Prague′s Moral Authority Retires | Current Affairs | DW | 03.02.2003
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Current Affairs

Prague's Moral Authority Retires

Václav Havel steps down today after 13 years as president. The former playwright and dissident didn't make things easy for his countrymen and women.


Now he should have time to write more than just speeches

Prague Castle will be graced with Václav Havel's presence as Czech president for the last time today. The former dissident and playwright has reached the end of his final term as president after a total of 13 years as Czechoslovakia's and later the Czech Republic's head of state.

While Havel is revered throughout the world, in recent years enthusiasm for the president has waned dramatically at home. Many who resent Havel's position as a sort of moral authority will even be relieved that Havel's period in office is over.

Not his business?

While the president carries out a mainly ceremonial function in the Czech Republic, with the prime minister holding the reigns of power, Havel has frequently been accused of meddling in domestic politics.

One of Havel's last acts in office even made international waves.

Along with seven other European statesman, the Czech president signed a joint declaration pledging support to the United States' stance against Iraq. Havel has been under fire ever since. Prime Minister Vladimir Špidla claims to have declined to sign the statement previously, and Foreign Minister Cyril Svobodá told the press that Havel had been expressing his personal opinion and was not speaking for his country.

Criticism at home

It is not the first time that President Havel has faced the wrath of his countrymen and women.

The 66-year-old, who is not aligned to any political party, is known for expressing unpopular sentiments. Not only has Havel outraged many Czechs for condemning the postwar deportation of Germans from Czechoslovakia, but he also reminds them of the widespread complicity with the Communist regime in the two decades preceding the 1989 "Velvet Revolution" that finally ended 40 years of dictatorship.

"Many people have a bad conscience," says Czech journalist and political commentator Jaroslav Šonka. "It's exactly the same mechanism as in postwar Germany. It wasn't us!"

Dagmar Havlova Havel

Dagmar Havlova Havel headshot, as Czech Republic First Lady, speaks to reporters

Havel has also used his public addresses to broach difficult subjects ranging from the treatment of Romas (Gypsies) to corruption in public office and business.

Furthermore, he upset many Czechs when he married the actress Dagmar Veskrnová (photo) -- 20 years his junior -- less than a year after his much-revered wife Olga died of cancer.

From prison to the presidency

Václav Havel was active as a critic of the Czechoslovak Communist regime, which forbid him to publish his works after the Soviet Union crushed Czechoslovak attempts to reform their country's political system in 1968.

The playwright gained international notoriety in the 1970s with his absurdist theater pieces that focused on the dangers of totalitarianism for society and the individual. Havel's plays were performed on stages throughout Western Europe and the United States.

Havel was one of the founders of "Charta '77" in 1977. The Chartists, as they were later dubbed, called on the Czechoslovak leaders to adhere to the principles they had committed to in ratifying the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights. Their efforts helped to undermine the regime.

Havel was imprisoned on several occasions.

By the time Czechs and Slovaks took to the streets to bring about a political transformation in Nov. 1989, Havel had become a symbol for non-violent resistance.

He was voted Czechoslovakia's first president after the Communist regime was overturned and popularly celebrated.

Three years later, Havel resigned from the presidency in protest against the Czechoslovak divorce. He was unable to prevent the two federal constituents from splitting into separate states -- the Czech and Slovak Republics -- in 1992.

Nevertheless, Havel campaigned for president of the Czech Republic and was elected six months later, in January 1993.

Moving on

Havel has presided over his country as it became a member in NATO and during the process of becoming a European Union member. Under his watch, Prague has hosted both a World Bank meeting and a NATO summit. Now though, he is turning his back on the political stage. Havel, whose health has been poor for several years, says he will spend his retirement in his house in Portugal.

Finding a replacement for Havel, however, is proving difficult. The Czech Parlliament has failed twice to elect a successor to Havel.

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