The playwright-statesman


Czech Republic: Vaclav Havel is winding down a remarkable career in which he led his country out of communism and into NATO.

September 18, 2002|By Bruce I. Konviser | Bruce I. Konviser,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Much has changed here since the halcyon days of November 1989, when a shaggy, chain-smoking dissident named Vaclav Havel, armed with little more than moral courage, took on the all-powerful Communist government.

Astonishingly, the dissident prevailed. Havel engineered what became known as the Velvet Revolution, negotiating the Communists out of power and becoming the first pst-Communist president of what was then Czechoslovakia.

After serving virtually all of the past 13 years as president, the often-ailing leader will retire in January when his term expires. He leaves behind, he says, a country with democratic principles firmly in place.

Yesterday, the playwright-turned-president was heading to Washington on his last official visit to the United States. His many admirers are treating it as something of a victory lap, using the opportunity to applaud him one more time.

"He's a dissident who managed to use power intelligently and turn authority into inspiration," says Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor. "He's a playwright, a dreamer and a statesman."

Consensus builder

For those who struggled at his side, Havel's remarkable ability to build a consensus might be his most enduring legacy, as dissident and president.

"In the last few years before the revolution, there were more people involved," recalls Jan Urban, a radio commentator and fellow dissident. "And we'd have these meetings and we'd be working on a document or a statement, but there would be disagreements over what to say, and the arguments would rage on for two or three hours.

"And Havel would be there, sitting on the floor with an ashtray between his feet, chain-smoking, looking down -- and listening. Then suddenly, he'd sit straight up, and in three minutes articulate a compromise that made everyone happy. He was really admired for this."

Unlike Poland during the 1980s, where the Solidarity trade union was a rallying point for a dissident movement numbering tens of thousands of people, there were a paltry number of protesters in what was then Czechoslovakia.

After Soviet tanks crushed the 1968 reform movement known as the Prague Spring, the country labored under one of the most regressive Communist regimes in the Soviet bloc.

Still, Havel and a clique of dissidents had the temerity to compose Charter '77, a petition demanding fundamental respect for human rights.

A year later, his essay, "The Power of the Powerless," poignantly analyzed how the Communist regime had, through fear and intimidation, turned society into a morass of timid and morally corrupt individuals.

The power of the powerless, he concluded, lay in having the moral courage to live in truth, not capitulate to the regime's systemic lies.

Fittingly, Havel -- who turns 66 next month -- has no qualms about relinquishing the office he has held for so long.

"I can't find much empathy for those who yearn for power," he says in an interview. "I never aspired to it, but it came to me and has been a very interesting experience."

The crowning moment of Havel's 13 years as president -- the longest in Europe -- was undoubtedly the Czech Republic's entry into NATO in 1999. (Czechoslovakia had split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.) The first round of expansion also brought in Poland and Hungary.

Now, the country is poised to join the European Union, possibly as soon as 2004.

Along the way, Havel has amassed a who's who of admirers. Many of them will turn up Friday night at the City University of New York's celebration dubbed, "Vaclav Havel: Playwright as President."

Former President Bill Clinton will be among those attending, along with Elie Wiesel and rock 'n' roller Lou Reed of Velvet Underground fame.

"For more than ten years, Europeans have made much progress toward repairing the damage wrought by a century of war -- rebuilding old relationships, unifying the hopes and dreams of people who were arbitrarily separated for far too long," Clinton said by e-mail. "No President, no person, has done better work toward this end than President Vaclav Havel."

Still, the post-Communist years have been difficult for Havel and the Czech Republic.

He turned the largely ceremonial presidential post into an effective bully pulpit, fighting against the opportunists who rose up in the defeated Soviet Union and its satellites. These were people who scoffed at the notion that a vigorous civil society was necessary to a vibrant democracy. They advocated what Havel deprecated as Mafia-capitalism.

He also contended with unreformed Communists, who have not held power since their overthrow in 1989 but polled nearly 20 percent in June elections. The vote was considered a reflection of the difficult economic times spawned by the transition from a centrally controlled economy to a free market system and a protest against the widespread corruption that appeared here, as it did in other previously Communist countries.

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