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Czech Republic: Interview With President Vaclav Havel

  • Jolyon Naegele



Ten years after the velvet revolution, Czech President Vaclav Havel talks about key problems facing his country and the international community today. In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL correspondents, Havel discusses Czech dissatisfaction with politics, the future of Kosovo, how to help the Serbian opposition, and events unfolding in Chechnya.

Prague, 24 November 1999 (RFE/RL) RFE/RL (NCA): Mr. President, how do you evaluate the condition of Czech society ten years after the Velvet Revolution. Is it suffering a chronic case of malaise (blba nalada)?

HAVEL: The term malaise (blba nalada) has become very popular and is ascribed to me, but it is not mine. In an interview a long time ago, I quoted someone who had used the term, but I don't remember who it was.

It is true that in our society there are many such varied maladies, which are common, to differing extents and forms, in all post-communist countries. For us, among other things, it is characteristic that there is quite a large alienation between political life at the top and the life of society. Wherever you go, people rail against the politicians and politics. They call on them all to resign and the like.

That is one thing that -- I would not confuse this with the whole mental disposition of society and its relationship to its own life, to its own life. To a significant extent, people are quite satisfied with freedom, with the large selection of goods that they have, that they can travel, do business. If they weren't satisfied, this would certainly make itself felt in some more tangible way than just cursing politicians. So I would differentiate the general condition of society from its relationship with its politicians. We have a tradition of this here -- people have always been annoyed with the politicians, whether there was democracy or a totalitarian system.

RFE/RL (NCA): If we can change the subject to the international field, starting with Kosovo. You were the first foreign head of state to visit Kosovo in June after the end of the fighting. Bill Clinton was the most recent visitor -- yesterday. How do you evaluate the development there and the future status of Kosovo -- as a part of Serbia, a part of Yugoslavia, [or to] leave it up to the inhabitants [to decide]. And if I may add a further question, how do you evaluate the role of [UN special envoy] Jiri Dienstbier, [a former Czech foreign minister], in resolving the Kosovo problem.

HAVEL: I think that the problem of Kosovo, similarly to some other problems, such as the problem of Chechnya, has two fundamental dimensions -- constitutional order (statopravni) and civil rights. I really think that the future status of Kosovo is a matter of the Kosovans and their eventual political negotiations with other subjects. The international community cannot impose this. There are many alternatives there. One of them, for example, is a confederative arrangement of Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia that would loosen the relationship between the three within the framework of some sort of confederation. That is one of many possibilities.

But really it is not our task to prescribe something, in terms of constitutional law, but rather only to pressure, so that the result is the outcome of democratic negotiations and elections and not endless military conflicts. There will be elections there soon. We'll see which force prevails. That is quite dependent on future talks on Kosovo's political status.

Then there is the human rights/civic rights aspect, and it is our duty, by us I mean the whole international community, to do everything to break the vicious circle of hatred, persecution, [ethnic] cleansing, ethnic fanaticism, the murders. It is the huge, nearly impossible task of the international administration that is now there -- and of those forces of KFOR -- to do everything to end the evil and prepare the ground for civic coexistence.

So far this, on the whole, has not worked. It seems that KFOR should have a force five times larger than what it has, and the international administration should be five times stronger, to deal with some of the bad things that are going on there. At the moment that is the revenge being taken against Serbs and the expulsions of Serbs.

RFE/RL (NCA): And Dienstbier's role?

HAVEL: Jiri Dienstbier, in his function [as UN human rights rapporteur for Yugoslavia] travels there frequently. He monitors the situation. No doubt he knows it well. But he is not the only one who knows it. I discuss it with many, many people and the conclusions that this or that person draws may differ. But I strongly disagree with Dienstbier's conclusions.

RFE/RL (South Slavic Svc): Mr. President, you presented the representatives of the Serbian opposition to the [summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] in Istanbul [last week]. Do you think the international community could do more to isolate Milosevic without further isolating the opposition and Serbia?

HAVEL: Yes, of course. I have said many times that we supported the military action against the Milosevic regime not out of love for bombing and bombs, but to help stop the genocide, to stop the cleansing, the expulsions, the exodus and to create some preconditions for building a peaceful life based on civil society. We cannot presume that the moment the treaties are signed and the war ends it would cease to be of interest to us. On the contrary, now it is of paramount interest because now it is a matter of what the war was fought for, what will happen in Serbia, what will happen in the former Yugoslavia.

I take an intense interest in the situation. I am somewhat limited in what I can do, but I tried to create space for discussion with the international community and the leaders of the Serbian opposition and the Montenegrin president by inviting them to the summit. I think it made sense and that it was received positively. This started off a sort of trilateral dialogue between the European Union, these people, and America, in which they explained their positions.

Among other things, they are very concerned with the embargo. From the start, we have known that the embargo is intended to isolate Milosevic's regime rather than to harm or hamper the Serbian nation. But how can this be done, technically speaking, so that the regime and not the people will suffer from an embargo? This is incredibly complicated, and no one knows how to do it. But the will to do this is here. They brought their opinions on this. They explained the benefits and disadvantages of one type or another of embargo and the like. They expressed their opposition to a total embargo in which all inhabitants suffer. They explained that paradoxically this could strengthen Milosevic rather than isolate him.

I don't claim that the international community accepted their view, but it is important that they listened to them, that they are conducting a dialogue. I consider that important in terms of the future of the country.

RFE/RL (Russian Svc.): Mr. President, you recently expressed your negative position concerning the extent of military actions in Chechnya and it is known that you were a major supporter of NATO's operations in Yugoslavia. Could you compare the two situations and describe your position on the use of force in the two cases in view of the fact that there are civilian casualties in both cases.

HAVEL: These two cases have certain similarities but also differences. It would be a gross over simplification to apply the facts or motives of one case to the other. Nevertheless, there are certain similarities about which I spoke. One must clearly separate questions of state and law from matters of civil rights. The position of Chechnya and other Caucasian nations in the future is a matter about which the international community can hardly decide. It is a matter of political discussions between the Russian Federation, of which these republics are a part, and these republics or their representatives to agree on the degree of possible autonomy or independence. This is a matter about which it is not for me to speak. It is a matter for political negotiations. This really should be resolved through political negotiations and not by war. Civil rights is another matter. And here I must emphasize that it is not Russia's internal matter but a matter for all people. One cannot remain silent to there already being 300,000 refugees from Chechnya living in conditions of poverty, that the civilian population is suffering and that since the very beginning of the conflict [in 1994] there have been over 100,000 dead. Let no one tell me that they were all terrorists. It is necessary to act against terrorists. This is a major evil today. No one is making this into a problem. But it is necessary to make absolutely sure that a war against terrorists does not turn into a war against a nation. The nations of the Caucasus have not belonged to Russia for all that long. They have their own culture, their traditions, their religion, their somewhat different history. It is my view that Russia should view this very sensitively.

RFE/RL (Russian Svc.): How do you explain the unbelievable unity between the political forces of Russia. With the exception of Grigori Yavlinski, practically all forces, including the Communists and liberals such as [Yegor] Gaidar and [Anatoly] Chubais support Moscow's policy in Chechnya?

HAVEL: This unity, particularly if it is without reservations, bothers me. But on the other hand, I am happy to hear that there is someone who is not afraid to fight against overwhelming numbers to voice his opinion. Not long ago at Forum 2000 here I met with Sergei Kovalyov, who had a very different opinion than the majority of citizens of the Russian Federation and was not afraid to speak up and I always respected this.

RFE/RL (Russian Svc.): Today is Russian Prime Minister Putin's 100th day in office. People remember that in these 100 days he declared that terrorists should be drowned in cesspools. Could you evaluate this political figure?

HAVEL: First of all, this is too short a period -- 100 days. Secondly, I never met him. I don't know him personally. I know little about this and mainly it doesn't seem to be quite suitable for politicians to review the performance of other politicians. That can be done in certain, really extraordinary cases such as for example no one of us are shy about expressing our views on President Milosevic.... As far as [Putin's] energetic war in Chechnya is concerned, I cannot say anything beyond what I said about this war -- that means I have very serious reservations and very serious doubts concerning the Russian Federation's [methods in] striving to maintain [its territorial] integrity. I agree with the struggle against terrorists. I support their capture and their being locked up in prison for life because I am an opponent of capital punishment. To throw them into a cesspool, I suppose this is a metaphor. To carry this out physically would mean they could climb right out and carry out more terrorist acts.

RFE/RL (South Slav Svc): In contrast to Prague in 1989, Belgrade has failed to stage a peaceful velvet revolution due to differences within the opposition, national apathy, people have not been interested in demonstrations since 1996. As a former dissident how do you view this and what would you advise the Serbian opposition to do to convince the public that only mass protests can bring about a change?

HAVEL: It is very complicated and difficult to combine various methods -- parliamentary methods with pressure tactics, but why is it so complicated? Probably because we are confronted with a new type of authoritative regime for which there is no experience. This is no longer a totalitarian system of the communist type. This is something different. This is an authoritative system of a Mafia character with a nationalist flag in its hand. But I am not sure if this has much in common with true patriotism. And this is some sort of new, post-Communist phenomenon and how to deal with it is not quite clear. There are no ready models, no experience and so the task facing these leaders of the opposition is thus all the more difficult. They probably should all know how to 'pull on the same rope'. Perhaps they missed some opportunities, for example when there were the immense, long lasting demonstrations staged by Zajedno ('Together') in 1996-97. That is history. It is going to be very difficult for them and they need all the support they can get. We will have to speak with these people and draw them in various ways into the European spiritual and political environment, all the more so since today everyone is declaring his European orientation."

RFE/RL (RSE): I would like to ask a foreign policy question through the Czech domestic prism: Chechnya, the visit here of its representative, Russia's protest. How in your view should our politicians deal with this question morally as well as in standing up to Russia?

HAVEL: I think that the best way to friendship is to tell one's friends the truth. I am not a great friend of dodging, fudging or being silent in the hope that trade will grow. Nothing is growing nor will anything grow. Business is so bad because of our businessmen. To confuse business with human rights is simply nonsense from start to finish. I conducted many open debates with representatives of the People's Republic of China, the Russian Federation, I always said what I think. I think that among friends, one should tell the truth and I must say that I have been met with respect rather than with annoyance by my partners.... Russia has a big problem and it is not only Russia's problem but the problem of many post Communist countries. There is a particularly big problem, the problem of identity. It has to be said where it begins and where it ends. This is a very difficult task that may take generations. But why not talk about it? Of course a politician has to speak more diplomatically and more cautiously than for example a journalist without a political function.

RFE/RL (NCA for Ukr Svc): Mr. President, how do you evaluate the decision of the Czech government this week against introducing visa requirements for citizens from CIS states, particularly Russia and Ukraine?

HAVEL: I involved myself in this issue because at one point it was under consideration -- in contravention of the long-term foreign policy concept worked out by the Foreign Ministry. At one point they considered only on the basis of some populist reasons introducing a visa requirement for Ukraine. I considered this would have been an incredibly unhappy move -- Belarus and Russia would not have had a visa requirement but Ukraine would have. For many reasons that would not have been the best present for President [Leonid] Kuchma's inauguration in light of his considered foreign political orientation and in view of the proximity of Ukraine [to the Czech Republic], its size and significance, in view of many other matters. Moreover, I think the problem which should be solved was not going to be solved by introducing visas. This is the problem of Ukrainians working here illegally. The fact that things turned out the way they did I consider to be very good. nca/jn/lh

RFE/RL (Russian Svc): Russia is not a neighbor of the Czech Republic. [They] do not have a common border. What significance does Russia have for the Czech Republic in the current situation economically, politically, socially and culturally?

HAVEL: I think that a really large sympathy has traditionally and always existed here for Russia, and for Russian culture. Russia is a state which will always play an incredibly significant role in world events. I think that this is not a problem. We did not lose our friendly, sympathizing relationship to Russia even after the brutal occupation in 1968. The problem is not here but in something else, that many bad Czech traders have lobbied for specific trade benefits with Russia which do not benefit Russia or us but rather the traders and their friends in the Russian Federation from the old days and I don't think this is good. Russia should be our partner economically just like Germany or Belgium are our trade partners.
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