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Twenty Years Later, Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolutionary, Vaclav Havel, Recalls 1989 Events

  • Kathleen Moore

PRAGUE -- In Vaclav Havel's 2007 play "Leaving," a longtime political leader muses about his options on leaving office.

Would he end up forever remembering the past, always analyzing, explaining and defending past actions, comparing then with now?

In the past month or so, Havel -- who stepped down as president in 2003 -- has been doing a lot of recalling, analyzing, and explaining.

It's been 20 years since Czechoslovakia's velvet revolution of 1989, a year in which Havel went from jailed dissident to revolutionary leader to president.

And so, naturally, RFE/RL wanted to hear Havel's recollections when we caught up with him recently at his office in central Prague.

On display were photos from his time in office: of Havel with Britain's Queen Elizabeth; another with Prince Charles and his then wife, Diana. Pride of place went to a photo of Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Then there were the Havelesque touches, the red dish in the shape of a heart -- Havel's trademark -- and the beer, first sipped, then placed under the table for the duration of the video interview.

Now 73, Havel has battled ill health for years. Over a decade ago, he had part of a lung removed after doctors found cancer, and he underwent throat surgery earlier this year. But he still appeared, as one colleague put it, "impish."

About 1989, he told us how it had become clear that sooner or later change would come; the only question was when. In the end it was a student demonstration forcibly put down by the police, on November 17, that provided the trigger.

"They couldn't foresee how it would all turn out and that this would be the snowball that would trigger an avalanche," he said. "Of course, we didn't know it either. By 'we' I mean the signers of Charter 77, the dissidents."

"What was clear, however -- and I've spoken or written about this before -- was that sooner or later a snowball would start rolling and turn into an avalanche. No one knew what that snowball would be and when it would happen precisely -- we weren't soothsayers -- but it was clear that sooner or later it had to happen."

'Indispensable' Figure

Born into a well-off family but largely barred from higher education under the communist regime, Havel became a playwright, getting his start in the theater in the 1960s.

Havel's works were banned after the 1968 Soviet-led invasion that crushed the reform movement known as the Prague Spring, and in the 1970s he was jailed after co-authoring the Charter 77 petition that called on the government to fulfill its human rights undertakings.

Historian Vilem Precan, then in exile, recalls Havel as an "indispensable" dissident figure.

Recalling a letter from Havel in 1988, Precan says Havel "asked, with an implicit rebuke, why so many requests [for help] from exiles came to him alone."

He then quoted Havel from the letter: "'It's all getting to be a bit much for me, I don't know how to solve this. The more famous I am the more I'm sought after by people, from Western politicians and journalists to other unfortunates from various parts of the world. Some want to talk to me, others want something from me. And the more they do that, the more famous I become; and the more famous I become, the more people seek me out and so on.'"

Havel himself has portrayed his political rise as something of an accident; he was "catapulted into politics by history," as a former aide put it.

In an early postrevolution speech, Havel recalled how he first heard from a friend that he would likely be proposed for president.

"I thought it was one of his usual jokes," he said.

Wearing The Statesman's Mantle

Havel served as president of Czechoslovakia, and then, after the country split, of the Czech Republic. By the time he stepped down in 2003, his country was in NATO and on the path to EU membership.

Overseas, Havel's reputation would remain unsullied. But domestically, it took a knock during his years in office.

For some -- in particular, the more pragmatic politicians -- he was too elitist, intellectual, or moralizing. But he was also criticized for not being detached enough, for being too involved in domestic politics. Others felt he should have sought a ban on the Communist Party.

And then there was his marriage to an actress, Dagmar Veskrnova, less than a year after his much-admired first wife, Olga, died of cancer.

Havel credits Veskrnova, who was at his bedside during his cancer treatment, with helping to save his life.

At an exhibition in Prague of photos from 1989, RFE/RL recently solicited views from visitors.

Thirty-five-year-old graphic artist Jan Civerny said that "for me he was an icon; he still is, though he made a blunder here and there. I still really respect him."

"I don't admire him much because when he had the power to do something he didn't," pensioner Karel Machacek said. "I think it was a mistake. When he became president, he should have cracked down on them [Communists] once and for all, because it seems to me they're beginning to pop up again and if they came to power again that would end."

Not Without Its Challenges

Nowadays, Havel frequently bemoans what he sees as a lack of morality in political and social life. In the interview, he recalled how what he called the atmosphere of solidarity and self-sacrifice, evaporated soon after 1989.

"It was clear that the atmosphere wouldn't last," Havel says. "But what wasn't clear, and what we didn’t realize at the time, was that everything would turn away so sharply -- I wouldn't say from those ideals, but from the atmosphere and social climate at the time, that it would so radically change. That's something we did not foresee."

While many still consider Havel a "moral conscience," some of his recent comments have been less well received.

For instance, there was his support for earlier U.S. plans -- largely opposed by the Czech public -- to place a radar south of Prague.

Some were disappointed not so much by Havel's stance but the way he likened the radar's opponents to 1930s pacifists.

He was also criticized earlier this year when he appeared to compare the Skoda car factory with a concentration camp.

But despite this, Jiri Pehe, a former adviser, says Havel appears to be regaining some popularity.

What he says about Havel as president could apply now: "He basically remained even in politics what he had always been -- a philosopher, a dissident of sorts, who even in politics went against the mainstream to some extent."

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