- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

PRAGUE A giant heart in pink neon still shines from Prague's castle, put there by the man who led his nation out of communist bondage and never quite shed the flower child in him. But as Vaclav Havel steps down today after 13 years as president, his last hurrah looks likely to be a muted one.
Nobody more than this playwright-turned-president symbolizes the breathtaking year of 1989, when the communist regimes of Eastern Europe came crashing down one by one, foreshadowing the demise of the Soviet Union itself.
Lionized as a modern philosopher king, acclaimed as one of the 20th century's great Europeans, Mr. Havel is now 66 and a lion in winter introspective and distant, his health fragile since a 1996 operation for lung cancer, and his society nowhere near the ideal society he envisaged.
Thirteen years ago, people defied the Soviet-backed system by daubing "Havel to the Castle!" on city walls. Nowadays they have grown used to a post-communist world of mundane politics and the ups and downs of capitalism, price increases and job-hunting. Few pay much attention to Mr. Havel or his dream of a perfect democracy to replace the 40-year dictatorship he famously dubbed "Absurdistan."
Mr. Havel, who still looks more comfortable in jeans than pinstripes, recently acknowledged the lesson he has learned that even poet-presidents can't reweave reality.
"I really was catapulted overnight into a world of fairy tales and then, in the years that followed, had to return to earth," he said in a speech at City University of New York.
"I was given no diplomatic immunity from that hard fall to Earth, from the exhilarating world of revolutionary excitement into the mundane world of bureaucratic routine."
Indeed, Mr. Havel's Czech Republic shares the same fate as neighboring nations that shook off communism: They have moved far beyond dictatorship, yet still struggle with the aches and pains of a normal free society.
The country has made remarkable strides. It has joined NATO and is set to enter the prosperous, border-free European Union.
Although the Czech presidency wields little power other than moral, Mr. Havel made it work for him. His conciliatory style did much to bury Czech-German enmity. Initially a pacifist, convinced NATO was getting obsolete with the end of the Cold War, he later become a leading advocate of Czech membership in the alliance.
The country he heads has been transformed. The city below the 1,000-year-old presidential castle, once a gray expanse festooned with communist slogans, is now a hive of restaurants and department stores, its opera houses and medieval churches interspersed with Internet cafes and KFC outlets.
A hybrid of rival nationalisms since its formation from the ruins of World War I, Czechoslovakia broke into separate Czech and Slovakian republics in 1993. Mr. Havel is faulted by some for not doing enough to prevent the rupture, but at least it happened without the bloodshed that has raged in other former communist territories.
Even now, shrunken by a third to the size of South Carolina, the Czech Republic and its 10 million people register a GDP of $70 billion four times as much as all of Czechoslovakia in 1990, the first post-communist year. Unemployment is 9 percent but inflation is just 1.8 percent.
Yet the Communists took 15 percent of the vote to come in third in elections last year, suggesting a longing for the old days when official figures showed everyone at work and prices stayed the same year after year.
When he was being jailed, harassed and pressured to emigrate, Mr. Havel electrified the nation with writing that radiated courage and truth. But as the years passed, says journalist Jana Ciglerova, the reaction of Czechs turned cynical, to something like: "Stop talking about all the love you have in your heart and explain to me instead why oranges are so expensive."
Oranges, like many goods, have become more affordable as prosperity has spread, and recent polls show six in 10 Czechs still consider Mr. Havel a good president. Parliament has failed to elect a successor despite two attempts, reflecting the difficulty of replacing an icon. The job is likely eventually to go to his rival, Vaclav Klaus, the conservative former prime minister.
Miss Ciglerova, 13 in 1989, remembers her first glimpse of the man who would bury communism. Her parents, card-carrying Communists, had warned her to expect "this evil, powerful and mean-spirited figure." Yet as Mr. Havel leaned from a balcony over hundreds of thousands of supporters gathered in Prague's central Wenceslas Square, she saw a man "with a bad haircut … this kind-looking guy, chunky in a teddy-bear kind of way."
Where the Communist overlords tended to address the nation in stilted slogans, Mr. Havel showed the common touch, for instance using the Czech equivalent for "gonna" instead of "going to," she said. When Parliament chose him as president in December 1989, "He was like a friend who was elected the leader," she said.
There was always something distinctly 1960s in this short, mustachioed man, starting with his movement, which was dubbed the Velvet Revolution because it was so peaceful.
Once installed in the castle, he and aides would zip along the cavernous corridors on children's scooters. He filled the place with books and videos. Among his first palace guests was Frank Zappa. He replaced the drab khaki uniforms of the castle guard with cheerful light-blue ensembles. He would sign his name with a little drawing of a heart.
In November, on the anniversary of the fall of communist rule, he switched on the newly installed neon heart, explaining: "A heart is a symbol of love, understanding and decency, and that was something that accompanied our Velvet Revolution."
The heart is supposed to come down when he leaves office, and the few farewell events for the man who has become Europe's longest-serving president are by invitation only.
"The day he leaves will be just like any other day to me," said Jana Novotna, checking the coat of a visitor to the Slavia restaurant. It was there that Mr. Havel and fellow dissidents plotted strategy over draft beer, roast duck and cabbage, watched by secret policemen.
Mr. Havel is a rich man today, with a country house, a villa in Prague and a retreat in Portugal. But if he seems aloof, "it's not his fault," said Miss Novotna. "He lives a different life from us after all, he's the president."
Jan Soukoup, owner of the nearby Vltava restaurant, another old Havel haunt, said: "At the beginning, we were all excited. But then, as he grew more distant, more protected, he became just another guy in power."
Mr. Havel's private life also fed the disenchantment.
His first wife, Olga, was adored by Czechs for her intellect as well as her quiet, unwavering loyalty to her dissident husband, despite his reputed philandering. Just a year after her death in December 1996, Mr. Havel married Dagmar Veskrnova, an actress almost 20 years his junior, who was judged uncouth by many Czechs for whistling loudly to drown out a speech critical of her new husband.
"Over the years, he lost his innocence, as have the Czech people," Miss Ciglerova said. "Everything is more pragmatic now. Only after he leaves will we realize how different he was, how different we were, and how, with him gone, we've lost something special."

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More

Click to Hide