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 …

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