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Interview: Former Adviser Jiri Pehe On Havel's Legacy

Jiri Pehe, director of New York University in Prague

Jiri Pehe, director of New York University in Prague

PRAGUE -- Former Czech President Vaclav Havel, a onetime dissident who helped bring down communism in his country during its Velvet Revolution in 1989, has died at the age of 75.

Former Havel adviser Jiri Pehe, now a Czech political analyst and director of New York University in Prague, spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Jacobs about Havel and his legacy.

RFE/RL: Can you give us a sense of the significance of Vaclav Havel's legacy?

Jiri Pehe:
Vaclav Havel was, I think, one of the most prominent, important figures in Czech history in the 20th century and, in a way, one of the most important figures in world history in the second half of the 20th century. He was crucial to the democratic transition in the postcommunist world. He was certainly one of the leading forces that helped to undermine communism.

RFE/RL: What drove Vaclav Havel? What caused him to clash so strongly for much of his adult life with Czechoslovakia's communist government?

Vaclav Havel was simply a decent man who really believed in principles that other people sometimes say they believe in but don't always fully follow, and that was his love for the truth and for honesty. And I think that that is why he, early on in the 1960s already, became a dissident writer who couldn't really cope with the political environment of the communist regime, and later, when he was banned as a writer, he became a leading dissident and an informal leader of the opposition.

A 'Very Special Quality'

RFE/RL: There were many dissidents who resisted and protested communist rule in Czechoslovakia. And yet Vaclav Havel rose up as a leader among them and, ultimately, of his people in 1989. What was it about this man that made him such a leader?

First, I think he was a very charismatic figure. Second, I think that as I came to know him, he had this very special quality which I have rarely seen in anyone else and that was his incredible ability to synthesize various opinions and then come up with a program.

RFE/RL: After his presidency, Havel remained a popular and celebrated figure outside his own country. But inside, among his own people, his approval ratings suffered. Why was that?

His reputation was, for a period of time, domestically, at home, quite low or was pushed to the background simply because there was a new president who certainly espoused different principles and was basically seen as his political enemy.

RFE/RL: More recently, Czechs began registering more approval when asked about Vaclav Havel. Why was that? What changed?

In the last few years, Havel's reputation was sort of on the rise again at home, because many people realized that in this environment of omnipresent corruption and cynicism and a sort of political malaise, that some of the principles that Havel used to espouse and which became an object of ridicule by his political opponents and commentators as being too moral and too naive and so on, that some of these principles have been coming back as something we should actually respect.

RFE/RL: With tributes pouring in after his death, do you have any concerns about Vaclav Havel's historical legacy?

There is a certain danger now that Havel, as one of the historical figures during his life will jump from the realm of history and critical evaluations right into the realm of mythology.