Czechs seek more than a humanist as Havel takes reins of new republic

February 02, 1993|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Contributing Writer

PRAGUE -- Vaclav Havel is back at the helm of a new, downsized Czech Republic, but both man and country have changed profoundly since the heady days of Czechoslovakia's 1989 revolution.

If Czechoslovakia brought the world the "Velvet Revolution" -- a nearly bloodless turnover of power that seemed to promise a new era of decency, honesty and prosperity for the country -- the new Czech Republic will likely be a far more prosaic affair.

Czechs today are more interested in the nuts and bolts of economic reform than in the issues of human rights and culture that seem to matter most to Mr. Havel. And while Mr. Havel is still the only man who could have won the presidency, he is no longer seen as the beloved father of the revolution who can do no wrong.

A dissident, playwright and essayist, he was virtually swept into the Czechoslovak presidency in December 1989 by popular acclamation. Last Tuesday, he was chosen as the Czech Republic's first president by just nine votes.

"I want to be a guardian of political culture and public cultural life in our country," said Mr. Havel, who takes office today. "I'll do everything in my powers to promote the good name of the Czech Republic abroad, and I'll care for the humanist values upon which our state is founded."

After the 1989 revolution, Czechoslovakia seemed to offer greater promise than any of its East European neighbors undergoing similar changes: The country was governed by artists, writers and actors, and led by a man almost universally respected for his integrity.

But just three years later, Czechoslovakia collapsed and disappeared as the hopes for a new era became mired in conflicts over Slovak nationalism and divergent notions of how rapidly the economy should be transformed from communism to capitalism.

The new Czech Republic and Slovakia came into being Jan. 1.

"It's a smaller republic and a poorer republic, and we'll have to start from scratch," said Pavel Tigrid, who advised Mr. Havel in the Czechoslovak presidency. "The most important thing is that this new country remain democratic with a market economy."

The Czech Republic still appears likely to get richer faster than its neighbors, but the country is a far cry from the promised land of 1989. For the most part, the artists and writers and actors have left the political stage, replaced by men and women who pay more attention to economics than culture.

If Vaclav Havel was the personification of the Czechoslovakia of 1989, today the country's mood is embodied in the person of Premier Vaclav Klaus.

Mr. Havel might be the country's most well-known citizen abroad, but Mr. Klaus is the one who holds the reins of power at home. And where Mr. Havel is seen as the sensitive artist and humanist, Mr. Klaus is perceived as a cold and arrogant economist more attuned to Thatcher than Shakespeare.

While Mr. Havel will no doubt seek to pursue the humanist values fTC that he holds so dear, his constituents are looking for a leader more like Mr. Klaus, who knows what concrete steps he will take to turn the country's economy around.

Mr. Havel's constituents still admire him for his humanity, but most of them are more concerned about where tomorrow's dinner will come from than the issues of rights that seemed so pressing under communism.

"They're realizing now that it was a capitalist revolution," said one Western diplomat. "And a capitalist revolution just isn't warm and fuzzy."

Mr. Havel will no doubt continue to play a leading role in representing the country abroad, but will act as something of a magnet for the foreign investment that Mr. Klaus knows the Czechs need.

During the debate that preceded last Tuesday's election, Mr. Havel was subjected to a three-hour excoriation by members of the small right-wing Republican party, who accused him of misdeeds ranging from alcohol abuse to cooperation with the secret police.

The Republicans in no way represent the feelings of the nation, but the very fact that they were willing to speak out against Mr. Havel on national television shows that he is considerably more vulnerable than in the past. In some corners, there is a feeling that while Mr. Klaus might have liked to find some other candidate for president, he simply had no other choice.

As for Mr. Havel, even some supporters have begun to grumble that he made too many compromises in seeking his new post. When he resigned from the Czechoslovak presidency in July, he had said he would only be interested in heading the new Czech state if the presidency were given considerably broader powers. In the end, he settled for a position only slightly stronger than the one he left.

"I would be more happy if he weren't so willing to forget about so many things just to get the position," said one man who knows Mr. Havel well. "He's changed, and I don't like it."

Indeed, even Mr. Havel himself seems to realize that his situation has changed and that there are likely to be diminished expectations for his second presidency. At a news conference after his election, he said, "The president can't be regarded by society anymore as a great omnipotent being."

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