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Czech Republic: Havel Stepping Down As Czech President, Leaving Behind Nation Forever Altered

  • Jolyon Naegele

Czech President Vaclav Havel's last day in office on 2 February comes more than 13 years after his inauguration as the first president of a post-Cold War Czechoslovakia. The former playwright and dissident leaves a legacy unlikely to be equaled.

Prague, 30 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Vaclav Havel has been in the intellectual and political spotlight for more than 35 years as a playwright, outspoken writer, persecuted human-rights activist, the leader of a peaceful revolution against Soviet rule, and as the president of two states.

The 66-year-old Havel steps down on Sunday after serving two terms as president of the Czech Republic, the constitutional limit. He also was president of Czechoslovakia from December 1989 to July 1992.

Havel's good friend, Oxford University Professor Timothy Garton Ash, says the Czech president leaves an impressive legacy.

"I think he is the enduring symbol of the extraordinary, peaceful transformation of Europe over the last 20 years," Ash said. "There is no one else who 20 years ago really was a leading dissident and has been there at the top through all the stages of peaceful transition, through the Velvet Revolution through the Velvet Divorce (the breakup of Czechoslovakia), presiding over his country's transition from geopolitical East to West, from communism to capitalism, from Warsaw Pact to NATO. So I think in the history books, if you want one name that stands for this miraculously peaceful transition, it will be that of Vaclav Havel."

Havel was a co-author of the Charter 77 petition 26 years ago that called on the country's Communist leadership to respect the international agreements and laws on human rights they had signed. But Havel's human rights activities came at a high cost. He spent more than five years in prison, including four months in 1989.

In an interview after his release from prison in May 1989, Havel detected that change was in the air in Czechoslovakia: "This society, which for years has been pushed into such a state of apathy and lethargy, has woken up, and I was something of an excuse for people to express themselves. This movement toward universal freedom is what pleases me, strengthens and enlivens me and gives me the feeling that I wasn't in prison for naught, that it had some purpose."

After two months of demonstrations in neighboring East Germany, the Communist leadership opened the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 and began letting East Germans travel freely to the West. The Soviet Union did not interfere.

Eight days later, on 17 November, a student demonstration in Prague turned violent when riot police surrounded and beat marchers. On subsequent nights, hundreds of thousands of Czechoslovaks peacefully filled the country's squares to demand change.

On 19 November, Havel helped found the Civic Forum, a movement that, like Charter 77 nearly 13 years earlier, represented a broad spectrum of political opinion. But while Charter 77 had only attracted some 1,000 signatures during the previous 12 years, the Civic Forum became a mass movement.

On 24 November 1989, Havel -- still uncertain about the fate of the movement -- spoke to a crowd of some 300,000 people on Prague's central Wenceslas Square: "We want to live in a free, cooperative, and prosperous Czechoslovakia. We want to return to Europe, and we shall never give up our ideals regardless of whatever happens in the coming days."

The Communist Politburo resigned en masse that evening.

Communist rule disintegrated in the subsequent weeks as the party, under pressure from the Civic Forum and its chief negotiator, Havel, gave up its self-declared "leading role in society," dissolved its armed vanguard the People's Militia, and agreed to the formation of a government of experts to lead the country until free elections in June 1990.

Czechoslovakia's aging, discredited Communist President Gustav Husak resigned, and Havel launched his campaign for the presidency at a mass demonstration on Wenceslas Square on 10 December 1989 -- International Human Rights Day: "We will not allow anyone in any way to sully this beautiful face of our peaceful revolution. Truth and love must triumph over lies and hatred."

Overnight, the slogan "Truth and Love Must Triumph Over Lies and Hatred" was emblazoned on campaign posters. The Communist-dominated Federal Assembly co-opted non-Communists into parliament and elected Havel as interim president of Czechoslovakia on 29 December 1989.

On his first full business day in office, Havel flew to East Berlin and Munich in a bid to emphasize the importance the Germans had and would continue to have for Czechoslovakia and to call for reconciliation. Havel was an outspoken supporter of German reunification later that year.

Havel also visited the United States, where he made friends with President George Bush and received a tumultuous reception when he addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress. Days later, at the Kremlin, he persuaded Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to withdraw more than 60,000 Soviet troops from Czechoslovakia: "The foreign ministers of the two countries have signed a treaty on the complete withdrawal of Soviet troops. This treaty includes a complete timetable of the withdrawal, and the complete withdrawal with the last waves must be completed by June 30/July 1 of next year (1991)."

Havel led the country to free and democratic elections in 1990, the first in more than 50 years. The new federal assembly reelected him to a two-year transitional term as president -- a term marked by growing calls from Slovaks for sovereignty and eventually for independence.

In an interview in October 1991, Havel was still optimistic that the common state of Czechs and Slovaks could be saved: "Some sort of instinct tells me that, though very difficult times await us, very complicated negotiations, but in the end the common state will be maintained in some form or other."

But by the time of the parliamentary campaign in May 1992, which doomed the federation to dissolution, Havel seemed resigned to the inevitability of a split.

"The world has survived worse things than one state dividing into two," he said. "Nevertheless, I think it would be to the detriment of all citizens of the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic and moreover to the detriment of many other people. Slovakia would immediately be seen as a part of the East, the Czech Republic as a part of the West. The breakup would be perceived as the inability of the West to live together with the East."

Slovaks voted overwhelmingly for nationalist populist leaders, while the Czechs opted for the center-right. The stage was set for a speedy Velvet Divorce, but one that Havel had no intention of presiding over. Minutes before the Slovak Parliament declared Slovakia a sovereign state, Havel announced his resignation.

Czechoslovakia's final six months proceeded with a caretaker government and no president. Soon after the breakup on 1 January 1993, the Czech Parliament elected Havel to a five-year term as the first president of the Czech Republic, reelecting him for another five-year term in 1998.

During that time, Havel grew increasingly frustrated with political parties. Though his dissident activities and political views were in harmony with those of Czechoslovakia's founding president, Tomas Masaryk, by his own admission, Havel lacked Masaryk's lobbying skills. Havel avoided backroom politicking and resorted to public speeches and televised addresses to get his message across. It tended to work with the public but failed with parliament, which frequently overrode his vetoes.

Nevertheless, Czech political scientist Jiri Pehe -- a former Havel adviser -- says Havel fundamentally transformed the office of president after 50 years of totalitarian abuse:

"He had to renew the presidential ethos that existed here during the years of the First Republic (1918-38). I think Havel succeeded quite well in this, just as he succeeded in renewing the official face of the office and once again made it respectable."

Havel remained remarkably popular abroad, but the Czech public began taking a more critical attitude toward their president.

"Domestically, Havel to a certain extent was unpopular because he stuck out too much above the Czech political horizon, which is quite provincial, while Havel is a cosmopolitan politician who goes well beyond the Czech horizons," he said. "Of course, that irritates many Czech politicians and citizens."

Havel's wife, Olga, died of lung cancer in early 1996, and Havel -- a longtime smoker -- himself battled lung cancer later that same year. Havel raised eyebrows by marrying the actress Dagmar Veskrnova less than a year after his wife's death.

Havel's last six years in office have been marked by poor health -- exacerbated by his years in prison -- and largely unfavorable domestic media coverage. Nevertheless, between hospitalizations and illnesses, Havel led the successful Czech campaigns to join NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004, and was still regarded as a leading moral authority by the rest of the world.

Havel, who had witnessed the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact more than a decade earlier, hosted the NATO Summit last November, at which the alliance extended invitations to seven new democracies.

At the Prague summit, U.S. President George W. Bush praised Havel's life, saying it has "shown that a person who dedicates himself to freedom can literally change the course of a nation, and change the course of history."

Ash says Havel served to remind the world of the deeper significance of Europe: "He is the voice who has reminded us over the last decade that Europe is not just about trade and regulations and butter mountains and currencies, that it is also about a larger political and historical vision. And it is also about values, which he always insists fundamentally we share with the United States. And I think particularly in the present moment of alienation between America and Europe in the context of the Iraq war, such a voice insisting on the common values of the West -- and particularly coming from such a figure -- is still very important."

Pehe says Havel leaves a void in Czech politics that will be difficult to fill: "Vaclav Havel created for Czech politics and Czech society a very bright and pretty facade, and the West looks at the Czech Republic as 'Havel's country.' And now, we're going to lose that facade, and we'll be perceived far more according to how we really are as a postcommunist country with many problems that do not really differ from those of other postcommunist countries."

Havel's final weeks in office have been marked by farewell speeches and events. Earlier this month, at the opening of the first round of presidential elections in parliament, Havel summed up his years in office:

"I did my best. I think that some things were successful and other things were not. It is not up to me to evaluate my role. It is up to the public, politicians, journalists, political scientists, and historians."

A series of votes by Czech lawmakers from both houses of parliament have so far failed to elect Havel's successor. Parliament may decide to hold another set of elections in the next few weeks or it could vote to amend the constitution to allow for direct elections by Czech voters later this year.

On doctor's orders, Havel is expected now to spend much of his time at his villa on the Portuguese coast. But those who know him well don't expect him to retire in silence.