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Wonderful Life

On January 29, five days before leaving the public stage, Václav Havel flew to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia and the scene of the greatest political humiliation of his career. At the Prague airport, he seemed anxious and slightly nervous as he told Czech journalists that this visit was meant as a kind of “closing of the circle,” but as it turned out he needn’t have worried. From the time he and his second wife, Dagmar, walked down the red carpet rolled out for him at the Bratislava airport until the final round of drinks in a crowded wine cellar late that evening, Havel met with nothing but warmth and gratitude from the Slovaks who turned out to bid him farewell. Ironically, his final foreign visit as president of the Czech Republic felt more like a homecoming.

The specter of Slovak nationalism had haunted Havel’s first two terms as president of Czechoslovakia, the first from December 29, 1989, to June 1990, and the second until his resignation in July 1992. As president, he had agreed to, and in some cases encouraged, a series of devolutionary concessions—starting with a change in the name of the country—to help satisfy Slovak demands for more autonomy. But each concession seemed only to whet the separatist appetite more. In March 1991, when Havel went to Bratislava to confront a demonstration of Slovak nationalists celebrating the fifty-second anniversary of the founding of the wartime Slovak fascist state, an angry mob shouting “Dost’ bolo Havla!“—“We’ve had enough of Havel!”—threw eggs at him. Critics accused him of deliberately provoking the demonstrators, but many Slovaks were appalled.

Until that point in his presidency, Havel had relied, mostly successfully, on his extraordinary popularity and charisma to prevail in situations where his constitutional powers fell short. But the dangers posed by Slovak nationalism—which by now had become mixed with fears in Slovakia that the pace of economic reforms was too rapid—were of a different order. Havel must have known, certainly after his foray into Bratislava, that neither the constitution nor his personal authority would be enough to save the country. That December, Havel made an eloquent appeal to the Federal Assembly for greater presidential powers to deal with a possible separation crisis. It turned him down.

Then, in the elections of June 1992, parties led by the right-wing economist Václav Klaus in the Czech lands and Vladimír Meciar in Slovakia predictably won enough seats to make it impossible to form a working government without compromises that neither was willing to make. While Havel stood helplessly by, the two men agreed to divide the country. In mid-July, the Slovak National Council declared Slovakia “sovereign” and the same day Havel, arguing that he had taken an oath to preserve the federation and that this was no longer possible, resigned. The two republics became separate countries on January 1, 1993.

In retrospect, it was done efficiently and peacefully (an important achievement at a time when bloody succession wars were raging in the former Yugoslavia), but Havel confessed later that it was the lowest point in his political career, and close associates say he was tormented by it for years.

In the past decade, however, much has changed. After a slow start, Slovakia’s economy is overtaking that of the Czech Republic, although the Slovak crown is still worth less than the Czech crown. Havel became an outspoken critic of developments he considered retrograde in Slovakia, and later lobbied strongly in favor of Slovakia’s membership in both NATO and the European Union. (Both are now pending, with support for membership far stronger in Slovakia than it is in the Czech Republic.) Czech–Slovak relations, I was told, are cordial and upbeat, and a recent study showed that young Czechs and Slovaks are more alike now than when they were part of the same country, although that may simply indicate the extent to which both countries have joined global culture.

Havel’s influence in Slovakia has been greater in the past ten years than it was before the separation,” Martin Simecka told me over lunch. He is a novelist and now the editor in chief of the independent Slovak daily Sme and, by pedigree, a true Czechoslovak: his father was Czech, his mother Slovak, and he grew up in Bratislava.

After 1989, Simecka said, Havel’s scrupulous insistence on remaining above party politics, at least in public, often prevented him from speaking plainly to the Slovaks at a time when their own politicians were confusing them with populist rhetoric. He also felt that Havel had overreacted to Meciar’s declaration of sovereignty in 1992. But that was all past, Simecka said. Since then, Havel has been able to criticize Slovak politicians like Meciar directly, and to “name things by their proper names.” His angry condemnation of “mafia capitalism,” for instance, though aimed at the Czechs, had found a bracing response in Slovakia. Freed from his constitutional restraints, Simecka concluded, Havel had on the whole had a liberating influence.

So the Slovaks, who lost Havel ten years ago, got him back in a way that has served them well. Havel’s final public event of the day in Bratislava was a gala presentation of a hit musical, Tancíaren (“The Dance Hall”). Adapted from the 1982 Franco-Italian film Le Bal, it tells the Slovak version of the history of Czechoslovakia from the founding of the country in 1918 till the present, but it does so entirely through dance, gesture, and popular music from each period. When the moment of separation comes, late in the second act, the dancers move the tables to form a barrier down the middle of the dance hall. Some try to cross and are rebuffed; others manage to slip through. But the mood turns sour and very sad, and it pretty much stays that way until the end. I was stunned, because for all the brave talk I’d been hearing about how much better it’s been for both sides since the country divided, the play was saying that at some level the Slovaks feel it has all been a terrible mistake.

When the lights came up and the cast emerged for the curtain call, the audience rose to its feet then turned to applaud Havel, who was sitting in the front row of the balcony. As they clapped and cheered, the cast unfurled a banner that stretched the entire width of the stage. In huge letters bracketed by Havel’s trademark heart symbols, it said: “Málo bolo Havla!“—“There’s been too little of Havel!” In one way the circle had indeed been closed.


Ironically, the belief that it was high time for President Havel to leave was held most widely and felt most deeply in his own country. This is hardly surprising, since the Czechs have seen Havel up close for the past thirteen years and have experienced with him every ill wind and faulty tack on the wild voyage from communism to capitalism. They were keenly aware of Havel’s heroic, celebrity-like status in the West and for a time had, in large numbers, believed it themselves. But at home the bloom had faded and while he still had unapologetic fans and an approval rating that hardly ever fell below 50 percent, the domestic view of Havel tended to be more utilitarian.

Even his greatest opponents, like Václav Klaus, could admit that he had made his country “visible” abroad, that his name was still one of the top Czech “brands,” as recognizable as Pilsner beer and Bohemian crystal, still capable of attracting foreign investment and allowing the Czech Republic, as one journalist put it to me, to “play above its weight.” At worst, though, he was seen as a spent force, a sick man in thrall to an ambitious younger wife, embroiled in unseemly financial transactions and family feuds, a remote, destructively ambitious monarchical ruler with no understanding of the democratic process, who had clung to power long past his “sell-by” date.

Some of the many Czechs who still admired him felt that his tarnished reputation at home came from an incorrigible Czech provincialism. Others explained Havel’s continuing good press abroad as a media construct, the product of a certain complacency among Western journalists who sustained Havel’s immensely attractive image from the early 1990s rather than delve into the complexities and contradictions of the man he had become over those thirteen years as president.

In addition to having served for two years as Havel’s spokesman, Michael Zantovskyå« was also the Czech ambassador in Washington from 1992 to 1997. We were having lunch in a restaurant appropriately called the White Lion, a mile or so up the hill from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where he now works.

As Speaker O’Neill used to say, all politics is local, and that goes for presidents as well,” Zantovskyå« said. “Havel could never have done what he did for the good name of the country abroad if he had not played a major role in the transformation of the former socialist country to a democratic country, a stable country, a tolerant country, a country that observes human rights, that is a part of the Western political and security structures. Every one of those notions involved a fight, a major fight that had to be fought at home and not abroad, and Havel was active and often instrumental in most of those fights.”

He went on to enumerate some of the battles Havel had fought: he had made his first foreign visit as president to Germany in January 1990, where he first broached the subject—still controversial today—of apologizing for the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia after World War II. He tried to persuade the country—at the risk of alienating Slovakia, where most of the big arms factories were—that it was best not to export weapons to countries with tyrannical or totalitarian regimes. He argued, against considerable local opposition, that the country had to rethink its position in Europe and to move toward integration, first into NATO (it became a member, along with Hungary and Poland, in 1999) and then into the EU, which it is poised to join in 2004.

These ideas seem almost self-evident now,” Zantovskyå« said, “but they were not self-evident at the time. Many people thought the country should be neutral, that it should be a bridge between the East and the West. Some politicians in Slovakia thought it should emphasize its Slavic rather than its European identity, and there were a number of ideas like that. Even Havel initially thought it would be best to do away with the Warsaw Pact and NATO at the same time, though he soon changed his mind.”

According to Ronald D. Asmus, author of a recent book on NATO expansion,1 Havel and other post-1989 leaders in former Warsaw Pact countries were instrumental in broaching the idea of NATO expansion, but the book offers little evidence of their input in the actual process. Asmus describes how, in April 1993, Havel met with President Clinton. “The issue is not that we are faced with imminent threats,” Havel is reported to have said to Clinton. “Rather, we are in the process of undergoing an image transformation—a reshaping of our identity…. Entry into NATO and the EC is central to expanding democracy, not just to Central Europe, but to the Newly Independent States.” Clinton was won over, and eventually his administration pursued NATO expansion with some enthusiasm. But Havel had a lot of selling to do at home, where the grumbling went on for several more years.

  1. 1

    Opening NATO’s Door: How the Alliance Remade Itself for a New Era (Columbia University Press, 2002).

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