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What is the legacy of Vaclav Havel?

The legacy of Vaclav Havel, who is stepping down as Czech president after serving two consecutive five-years terms (following two short terms as Czechoslovak president from December 1989 to July 1992) can be divided into three stages. First, in the sixties Havel earned the reputation as one of the world's most talented young playwrights. Then, in the seventies and eighties he became a leader of Czechoslovakia's dissident, anti-communist movement. And since the fall of communism in November 1989, he has been one of the best known world politicians.

Each of these three periods in Havel's life is filled with remarkable achievements and, each, separately, would be enough to make him famous. At the same time, they should in fact not be separated because there is a strong uniting theme in all of them: throughout his life, Havel has been a very political person. In particular, Havel's belief that totalitarian regimes need to be defeated and replaced with democracy, and that democratic politics needs to be rooted in ethics is his life-long obsession.

Even Havel's plays written in the 1960s are actually all political. They mock the communist regime by making fun of its language and uncovering its absurdities. Havel was also very active in advocating democratization during the Prague Spring in 1968, an activity that later earned him the label of "counterrevolutionary".

Although he was only 32 years old when the Soviet-led armies occupied Czechoslovakia and replaced "socialism with a human face" with a neo-stalinist regime, Havel quickly became one of the leading figures of the opposition. In January 1977, he and two hundred other dissidents released a manifesto named Charter 77, in which-encouraged by the Helsinki Accords-they called on the communist government to respect human rights. Havel became one of the first three spokesmen of the group, immediately becoming a target of severe persecution.

He put his writing skills to good use, publishing during this period some of his most famous political essays, such as "The Power of the Powerless" and "The Politics of Conscience". At the same time Havel continued writing plays that would be performed in the West.

His five year imprisonment at the beginning of the 1980s was a risky adventure for the communist regime, as Western human rights organizations and politicians bombarded the Czechoslovak communists with pleas to free the famous prisoner and worked hard to isolate Czechoslovakia internationally. Although Havel almost died in prison of pneumonia which went untreated, in the end he managed to use even this dark stage of his life to his advantage. His "Letters to Olga," which he wrote to his wife in the form philosophical diaries, became one of the treasures of 20th century literature.

When the communist regime collapsed it was only logical that Havel, as the unofficial leader of the dissident movement, be elected president. His election was not automatic, however, as in the first weeks after the velvet revolution the previously united dissident movement began to show cracks; former reform communists, in particular, were pushing for the election of Alexander Dubcek, the leader of the Prague Spring.

Havel's election at the end of 1989, which launched his political career, was in the end a result of many compromises with Dubcek's followers and Dubcek himself. The former general secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party ultimately became the first spokesman of the post-communist Czechoslovak Parliament.

Havel's legacy as politician can be divided into two parts-his domestic political activities and his foreign policy achievements. Although at home Havel has not been as popular as abroad, even after thirteen years in politics he remains one of the most popular Czech politicians. The presidency has been consistently the most trusted political institution in the country.

One reason for a certain decline in Havel's popularity at home has been his active involvement in politics. Havel has never minced words in criticizing various ills of party politics, gradually alienating most party bosses. Some of them eventually began accusing Havel of advocating "non-political politics" that rely more on a civil society than standard mechanisms of democracy, such as political parties.

In fact, Havel's arguments with Vaclav Klaus, who was the Czech Republic's prime minister from 1992 to 1997, significantly shaped the young Czech democracy. A follower of neoliberalism and political theories of Schumpeter, Klaus argued that a democratic regime must be based on free individuals operating in the framework of standard mechanisms. Democratic politics are a conflict between various legitimate interests.

Havel, on the other hand, could be described as a typical communitarian, who believes that democracy cannot be reduced to mechanisms and institutions. It will wither away unless it can rely on active citizenry, solidarity and altruism. Political parties, in Havel's view, will, too, wither away unless they draw energy and inspiration from a vibrant civil society. Klaus countered by arguing that in fact no such thing as a civil society exists. It is, in his view, a leftist construct of former dissidents who needed it to fight the communist regime. In a free society, this "collectivist" notion has no place, according to Klaus.

Havel and Klaus have also repeatedly clashed over the role of the Czech Republic in the world. While Havel has argued that the young Czech democracy is part of a globalizing world and, therefore, must feel responsible for developments far beyond its borders, Klaus argued from a more provincial point of view. He was opposed to Havel's various initiatives, such inviting Salman Rushdie or the Dalai Lama to the Czech Republic, because in his view Havel's obsession with human rights threatened the country's business interests.

While Havel, who during the dissident era dreamed of a Europe without military alliances, quickly embraced NATO as the only guarantee of the Czech Republic's security, and campaigned for its enlargement, Klaus was for a long time lukewarm in his attitudes toward the alliance. Havel has always been a "eurooptimist", strongly in favor of a federal model of Europe, while Klaus has criticized the project of European unification so often that he earned the label of a "euroskeptic".

Havel also repeatedly criticized Klaus's approach to economic reforms. He felt that Klaus's belief in the "invisible hand of market forces" is just Marxism inside out. Instead, he urged Klaus and his governments to pay more attention to the regulatory framework of a market, arguing that a market economy functioning outside the rule of law would inevitably produce corruption and economic crime. Havel could find only small consolation in the fact that Klaus's disregard for the law ultimately caught up with his party and government, both of which disintegrated after a financial scandal in Klaus's party. The country's economic development was unnecessarily slowed down for years to come.

Havel has not been always right, however. Perhaps his biggest mistake was naming a former communist apparatchik, Marian Calfa, the Czechoslovak prime minister after the first free elections in June 1990. While Calfa had proved to be indispensable in helping the dissidents to guide the country after the collapse of communism and Havel felt indebted to him, this meant that, even on a symbolic level, the country missed a chance to make clean break with the previous regime.

Havel also did not grasp as quickly as some other politicians, including Klaus, that Czechoslovakia as a federal state of two nations was doomed once democracy arrived. The Slovaks, who had not had the experience of their own statehood and had always felt patronized by the Czechs, gradually eroded the common state. Klaus, who felt that the economically less successful Slovakia was holding the Czechs back, did not object to this development. Havel, on the other hand, believed until the last moment that the common state could be saved and in June 1992-after elections in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia produced two incompatible political representations-became almost a tragic figure. In July, after Slovak lawmakers blocked his reelection as president, Havel resigned. This was perhaps his biggest political defeat.

Although Havel has been repeatedly accused by party politicians of meddling in day-to-day politics, he in fact is criticized unjustly on this front. The Czech constitution gives the president many more possibilities to interfere with the work of the government than Havel has ever used. Although the constitution gives the president the right to assign tasks to ministers and attend any meeting of the government (where the president must be given the floor first), Havel has always felt the governments appointed by him should have enough independence to work on their own.

Havel's most important achievements have been in foreign policy. In fact, Havel has become an icon in the West, giving the Czech Republic a pretty "facade" that the country does not entirely deserve. Many Western politicians have seen the Czechs through Havel.

He has been instrumental in pushing for the enlargement of NATO-and succeeded. He has been listened to in the West as a moral voice and has received numerous honors and awards. His strongly pro-EU views have significantly influenced party politicians in pushing for EU membership. He has also been a staunch supporter of the Euro-Atlantic alliance, supporting the United States even on occasions when some major West European countries were reluctant to do so.

During his time in the office, Havel has managed to write. The genre has changed from plays and essays to speeches but most of them were Havel's own, conveying his views on a number of issues. This is why his speeches can now be put side by side with his other writings in his collected works, and he does not need to feel ashamed.

In fact, Havel dared to do in his official presidential speeches, both at home and abroad, what most other statesmen never dreamed of doing. He has spoken on difficult issues, such as globalization, religion, human rights, the past, and arts as if he were still a philosopher. Perhaps this will be his main legacy. It is the legacy of a mind seeking answers to difficult questions under all circumstances-be it as a playwright, or a dissident, or a prisoner, or a president.

One irony of Havel's presidency, particularly during the last term, is that he felt he was, to some degree, a prisoner of his office. Although he has always enjoyed politics, he felt he could use his creativity better if he retired. Unfortunately, Czech party politicians-as much as they did not like Havel's influence-were not able to come up with another candidate in 1998. Havel agonized over his decision to accept the nomination. In the end he did, but one could argue he should not have. He was certainly not a happy president, and a visible lack of energy he put into his presidency in the last five years perhaps contributed to a certain decline of his popularity at home.

Euro Business Magazine - 10. 2. 2003