The Power Of a Powerless President


VACLAV HAVEL is in a hurry. It is midafternoon at the Castle here, the Czech president's schedule is crackling. The former dissident appears, wearing slippers and a shy smile, saying he will be right back.

President Havel has been in a hurry all year. The leader of the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which freed the nation from Communism, is struggling to remain relevant in his own country.

Abroad he is still seen as a global moral conscience, much like Nelson Mandela and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His open letters to Czech leaders and signature on the Charter 77 human rights manifesto during the cold war got him imprisoned several times and helped earn him the reputation as a leading voice on the problems of the human spirit and politics.

Today, the playwright-president plays this global role at Harvard University, where he gives the address at what is arguably the most prestigious commencement in the United States.

But at home in Prague, Havel is waist deep in local details, learning a new game and fighting off both friends and enemies who feel he should not be president. Some indicators suggest he may be bouncing back from efforts to marginalize him. After two years of what insiders say have been a political wringer for Havel, including a little-talked-about personal depression, he is starting to see some daylight. His approval rating has jumped to 77 percent, according to Czech polls.

In part, the shift seems due to a general worry among many Czechs that the pace of the economic reform may erase their better values. "People are turning back to some basic questions, ethics, decency, and finding that Havel has been there all along," says one Czech diplomat.

Starting a discussion

Havel, in a Monitor interview, states he is "trying to contemplate broader questions, our state of civilizational crisis."

"I don't think of myself as trying to save the world. But I simply feel it is my duty to say aloud some of my thoughts, to start a discussion, a transcontinental one," he adds.

Today's Harvard address, obtained by the Monitor, may fit this bill. He argues that the global electronic culture has become a dangerously shallow mixture of CNN, the Rolling Stones, and familiar Euro-American styles. "Our conscience must catch up to our reason, or we are lost."

The "hook" in the speech is a sharp attack on what Havel sees as American isolationism, and shirking of a larger role. "Like it or not, the United States now bears probably the greatest responsibility for the direction our world will take."

This address fits a pattern of meditations on civilization that began last year in a speech given in Philadelphia on July 4. On another overseas trip, however, Havel's plane landed at the Sydney airport at the same time as the Rolling Stones' and, with the red carpet literally rolled out and waiting, he stole over to the Stones' plane for a 10-minute meeting with Mick Jagger.

Such antics, typical two years ago, are rarer today. Havel is on a crash program of presidential discipline. Protocol is the most important word on the president's staff. Havel's schedule is sliced and diced to minutes and seconds; he gives few interviews.

"In '89 he was a mediator and people's president," says Vladimir Feldman of GJW, Inc., a Prague consulting firm. "Now he wants to become a true politician. He's had to give up his earthy manners and stick to protocol. This is causing him some problems. He is not quite influential, and not quite his old self."

"The president used to rely on the strength of his arguments," one aide says. "Now he realizes he has to form coalitions."

The new context of Prague is also important. Five years after the Velvet Revolution, it is in a breakneck commercial push. The old Warsaw Pact dust has lifted; buildings are brightly painted. Locals rave over frozen yogurt in waffle cones, and cellular phones.

The city also has a dark side. Italian and Russian mafia territory meets here. Outside swanky restaurants, welcome mats are chained down due to theft.

The most important fact in Havel's political life is his relation to the prime minister, Vaclav Klaus. Unlike Havel, who had more than 700 pages of secret service files, Mr. Klaus, a brilliant free-market economist, did not have dissident credentials.

Klaus vs. Havel

Klaus and Havel had a different vision from the start. Klaus wants centralized control of banks, and parties that were clear winners and losers. Havel wants a decentralized civil society in which individuals define themselves through the rich politics of community he experienced as a dissident. Klaus wants power; Havel wants influence.

In the new Czech Republic that split from Slovakia in 1993, Klaus set the terms for Havel's office, which according to one insider was, "You can have moral authority and talk about Bosnia. I am going to run the country."

Recent years brought a mainstream backlash against former dissidents. As one diplomat noted, a majority of those who protested in 1989 were not there "to read the books of Havel. They wanted fresh orange juice in the morning." This was the majority Klaus spoke for. He offered an extremely successful political program, with 3.1 percent unemployment, 10 percent inflation, and no outstanding external debt.

In this climate it "became a national trend to criticize him," a Czech journalist says. "A lot of twentysomething writers showed their courage by attacking him."

But while Czechs like their economy, they are asking questions about crime and violence, and what a purely free-market Czech future looks like. Klaus's inner circle has been scandal-ridden; his party has lost dramatically in the polls.

Havel is also on the move. After a low point when, as an aide put it, "he had many doubts, but constructive ones," he began to work on his office.

The "Havel offensive" dates to the end of last year. With Klaus ceding him the field on civil society, Havel decided to show through public opinion that a powerless president can have power. In new Sunday speeches, Havel offers a moral dimension on everyday issues. Last month when a skinhead murdered a gypsy, he gave a stemwinder on racism that people are still talking about. Havel has criticized Boris Yeltsin on Chechnya, advocated Czech conflict-of-interest laws, and steadily spoken against Serb aggression in the Balkans.

The latter issue is one Havel talks about both at home and abroad. As he told the Monitor, in Bosnia "there are basic values in danger, such as civil coexistence and religious values. It is a great test of Europe: To what extent shall we defend these values on our Continent, or will we watch passively their total destruction?"

On civil society

Asked why "civil society" is his theme, Havel told the Monitor: "Western experts don't realize how basic a tool for totalitarian society was the destruction of civil society. An unbelievable effort was made not to allow people to form grass-roots and humanitarian groups, private circles. The secret police knew such groups bring some feeling of freedom, which is why I stress so much in our present Czech environment the necessity to reconstruct civil society."

Havel's role as president is the most discussed issue about him. Some supporters would prefer he retreat to the countryside, saying his stature would increase there. Some simply say intellectuals make bad politicians. As one argues, changing consciousness is not what presidents usually do.

Havel takes the opposite line. For him, the hard work of politics is the price tag for making himself heard, and to have backed off would have been a waste. At Harvard he will go further: Politicians "above all" have influence and responsibility, he will say, "perhaps more than they realize."

A main criticism of Havel is that he is isolated from the people. "He's been in too many rooms with chandeliers; he's not the same person," says one Western diplomat. Yet he retains a position as a leading world thinker. The writer Timothy Garton Ash notes that in the 1960s, the words "intellectual and politics" might call forth the names of philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre or Bertrand Russell. "Say it now in Paris, New York, Berlin, or Rome, and one of the first associations will be Havel," he says.

For many, the Czech president isn't just an intellectual or politician, but something different. Havel refuses "to be categorized," says Jean Bethke Elshstain, a University of Chicago Divinity School professor who has studied Havel's life.

His spiritual dimension in particular attracts many. He has an "unusual trust in the reality of transcendence," as a Boston lay minister puts it, one that even many nonbelievers take seriously.

Dr. Elshtain says this dimension exemplifies the richness of the "whole human being": "Havel is poised between skepticism and faith, and has always walked that line. He has reminded us in the cynical West of the power of a moral act by taking a stand. I mean, there's a lot more going on with this guy than a cost-benefit analysis."

Advice for graduates

Asked what he would like to impart to graduating seniors, Havel describes this spiritual dimension: "Unlike me, these graduates have much background of knowledge, experience and learning, reading the best books, studying, traveling abroad, hearing the best professors, and I may never catch up with them in this respect.

"On the other hand, I have something that they do not have. It is the existential experience of life under the extreme conditions of communism.... This experience shows me that there is something that transcends us. That it makes sense sometimes to do things that have no immediate, tangible benefit.... It may be that living under oppression, I had a greater opportunity to realize these things than were I to have lived in the bright market of free intellectual life where there may be less time to think this way."

Can Havel today find that time? Having recently bought a house, he says he now feels at home for the first time in his life. Friends say he is happiest putting on old pants and having friends over to his country place.

Havel doesn't seem rushed in the interview. He turns an engraved lighter in his hands as he thinks through answers. His blue eyes are both piercing and soft, and he speaks in quiet tones. But when the allotted time is up, his staff is on him. He is out the door.

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