Vaclav Havel: remembering the Czech president, playwright, and peacenik
Vaclav Havel went from being a playwright to a symbol of the new Czech state and democracy in Eastern Europe. Along the way he became Czech's first democratically elected president, nominee and winner of prestigious peace prizes, and one of the world's preeminent anti-communist revolutionaries.
(Page 3 of 3)
Holding a post of immense prestige but little power, Havel's attempts to reconcile rival politicians were considered by many as unconstitutional intrusions, and his pleas for political leaders to build a "civic society" based on respect, tolerance and individual responsibility went largely unanswered.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Media criticism, once unthinkable, became unrelenting. Serious newspapers questioned his political visions; tabloids focused mainly on his private life and his flashy second wife.
Havel left office in 2003, 10 years after Czechoslovakia broke up and just months before both nations joined the European Union. He was credited with laying the groundwork that brought his Czech Republic into the 27-nation bloc in 2004, and was president when it joined NATO in 1999.
Even out of office, the diminutive Havel remained a world figure. He was part of the "new Europe" — in the coinage of then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — of ex-communist countries that stood up for the U.S. when the democracies of "old Europe" opposed the 2003 Iraq invasion.
Havel was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, and collected dozens of other accolades worldwide for his efforts as a global ambassador of conscience, defended the downtrodden from Darfur to Myanmar.
"He was among the hand full of true democratic champions, an artist more than a politician, but an ambassador of the human conscience above all," said former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. "Amid the turbulence of modern Europe, his voice was the most consistent and compelling — endlessly searching for the best in himself and in each of us."
"I never imagined that I would have had the privilege of being his friend," she said.
"We should not turn a blind eye ... It's a big test for the West," he said.
Havel also said he saw the global and European economic crisis as a warning not to abandon basic human values in the scramble to prosper.
"It's a warning against the idea that we understand the world, that we know how everything works," he told the AP in his office in Prague. The cramped work space was packed with his books, plays and rock memorabilia.
Havel himself acknowledged that his handling of domestic issues never matched his flair for foreign affairs. But when the Czech Republic joined NATO and the EU his dreams came true.
"I can't stop rejoicing that I live in this time and can participate in it," Havel exulted.
Early in 2008, Havel returned to his first love: the stage. He published a new play, "Leaving," about the struggles of a leader on his way out of office, and the work gained critical acclaim.
Theater, he told the AP, was once again his major interest.
"My return to the stage was not easy," he said. "It's not a common thing for someone to be involved in theater, become a president, and then go back."
Get daily or weekly updates from CSMonitor.com delivered to your inbox. Sign up today.