can easily tell you that after years, you start to know others very personally, start a friendship. I never mention names, but rather high-ranking Party people told me, “Well, I don’t want to say that Brezhnev should die, but he stays years too long.” They liked to say, “Please let’s be finished with all those gerontocrats. We need new blood, new thinking, new people. That was in the air. And when Gorbachev could come, it was because in certain circles the air had changed. And they were very unhappy when, after Andropov — that could have been the beginning of something else — Chernenko was chosen they said, “Ohhhh! [a groan] What did they do? Chernenko!” But Gorbachev, from the very beginning, at that time, that perestroika idea, that glasnost idea, they _______ that style easily. They were not all jukeboxes. When Brezhnev is there, you speak Brezhnev. When Gorbachev is there you speak Gorbachev. No! They came to have their own ideas, to criticize him. As far as I am concerned, that helped quite us a lot. In Western European and Belgian context, it is important to notice also that, even historically, that was the beginning of an open debate on foreign policy, peace policy, disarmament policy, started thanks to the activities of the peace movement. That was the beginning of the new style that not only a small club (Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Defence, Head of Staff) were dealing with those problems, but regularly parliamentary commission on foreign affairs, parliament on important moments, discussed for the first time foreign affairs, with much more response on the mass media also. And still that is continuing. In my country, and important problem of foreign affairs is no more the affair of a small club. They will take it into account and say, “Oh, oh, oh. Take care! They have their opinions. We have to inform them. We have to talk.”

And regularly, we will talk with the Prime Minister, with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, with the Presidents of the parties. That goes on regularly. They are very respectful to us. No more as years ago, when from time to time we have five minutes talk with them. Now it’s content! On activities, on views, on perspectives. There is a beginning. Democracy needs structures of participation. Not only political parties. You need to set up a network of regular talks with representatives of public opinion. And we have such structures already in our democracy. We have them for trade unions. Cultural organizations. For family affairs. There you find already in the state structure, opportunities where people belonging to public opinion forces are talking, giving suggestions. It’s up to them afterwards to change it or put it aside.

Spencer: Do your politicians realize that you had ongoing and fairly significant relationships with Soviet people?

DeG: Oh, yes! Yes. That was played on very openly by some of them. They called us “crypto-Communists.” But by others it was not the case. After all, when I was in the Christian workers’ movement, if you talked to some people, you became a cryptoCommunist. But the people who knew me laughed and said, “Oh yeah! It is not right-wing people who have to tell us that he is a crypto-Communist. He is honestly fighting for peace, please let him do it.” For many of them there was a strong support. Even Harmel, Pierre Harmel, Foreign Minister. In Reykjavik he started with the detente policy in ’68 at NATO.

Spencer: ’86.

De Gendt: No, no. ’68. The Reykjavik Appeal. At the time of the Prague Spring. It was decided and retained in NATO the report of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Pierre Harmel. Quite a number of people now are talking about that famous step he took forward toward detente, and trying to find ways of cooperation in a time when it was very difficult.

Spencer: So you were already active in peace in ’68?

De Gendt. Even before. It started very early with the Stockholm Appeal against nuclear weapons in the fifties. And then there was the first set-up in the very beginning of the sixties. A rather small one, also with demonstrations. And then later on in ’75, OCV was constituted. But the Committee on European Security stated in ’68. We were the first to come together to say, Can we not make a certain initiative with public opinion belonging to East and West coming together?

Spencer: Do you have any other stories like the one about going to Moscow and getting this message to bring home?

De Gendt: If you look at honestly the very beginning, contrary to the NATO side, what Gorbachev stated and wrote in Perestroika, his book, he was strongly impressed in his attitudes by Chernobyl, scientists who told him, You are destroying this world. In another 5-10 years if you continue with the arms race. And he stated very clearly, thanks to the tremendous efforts of the peace movement in the West. It is in his book! On the other side you have not many similar things. For me, one of the most important — and he did not write that down to congratulate anyone. I am convinced it came because of the information he got from the peace movement. He was not a member of the peace movement, but around him people such as Zagladin have certainly told him, “Oh, Oh, Oh! Thanks to the peace movement!” Of course, it’s not the best example. I would prefer that our prime Minister said it, but that was not allowed by NATO. NATO said that “We took the strength position. We knocked them down! We were the beginners of disarmament!” And so on.

Spencer: Do you remember any conversation about that issue? Their comments about the claims of NaTO that they were forcing them to the bargaining table.

De Gendt: And then at a certain moment Gorbachev said, “Let them do what they like.” He told us, the people of the peace movement, once when we had a contact with him, he stated, “We will liberate you from your enemies!”

Spencer: He said that in your presence?

De Gendt: Yeah, yeah!

Spencer: “We are going to take your enemy away from you!”

De Gendt: Yeah, yeah. Just to show we don’t need so much armament. Afterwards it was stated many times that both sides have much too much.

Spencer: Did you have contact with Eastern European dissidents?

De Gendt: Regularly. And I played that game very openly. Whenever I went to an Eastern country I contacted them very openly. I called them always “critical” — not “dissidents.” I told them: Lenin was a good fellow and he said, ”You have to be critical.” As long as you are working for peace. And when I went to Czechoslovakia I visited Charta 77. When I went to Hungary I visited Dialogue.

When I went to Moscow, I visited that Sabatka couple[?], she and her husband were one of the small group. I need my notes, I can’t remember their names. There was a new confidence in Moscow. It was a changing period. Gorbachev was already there. It might be ’88 or something like that. And then I pledged to invite the woman I am speaking about to come in to assist. And I went to the Party building to find a high-ranking fellow. And I said at the very beginning of the conference, “Why are they not here? This is for people working for peace!’ There was already a new president! It was organized by the Soviet Peace Committee: Borovik. He was a much more open man. I felt that it might still be too difficult to invite yet. I said, “Why not? What do you have against them?”

And then, for the first time with the Western peace movement, there was the beginning of an opening. They came! That was the first time and that woman addressed them strongly, in an unusual way. She was wondering, I think, whether she would go to jail for it. Their face was not the best, that was clear. It looked a little bit like a sour apple. [I think he is referring to the time that Olga Medvedkova addressed the meeting and evoked a strong outburst.]

Always I did such things very openly. In meetings in Prague, very often I was always repeating: Why don’t you dialogue with them? I said, I do what I do because of my Catholic faith. That is the most important thing in me. So you have to understand that I like to meet people very openly and I hope you give the same opportunity to the people here as I do in my country. Please, do it!

Then the Romanians, who were not so strongly participating in our committee. At the time, they were favorites in our country. And their contribution during the meeting was always strongly critical.

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books