Václav vs. Václav

Václav Havel, translated from the Czech and annotated by Paul Wilson

When Václav Havel’s memoirs were published in Prague last May, under the title Please, Be Brief, one of the most eagerly anticipated aspects of his story was what he would say about his famously contentious relationship with Václav Klaus, the Czech prime minister under Havel who succeeded him as president of the Czech Republic. The tension between the two men during Havel’s presidency became a defining feature of the first decade of the country’s post-Communist existence.

As finance minister of Czechoslovakia from 1990 to 1992, Klaus introduced four major economic reforms—restitution of property to former owners; small-scale and large-scale privatization of business and industry; and a scheme for distributing coupons that could be converted into shares in newly privatized companies. While they rapidly transformed the command economy of the Communist era into a market-based system, they also provided new and unprecedented opportunities for corruption.

At the same time, Klaus carved a new, right-wing political party, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), from the Civic Forum, the ad hoc citizens’ movement that, under Havel’s leadership, had negotiated the Communist Party out of power during the Velvet Revolution in November and December 1989. When the ODS won the second free election in the Czech regions of the country in 1992, Klaus, who became the Czech premier, negotiated the breakup of Czechoslovakia with his Slovak counterpart, Vladimìr Meciar. He then went on to serve as prime minister of the newly created Czech Republic from 1992 to 1997. Havel resigned as Czechoslovak president in July 1992, but came back in 1993 to serve as Czech president for another ten years, though he would never again enjoy the enormous domestic popularity he had in the first three years after the Velvet Revolution.

The two Václavs, it can be said, represent two poles of the broad Czech democratic center. Havel, the more liberal, believed that a new political culture should emerge from a rich and diverse civic society, with a healthy degree of decentralization and strong regional governments. As president he argued for policies that supported the nonprofit sector and mitigated the worst effects of rapid privatization. Klaus, an economist and admirer of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Margaret Thatcher, was a market fundamentalist who believed in a strong central government in the hands of strong political parties.

The political friction between the two men was exacerbated by a clash of personalities. Beneath their quite different exteriors—Klaus abrasive to the point of arrogance, Havel polite to the point of shyness—each man had a firm will that made their differences seem inevitable and irresolvable.

Klaus and his ODS party remained in power until 1997, when a scandal involving an alleged party slush fund in Switzerland resulted in resignations from his cabinet and the eventual collapse of his government. Klaus, and the journalists and commentators who backed him (Havel calls them the “the snide brigade”), portrayed his resignation as an “assassination” in which Havel was somehow implicated. The label—and the blame …

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