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East European Perspectives: March 20, 2003

20 March 2003, Volume 5, Number 6


By Jan Urban

The political legacy that former President Vaclav Havel left behind when he ended 13 years in office on 2 February is manifold. Perhaps nothing illustrated this more clearly than the long process that finally ended on 28 February with the election by the Czech parliament -- on lawmakers' third attempt -- of Havel's successor and longtime main political adversary, former Premier Vaclav Klaus, to be the country's next head of state. The difficulties with which the Czech Parliament struggled after more than a decade of having Havel in office could well be considered part and parcel of the political legacy Havel leaves behind.

Nearly a year before the end of his term, Havel asked the Czech political parties to start debate on procedures and candidates for his replacement -- and nobody listened. By that time, Havel had hardly any regular working contact with party leaders; he had to use his 2001 New Year's address to get his message across. He was in fact correct in his analysis of the problem. He was right in giving the warning. But, as so often throughout his presidency, no one among the Czech political elite would listen -- precisely and simply because it came from him. Practical steps were not taken, and goals went unachieved -- for the simple reason that Vaclav Havel, step by step, helped to make himself the proverbial Enemy No. 1 of all major political parties attempting to dictate the style and tempo of Czech politics of in the late 1990s. In a sense, in early February he left his presidential office at the Prague Castle in the same way he entered it in late December 1989 -- as a lone rider distrusted by the knowledgeable power manipulators. An analysis of his legacy thus means, first of all, noting this special void left after his departure.

More than any other Czech postcommunist politician, Havel was the product of his life experience. Since childhood, his family had motivated him and placed high hopes in his intellectual achievements. He was to become an "intellectual" -- this was to be his mission, intended to help him survive the communist regime's targeting of all "bourgeois elements" and their offspring after taking power in 1948. It was because of his family background that the talented young Havel could not study at university and instead had to look for the ways to avoid the regime's rules. Nonconformist theorizing and individualism, together with the stubbornness of his convictions and character, logically brought him first into a circle of the more independent arts and theater community, and later into the dissident movement. Havel is arguably the best illustration of a now-famous line from a fellow dissident and writer, as well as a life-long friend, Ludvik Vaculik: "Dissent in communist Czechoslovakia was not a matter of a political conviction but of character" ("Reflex," No.3, 1993, p. 14).

It was due to his character rather than his political convictions that Havel entered politics long before 1989, and, whatever he attempted through his 13 years in the presidential office, he remained a dissident. It was enough to transform him into a living icon for a segment of the Czech population, and it certainly worked miracles in the world outside the borders of the Czech Republic. But the newborn Czech political class perceived him as an uncomfortable obstacle -- and it was this political class that dictated the rules of the game and the presentation of its results. No matter how hard Havel tried to gain respect and support among the members of this political class, he remained a dissident.

But it was not only among members of the political class that Havel had problems. In fact, he did not quite fit in among the vast silent majority of the morally and politically deaf and numb Czechoslovaks who tried to live "normal" lives under communist rule by avoiding risk and dutifully fulfilling the requisite rituals of self-humiliation. As a leader, he clearly failed to instill a new code of behavior and values in postcommunist politics. Instead of leading and convincing his followers, he again preferred to remain a lone dissident. As such, he simply could not bequest a legacy in any institutional sense. For too long he had neither trusted, nor understood, the importance of the institutional framework of parliamentary democracy. For too long he had relied on his revolutionary vision and his own indisputable power as a symbol of the Velvet Revolution. As a dissident, he instinctively distrusted institutions and bureaucracy; in his eyes, they were too slow and had too many connections with the country's communist past. The most famous example of this attitude might be found in the improvised speech Havel delivered in Prague's Old Town Square on 25 February 1990. Using the same balcony from which communist leader Klement Gottwald announced the communist takeover on that date 42 years earlier, Havel blamed the new parliament for not voting fast enough on needed changes. Cherishing the symbolism of the moment, he improvised -- and took one step too many. Enthusiastic crowds cheered and applauded -- but members of parliament took his remarks as an outright insult.

Havel had no patience for legalistic nuances and never came to terms with a basic rule of parliamentary voting procedure: Forging majorities in support of initiatives can be just as important as those initiatives' content. He and his team of hand-picked advisers repeatedly clashed with the parliament instead of seeking allies within its ranks. The final defeat of this political style came in late 1991, when Havel and his team arrived unannounced at the Federal Assembly; the president took the floor and shocked parliamentarians with six proposals for constitutional amendments aimed at saving the Czech-Slovak federation. The whole Havel team was beaming with pride over the fact that they succeeded in preparing everything in secrecy and that "nobody knew we were coming." Once again -- the substance and goal of Havel's initiative were correct and laudable -- but the simple fact that it was not the president's good intentions but the vote in parliament that would decide the matter had escaped them.

Havel thus antagonized most of the political class as defined by the parliament positioning of political parties. By late 1992 -- with the split of Czechoslovakia imminent -- he was forced to recognize that new political parties and their leaders had defeated him precisely by using the same parliamentary procedures and tricks he so much despised. After that defeat, he was never able to recover his dissident-era ability to form alliances and build consensus. Havel ceased to be a partner or an ally. He was effectively prevented from exercising direct executive power and had to learn to use his influence through means that were more subtle, more limited, and strictly within the prerogatives bestowned upon him by his office.

What made him even weaker was the fact that as a president -- and postcommunist politician -- he was neither willing nor able to form and nurture a politically defined following. His following was recruited from among the ranks of personal sympathizers, whose loyalty was to Havel personally and the values he represented. This might have made him quite ineffective as a politician within the parliamentary game, but it fit well into his former dissident status in politics -- someone who embodies the current political atmosphere and comments on it, rather than an active programmatic participant. It was precisely this image that, at the end of his term, also contributed to the sense of limbo, desolation, and emptiness as the country looked ahead to a future without Havel.

That is not to say that Havel was unable to stir debate, raise hotly debated themes, or provoke strong reactions. But other political actors perceived him as unpredictable and uncooperative. He may well have been right on a great many issues throughout his presidency, but his personal style prevented him from achieving much more than "being proven right" -- precisely because it rendered him unable to distinguish between the importance of solving problems, for instance, at the cost of scenarios involving alliances with political partners that he might have personally disliked, or proving his moral or intellectual superiority. It was precisely this intransigence that made him unpopular among the "flexible-on-everything-just-to-stay-in-power" majority of the first-generation postcommunist political elite.

His moralist and "more-than-just-Czech" perspective made it even worse. Havel never fit the "left-versus-right" political cleavage that dominated Czechoslovak politics after 1989 (against his wishes or better judgment). In his eyes, ideological explanations echoed the dangers of the past, were primitive and overly simplistic. After all, he had not become a politician through power-driven ideology; on the contrary, he became one by forging an antipower concept -- "the power of the powerless" and defense of human rights. Initially, he had hoped and believed that postcommunist politics can and must avoid any ideological simplifications stemming from the Cold War. At that time, Havel was persuaded that a new style of politics, based on individual enthusiasm and defense of human rights, must replace the old ideological divisions. Less than two years later, he lost the battle as a result of an efficient, though hardly sophisticated, campaign headed by Vaclav Klaus and using little else than right-wing rhetoric. Havel -- a lifelong active opponent of the communist regime and for more than five years of his life its prisoner of conscience -- found himself facing accusations of naivete and "left-wing liberalism," sometimes thrown in his face even by former communists turned "right-wingers" for purely opportunistic reasons. Throughout his presidency, Havel never developed anything near to a political program, always trying to formulate broad humanist and moralist positions in terms of themes that he had chosen himself. As time passed, this became his defensive explanation of the role a president should play. By and large, this posture came to be welcomed by political parties, as it kept the president away from their everyday business of wheeling and dealing around important issues such as campaigning, privatization, or party financing. The result, however, is that there is currently no political party or movement capable of claiming to hold the banner of "Havelism" in the wake of his departure. This is also why Havel was ineffectual in influencing the election of his successor, as he was well-aware that any name he mentioned as a possible candidate would spell certain political doom for that individual. Personal antagonism against Havel among parliamentarians went so far that, soon after his political departure, a substantial majority rejected a government-sponsored bill that would have granted former heads of state a special pension. The "nay" or "abstention" votes predominated, included even among deputies representing the strongest parliamentary group in the lower house -- the governing Social Democratic Party (CSSD).

Havel was also a prominent exception to the general pattern of postcommunist politicians whose political discourse abounds in nationalist cliches. "Patriotism," "country," "fatherland," and their derivatives reemerged as powerful and central components of that discourse in other postcommunist states from the start. Albeit with some delay, the discourse would eventually come to play a notable part in Czech party politics: employed by the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) and a significant segment of the CSSD on the left, and by the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) on the right side of the political spectrum. Openly opposing the Czech intellectual tradition of ideologizing patriotism, Havel gained the support of some -- but annoyed many more at home -- for constantly standing up for principles larger than the "Czech identity." In his view, a modern, postcommunist and European "Czechhood" meant a radical breakup with the popular political tradition of Czech self-victimization and attitudes of self-isolation.

This can be best illustrated through several examples. Havel's strong moral emphasis on redesigning the concept and perception of Czech-German relations was among the very first acts of his presidency and faced a barrage of popular resentment from the start, despite the fact that at that time Havel was still at the peak of his initially stellar popularity. At the end of the day, his alienation of political parties again prevented him from ending the historical animosity between Czechs and Germans stemming from the unfinished debate on the brutal period of World War II and its follow-up, namely the mass expulsion of the German-speaking population from Czechoslovakia and the death of tens of thousands of civilians from that national minority. Czech-German reconciliation was one of Havel's main foreign-policy goals and dreams during the 13 years during that he served as president. A dream that, like many other dreams he had, remained unfulfilled.

On the other hand, and despite his immense good will, Havel was one of the most destructive forces in the Czech-Slovak relationship. He was a strong believer in multinational "Czechoslovakism" and in 1990 had little patience with what he initially perceived as a "primitive," undemocratic nationalism in Slovakia. Later, he tried more than anyone else to preserve the Czechoslovak Federation but symbolically had to resign as Czechoslovak president -- once again defeated by the forces, institutions, and politicians that he, and many others along with him, thought initially to be unimportant. Very often in the later years of his presidency, he refused to comment on the Czech-Slovak relationship. He was careful not to display in public his satisfaction after Klaus and Vladimir Meciar -- the two politicians that have openly joined forces to defeat him in 1992 -- later lost in elections. Symbolically his last presidential visit to a foreign country, paid less than a week before the end of his second term as Czech president, took him to Bratislava.

Another of his failed foreign-policy goals pertains to so-called Visegrad cooperation. The plan was to form a strong cooperation framework among Central European countries -- in 1990 it would be Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary -- initially to strengthen their negotiating positions vis-a-vis the Soviet Union on the withdrawal of its troops from the region, but also as a way to coordinate economic reforms in a difficult period after the collapse of the COMECON. Later, the hope was cherished that the new bloc, which eventually came to include Slovakia, could gain in negotiations with its new Western partners if it assumed a unified position. But the Visegrad concept died quickly. It was anathema to a victorious Premier Klaus, who was refusing even the most innocent and potentially profitable bits of a regional-cooperation approach (such as the George Soros-sponsored Central European University, for instance) simply because it was Havel's idea.

The fourth pillar of Havel's foreign-policy concept was a strong personal attachment to the U.S. role in Europe. After some initial reluctance, believed to be caused by remnants of his pacifist Cold War attitude opposing all military blocs, he became a partisan of "Atlanticism." The reason has a name: Bosnia. Havel perceived the 1991 Gulf War as embodying the fulfillment of his dissident anticommunist dreams, the proof of the forging of a New World Order in which democratic countries might agree and act on the promotion of human rights and democracy around the world. The failure of the West and, most of all, of Western European governments in preventing the slaughter in disintegrating Yugoslavia, on the other hand, was described by him to his close friends as a repetition of the Munich Agreement of 1938, perceived by the Czechoslovaks as a clear betrayal by democratic France and Great Britain of their equally democratic ally, Czechoslovakia. The Bosnian war, and the strong stance displayed toward its atrocities by his personal friend, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, turned Havel into an "Atlanticist" -- a role never before seen in Czech politics. If one looks for a foreign-policy legacy of Vaclav Havel's presidency, it is his success in breaking Czech isolationism and introducing "Atlanticism" as an applicable foreign-policy concept for a Central European country. The rest of the world has acknowledged and applauded his dissident and moralist approach to foreign policy -- whenever it suited it. The November 2002 NATO Prague Summit saw some 40 heads of state giving standing farewell ovations to Havel after French President Jacques Chirac, as their doyen, gave a moving short laudatory speech, addressing Havel simply as "Dear Vaclav." Merely three months later, after the same "Dear Vaclav" signed the joint "group of eight" letter critical of disunity between Europe and the United States over Iraq, Chirac responded with vitriolic soundbites decrying the EU candidate countries as "missing a good opportunity to shut up."

In the economic sphere, Havel made little effort to express opinions throughout his presidency. He had no knowledge of economic theory and had very little to say in debates concerning the pace of fiscal and macroeconomic reforms in the early 1990s. He had a great political instinct instead, and constantly warned against the lawlessness of the wild privatization period and its possible grave political and moral consequences. He was proven right on this as well, but his critique was perceived as personal animosity toward the symbol of the "change from communism to capitalism," Vaclav Klaus. Havel nevertheless strongly influenced even economic developments simply by believing in the strict institutional independence of the Czech National Bank and Constitutional Court. His appointments of the members of the bank's board, as well as of Constitutional Court judges, were certainly not welcome by the government and large political parties but helped create a badly needed balance of powers in the newly and slowly developing system of checks and balances in the Czech Republic.

On the domestic policy front, Havel sought to introduce four themes -- and failed in each. First, he was a strong proponent of a single-constituency electoral system that would allow the formation of a stable one-party government; forge the emergence of a limited number of strong political parties; and, he hoped, push extremists, including the Communists, out of the political game. Consecutive weak Czech coalition governments born as a result of the proportional electoral system chosen instead illustrate once again that his abilities as a visionary were stronger than his ability to influence and convince other political players.

Second, Havel always believed in the importance of and need for strengthening civil society. Ad hoc interest groups of responsible, engaged citizens, in his view, should and could balance a power-greedy political class armed with irresponsible ideological simplifications to manipulate the electorate. This, of course, clashed with the highly ideologized discourse and tactics of Czech politics in the early 1990s and turned Havel into a target of endless litanies against "irregular, nonstandard, non-political politics" by his critics. Havel was never able effectively to explain that political parties do not have ownership rights over public discourse and that citizens have every right -- and a multitude of means -- to express their opinion outside the political establishment.

Third, Havel felt strongly on issues connected with deciding how to deal with the unhappy communist past of Czechoslovakia. But many, including former political prisoners, blamed Havel for not doing enough and openly criticized what they considered to be his personal failure in addressing this issue. Havel was fascinated at the beginning of his presidency with the potential for manipulation inherent in secret police files that the communists did not manage to destroy. A combination of curiosity and an inability to avoid manipulation brought about by selected revelations prevented him from taking a principal position: Either close the files for several decades or make them accessible to everyone. Equally strong was his fear of potential chaos that, in his views, could be created in the first months after November 1989 if the communist-era secret police, or StB, was pushed too far, too quickly. His personal appointments of the first group to deal with the communist Interior Ministry and its files proved to be disastrous. With time lost in the critical first few months, all he could do was hope the wounds would somehow heal as the years passed.

Fourth, Havel was from the very beginning an opponent of banning the Communist Party, as proposed by some more radical individuals within the original Civic Forum leadership in early 1990. Others would have rather leveled the playing field, allowing all parties to enter the political race from the same starting line. Banning the Communist Party, stripping it of all its assets, and allowing it to start again from scratch -- as all other political parties would do -- seemed too radical to Havel, who at the time was professing the idea of forgiveness and national reconciliation. Thirteen years later, he was to witness an unreformed and unrepentant Czech communist party, now calling itself the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, becoming the decisive factor in the election of his successor and longtime adversary, Vaclav Klaus.

Havel leaves a difficult and in many ways complicated legacy. His successor will need the strength to start anew and, in some aspects, from scratch. Havel has helped the Czech Republic break with the past. He has helped deliver it into the family of democratic states and helped it learn that this is a family that at times can be unruly. He has performed many tasks with which none of his successors will need to deal. Today many Czechs take NATO membership and the expected EU membership for granted, as if they were natural or God-given. They easily forgot that, when Havel first became president 13 years ago -- when hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops were still occupying Czechoslovakia -- this would have sounded like wild fantasy. Havel clearly is no knight in shining armor. But with the passage of time, the "normalcy" he has left behind is likely to be appreciated as far from "naturally normal"; and what some today perceive as "meaningless emptiness" is far from being either devoid of powerful meaning or, even less so, empty.

Jan Urban, a communist-era dissident in Czechoslovakia, is a journalist working for the Czech Radio 6 public broadcaster in Prague.