Paying Back the West

Following are excerpts from the address given by President Havel in Warsaw earlier this year when he accepted the First Decade Prize at the tenth-anniversary celebration of the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza.

When the totalitarian system collapsed in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and many important political positions came to be occupied by members of the former, largely intellectual, opposition—that is, by so-called dissidents—I thought, and said many times publicly, that we had something with which we might repay the West for the great assistance we would require from them.

It was obvious what the West’s support should consist in: we expected not only significant economic aid to help put our devastated economies back on their feet, but also considerable assistance in building democratic institutions, in establishing the rule of law, in creating a market environment and reconstituting our civil societies. At the same time we assumed that various organizations and institutions in the Western democratic world would be quick to open their arms to us. After so many genuinely or potentially democratic politicians had been crushed by different power factions in our countries, and after the very notion of politics itself had been destroyed, it was clear that those who would take over the reins of power in this new dramatic period, whatever their civic merits, would have no experience whatsoever in exercising power and would therefore need a great deal of political guidance and support from the West. And given that the West had for so long, and at so high a cost, stood up to the threat of communism and sympathized with the efforts of the subject nations to liberate themselves (though the West was not entirely without blame in their subjugation), it was equally clear that it would want, as a matter of principle and in its own essential interest, to support these newly emerging democracies after the fall of the iron curtain.

Looking back after almost ten years, we must acknowledge that those early expectations have largely been fulfilled, although not to the degree or as quickly as some naive and enthusiastic spirits might have imagined in those days. But essentially, they have been realized. The most recent important indication that the West is taking our freedom seriously, and that they have ceased to recognize the long and artificial division of the world into spheres of influence, is undoubtedly the recent expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to include three new states, all former members of the Warsaw Pact.

The question that haunts me is whether we, too, have given the West what we were capable of giving and even duty-bound to give as a very specific form of repayment for its help. I am not certain we have.

What could we and should we possibly have given to the wealthy, developed Western democracies? I was deeply convinced we ought to have given them the benefit, both in intellectual and pragmatic terms, of the unique experience given to us …

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