Havel at the Helm

VACLAV HAVEL has a more difficult role than any he imagined as a playwright. As Czechoslovakia's president, he has to steer his country from the emotion of revolution to the fact of free elections. His performance in office between now and the balloting next summer will either reassure the Czechoslovak people in their break with a socialist past, or begin to raise doubts. The outlook for his making the passage to a new era is good.

It's unlikely that Mr. Havel's partners in the current government - who include a communist prime minister and many communist members of Parliament - are going to press for any startling changes. Havel's position as president, with wide powers of appointment, assures that the gains made in the closing months of 1989 won't be reversed.

The new head of state has begun his term on a strong note, traveling to West and East Germany - ``to contribute to the cause of peace'' - and ordering an amnesty for 30,000 prisoners.

Havel has said repeatedly that his goal is a quick return to writing. That career led him to politics in the first place. His works were banned, and he had many stints of his own in prison - including a short one last year. Havel co-founded was a founder of? the pioneering human rights group, Charter 77. Last Nov. 19, he helped found Civic Forum, the opposition groups that dislodged the communist hard-liners.

With Havel in the government is Alexander Dubcek, leader during the Prague Spring of 1968. As chairman of the Parliament, he is a symbol of renewal.

The tasks ahead include keeping the public's desire for revenge against former communist officials within bounds, negotiating the removal of 80,000 Soviet troops, and laying the groundwork for a new economic order. In contrast to Poland, Czechoslovaks have plenty of food and other essentials. Their reforms can proceed at a slower pace.

On the other hand, Prague's reformers don't have the luxury of saying almost anything is better than the old economic methods.

Havel will preside over the most important transition in his country's history. Since he helped shape that history, he's well prepared for the job.

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