The office of Vaclav Havel, famous playwright and poet, former president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, winner of several dozen awards and a knight of 27 orders from 25 countries, occupies several rooms on the ground floor of a small beautiful 18th-century palace in downtown Prague, next to the sumptuous building housing the Apostolic Nunciature (Vatican Embassy). The building in which Havel’s office is located is also home to several other companies, primarily law firms.
I came to Prague in November to interview Havel for the BBC Russian service and as my crew approached the security officer, a smiling police sergeant who guards the building: “We are here for a meeting with the president.” She answers “Prosim,” or “welcome” in Czech. Havel’s assistant, Sabina, helps us set up our equipment.
This minimalism of expression and total absence of pomp is characteristic of Czech politics and even, perhaps, the Czech approach to life. Havel is an organic part of that life and a founding father of modern Czech politics.
Irrespective of their political allegiances, Czechs see Havel as part of their national heritage. One look at my young colleagues – cameraman Martin, photographer Lukas and translator Pavel – was enough. It was clear how extremely honored they felt to meet the man.
I heard him talk in November 2002 at a conference during the NATO summit in Prague, the first summit the alliance held in a former Warsaw Pact country. Havel, who left the post of president a few months later, looked just like a statesman should.
Aged 74, the man who wrote the plays “The Memorandum” and “Largo Desolato,” enters the room dressed casually in cords, a pullover and slippers. It is immediately apparent that the past eight years had taken their toll on him, primarily due to his battle with lung cancer that was diagnosed in the mid-1990s. Havel speaks quietly, in short sentences. He understands some of my questions without translation, although he speaks Russian with some difficulty.
This man is perfectly aware that he made history on December 29, 1989, when he was elected president of Czechoslovakia. Havel was the leader of the Civic Forum, a non-conformist who had served time for his political views, and was also the author of absurdist plays and the essay “The Power of the Powerless,” which became the credo of dissidents across Central Europe.
This is why there was something jarring about hearing Havel say: “I was invited to become president, and I accepted the invitation.”
Of course, Havel never begged for a seat in power, and he resigned from the post of president of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic in June 1992 in protest at the country’s impending split into two independent states. But he also used his powers as president of Czechoslovakia, and later as president of the Czech Republic after the Czechs and Slovaks split peacefully on January 1, 1993, to propagate his vision of the future for his country, Europe and the rest of the world.
“I regret that I wasn’t more aggressive in promoting my ideas. I’m not tough enough,” he says, and this, at first glance, seems an underestimation of all he achieved. At the end of the day, the Czech Republic joined NATO and the European Union, built up a free-market economy and democracy. It is possible that this would have happened under any other leader who came to power after the Communist regime was toppled. It appears that his position as philosopher-politician, a man seeking no personal gain, proved a decisive factor in President Havel’s success. It was this very stance that compelled his compatriots and world leaders alike to heed his opinion, even where they did not agree with it.
After he withdrew from public life, Havel continued to take an interest in weighty political issues and did not alter his stance. He remains a friend of the United States (“I don’t consider it the world’s policeman”), prioritizes idealism over pragmatism (“I’m convinced that we cannot trade values for oil and gas”) and is skeptical of Russia’s integration into NATO, even in the long term (“I cannot conceive of Russia, which is larger than all the NATO countries taken together, simultaneously becoming part of it.”).
Although another Vaclav, the incumbent Czech President Vaclav Klaus, is not mentioned even once in our discourse, out of political correctness, one gets the impression that Vaclav Havel is arguing with him in absentia.
Formerly Prime Minister under Havel, Vaclav Klaus is severely critical of the EU. He has established constructive relations with China and a friendly relationship with Russia’s leaders. In addition, Klaus has become one of the most active opponents of international environmentalist organizations and the theory of global-warming. Havel, on the contrary, believes that the EU does indeed have a future. He signed a letter in defense of disgraced oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and lent his official support to the Czech Green Party.
The lack of time allotted to us meant that I did not have the opportunity to ask Havel’s opinion on numerous issues that I had hoped to raise. For instance, I did not get the chance to ask whether some of his answers implied that, underneath it all, he was convinced that Russia was fundamentally incapable of attaining democracy, whether Europe would be able to adapt to the influx of immigrants from Asia and Africa and whether he shared the much discussed sense that democratic institutions across Europe were in crisis. After thanking me in Russian, the world’s most famous Czech walked back into his office. As I helped my colleagues pack up their kit, I could not help thinking that never before had I met a politician who has such a strong belief that ideas can change the world, and who is so deeply convinced that this is the essence of politics.
The Russian version of this column first appeared on ВВС Russian website.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.