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Interview: Vaclav Havel On U.S. Relations With Central Europe

Interview: Vaclav Havel
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Former Czech President Vaclav Havel talks in a wide-ranging RFE/RL interview about what he expects to hear from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden when he visits the Czech Republic this week. The man many credit with leading Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution also talks about Russia and NATO enlargement. The interview was conducted by RFE/RL correspondents Jeremy Bransten and Kathleen Moore.

RFE/RL: Recently you've spoken a lot about Russia, about the worrying signs that you see coming from the Kremlin. Should the world fear Russia?

Havel: I don't think anyone should fear anyone. Quite the opposite; I think it's necessary to create the kind of world in which people won't need to fear anything.

There certainly are worrying signs coming from Russia. I believe and I always emphasize this -- that it'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.

Russia cannot hope it will always be treated like a handicapped partner, whose 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.

RFE/RL: In April, during U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Prague, you warned him about the great hopes he was eliciting in people. Afterwards, we read your open letter to the president. And we heard how you remarked on Obama's decision to postpone meeting the Dalai Lama. One would almost say that your own hopes in Obama have been disappointed. Is that the case?

Havel: I wouldn't say that. He hasn't been in office long and he hasn't had the time to make many political moves. For now he has set out long-term goals that sound good to almost everyone. People support him because they yearn for a better alternative. This is fine.

Nevertheless, I believe this is a time when one needs to call attention to various dangers that may arise. When [Obama] was here, I spoke to him of the danger of disappointed hopes, when people invest him with so many hopes that he cannot fulfill them -- and then they become angry. These invested hopes turn into resistance.

That is my experience, which I lived through 20 years ago. And as a beginning president -- and I'm speaking tongue-in-cheek here -- I felt I had to share that wisdom with him. He understood and he said he'd begun to feel this disappointment a bit. That is one point.

About the open letter: Others wrote the text and I only signed it, so I could not influence its wording. But it was conceived as a timely warning against making certain compromises, when in the name of peace and harmony we close our eyes and compromise on certain things. This is the dangerous, well-meant small compromise, which has its logic. It's barely noticeable, but it can be a stepping stone to larger compromises in the future. And that is what I meant, and I illustrated it with the Dalai Lama, so that well-intentioned, small compromises -- seemingly peace-creating -- are not in reality the start of an unfortunate retreat before evil.

RFE/RL: What do you expect from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's to Prague?

Havel: I have known him for about 20 years as a senator. I know he's a man who can ask pointed questions and say unpleasant things. It's likely that those who have talks with him here will encounter this.
One can expect that [Biden] will...make it clear that America is interested in us, that someone else has not pushed us out of America's field of vision.

One can expect that he will articulate in a new way America's interest in this region, that he will make it clear that America is interested in us, that someone else has not pushed us out of America's field of vision. He will probably lay this out and at the same time explain how this new U.S. administration sees things. I assume this is the main point of his trip around Central Europe.

RFE/RL: But almost everyone sees Biden's visit to the Czech Republic and Poland as an attempt to smooth relations after the decision to shelve the radar. How do you see it? Do you think America made the wrong decision or that it mishandled the way in which the decision was announced?

Havel: Personally, I only see a technical problem. There's been talk about an antimissile system for 25 years. Back under President [Ronald] Reagan there was talk of "star wars." The research has already cost $15 billion or $20 billion and there is constant hesitation about whether to use this technology or that technology, to do it this way or that, and whether it's too expensive and whether it's worth doing at all or not.

It seems that if every new U.S. administration takes another look at the issue, it's normal that the Obama administration is also rethinking things. It's nothing that is integrally linked to American-Czech relations.

What interested me was another aspect: the Czech-Czech dispute, 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. 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.

RFE/RL: In a recent interview with RFE/RL, the historian Tony Judt said that one of Eastern Europe's great mistakes is "dreaming about Washington," warning that the U.S. is not about to run to its rescue against Russia, and advising the countries of that region they would do much better to invest in a stronger EU. What's your view on this?

Havel: Your scholar is very wrong in one respect: the expansion of the European Union to include new members would have been unthinkable if we hadn't joined NATO beforehand. That was the main problem, the security anchoring of this region, and this is what the alliance gives, the Americans in particular. The EU's expansion had to wait until NATO expanded, so that [the EU] didn't have to guarantee security -- that was up to someone else.

I'm not upset by this at all. I'm just saying that you can't see Europe's security anchoring and some American security guarantees as if they are in contradiction. Each is connected to the other and our firm anchoring in Europe and in the EU is conceivable only against the background of our alliance with America also.

RFE/RL: At this year's Forum 2000 conference you said that, when someone tells us they won't give us oil if we talk openly about their political prisoners, the only correct answer is: "Then keep your oil." Many people will wonder how realistic a response that is.

Havel: This is a bit of an exaggeration in the style of Timothy Garton Ash! What I meant was that we shouldn't act like beggars, that we should show a bit of pride and make it clear we can go, say, a couple of days without oil. They have to export -- raw-material exports make up the biggest portion of their gross domestic product, and if they saw -- and they're testing us -- if they saw a partner that is not willing to overlook how the next elections turn out and is capable of retaining some principles, then maybe they wouldn't use these kinds of threats.

RFE/RL: A final question, and one you get asked fairly regularly, including when you visited RFE/RL in the spring. Nevertheless, could you say clearly whether you think Georgia and Ukraine belong in NATO?

Havel: I've always said that if NATO is to work well -- and the same goes for the EU -- then it has to know where it begins and ends and what its reach is. These organizations are defined above all by values, but also by geography. Judging by a look at the map, it seems to me that the line of these two entities leads along the border with Russia. That means Belarus belongs to that kind of Western civilization sphere -- regardless that there's a dictatorship there. That's a matter of long-term development and also a matter of will, whether that society wants or not to join some pact is something above all for it to decide itself.
I've always said that if NATO is to work well -- and the same goes for the EU -- then it has to know where it begins and ends and what its reach is.

Nonetheless, from the geographical point of view it seems to me that Ukraine and Belarus belong there, and Georgia is just hanging on by its fingertips to this European area. Nonetheless, it applies to Turkey, doesn't it? It's been a NATO member for decades.

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. 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.

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