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Havel Expects Biden To Reassure Central Europe On Ties

Vaclav Havel On Biden's Central Europe Visit
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WATCH: Havel notes that Biden, whom he's known for two decades, is a man "who can ask pointed questions and say unpleasant things."

As U.S. Vice President Joe Biden began his travels through Central Europe, arguably the region's loudest voice for strong trans-Atlantic ties was up-front about what he expected to hear: a clear vision of American policy for the region.

Vaclav Havel, the former dissident credited with leading the revolution that toppled communism in Czechoslovakia, was also a key force in driving the Czech Republic toward membership of NATO and -- the year after he left office -- the European Union.

More recently, he was among top Central and Eastern European figures who sent a letter calling on U.S. President Barack Obama not to overlook their region as Washington pursues better relations with Russia.

So when RFE/RL sat down with Havel in his central Prague office, we asked what he was looking for from Biden's visit to the Czech Republic on October 23.

He said he expected the U.S. vice president to "articulate, in a new way, America's interest in this region" and "make it clear that America is interested in us, that someone else has not pushed us out of America’s field of vision."

Havel suggested that pressing those points, and more broadly "explaining how this new U.S. administration sees things," would likely be Biden's top priority during his Central European trip.

Missile-Defense Defense

Biden's trip to Poland and the Czech Republic is widely regarded as aimed at soothing nerves rattled by the Obama administration's decision last month to reconfigure U.S. plans to put parts of a missile-defense system in those countries.

The Bush administration's plan was largely opposed by the Czech public. But a fair number of Czech political leaders past and present -- Havel included -- supported it as a chance to help their ally.

Some felt let down when the plan was shelved.

When asked whether he thinks Washington made the wrong decision, or whether it mishandled the way it was announced, Havel didn't quite say "no." He said he viewed the move as part of an internal U.S. debate going back decades on such a system's costs and merits.

He added that he was more disappointed with the internal debate in the Czech Republic, which centered largely on whether hosting a U.S. radar would upset a newly assertive Russia.

"This dispute about whether we would allow an alliance radar to be located here or not, it struck me as very sad and it didn't reflect on us very well," Havel said. "If the Americans have the feeling that we are upset because they abandoned the radar plan, then I think it's a feeling that's unsubstantiated. On the other hand, I would understand it if they wanted to explain it in greater detail. Personally, I don't need anyone to explain it to me. I see it as an American technical issue."

Waxing Russia?

Havel for some time has expressed concern at Russia's resurgent political and economic influence in its own neighborhood and beyond, and at worrying signs he sees coming from the Kremlin.

He has noted the disputes that have shut off Russian gas supplies to Europe; the gutting of democracy, as he sees it, where institutions are retained but devoid of substance; and he was an outspoken critic of Moscow over its war with Georgia last year.

Havel told RFE/RL it was time democratic nations showed firmness in dealing with countries like Russia rather than giving them any sort of special treatment.

Havel noted some "worrying signs coming from Russia," adding: "I's necessary to have partnerlike relations with Russia based on the principle of equality. But openness and frankness are part of this partnership, and you cannot see this partnership as meaning that we need to be blind or have blinders on and that we won't speak about what we don't like, when it seems to us fundamental, universal moral imperatives are betrayed."

He cautioned Russia against acting as though its "failings ought to be overlooked."

"We should apply the same standards to Russia that we apply to any country in the world, be it China or the Czech Republic or Uruguay," Havel said.

NATO's Limits

Georgia and Ukraine, both NATO aspirants who've been promised eventual membership but with no clear timetable, got a partial boost from Havel when asked if he thought they belonged in the alliance.

With Ukraine, there was no question. It, along with Belarus, he said, belongs to the European space of shared common values.

WATCH: Havel responds to the question of whether or not Georgia and Ukraine belong in NATO:
Vaclav Havel On NATO's Limits
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Georgia is a more complicated case, Havel said. Its location means it is "hanging on by its fingertips" to that geographic area.

But he noted that was also the case with Turkey, a NATO member for more than 50 years.

"Probably it would be fair if Georgia were included too, though on the other hand it would probably be safer for Georgia, from the point of view of the future, to firmly anchor itself in the neighborhood -- with Azerbaijan, Armenia, and so on -- because they are its immediate neighbors and if there were any conflicts in the past then neighboring nations mostly played a role in them," Havel said. "That's the area where [Georgia's] main interest should lie, I think.

"But I'm not saying that European or Euro-Atlantic institutions shouldn't decide in favor of Georgia," he added.