Havel, Still a Man of Morals and Mischief

Source: The New York Times / By Alison Smale /

PRAGUE — It was supposed to be an interview about the revolutions that overturned communism 20 years ago in Europe. But first, Vaclav Havel had a question.

Michal Novotny
Vaclav Havel took aim at what he called the current “era of disgust” in Czech politics.

Was it true that President Obama had refused to meet the Dalai Lama in Washington?

Mr. Havel is a fan of the Dalai Lama, who was among the first visitors to Prague’s storied castle after Mr. Havel moved in there as president, the final act in the swift, smooth revolution of 1989. A picture of the Dalai Lama is displayed prominently in Mr. Havel’s current office in central Prague.

old that Mr. Obama had made clear he would receive the Dalai Lama after his first presidential visit to China in November, Mr. Havel reached out to touch a magnificent glass dish, inscribed with the preamble to the United States Constitution — a gift from Mr. Obama, who visited in April.

“It is only a minor compromise,” Mr. Havel said of the nonreception of the Tibetan leader. “But exactly with these minor compromises start the big and dangerous ones, the real problems.

“This is actually the first time I really do mind something Obama did,” Mr. Havel said. He minded it “much more” than Mr. Obama’s recent decision not to station elements of a missile-defense system in the Czech Republic, a move that several Central European politicians criticized but that Mr. Havel noted was ultimately “an internal American decision.”

One day after his 73rd birthday, with a half-drunk glass of Champagne at his side in midafternoon, the man who steered the Czechs and Slovaks out of communism showed that his morals, and his sense of mischief, were intact.

His country has been in the news — in Europe, at least — these days because Mr. Havel’s successor as president, his fierce rival Vaclav Klaus, has puzzled and irritated European leaders by raising last-minute objections to a treaty designed to consolidate the power of the European Union and give it more heft on the world stage.

Mr. Havel said he had not criticized his successor on the advice of Madeleine K. Albright, the former secretary of state whose Central European roots have made her something of a mentor for several regional politicians.

But Mr. Havel’s reticence did not prevent him, during a 45-minute interview, from aiming squarely at what he called the current “era of disgust” in Czech politics.

“If you look at the C.V.’s of current Czech politicians, you see that most of them are in their 50s,” he said. This means they matured in what he called “early normalization,” roughly from 1969 to the mid-1970s, when the Soviet-led invasion that crushed the brief Prague Spring reforms of 1968 gave way to a dull and autocratic regime dependent on Moscow. “One of the darkest periods” of national history, Mr. Havel said.

In his view, those years have marked many current politicians, leaving them prone to conspiratorial thinking and acts of petty deceit. Compounding that, he said, is “some kind of existential crisis” caused by a global pursuit of materialism and by the specific Czech legacy of 40 years of Communist government.

Indeed, the contrast between the atmosphere in Prague today and during the magical autumn of 1989 and the Velvet Revolution could scarcely be greater. Today, the city is a freer, far wealthier place than 20 years ago, with private property restored and millions of tourists proving an economic if not aesthetic boon to one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals.

But as an exhibit at the Old Town Hall reveals, the spirit of 1989 was humane in a way rarely felt since. In grainy black-and-white photographs, the show traces the arc between the first demonstrations against Communism here in 1988, through the mass exodus of East Germans via the West German Embassy in Prague in August 1989, to the fall of the Berlin Wall and then the Velvet Revolution itself.

As Vaclav Maly, then a dissident with Mr. Havel and now auxiliary bishop of Prague, notes in the introduction to the show, “It is good to realize that once there were times when we were not afraid to show feelings, and did not take considerateness and kindness to be a sign of weakness.”

Asked for his favorite memory of the Velvet Revolution, Mr. Havel said it was the mass gathering on Letna Plain above Prague in late November 1989, when 750,000 people gathered in freezing temperatures. “It was so cold, there were too many speakers, but I looked out and felt that something was definitely changing, that it was a turning point,” he said.

The discussion turned to present-day challenges, including the intentions of Russia. Mr. Havel recently joined other Central and East European leaders and intellectuals in appealing to the Obama administration not to abandon the region and to be wary of resurgent Russian imperialism.

“I truly believe that we should not treat Russia as a handicapped person,” he said in response to the suggestion that Russia cannot be expected to reach democracy swiftly after decades of Communism.

“It’s a partner country like any other, and the broader human principles or standards apply to Russia, as they apply to Burma, Brazil, the Czech Republic or any other country.”