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The New Year in Prague

Václav Havel, translated by Paul Wilson

Dear Fellow Citizens,

There was a time when each New Year the president could deliver the same speech as he had the year before and no one would know the difference. Fortunately, that time is past. Time and history have come back into our lives. The gloomy skies of boredom and stultifying inaction have cleared, and we can only marvel at the vast range of possibilities a truly free political climate can offer, and at how it continues to astonish us, in both the good and the bad sense of the word.

Let me first talk about the unpleasant surprises the last year has brought us. In the first place, the heritage of the past few decades has proven worse than we could possibly have anticipated in the joyous atmosphere of those first few weeks of freedom. Each day brings new problems, and each day we realize how interrelated they are, how long they will take to solve, and how difficult it is to establish the proper order in which to deal with them.

We knew that the house we had inherited was not in order: the plaster was cracking and falling off, the roof looked as though it might leak, and we had doubts about other parts of it as well. After a year of careful inspection, we are shocked to discover that all the pipes are rusting, the beams are rotten, the wiring is in terrible shape, and the reconstruction we had planned for and looked forward to will take longer and cost far more than we first thought. What a year ago appeared to be a rundown house is in fact a ruin. This is not a pleasant discovery, and not surprisingly it has made us all feel disappointed and out of sorts.

Many of you are asking why we have settled so few accounts with the past, why we have failed to rehabilitate all its victims, right all the wrongs, and justly punish all the guilty ones. Many of you are asking why the “aristocracy” of the former regime, who grew rich at the society’s expense, are still the aristocracy and why they have been able to find their feet so quickly in the new conditions. Many of you are surprised that the broad transformation of our economy is still only being talked about, and that you cannot see any changes for the better in your everyday lives. People are anxious because all that planned reforms have brought so far are higher prices and the threat of a loss of social security and jobs. We are all upset by the serious increase in crime. Our hopes for a better future are increasingly mixed with a feeling of the opposite kind: fear of the future.

In this atmosphere of general impatience, anxiety, disappointment, and doubt, elements of spitefulness, suspicion, mistrust, and mutual recrimination are creeping into public life. Surprisingly, freedom has opened the door to many of our negative qualities and has revealed the depth of the moral decline infecting our souls. We have clearly defeated the monolithic, visible, and easily identifiable enemy and now—driven by our discontent and our need to find a living culprit—we are seeking the enemy in each other. Each of us feels let down, even cheated by the other.

A year ago we were all united by the joy of having liberated ourselves from the totalitarian system; today we have all become somewhat neurotic from the burden of freedom. Our society is still in a state of shock. It could have been predicted, but no one predicted that the shock would be so profound. The old system has collapsed, the new one is not yet built, and our life together is marked by a subconscious uncertainty about what kind of system we want, how to build it, and whether we have the know-how to build it in the first place. The distance, the vagueness, and the uncertainty of the new order leads many of us to seek substitute, partial solutions and to forget that our success as individuals or groups is only possible with the general success of our whole community.

The unpleasant surprise of 1990, then, is this rather uncertain, if not stultifying, atmosphere that surrounds us at the end of the year.

This atmosphere may have caused us to forget some of the large, pleasant surprises of this first year following our uprising against the totalitarian regime. I have a duty to remind you of the good things that have happened, things that we could scarcely have imagined accomplishing a year ago.

—The last units of the Soviet Army that invaded us twenty-two years ago are leaving the country.

—The first free elections in forty-two years, in which we elected representatives of our choice to all levels of government, were successful.

—Our parliaments have passed dozens of new laws that form the primary foundations of a genuine rule of law in a democratic and decentralized state.

—The whole world, after many decades, now views us again as an independent democratic state which enjoys international respect. Prominent world statesmen have visited us, and they think highly of our foreign policy initiatives directed toward the creation of a new, peaceful Europe.

—There is complete freedom of speech and expression in this country, and freedom of assembly and association is guaranteed.

—We have torn down the barbedwire fences surrounding our country that made us one big concentration camp. We can all travel anywhere we wish, and anyone may enter our country.

—Freedom of religion has been renewed; all Catholic dioceses are represented by bishops; the Pope has visited our country, and we have established diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

—After difficult discussions, we have worked out a scenario for economic reform, and have passed several important economic laws that will establish the legal basis for these reforms. These reforms come into effect today.

—We have begun to create a genuine and workable federation [of the Czech and Slovak republics]. The first, and probably most dramatic, phase of this process culminated with the recent passing of the constitutional law that creates a new division of executive powers between the two republics and the federation.

Clearly, we have accomplished more in the past year than in all the preceding forty-one years. I know this is still far too little, and that the main task still lies ahead. What we have just completed constitutes the groundwork for the future. We have created a new environment. In the year ahead of us, we shall begin to fill this environment with its proper content. On this new groundwork, we shall begin to build our new democratic state and its new economic system. We shall move from the planning stage to actual reconstruction.

I make no secret of the fact that 1991 will be a year of great challenges. We will learn how good we are at facing them and whether we are capable of making the sacrifices that so far we have only talked about, and without which the great transformation of our country we have decided on will not take place.

None of the new representatives of our state is calling for these sacrifices in order to bring suffering to his fellow citizens. All of them are seeking ways to keep these sacrifices to a minimum. But they all know too that sacrifices are unavoidable. The former system has collapsed, not only in this country but in the whole former Soviet bloc. The old system of foreign economic relations has collapsed along with it. Even if we had wanted to keep the disastrous centralist economic system alive, we could simply not do so because the very environment in which it could have survived, and without which it would have been unthinkable, has vanished.

Dear fellow citizens, dear friends,

Let me now, in conclusion, try to summarize the basic tasks that lie before us in the coming year.

—By the end of this year, at the very latest, our parliaments should have passed three new constitutions: one federal and two for each of the republics. These constitutions are to form a logical triangle that will provide a stable and lasting foundation for the new legal order. If our legislatures succeed in this, they will have accomplished the main task that you, their electors, gave them to do over their two-year mandate. Until these new constitutions come into effect, several provisional laws should be passed to establish a constitutional means of settling any disputes that might arise during this difficult period.

—This month, auction sales should begin according to the law on the privatization of small business. This so-called small-scale privatization, as well the restitution of illegally confiscated property, could also, in my opinion, be completed by the end of this coming year. The large, inflexible, and bureaucratic organizations in the area of services, trade, and light industry should be broken up and replaced by an extensive network of private and fully independent businesses.

—At the same time, large-scale privatization of large factories and enterprises should begin as well. This process will probably require several years, and when it is completed, all ownership—that is, ownership of the land, of real estate, and the means of production—should be in the hands of specific, clearly defined, and fully independent owners.

—Today, as you know, marks the beginning of a period in which prices can be set with relative freedom. This is one of the conditions of a genuine market environment. The deregulation of prices is also related to the domestic convertability of the crown, which is intended to be the first step on the long and difficult road to a full and genuine convertability. In the first half of the year, despite counter-measures, we can expect an increase in inflation. This too is one of the costs of economic reform. We will also have to pass laws governing trade and commerce so that foreign investors will regain confidence in doing business in our country. So far, what has held them back has been the lack of clear ownership policies and a legal framework for foreign involvement in the economy.

—Along with these initial economic measures, the government should develop a clear strategy in two areas. First, in the social sphere where, in cooperation with the trade unions, it will be necessary to accelerate the creation of a system of legislative and administrative safety nets to alleviate any unjust and inhumane impact the economic reforms might have; and second, in determining the structure and aims of the energy resources and heavy industry sectors. So far, we are not clear about which course to take, and in the given situation, we cannot rely on the emerging market environment to settle the matter for us. The new strategies must also take into account the basic requirements of ecological well-being.[…]

—Next year, we will once again start preparations for new parliamentary elections. During this year, the spectrum of political forces in our society should stabilize, and I believe that by the next elections a better electoral law will be in place, and that the representative assemblies will be smaller and more practical, as defined by our new constitutions.

—In our foreign policy, we should continue to take new initiatives. As soon as possible—perhaps in January—the Political Advisory Committee of the Warsaw Pact should meet in order to dismantle all its military structures, including the joint command system, as member countries have already agreed to do in preliminary meetings. In the spirit of the Paris Charter, we will try to bring a new quality into the Helsinki process; in this regard the fact that the permanent secretariat of the CSCE will be located in Prague should inspire us. As for our inclusion in the existing and newly emerging structures in Europe, we intend to coordinate our approach on all fronts chiefly with Poland and Hungary, our closest neighbors. We believe that in January or February, Czechoslovakia will be accepted as a full member of the Council of Europe. At the same time, we expect to conclude mutually advantageous treaties of association with the European Community. We make no secret of our wish to become a full member. At the same time, we would like to work in closer cooperation with NATO, even though we have no intention, for the time being, of joining it.

Dear fellow citizens,

I am saying nothing new if I tell you that a difficult time lies ahead, and that the year which begins today will be the most difficult. It is most important that we not lose hope, no matter how difficult the trials we face may be. Were we to become dispirited, these trials would no longer be a test of our mettle, but merely the occasion for suffering and want. We will meet these challenges, I believe, and pass the test with flying colors. It all depends on the degree of hope we can keep alive in our souls. We must safeguard this hope both in ourselves, and in those around us.[…]

After so many years, we have got rid of the evil landlord, and no matter how desolate the state of our house after so many years of his rule, it now belongs to us, and what we do with it is up to us alone. Therefore I ask you all, Czechs, Slovaks, and people of other nationalities, to respect our new state, to treat it as your own, and to make a contribution to its overall success. We have already undergone the first difficult test of our ability to coexist as different nations in the same state, and the Czechs and Slovaks have passed that test.

I wish all Slovaks success in building an autonomous and economically independent republic. I believe that it will be a republic of love and pride for all its citizens. I wish the same to all Czechs. I believe that their republic will be a republic of wisdom and tolerance for all its citizens.[…]

I appeal to all who, through their work, create things of value for the whole society. Once again you will be creating these things for yourselves and those close to you, not for those who rule over you or for the abstract future of a utopian ideology. I appeal to all those who quickly find their feet in the new economic system to be mindful of those who do not find immediate success, to use their skills to help them.[…] I ask them not to forget that the profit they create is not an end in itself, but a means to enhance the common wealth of society, and to create conditions for a genuinely dignified and full human life.

Dear fellow citizens, dear friends,

The time when New Year’s addresses were the same each year has definitely come to an end. I firmly believe that the coming year will contain more pleasant surprises than unpleasant ones. I believe that I will be able to announce to you that the reconstruction of our house has been successfully begun, and that its foundations once more rest firmly in this land and its best traditions.

A year ago I finished my New Year’s address by paraphrasing a well-known quotation from Comenius: “People, your government has been returned to you!” Today, I would add: “And it is up to you to show that the return of your government into your own hands has not been in vain.”

January 1, 1991
translated by Paul Wilson

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