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Czech Republic: Havel Speech Intensifies Divisions

Prague, 10 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Czech President Vaclav Havel's speech to Parliament on the state of the nation has increased political tensions and divisions in the Czech Republic.

In his address to the two houses of the legislature (Dec. 9), Havel launched a devastating attack on the outgoing government of Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus. Havel, a former dissident who is prized by his countrymen above all as a moral compass, did not mention Klaus by name. But he referred to a post-communist morass, and said that many ordinary people now believe power is in the hands of those who cannot be trusted; that it pays to lie and steal; and that political parties are manipulated by suspicious financial groupings.

As Klaus sat stony-faced in the front row, Havel said it's clear that some deserve more blame than others. His voice firm despite frail health, Havel said morality, decency and solidarity had been derided as mere seasoning -- "until we found there was nothing left to season". The foundation had been tunneled, he said, using the economic buzz-word for describing companies which have been emptied of their assets.

And the President derided arrogance and what he called fascination with macroeconomic data -- a clear reference to Klaus's belief in the primacy of economics. The speech received a standing ovation; only Klaus did not clap. Later, in remarks to reporters, Klaus rejected Havel's assessment, saying it showed a deep lack of understanding of a market economy and a free society.

Havel's speech can be seen as having two aims. First, he was using his vast moral authority to voice widespread unease that the reform effort has lost its way in corruption and venal ambition. Secondly, Havel was trying to destroy Klaus politically.

Klaus and his cabinet resigned last month after he lost the support of his coalition partners and senior members of his own Civic Democratic Party (ODS) over a funding scandal. But Klaus is refusing to leave the stage, and says he will seek to remain ODS leader at a coming special party congress (on Dec. 13). Havel's merciless denunciation will now make that task more difficult.

Immediately after the presidential speech, prominent ODS members took up strongly divergent positions. Interior Minister Jindrich Vodicka said he fully identifies with Havel's views. Jan Ruml, a former minister and key figure in bringing about Klaus's fall, said Havel had gone too far but was generally right. Right-wing ODS senator Milan Kondr called Havel hypocritical. Senior figures in parties allied to the ODS praised Havel, as did Milos Zeman, leader of the main opposition Social Democratic party.

Along with the increasing polarization of views came another sign of rising political tension. The Communist Party reported an explosion at its Prague headquarters (on Dec. 10). That follows the weekend (Dec. 6) bombing of the home of Ivan Pilip, the Finance Minister who is a main opponent of Klaus within the ODS.

Analysts now say the ODS seems likely to split at its special congress, with a faction loyal to Klaus going into opposition in parliament, and the other faction supporting formation of a new ruling coalition, whether center-right or center-left. In any event, such a coalition is unlikely to stay the full course, and early elections are probable.

Havel has said he hopes to be able to appoint a new prime minister and cabinet in the coming week, after the ODS congress. He has asked the outgoing Agriculture Minister Josef Lux, of the Christian Democratic party, to begin preliminary negotiations on formation of a new cabinet.

Havel has also laid his own political life on the line. His five-year presidential term expires next month and he is expected to stand again. Parliament elects the state president in secret ballot, so Havel must face the politicians he has so roundly abused. Antagonized elements in the ODS have raised doubts about his mental fitness as well as his physical health. But politicians or parties seeking revenge are not likely to lose sight of the fact that Havel remains deeply revered by the Czech public. To reject his candidacy could be tantamount to political suicide.