Interview With A Reluctant Dissident

TWO days after Vaclav Havel's release from prison, the celebrated playwright and opposition leader expressed confidence that his campaign for human rights would soon force Czechoslovakia to participate in the reform wave sweeping the communist world. Excerpts from his interview with the Monitor follow: You always have said you don't want to be a dissident or a politician, only a writer. Is that still possible?

I am trying to understand what my role in this complicated game should be. It is true, I would like to just write, but I know I must accept my responsibility. A lot has changed since I went to prison. Budapest Radio now calls me and interviews me for an hour. Dubcek comes and sees me. All this was impossible a few months ago.

Did you know something important had changed?

In prison I received 500 letters each month. That surprised me. These were unknown people, students, workers, peasants, different groups from different parts of the country. For 20 years, this society has been demoralized. Its moral quality has fallen. All are waiting for a moment to finally express themselves. Developments in the Soviet Union, in Poland and Hungary, the behavior of our own government, created that moment.

Is the population encouraged enough to fight for its rights, as in Poland?

Of course, it isn't enough for achieving radical political changes in this country. But it still is extremely important. We can't go back to the situation before. Everybody now knows that our leadership is isolated from its foreign partners and its own society.

Do you see yourself running for parliament and holding an important political post like your friend in Poland, Adam Michnik?

I told my interrogators in prison that in five years there will be round-table [negotiations] in Czechoslovakia as in Poland. They told me they would send this suggestion to our high authorities. The next day they told me it's a joke. I'm open to speaking with everybody immediately. They still are not prepared to speak to me.

Without the possibility of a dialogue, what is your strategy for the future?

We will keep asking for permission to demonstrate officially. We know that if we call for demonstrations, they will be broadcast by the foreign radio and that people will come. But I don't want to take the wrong step. I know I am getting on a bridge which doesn't have a clear destination.

What about forming opposition political parties as in Hungary?

In the future, opposition parties certainly will become more and more necessary. Real politicians will have to engage in real politics. I would prefer to engage in general human rights, not in some specific political movement.... But we are living in an abnormal situation, and until this situation is normalized and real politicians begin to work, I must act politically.

Were you surprised to be arrested in January?

The police were aggressive when they arrested me in Wenceslas Square. They dragged me away. It was an emotional, hysterical reaction, counterproductive for them. It only accelerated the development in a bad direction for them.

Does your release signal a real change on the part of the authorities?

No. It is extremely important to know that Havel is not the only political prisoner in Czechoslovakia. There are a lot of other cases, and we must not forget them. In this comedy called Czechoslovakia, I repeat that we cannot accept that if Havel is all right, everything is OK.

Could the West do anything to encourage change in Czechoslovakia?

My feeling is that the Americans are too careful. It is time that they sit down and deal seriously with Gorbachev.

And what do you expect from Mr. Gorbachev?

Sooner or later, the question of the Soviet invasion will be opened. In the new parliament, I can't imagine that [Andrei] Sakharov won't speak about it. Many other elected Soviets know this is necessary. Gorbachev must know it too. Our leadership, which bases its legitimacy on this invasion, will crumble once that happens.

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