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Transcript: RFE/RL Interview With Vaclav Havel


Former Czech President Vaclav Havel during his interview with RFE/RL on March 27

Former Czech President Vaclav Havel during his interview with RFE/RL on March 27

Soviet-era dissident, noted humanist, and former Czech President Vaclav Havel visited RFE/RL's new broadcasting headquarters in Prague on March 27. Havel, who played a key role in bringing RFE/RL to the Czech Republic in 1995, chaired the company's first editorial meeting in the new venue and then sat down for an interview with senior correspondent Jeremy Bransten. This is an edited translation of that interview, which was conducted in Czech.

RFE/RL: Some political leaders, especially outside the West, have seized on the current economic crisis as proof of the failure of the liberal economic and social model. Some even say the crisis symbolizes the failure of Western democracy. What would be your counterargument?

Vaclav Havel: I can hardly agree with such a radical view. I rather think that this is not just a crisis of one economic system, but rather a civilizational crisis. But it is a crisis that is, at the same time, a challenge and a warning. And if people and institutions perceive this correctly and draw the right lessons, then this crisis can have a beneficial effect on our future development.

It is a sign that one cannot simply pursue instant or short-term gains, that one must think for the long term, beyond the horizon of one's own [employment contract]. It is a challenge that demands we show a certain modesty against human pride, against the pride of some economists who think they understand everything and all of a sudden they can't explain anything that is happening.

RFE/RL: Are you concerned about the possible consequences of the economic crisis for Europe and its cohesiveness?


Havel: I think Europe, which has been integrating, has already been through a lot of trials, and I think it has successfully survived. I don't think this crisis will cause any sort of breakup. It could cause some delays in certain processes, but I don't think [it will cause anything worse than that].

RFE/RL: It's been 20 years since the revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe that brought down communism. Countries like the Czech Republic have joined all the Western clubs, including the EU and NATO. But is there a danger that countries that have remained outside -- such as Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova or the Transcaucasus countries -- could find themselves on the wrong side of a new "Berlin Wall?"

Havel: Of course, this would not be a good thing. But, at the same, I believe these individual regional entities or entities sharing a common civilization should clearly know where they end and where they begin. Because blurred borders are always a cause of conflict, confrontation, and wars.

Most wars [historically] started over territory. And I think there is nothing wrong with something having its geographical limits and, next to it, is another geographic entity. And then, these entities can cooperate as partners. One must, of course, pay great attention to ensure that this geographical border does not mean an Iron Curtain.

RFE/RL: I wanted to pick up on that point, because you recently spoke about this issue at a NATO conference in Prague. And you emphasized your point several times. So where should NATO's borders be? And on what side of that border do you see Ukraine and Georgia?

Havel: Of course, it's not up to me to make this decision. It is up to the alliance as a whole, and it is up to the will of those various nations. It depends on many factors.

If I had to lay out my long-term vision, I think [NATO]...would end at Russia's borders, where a new, large Eurasian civilizational space begins. That space is fully equal to our own, but it is simply different.
Personally, if I had to lay out my long-term vision, I think [NATO] should generally match the borders of Europe. That means that the alliance, like the European Union, would end at Russia's borders, where a new, large Eurasian civilizational space begins. That space is fully equal to our own, but it is simply different.

Of course, it's true that the foundation of these organizations [NATO and the EU] is based on values. But what I was pointing out is the geographical component. There are 200 countries in the world, and the future lies in some kind of grouping of larger regional entities and in their fruitful cooperation. And for that to happen, these entities must know where they begin and where they end. And that is why I emphasize this geographical aspect.

RFE/RL: As we know, Russia itself, in a way, is a big empire. So where does Russia begin and end? For example, what about Chechnya? Where should it be: part of Russia or on the other side?

Havel: The problem is that history has never known where Russia precisely begins and where it ends. And there is a certain problem in this. Nevertheless, I am a champion not only of individual freedom but also of the freedom of nations.

If the Chechen nation seriously and permanently wants to be an independent state, and if it wants to experience this phase of independent statehood, then it should have this right.

RFE/RL: In closing, Mr. President, a more general question. It's no secret that many in the world, and in America itself, view George W. Bush's administration very critically. As a result, the idea of democracy promotion isn't very popular right now. What is your evaluation, and do you have any advice on this issue for the new administration [of President Barack Obama]?

Havel: I have spoken with President Bush on this issue frequently, and I think it is necessary to express oneself very carefully and with great tact. Whatever even hints at the export of our customs or our system to other parts of the world, and especially the forced export [of those things], is truly dangerous.

Whatever even hints at the export of our customs or our system to other parts of the world, and especially the forced export [of those things], is truly dangerous.
But this does not mean that we do not carry a common responsibility for what is happening in the world and that we mustn't come to the aid of those in need. One must simply carefully weigh every case individually and estimate the possible consequences of such assistance and assemble broader support [for such action].

It is extremely important to find the right balance so that, on the one hand, this solidarity is respected -- so that the right to this solidarity is respected and so that we do not succumb to indifference. But, on the other hand, it must be done in such a way so that it cannot be interpreted as a new form of colonialism or as the export of values to a world that cannot share them.
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