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1989: 20 Years On, Havel Marks Velvet Revolution

Former Czech President Vaclav Havel said he and his fellow dissidents didn't abandon their ideals after the revolution

PRAGUE -- There was an informal air to this 20th-anniversary gathering.

On the stage of the Prague theater where he got his start as a playwright, Divadlo Na zabradli, there was Vaclav Havel -- wearing the same trousers, we were told, as he wore in 1989.

A balloon in the shape of a red heart -- Havel's trademark -- floated at the side of the stage.

On stage with Havel, three other key players in Civic Forum, the group formed in November 1989 that went on to lead negotiations ending communist rule: Its one-time spokesman, Michael Zantovsky, and fellow founding members Alexandr Vondra and Jiri Krizan.

But it was Havel who fielded most of the questions from the packed hall.

It was, after all, Havel who emerged as the leader of Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution in 1989, addressing huge crowds that took to the streets, and leading the talks that within weeks ended communist rule.

Havel went on to become president -- of Czechoslovakia and then of the Czech Republic -- and guided his country through its early transition. The October 15 news conference was to mark the revolution's 20th anniversary.

The 'Snowball'

The international press wanted to ask about 20 years ago. How had he felt when the Berlin Wall fell on November 9?

Did he know at the time that November 17, when a Prague student demonstration was put down violently by police, was a turning point?

November 17, he said, felt like it could be the "snowball" that would kick off the avalanche.

But before that, he said, he felt something was in the air. People had begun to lose their fear, as he saw in early November at the West German Embassy in Prague.

Thousands of East Germans had sought refuge there and Praguers were handing out tea and blankets, indifferent to the presence of secret police.

"This atmosphere told me clearly that it wouldn't be long now," Havel said. "Around that time, or before that, on October 28, they detained me as they usually did on those anniversaries so we wouldn't make trouble on these historic dates, so they arrested me and I was sitting for a while in a car with two secret police officers and one asked me, 'Well Mr. Havel, when is it going to blow?'

"That shows you what the atmosphere was like, and part of that was the fearless solidarity of our previously fearful compatriots that so fascinated me outside the German Embassy. That was when it was clear that the wall was crumbling -- the physical one in Berlin, but in the general sense too, of the Iron Curtain."


Havel was asked whether things had turned out the way he had hoped If he could start all over again, he was asked, would he do anything differently?

Mistakes probably were made, Havel said.

"At the same time we probably managed to avoid a lot more mistakes," he said. "The basic direction that we wanted our society to take, i.e., toward a democratic state of law, with respect for rights, a market economy -- that all has happened, albeit in a slow way with a lot of obstacles and unexpected situations. But I wouldn't say we had abandoned the basic ideals we had then."

That's not to say everything in the garden is rosy.

Havel said it would take much longer than he initially thought to fix a society distorted by communist rule.

Today's politicians, he said, were marked by having reached maturity during the "normalization" years following the crushing of the Prague Spring reform movement and the Soviet-led invasion of 1968.

The EU Question

He recognized some nostalgia for the certainties of life under communist rule, but compared that with the disorientation he would feel after being freed from prison in dissident days.

Other questions -- particularly from local media -- touched on more up-to-date concerns.

Like Vaclav Klaus, Havel's successor at the castle and now the last European Union leader holding out against the bloc's Lisbon reform treaty.

Klaus recently asked for an exemption from its Charter of Fundamental Rights, saying he was worried Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia after World War II could use it to make property claims.

Havel said such fears were unjustified, and called Klaus's position "irresponsible."

"It's a belated and unconvincing argument and I regret it very much because it's damaging the name of the Czech Republic in Europe," Havel said. "I don't want to get into psychology and analyze what led him to his behavior. I just want to say it's very irresponsible and dangerous. [But] I firmly believe that everyone will come round and the treaty will be ratified by the end of the year in the interest of the whole of Europe."

There was humor too, even when the conversation took a dark turn.

A journalist from Bucharest asked if he could explain why some of 1989's revolutions had been peaceful, while in others, like Romania's, there had been bloodshed?

Different countries have different traditions, Havel said. Czechs and Slovaks, he said, prefer to try and solve things not on the battlefield -- but in the pub.