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Czech Republic: President Vaclav Havel Makes State Of The Nation Speech


Prague, 10 December 1997 (RFE/RL) - Verbatim of the address by Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel to a joint session of the Czech Parliament in Prague December 9, 1997:

Ladies and Gentlemen Senators, Ladies and Gentlemen Members of Parliament, esteemed government:

With a certain degree of simplification it may be said that the life of our society, as is the case with the life of any society in whatever circumstances, has two sides, one of these albeit naturally appearing through the other. The first side is what people pay the greatest attention to: they go to work, with a greater or lesser degree of success, they do business, they get married or divorced, they have children or they do not, they associate in various ways, they take foreign holidays, they read books and watch television, and those who are younger than most of us go to discos. I think that in spite of everything this everyday life is much better and more vibrant than in the times when virtually nothing was permitted and almost everyone was afraid to say out loud what they thought.

The life of our society does, however, have another side to it, which might be termed the attitude of citizens to their own state, the social system, the atmosphere of public life, and to politics. It seems to me that it is our duty to deal primarily with this second side, to discover why it is now so gloomy and to think about how it could be brightened up at least a little as soon as possible.

The situation at present is truly a mournful one. Many people -- and this is confirmed by public opinion polls -- are disconcerted, disappointed, or even disgusted by the general state of society in this country. Many people believe that, democracy or no democracy, the people in power are again people who cannot be trusted and who are more concerned about helping themselves than about the greater good. Many people are convinced that honest business people are faring badly, while fraudsters after a fast buck have free rein. There is a prevailing belief that in this country it is worthwhile to lie and steal, that many politicians and state officials are corrupt, and that political parties -- despite their fine words about their honorable intentions -- are secretly manipulated by suspect financial groupings.

Many people wonder why, after eight years of building a market economy, our economy is in such a shabby state that the government has to put together in a hurry various austerity packages, why we are asphyxiated by smog when so much is allegedly being spent on environmental causes, why the price of everything, including rents and energy, has to go up when pensions and other social payments are failing to rise in proportion, why we have to be afraid to walk through our town centers at night, why virtually nothing is being built other than banks, hotels, and villas for the rich, and so on, and so forth, ad infinitum.

In short, more and more people are fed up with politics as a whole, which they naturally and rightly see as responsible for all these bad things, and all of us -- regardless of the fact that they voted for us in free elections -- gradually seem suspicious to them, if not downright nasty. You need not be afraid that I will undertake here a comprehensive sociological analysis of these warning occurrences. I will simply mention two causes, or rather sets of causes, of this situation.

The first of them is what I would call the historical cause. It is, in fact, the Czech version of a phenomenon that has made itself felt, in different forms and with differing intensity, in all the countries that rid themselves of communism. We may perhaps call it postcommunist morass. Something like that was bound to come -- every person of sound judgment must have known that. Hardly anybody, however, foresaw how deep, serious, and protracted it would be.

The collapse of communism also brought down, virtually overnight, a whole structure of values that had been kept in existence for several decades, and with it the way of life based on that construction. The time of certainties -- that were limited and dull, even suicidal to society, but still represented a certainty of a kind -- was suddenly replaced by a time of freedom. Given the previous experience, it was inevitable that many took this new freedom to be boundless. The new life, which held dozens of temptations, also made entirely new demands on individual responsibility -- in a measure that many find hard to bear. I have compared this strange state of mind to a post-prison psychosis experienced by those who -- after having been constrained for years to a narrow corridor of strict and detailed rules -- suddenly find themselves in an expanse of freedom that is strange to them. The new condition makes them believe that everything is permitted; at the same time, however, it thrusts upon them the tremendous burden of having to make their own decisions, and accept responsibility for those decisions.

It is my firm belief and hope that the young generation -- those who grew up after the fall of communism -- will not be affected by this terrible postcommunist syndrome, and I am looking forward to the time when these people take over the administration of public affairs. That time has not yet come; we are still living in a situation which makes us wonder how long it will take society to adapt to the new, more natural conditions of life, and how deeply the totalitarian era affected our souls.

However, it would not be honest to ascribe all blame -- in the way that was so well known to the Marxists -- to some blind laws of history. A no less important, or maybe an even more important, role is played here by the second set of causes -- by that which we have caused ourselves. Saying we, I refer to the whole body of post- November (1989) politicians, and particularly to political representatives of the independent Czech Republic; that is, all of us who have had an influence on the fate of this country in the past five years. I intentionally refrain from making distinctions according to the measure of responsibility or guilt, although it is clear that some deserve more blame than others. But that is not the point now. First of all, it is necessary to identify our faults.

It appears to me that our biggest mistake was our pride. Thanks to the fact that since November 1989 the transformation processes in our country have been running more or less continuously and that they have not been adversely affected by great political changes, we were really, in some aspects, ahead of the others. Or so it seemed to us. That probably went to our head. We behaved like a spoilt only child in a family, or like the top of the class who believes he can give himself an air of superiority and be everyone else's teacher.

Oddly enough, this pride was combined with a kind of provincialism or parochialism. For example, we have ruined the close political cooperation with our most immediate neighbors, that is with the Visegrad group countries, because we thought we were better than them. Today, as we are being invited to join European structures and as they, conversely, are ahead of us in many things, we must make every effort to revive this cooperation.

Many of us ridiculed all those who spoke about global responsibility in the interconnected civilization of today's world, and maintained that a tiny country like our own should deal only with our tiny Czech problems. Now, we must go to great lengths to make it clear to our own citizens that we can be granted security guarantees only when we are prepared to take our share of responsibility for Europe and the world, and to convince the North Atlantic alliance that we are aware of that.

Fascinated by our macroeconomics data, we disregarded the fact that this data, sooner or later, also reveals what lies beyond the macroeconomics or technocratic perception of the world: things that constitute the only imaginable environment for any economic advancement, although their weight or significance cannot be calculated by accountants -- things like rules of the game; the rule of law; the moral order behind that system of rules, that is essential for making the rules work; a climate of social coexistence.

The declared ideal of success and profit was turned to ridicule because we allowed a situation in which the biggest success could be achieved by the most immoral, and the biggest profits could go to unpunishable thieves. Paradoxically, the cloak of liberalism without adjectives, which regarded many things as leftist aberrations, concealed the Marxist conception about a fundament and a superstructure: morality, decency, humility before the order of nature, solidarity, regard for those who will come after us, respect for the law, a culture of human relations, and many other things were relegated to the realm of the superstructure, and slightly derided as a mere seasoning of life -- until we found there was nothing to season: the fundament has been tunneled. It has been tunneled because -- the atheists among you will forgive me -- it was not developed in a rigorous climate of the divine commandments.

Intoxicated by power and success, and fascinated by the discovery, or rediscovery, that a political party can be turned into a marvelous springboard for a climb up the career ladder, many began -- in an environment that took the law so lightly -- to turn a blind eye to this and that, until they were faced with scandals casting doubts on the principal reason for our pride -- on our privatization. Human beings are social animals who feel a need to form associations and to take part, even if only within their small worlds, in the management of public affairs and in the pursuit of universal benefit. This, too, was somehow forgotten: under the motto "the citizen and the state," the citizen was thrown into a hopeless solitude. In order that he would not feel too lonely, and because it was appropriate, the word family was added from time to time. Beyond that, nothing but emptiness. Consequently, all that was left between the citizen and the state was a party with a capital P.

Self-government -- that necessary evil -- was also meant to be forced under a party political yoke. Fortunately, it did not let itself be forced there completely, thanks to which it is one of the best working sectors of the state. And what about the state as such? The declared objective was to make it small, but strong. I am afraid the opposite is true: it is big and weak. Perhaps because we lacked the courage to challenge the nature of the state we had inherited.

Ladies and gentlemen, I could go on like this still longer. However, the reason why I have addressed you today is not an obsessive need to engage in lamentations, masochistically to turn a knife in our wounds, to be the smart guy once the battle is over, or to support the thoroughly wrong impression that we have lost all, and achieved nothing. I have appeared before you to dwell on what lies ahead of us, and what we should do in order to brighten up the now rather gloomy side of our life together. Being an orderly person, I shall number my remarks. Let me announce in advance that there will be 10 items.

First: From what I said at the beginning it is, perhaps, obvious which of the numerous tasks ahead of us I understand as the most important. It seems to me that the government -- whoever forms it - - just as you, Senators and Members of Parliament, just as the entire political representation of our country, and all the publicly active people, should openly tell our fellow citizens that good human coexistence and prosperity are possible only if clear, good, and generally understood rules are valid in various walks of life and if these rules are generally respected. Respect for these rules can certainly be reinforced by timely and strict punishment when they are broken. Nevertheless, this will only be, so to speak, of marginal help.

The main thing is for this respect to find a place in human minds to the extent that it will be an honor for everybody to adhere to laws, rather than breaking them or getting round them.

In other words, without an all-round cultivation of a moral code which can be the source of respect for the rules of human coexistence and thus also the cement of our civic community, we have no chance of having peace, stability, happiness, and prosperity. Today, more than at any time before, I am sure that all of us, who influence the events in this country, should accept this principle as our own and we should try to project it into our political work. The task of the citizens and the media is to decide whether we are really doing it and if they find out that we are not doing it, they should use every opportunity offered by a democratic political system to change us for somebody better.

2. The spirit of justice and decency, as it emanates from the moral order, must permeate the entire set of technical rules governing our coexistence; that is, our legal system. In this respect, a unique responsibility rests with you, members of our parliament, who pass legislation binding for all our citizens. Our legal system at present -- partly because it is undergoing an unprecedented transformation -- is immensely intricate. Few know altogether how many laws are currently in force, how many times they were amended or superseded by new legislation, and which subordinate regulations elaborate on them.

Special experts are needed to deal with ever narrower sectors of our law, and many of us actually cannot manage without a lawyer, or without a whole team of legal specialists. I am deeply convinced that the more transparent, the more clearly structured, and the more understandable a legal system we have, the greater will be the chance that it will be respected. I would, therefore, deem it advisable if, in addition to passing new legislation, you gave an increased attention also to the aspect of streamlining our legal system as a whole, so as to make it simpler and clearer.

3. The nervous system of the state is constituted by a network of self-government and state administration authorities. I consider it a crucial task for the coming period to undertake a reform of this system. This reform has been put off for several years, and the delay has done this country a great deal of damage. It is only in recent days that you adopted the first piece of legislation that paves the way to it -- the constitutional act on regions. It will have to be followed by a series of other laws to develop the concept, as well as by a civil service act whose absence is beginning to pose tremendous difficulties. Why is the reform of public administration so necessary? The reasons are numerous; however, I am afraid that they have never been explained to our public in clear and understandable terms. I therefore deem it important not only to pass the relevant legislation in the foreseeable future, and to do all that will result from this, but also to launch an explanatory campaign to make it clear to the people why it is important that certain powers pass from the state to self-government bodies; why decisions on things extending beyond the scope of a municipality, or a district, should be made by regional authorities; and why many institutions currently administered by ministerial officials from Prague would be better served if they were run at the regional level.

I find it absurd that while we are building a market economy, many of us do not object to the fact that whole spheres of our public life -- state administration is one of them -- still bear the marks of the communist pattern of rule over the people, including a high degree of politicization. It is not true that reform of public administration will produce more bureaucracy and more bureaucrats. Unless it is disastrously mismanaged, it should achieve the very opposite.

4. Europe has a chance today, which it has never had before throughout its long and rich history. It is the possibility that the internal setup of Europe as a political entity -- and Europe has always been a united and, in its own way, indivisible entity -- will not be dictated by the big and the strong, nor will it come about through a deal they made behind the backs of the others. It will be based on a really equal and free cooperation of all, cooperation rooted in the shared democratic principles. It is quite right that orientation towards integrated European structures is the backbone of Czech foreign policy. As a small country in the very center of Europe, which has always been at the crossroads of most varied geopolitical interests, we now have, for the first time, a hope of actually becoming firmly and securely anchored in the European political environment.

First of all it is our future EU membership which will provide such an anchor, but also -- and to a no lesser degree -- our NATO membership.

A peaceful and cooperating Europe cannot be imagined without a certain system of its collective defense and today NATO is the only institution that is capable of providing such defense. Therefore the enlargement of this alliance, linked, of course, with its transformation, is an existential prerequisite of a successful political integration of Europe.

I have no doubts that the decisive part of the Czech political representation is aware of these matters and that these people know that it is they who have this historic honor to be able to ensure a calm and happy life for many generations to come. In this context it is even more sad that until now apparently we have not been able to explain these matters to our fellow citizens in a convincing enough way. Perhaps this was due, again, to our misguided orientation on the economy, which has pushed into the background such important issues as the country's security, that is something without which no economy can thrive or, maybe, even exist.

It is a major task concerning not only the Czech foreign policy or of the relevant ministry, but the whole political representation, to intensify all the work aimed at our admission to the EU and NATO and, above all, to explain to our citizens the historic importance of this effort.

The Czech Republic has now been in existence for five years and it has a chance of becoming a firm component part of an integrated democratic Europe within the next five years. We would all be infinitely guilty if we were to waste this chance. However, if we do not want to waste it, then we again have to start with our soles. By this I mean the need to be ruthless in our struggle against Czech provincialism, isolationism, and egoism, as well as against all illusions of some cunning neutrality, our traditional short-sightedness, and all types of Czech chauvinism. He who today declines to shoulder his share of responsibility for the fate of his continent and the world as a whole, sounds the death knell not only for his continent and the world, but first of all for himself.

5. Against the background of what I have just said, I think I do not need to stress how important it is to give appropriate attention to our armed forces. All legislation concerning our security, defense, and the military service that is so urgently needed will never be enacted in a satisfactory form if the task is left solely with the competent minister. This is a task for us all, for all the political representatives of this country. The same goes for the restructuring of our army, cultivation of its human resources, its rearmament, and its economy. And the same is also true of systematic enhancement of the armed forces' prestige in society. The same could be said about other security instruments of the state as well. If we want to see a decrease in the crime rate, we cannot leave the task of combating crime solely to the chief of police or to the minister of the interior. It is a matter that concerns us all. If we fail to understand this, we have no right to call ourselves politicians.

6. And what is the situation of our economy? Why are we, who considered ourselves to be, or who truly were, a model of speedy economic transformation suddenly faced with difficulties? Why is our economy now growing more slowly than, for instance, the Polish economy? I do not share the view held by some of you that the entire transformation started from the wrong foundations, was wrongly devised and wrongly directed. I would rather say that our problem lies in the very opposite: the transformation process stopped halfway, which is possibly the worst thing that could have happened to it. Many businesses have been formally privatized, but how many have concrete visible owners who seek increasing efficiency and who care about the long-term prospects of their companies?

It is no exception to see companies whose executives are unable to say who their owners are, or how they are supposed to account to the owners for their managerial performance. But how can we expect the desired restructuring of companies, and of whole branches of our economy, when there are so few clear owners, and when so many of those who represent the owners see their role not as a task, mission, or commitment but simply as an opportunity to transfer the entrusted money somewhere else and get out?

A rather strange role, to my mind, is often played by our banks: they indirectly own companies that are operating at a loss, and the more the companies lose the more money the banks lend them. A small businessman is refused half a million crowns for a sound and specific investment project, while a dubious big businessman, or rather pseudo-businessman, is granted a loan of a billion crowns without proper investigation of what he needs it for.

The legal framework of privatization as such and of capital market in particular is being completed only now. Is it not slightly late? Was it really necessary to pay for the speed of our privatization -- the speed which was certainly welcome and positive -- with stolen billions, or, more likely, tens of billions? If it was necessary somebody should say it clearly. If it was not and if it only happened because the rules of the game were slovenly let us admit this as well. Why could for example Hungary privatize a similar proportion of their economy without theft on a scale of this kind? And what about the state's shares in companies? Is there a clear concept of what is of strategic or vital importance to the state, and where the state should therefore keep a share of ownership, and what can be further privatized without hesitation? And if there is such a concept, why is that which is destined for privatization not being privatized?

I know about the widespread disapproval of words like conception, strategy, or industrial policy. To a considerable extent, I understood this: it was necessary to teach our enterprises the art of taking care of themselves instead of depending on the state. I am, however, not sure whether the no-conception-cult was not carried too far. There are a number of things on which the state must have an opinion, and about which it must know whether it deems them important or not. I am not referring at this moment only to the activities financed from the state budget or to the domain of public interests or public goods, such as public health, education, culture, and so on. I speak of the economy.

I speak of things like housing construction and the housing market, transportation, power supply, and infrastructure networks in general, I speak of the foundations of a prosperous economy and of a prosperous state. I find it impossible for a state to have no opinion, no policy, and no strategy in this particular field. Does this exist in our country? If it does, why is it not more widely known? If it does not, why are we not working on it? In other words: it is high time that our economic transformation caught a second breath. It should be reinvigorated, and enter into its second phase.

Politicians should take stock of all that remains unfinished, and tell the people quickly how they plan to finish it. I am convinced that the more clearly and understandably this is explained, the more acceptance can be won among the people for temporary sacrifices that may still be required. In the present situation, marked by a strange, almost cryptic silence, it is quite likely that the next attack on their living standard, be it progressing liberalization of rents or of electricity tariffs, may bring a real social unrest, not just a would-be one, as has been mostly the case until now.

7. Two years ago the Chamber of Deputies passed the long prepared and long awaited act on public benefit organizations. Many were pinning their hopes on it, many were looking forward to seeing it come, many -- including myself -- rejoiced when it came. We hoped that many budgetary, and all contributory organizations, which are a remnant of communism, would finally begin to be transformed into modern nonprofit entities that would no longer be tied hand and foot by a host of silly regulations, and would, therefore, be both much freer and much more economical, and, as a consequence, also more useful to society.

I hoped that various schools, hospitals, social welfare establishments, and cultural institutions would gradually switch over to this new status, and begin to enjoy the benefits of multiple-source financing that would include not only funds from the state, region, or municipality but also massive contributions from both natural persons and bodies corporate, and I expected gradually increasing tax deductions for those who support such commendable activities. I expected this pattern of decentralized redistribution to address the various local and regional needs much more diversely and more resourcefully than this can ever be done by a ministerial staff in the capital, and I looked forward to seeing the money that would be saved once funds for such purposes no longer had to pass through the lengthy channel that makes them go first, as taxes, to the state budget and only then, through the budget of a competent ministry, to their destination. I hoped that the new system would enhance the self-confidence of the people and of the entrepreneurs, once they could actually see their money serve concrete beneficial projects.

I was hoping in vain. How many public benefit organizations have come into being in the past two years? One? Two? And how many budgetary or contributory organizations have been transformed into nonprofit bodies? I know of none. Some say this is impossible without special legislation for such transformation.

Some say that it can be done under the existing privatization laws, but that nobody is trying because everyone finds it easier to stick to the good old socialist ways -- especially since tax easements for those financing the nonprofit sector have failed to appear. One way or the other, I see here a major task that has remained unfulfilled so far, and that must be tackled in the future. I even believe that a proper functioning of the nonprofit sector, in a way that would at least resemble its functioning in advanced Western democracies, could eliminate much of the confusion troubling our budgetary organizations, or the entire sphere of public goods at present.

8. Numerous reforms have been carried out in the social welfare system, and others are under preparation. There is but one remark that I want to make on this subject: I welcomed it when the government included in its policy statement the intention to gradually separate the pension fund from the state budget. For a number of reasons, this seems to me to be a much better system, and it can even be more advantageous financially, because funds are better equipped to manage their money in profitable ways. Of course, I take it for granted that the state will continue to guarantee the citizen's right to a pension. Since the presentation of the government policy statement, nothing has been heard about this. I want to believe that this does not mean that this intention has been forgotten. Hopefully, a team of experts is quietly, yet intensively working on it somewhere. This is another task that lies ahead of us.

9. No reasonable person will accuse either this government or the previous one of having neglected environment protection when putting together the state budget. On the contrary: the billions spent on the various environmental projects are beginning to bear fruit in the form of slightly improving data on the condition of our air, soil, and waters. Nevertheless, I am still not sure whether these investments emanate from a truly clear concept, that is, from the simple principle that it is not enough to clean the environment of industrial pollution -- it is necessary to build a clean industry. This means giving support to all those who save energy and introduce environment-friendly technologies.

Let the rules of the market operate in this field too. But let the first of them be the rule that it is always preferable, and that it pays off, to refrain from polluting the environment in the first place, instead of cleaning up polluted areas or paying fines afterward.

10. Lastly, I want to speak of culture. Not that I would consider it a mere seasoning of life from the realm of the superstructure -- on the contrary: I regard culture as the most important thing of all, which therefore deserves to be mentioned in conclusion of my remarks. Of course, I do not limit the notion of culture only to human occupations, such as conservation of national heritage, making films, or writing poetry. I speak of culture in the broadest sense of the word; that is, of the culture of human relations, human coexistence, human labor, human ventures; of the culture of public and political life; of the culture of our behavior in general.

I am afraid this is a sphere where we have most of our debts to pay, and most of our work to do. Culture in the broadest sense is not measured by the number of splendid rock stars who visit this country, or by the beauty of dresses by prominent designers presented here by world- class models. It is measured by something else -- for example: by that which is chanted by skinheads in a pub; by the number of lynched or murdered Romanies; by the dreadful behavior of some of our people toward their fellow humans simply because of the different color of their skin.

In all probability, this lack of culture in the broadest sense can again be ascribed to both sets of causes behind the dismal condition of public affairs that I mentioned at the beginning: it is a typical expression of the post-communist state of the mind, as well as a consequence of our inadequacy in cultivating the state of our minds in the past few years. Let me repeat it once again: it is not that there was an economic fundament, and a cultural superstructure living on its advancement. Just the opposite is true: economic advancement is directly dependent on the culture of the environment where the given economy operates.

Ladies and gentlemen: When speaking here -- and this is not the first time that I do so before members of parliament -- about the nonprofit sector, reform of public affairs administration, and other things as such, I speak, as you well know, about that which is called civil society. This means a society characterized by a systematic opening of a room for a most diverse self- structuring, and for the broadest possible participation in public life. This kind of civil society brings with it, essentially, a twofold impact: first, it allows a human being to develop all of the facets of human personality, including that which makes a person a social animal, desirous of taking part in the life of his or her community; second, it constitutes a true guarantee of political stability. The more a community develops all organisms, institutions, and instruments of a civil society, the more resistant it is to various political windstorms or upheavals. It was not by chance that civil society was the target of the most brutal attack on the part of communist regimes. They knew very well that their greatest adversary was not any particular noncommunist politician, but an open society possessing solid structures built from below, and therefore largely immune to manipulation. Our country, as we all know, is now undergoing a political crisis. In the context of democratic conditions, resignation of a government is a fairly banal occurrence. A democratic system allows for such occurrences and knows how to deal with them. Many, however, perceive this crisis as a collapse of the regime, or of democracy, or as the end of the world. In my view, such feelings may be a consequence of the fact that we have not yet even built the foundations of an advanced civil society whose life encompasses a thousand different levels, and which, therefore, does not need to feel existentially dependent on one government, or one political party. If I blame those who are now resigning for something, it is not so much any concrete flaw.

What I most blame them for is an apathetic, or almost hostile attitude, toward everything that bears even a distant resemblance to a civil society, or that which could create it. It is precisely because of this apathetic attitude that the fall of one government -- indeed a banal thing in a democracy -- appears to be almost a classical drama, and, to some extent, even becomes one: many people believe to be faced with the collapse of a certain concept of the state, of a certain world outlook, of a certain set of ideals.

However unpleasant and distressing our present experience is, and however dangerous it may be in certain respects, it can be a valuable lesson, and eventually bring some good: it can set off a catharsis -- the traditional climax of all classical dramas. It can generate a feeling of profound purgation and redemption, of reborn hope, of liberation.

If today's crisis makes us think again, in all seriousness, about the character of our state, its underlying idea, and its identity, and translate the result of these thoughts into our work, the crisis has not been for nothing, and all the losses it has brought us can be multiply compensated.

The question of identity of a nation, a state or a society is raised fairly often. Many an opponent of European integration uses it to make his or her case, and spreads fear for its loss. To my mind, most of those who do this subconsciously perceive identity as something given by fate, or determined by our genes, almost as a matter of blood that we cannot influence in any way. This concept of identity is very wrong. Identity is first and foremost a deed, a piece of work, an accomplishment. It does not stand apart from responsibility, on the contrary: identity is an expression of responsibility.

If the crisis we have here today prompts us to take action to restore our identity, then we have no reason to regret it. Let us therefore try to see it as a lesson, something from which to learn, a test, a clarion call which might have come at exactly the right time to warn us of our own pride, so sparing us something considerably worse.

Thank you for your attention.
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