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Remembering Vaclav Havel | The Nation

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Remembering Vaclav Havel

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Vaclav Havel, who died recently at the age of 75, will rightly be remembered as one of the two great Czech politicians of last 100 years (the other was Thomas Garrigue Masaryk). I was in close contact with Vaclav Havel for 20 years after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. It is virtually impossible today, so close to his death, to offer rational, unemotional, objective evaluation of his life and work. I shall hereby share with the readers only few of my personal memories.

About the Author

Jan Kavan
Jan Kavan was the foreign minister of the Czech Republic from 1998 until 2002. He was also the President of the United...

Between 1969 and 1989, as a Czech emigré in United Kingdom I was helping Czechoslovak opposition and the ensuing Charter 77 human rights movement of which Havel was one of the founders.  My couriers smuggled to Czechoslovakia Western and émigré literature (books written by authors banned in Czechoslovakia and published abroad) and back to me and to Palach Press (my press agency in England) many opposition documents and periodicals that I then helped publish and publicize in the West. Among these were Havel’s open letters and essays, including his famous Power of the Powerless. In 1985 I helped to distribute Havel’s Anatomy of a Reticence at an END peace conference in Amsterdam, a document that played an important role in the dialogue that I facilitated between the European Nuclear Disarmament group and Charter 77.

That same year in March, Charter 77 spokespersons asked me to make available to Western leaders, governments and institutions the now famous Prague Appeal. In this document Havel and other signatories appealed to the West to help bring down the Iron Curtain and end the “undemocratic legacy of World War II” starting with the reunification of Germany leading to the rebirth of a fully democratic and free Europe, including the countries of East and Central Europe. Several of the top European leaders I then met frequently expressed their respect and moral support for Havel’s personal courage – even as they too often perceived the Prague Appeal as naïve or as a misplaced attempt to undermine détente and stability in Europe.

Sometime in the spring of 1989 I was asked by a BBC journalist to name those leaders of the Czech opposition whom I believed would remain incorruptible if the Communist regime ever fell. Without hesitation I named three men, Petr Uhl, Jiri Müller and, of course, Vaclav Havel. Shortly after the November 1989 Velvet Revolution I listened with admiration to Havel's first major Presidential speech in which he described his vision of a peaceful world without military pacts, a vision of a unified and integrated free Europe and a vision of  a Czechoslovakia as a prosperous and democratic country where there would be no unemployment and all its citizens could enjoy social justice. Even today many of Havel´s political opponents refer with irony to this historic address.

Later, during his two terms as a President – first of post 1989 Czechoslovakia and then of the Czech Republic, Havel amended some of his views, becoming both more realistic and politically pragmatic. He made some painful compromises. One example, of which Havel was painfully aware, was a new law on “lustration” whose manifest purpose to clean the civil service of former communist secret service (StB) agents – would inevitably also hurt innocent people whose names were found in the StB files simply because they drew the attention of StB agents (often, ironically, because of their contacts with the opposition).

Once President, Havel made a firm decision to closely attach his country to the West and, in particular, to offer virtually unqualified support the United States in “gratitude”, as he put it, for what the country had done for us. I understood these emotions but found it difficult to support it in all cases. As Foreign Minister from 1998 to 2002, I clashed with President Havel over the Czech-Greek Peace memorandum, which I drafted with Jorgos Papandreu (then Greek Foreign Minister), in our endeavour to halt the bombardment of former Yugoslavia and bring peace to Kosovo while also respecting the UN resolution on the integrity of the country. I also proposed a resolution in the UN Human Rights Council, which was highly critical of Cuban violations of human rights but at the same time maintained that US blanket sanctions cannot help and could even be counterproductive. Four years later when I was President of the UN General Assembly, I disagreed with Havel’s support for the Iraq War. Later, I also disagreed with Havel´s support for the installation of US radar station in the Czech Republic as proposed by President George W Bush. That disagreement was shared by over 70% of Czech citizens. Despite these political disagreements, Vaclav Havel will always remain in my memory a very courageous man, a fervent supporter of human rights everywhere, a politician, who championed an integrated, democratic and environmentally responsible Europe.

Let me close by recounting a moment of our last meeting, on October 8, at a celebration of the 70th birthday of our mutual friend, human rights activist, Petr Uhl. Havel asked me to join him at his table. Frail and ill he could only whisper, yet he still made a point of sincerely enquiring about my personal wellbeing. Havel was undoubtedly one of the greatest Europeans of our generation, a man, who fully deserves the unquestionable respect both of his country and the world, and he was also a very decent and caring human being. We all owe him very much.
 

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