Looking for Havel’s legacy

Source: Politico / www.politico.eu / Siegfried Mortowitz /

PRAGUE — Twenty-one years after one of Václav Havel’s most famous speeches, many fear the Czech Republic is still in an “ugly mood.”

In December 1997, the then-president told a joint session of the Czech parliament that the nation was on the wrong track. Just eight years after the Velvet Revolution, the country was going through a very rough patch. The governing coalition had collapsed, scandals were rife and a right-wing extremist party was whipping up hatred against minorities.

“Many people,” he said, “are disconcerted, disappointed, or even disgusted by the general state of society in this country. Many people believe that, democracy or no democracy, the people in power are again people who cannot be trusted and who are more concerned about helping themselves than about the greater good.”

In the week that marks the seventh anniversary of Havel’s death, the speech still strikes a chord with many Czechs.

We were all idealistic back then. But today strength is important. So if you are looking for signs of Havel’s moral legacy in the country right now, I would say that it’s a difficult task
Former Defense Minister Alexandr Vondra

But to Havel’s admirers, parts of that 1997 address — which became known as the “ugly mood speech” — feel like an apt description of the state of the Czech nation today.

President Miloš Zeman has been criticized both at home and abroad for virulent comments against minorities and Muslims. And, as Jan Zahradil, a Czech conservative member of the European Parliament, put it: “Thirty years after the Velvet Revolution we have a prime minister [Andrej Babiš] who was a Communist Party member and a secret police informer.”

Babiš has denied knowingly collaborating with the secret police — though the European Court of Human Rights last month rejected an appeal he filed to be removed from the records as a communist-era informant.

Babiš, one of the country’s richest men, has also been charged with EU subsidy fraud — another accusation he has denied.

I’m very critical of Zeman, and even more of Babiš, but they cannot destroy the democracy Havel helped create
Former Defense Minister Alexandr Vondra

Against that backdrop, it’s easy to wonder whether anything remains of Havel’s moral idealism in the country he led for the first 13 years after its rebirth — and whether the “ugly mood speech” is more fitting than ever.

“I quote from that speech regularly these days,” said Michael Žantovský, executive director of the Václav Havel Library.

Žantovský was a lifelong friend of Havel’s, his first presidential spokesman and later his ambassador to the U.S. He wrote a well-regarded biography of Havel, who died on December 18, 2011, at the age of 75.

Žantovský admitted that Havel’s moral thinking is not prevalent among current Czech politicians. “But among the general population, in spite of what you sometimes hear or see on social media, Havel’s legacy is well and is deeply rooted,” he said.

Housed in a modest two-story building not far from the café in which Havel and fellow artists and dissidents often met, the library holds more than 200 debates, discussions and readings a year. “And we have a full house every night,” Žantovský said. “They are mostly young people, between 20 and 30 years of age.”

The library also takes to the road, to small and large towns across the country, speaking to high schools and colleges, libraries and culture clubs. “And everywhere we meet with the same reception from people who realize that the sense of moral values — of feeling co-responsible for the state of the world around you, of how people treat each other — is as strong as ever,” Žantovský said.

The library also has a popular online project in which YouTubers, actors and other performers read from Havel’s works. According to some social media data, Žantovský said, the Havel library is the most cited NGO in the Czech Republic.

“Havel is here to stay,” he declared. “And next year we will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the revolution and it will be another occasion to showcase him.”

Pragmatic Prague

Not everyone sees things quite that way. Havel’s idealism may just be out of place in today’s world of realpolitik, according to former Defense Minister Alexandr Vondra, who served as the late president’s first foreign policy adviser.

“Just like in economy, there are cycles also in values,” said Vondra, a former dissident with Havel who, like him, was jailed for his activities.

“We were all idealistic back then. But today strength is important. So if you are looking for signs of Havel’s moral legacy in the country right now, I would say that it’s a difficult task.”

Vondra said he doubts if Havel would be elected president by popular vote today, because of his high moral standards.

“He raised the ethical bar too high for the average citizen. But, then, if you start with a lower bar, you will get lower results,” he mused.

Vaclav Havel with his wife Olga
Václav Havel with his wife Olga and his brother Ivan attend a religious ceremony at Prague’s Saint Guy Cathedral December 29, 1989. | Lubomir Kotek/AFP via Getty Images

Zahradil believes that Havel’s insistence on high moral standards alienated many Czechs during his presidency.

“There were 1.5 million people who were Communist Party members, many of them without believing in the ideology. Those people were fed up by what they considered the morally superior posturing of Havel,” he said.

This aversion to Havel’s ethical stance also included some mainstream politicians — he was reelected president in 1997 with only 55 percent of the parliament’s vote.

The far-right politician Jan Vik no doubt voiced what many Czechs came to believe when he said, in 1993, “The [Prague] Castle is still haunted by the specter of greasy and weird-looking advisers and their chancellor, a typical example of patriotic nobility, proudly claiming its estates and our historical monuments. It is still haunted by the figure of the ruler in a jester’s hat with bells, a megalomaniac and an artist with a chip on his shoulder.”

But Havel’s legacy is not just a question of morality, Vondra said. Widely considered the father of the modern Czech state, Havel and his collaborators created the foundations of today’s Czech democracy.

“I’m very critical of Zeman, and even more of Babiš, but they cannot destroy the democracy Havel helped create,” Vondra said. “And he anchored the country in the West. Even Zeman, with his appetite for strongmen and doing business with Russia and China, is not able to destroy our Western anchor. Despite all the problems and the politicians you cannot be proud of, the country is in relatively good shape. That’s the legacy.”

But if you look carefully, especially in Prague, signs of Havel’s lingering moral spirit can still be found. On the shop window of his small natural foods store not far from the city center, 40-year-old Miloslav Picmaus displays a large poster showing a smiling Havel under one of his most famous statements: “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.”

Picmaus said he wanted to display the poster prominently because of his dismay over the October 2017 parliamentary election, won by Babiš. He said that many people have reacted negatively to it, coming into the store to complain or even spitting on the window.

“But a lot more people give us the thumbs-up from the sidewalk and many have asked for copies,” he said. “Havel’s ideas are still very important, especially these days.”