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—stuck, and Klaus continued as a force in Czech politics in opposition until his election as president in March 2003; his current term is up in 2008.

Havel’s new book, which will be published in English in May as To the Castle and Back, covers his life from 1988 to 2006. It is drawn from three separate sources: the first, a diary written mostly in Washington during 2005; the second, excerpts from memos written by Havel to his staff in the Prague Castle during his two terms as Czech president; and the third, Havel’s responses to questions posed by a Czech journalist, Karel Hvìzd’ala. The following excerpt, tracing the history of his unhappy relations with Václav Klaus, is taken from a sequence of those responses.

—Paul Wilson

Karel Hvìzd’ala: It’s impossible to consider the last fifteen years of political life in the Czech Republic and not talk about your successor as president, Václav Klaus. I understand that you don’t wish to comment on his performance as president, but he wasn’t always in that position, and there are subjects we can’t seriously broach without saying something about this undeniably forceful figure in our post-revolutionary history. Where do you know each other from? What are your personal relations like? How did Václav Klaus get into politics?

Václav Havel: In the 1960s we were both members of the editorial board of a non-Communist literary magazine called Tvár.1 I don’t remember much about him from that time, but I do remember his articles on economics, which were interesting in that they made almost no use of the reform Communist economic jargon, or if they did, they did not strike one that way in the given context. Then I heard nothing of him for twenty years, though he did cross my mind several times, and I wondered what he was up to. I thought that he’d probably emigrated long ago and was a professor in America.

And then, as the Velvet Revolution was getting underway, he suddenly appeared in the Civic Forum. Rita Klìmová, who was spokeswoman for the Civic Forum at the time, brought him in because we were looking for economists to help us, and because she knew him well from certain private economic discussions that had taken place in people’s flats in the 1980s, and later perhaps in certain research institutes about which I knew almost nothing. There were even some articles by Klaus in the samizdat version of the newspaper Lidové noviny, but Rita had submitted them as her own, even though they were signed by a pseudonym.

He worked with us in the Civic Forum for several days before I realized that this was the same Václav Klaus that I had known from Tvár. He was hard-working and at times quite pleasant, but at other times utterly unbearable. We quickly got used to his presence. He became a part of the Civic Forum team and, as an expert in economics, he was invited to go along with me to press conferences. At one of them I introduced him to reporters. I had forgotten about that, and then recently, to my surprise, I saw a clip of it one night when Czech television was broadcasting some newly discovered video footage from the revolution. We got used to the fact that Klaus sometimes got under our skin, and to his capacity for radiating a negative energy, to his brand of irony, to his narcissism, and to his aversion—which he mostly kept well hidden—to the rest of us, whom he had clearly consigned to the same dumpster, with a sign on it saying “left-wing intellectuals.”

In the first government, that is, the one led by Marián Calfa that was put together at your roundtable discussions during the revolution, Václav Klaus was put forward as minister of finance on the recommendation of Civic Forum. If you already knew him so well, weren’t you wary of giving him such an important ministry?

I remember quite vividly my private conversation in the cloakroom of the Magic Lantern Theater in Prague with Václav Vales,2 my longtime friend and fellow prisoner, an economist with a lot of practical knowledge. He had worked from his youth in the management of various enterprises and during the Prague Spring he had even been a minister. I asked him if he thought this annoying fellow Klaus could be minister of finance. He said that he could, because his job would be to look after the state treasury and he wouldn’t get mixed up in politics. That type of person, he said, was ideal for minding the till.

After the first free elections in June 1990, he again became minister of finance.

That had several aspects to it: in the first place, all the members of the first post-revolutionary government became big stars overnight. Suddenly, for the first time in forty years, the country saw normal, free-speaking people in the highest positions, not Party bureaucrats, and in the atmosphere of general euphoria they quickly made them their darlings. Klaus, naturally, was among them, and like Jirì Dienstbier (who became foreign minister), he always knew where to stand so that the cameras would pick him up. As someone who is remarkably hard-working, he took a very active part in the pre-election campaign and I think that he was also at the top of one of the regional candidate lists. And when the Civic Forum got more than 50 percent of the vote, he was naturally one of the big winners, and consequently he had dibs on some cabinet position.

In the second place, Klaus, inconspicuously but systematically, worked at being perceived, at home and abroad, as the father of the radical Czech economic reforms. He was not entirely the direct author of these reforms—they were created rather by people like Tomás Jezek, Dusan Trìska,3 Václav Vales, and several others—but he really was their most energetic defender, and I would say that it was Klaus who most aggressively pushed them through. And that was certainly to his great credit, which in my opinion is in no way diminished by the various mistakes, flaws, or shortcomings of those reforms. He was simply someone who could push anything through, though often his partners agreed with him only so they wouldn’t have to go on listening to him. It would have been very difficult at the time not to include in the government someone with the reputation of being the “father of the economic reforms.”

In the third place, in spite of everything, the leadership of the Civic Forum—which, along with the leadership of its Slovak counterpart, the Public Against Violence, was meant to recommend a new government—decided not to include Václav Klaus in the cabinet. By this time everyone knew that he was only using the Civic Forum for his own ends, and moreover, the need for balance between Czechs and Slovaks in the government gave the Slovaks the right to head a “power” ministry like finance, since Czechs were ministers in foreign affairs and defense. I think at the time they were thinking about naming Ivan Miklos, a young Slovak economist, who later as the Slovak finance minister, both under the federation and then when they were independent, helped to push the Slovak reforms perhaps even further than the Czech ones. And so the Civic Forum gave me, as president, the unpleasant task of telling Václav Klaus he wasn’t going to be minister of finance, but rather chairman of the Czechoslovak State Bank.

I failed shamefully. When I informed Klaus of this, he shot back that it was out of the question, that the entire world knew him as the Czechoslovak minister of finance, that he could hold no other position, and that his departure from the government would be catastrophic. And rather than telling him that that was the decision of the winning party, and if he didn’t want to head the state bank, then he could do whatever he pleased, I politely backed down and said something like “All right, then.” The Civic Forum was very upset with me for not doing the job, and Klaus’s antipathy toward me grew into hatred. I had behaved like a typical bad politician: I hadn’t done what I’d promised to do and in the process managed to make everyone mad at me.

How did the two of you get along during the next two years (1990–1992), when the country was still a federation of Czechs and Slovaks?

Moderately well. Our relations were, on the whole, correct. He had to overcome his antipathy toward me—because, at the time, to come out sharply against me in public would have harmed him—and I tried to respect him. Naturally, some sparks flew here and there. He never liked any of my speeches, above all my New Year’s speeches, and he always chided me for them. The snide brigade, as I called the pro-Klaus press, took potshots at me as well; later I became their main target and the expression “nonpolitical politics” became a popular sneer. Klaus’s Civic Democratic Party emerged from the Civic Forum and I didn’t get involved much in that, nor could I have; the breakup of the Civic Forum was a result not only of Klaus’s capacity for hard work, his cunning, his discreet lack of scruples, and his ability to attract various lackeys and supporters, but also, in equal measure, of the inability of his opponents to maneuver skillfully in the sphere of power.

Do you think that if Václav Klaus had not become the first minister of finance right after the revolution, and if he had not continued in that post after the first elections, he would really have stayed out of politics?

I don’t think so. On the contrary, I have the feeling that sooner or later, regardless of circumstances, he would have risen to the top, and perhaps even become the head of state. He knows how to promote himself and he’s ambitious. If it hadn’t been for his meteoric rise in the first federal government, when every minister was a television star, everything would have been harder for him, but he would have moved in the same direction—upward. But please understand me: I don’t mean to say that one should not strive for power or that anyone who does so should not act pragmatically and deliberately. It has to be that way, and in that regard, Václav Klaus is remarkable. But sometimes he pushed it to the very limits of what was ethically acceptable.

How did you and Klaus get along after the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993?

Not very well. It is true that both he and his party supported my candidacy for the presidency, certainly not out of any love for me, but simply because it was generally expected, perhaps even demanded, of them. Klaus tried to stay one step ahead, so before the first presidential election of the new Czech Republic in January 1993, he used all kinds of techniques to soften me up just so that I would enter the job appropriately humbled. That was his method, and I’ve seen it in action many times. For instance, he didn’t want to present the law on the Office of the President of the Republic to parliament, although it was ready and prepared and I could have scarcely done my job without it. He imposed various conditions, to the point where I would almost call it polite blackmail. He saw me as his main antagonist and he tried in all kinds of ways to express this.

Because of my innate sense of courtesy and my distaste for confrontation, I was often the loser, but fortunately never in anything of fundamental importance. For example, sometime in the mid-1990s, at a meeting of all the political parties at the Prague Castle, he kept withholding his assent to our entry into NATO; he had various excuses, but I ultimately managed to get him to agree by gently manipulating events. He was always shaking his head over something going on in the Castle, not because he was really concerned about whatever petty thing it happened to be, but just on principle. Every year there was a huge struggle over the budget. He railed against the meetings of Central European presidents that I had begun to organize, and he refused to come to the first one in Litomysl, in Moravia. He condemned my positions on reform in the UN and other matters, and he would have been happiest had I submitted everything to him in advance for his approval.

I have a bitter memory of Salman Rushdie’s visit to Prague in September 1993. Klaus didn’t know Rushdie was there or that I had invited Rushdie to the Castle, and when Klaus found out, he came to see me at night and began accusing me of putting the country at risk. To give his visit greater clout, he brought the ministers of the interior and foreign affairs along with him. Both claimed to be equally surprised and upset, though of course they knew very well about the visit—the minister of the interior had even provided a bodyguard for Salman—but they counted on me not exposing them in front of their boss, which of course I did not do. My spokesman, Ladislav Spacek, had to pay a small price for this because I put some distance between myself and something he said to the media. What he said was unfortunate, but that was not the point; the point was that if this confrontation was ever to end, a small sacrifice was required. I could not stand the midnight tension any longer, so I sacrificed Spacek.4

I suffered many such defeats. But my worst memories of all are the Wednesday meetings. Klaus came up with an idea that was, on the face of it, quite all right: he suggested that just as the British prime minister visits the Queen every Wednesday afternoon to report to her on cabinet meetings and the situation in the country, he would come to the Castle every Wednesday afternoon for an hour. I couldn’t refuse. Nevertheless, those Wednesday afternoons soon became my biggest nightmare, and from Tuesday evening on I was out of commission. The meeting always unfolded in exactly the same way: there would be fifteen or twenty minutes of friendly conversation about everything under the sun, and then the moment of truth would come, the reason why this was all taking place, some complaint about my recent behavior. It was always complete nonsense, but making sense was not the point; the point was to put me on the defensive. If Klaus landed the first blow, I could offer any explanation at all, and he would even agree with everything I said, but I could not erase the beauty of that first blow, nor could I find a way to move out of a defensive position.

I remember a typical instance: at a certain moment, he reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a well-thumbed newspaper clipping, apologized several times for even bothering to bring it up, and then read from it a report that I had expressed my regrets at the death of Frank Zappa. Then, very politely, he suggested that it was inappropriate for a head of state to express regret at the death of a foreign rock musician, when so many of our domestic giants had passed away without a word of commiseration from me appearing in the papers.

What was I to do in such an absurd situation? The proper response would have been to stand up and say, “Václav, this meeting is over.” But I can almost never carry anything like that off, maybe once in two hundred years. Instead, I said something about how Zappa had taken an interest, right after the revolution, in what was happening in our country,5 how he had helped us, and how ungratefully we had behaved toward him, and I explained that Agence France-Presse had come to me for a comment and it would have been absurd to refuse them, and that it wasn’t my fault that of all my many comments on the deaths of various people, the newspapers chose to run this one. I could have been right a thousand times over, but what good was being right when, simply by stooping to an explanation, I had made a fool of myself? Everyone knows that in a country that is still working hard for its place in the sun, I’m not going to risk a war between the president and the prime minister over an expression of regret.

I don’t think there was any deliberate, cold-blooded strategy behind Klaus’s behavior. It’s simply a matter of character and instinct. He doesn’t know any other way to behave. Either he’s afraid of someone, or he’s out to humiliate him.

One day, however, I’d finally had enough and I sent the government a letter announcing that I was canceling the Wednesday meetings with the prime minister and I explained why. Klaus and his minister of foreign affairs, Josef Zieleniec, who, at the time, was still a mediator between us, asked for an appointment that same evening in the Castle. He seemed beaten down and his main concern was not to have to show that letter to the government. In the end I agreed, but there were no more Wednesday meetings.

I don’t think that modern, post-revolutionary Czech history ought to be seen as the history of the personal relationship between me and Václav Klaus. It’s a journalistic cliché and it still upsets me after all these years. On the other hand, I recognize that I have to say something about that subject, otherwise our conversation would have unforgivable holes in it. More important than whether two people get on each other’s nerves, of course, is what their views of the world are, their political actions, their speeches and writings, their influence, and perhaps their legacy. And that is something others must judge.

Why did you wait to criticize Václav Klaus publicly until the so-called Rudolfinum speech in 1997,6 after his government had fallen? Some observers found it unconvincing, and above all too late.

In the first place, as president I gave between twenty and thirty major speeches every year. They all appeared later in book form and they are in my collected works. Anyone who reads them through will notice that they were not occasional shouts provoked by a particular situation and that together they make up a single unified whole, continuing and developing my view of the world, of politics, of the position of our country, and so on. In fact, I deliberately tried to write my speeches that way: more than once I started one speech where the previous speech left off, without anyone noticing.

Excuse me for interrupting, but while we’re on the subject of your speeches, you must often have had to repeat yourself. Didn’t that bother you as a creative person?

It bothered me a lot. When I had to express something again that I had already expressed, it was painful. But unfortunately there was no other way. Ivan Medek, who at one time was my chief of staff, always tried to ease my mind by pointing out that the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomás Masaryk, had in fact said the same thing all his life. The Rudolfinum speech was simply one of the many dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of speeches in which I said—perhaps in other words and in different circumstances—essentially the same thing I had said many times before or after…. Perhaps it became famous because accident placed it at a time when Klaus’s government had resigned, but the speech was in no way connected with the resignation. It had been planned and written long before that. For the most part, the issues I raised were meant for future consideration, or were tasks that I felt we had to confront. Only the introductory part was critical and it wasn’t a critique of Václav Klaus as such, but of Czech politics. That those politics were inextricably linked with Václav Klaus, his opinions, and his behavior is another matter. That’s not the speech’s doing.

But something else played a role here: the new presidential election was approaching in early 1998 and, knowing that I would probably be in the running again, I wanted to lay all my cards on the table and avoid any suspicion that I was cozying up to parliament and not telling them straight out what I thought. For that reason, the speech to both the houses was perhaps a little harsher than others.

And now to the notorious, so-called “Sarajevo assassination.” What actually happened concerning Klaus’s resignation in 1997 and how did you perceive it and experience it?

There wasn’t anything especially complicated about it. The government was facing economic problems: the reforms were dragging, and the solutions proposed kept getting put off, or else they were only half-measures. Conflicts within the governing coalition were growing. Then came the affair involving the uncertain sources of funding belonging to the governing ODS party, complete with allocations of secret Swiss bank accounts and unpaid taxes. Many people had suddenly had enough. And so it began: the minister of foreign affairs, Josef Zieleniec, who up to that point had been Klaus’s closest ally and the co-founder of his party, resigned; next, both smaller coalition parties—the Christian Democratic Union–Czech People’s Party and the Civic Democratic Alliance—withdrew from the government coalition; it came to a head with the resignation of several more ministers from the ODS itself, above all the minister of the interior, my longtime friend from the Charter 77 days, Jan Ruml, and the minister of finance, Ivan Pilip.

If I am not mistaken barely half the cabinet remained, perhaps less. In such a situation, the government had to dissolve itself. It was only logical, and I publicly appealed to Václav Klaus to do so. My impression at the time was that none of those who resigned was willing to say publicly what his real and most profound reasons for resigning were. All indications were that they had not resigned over specific conceptual disagreements, or over the affair involving ODS financing and the subsequent attempt by the ODS to deny, obfuscate, and disprove everything, but something far more trivial: Klaus’s way of running the government. He was capable of humiliating his ministers in all kinds of ways, ridiculing the proposals they brought to cabinet meetings, and arbitrarily changing their order on the agenda. The atmosphere in cabinet meetings was often incredibly tense and it was his fault. I had seen this behavior a couple of times with my own eyes but it wasn’t that extreme; after all, he toned down his behavior somewhat in front of me. But from various ministers I know how those cabinet meetings often played out. When the material problems began to accumulate as well, regardless of what they were caused by, most of the cabinet ministers had had enough and walked away.

Why was it called the “Sarajevo assassination?”

I remember that one day Jan Ruml phoned me when I was in Lány [the presidential residence outside Prague] to report that he and Ivan Pilip were going to announce their resignation at a press conference that afternoon, but that Václav Klaus had just gone to Sarajevo for a summit of the Central European Initiative, which they said they hadn’t known when they called the press conference. When they learned that Klaus was out of town they didn’t want to change their plans and create further speculation. That, at least, is how Ruml described it to me. It was Klaus who called it the “Sarajevo assassination,” and he succeeded—as he had in many other instances—in popularizing the notion to the point that he was able to impose his own inverted interpretation of events on almost everyone—and mainly, of course, on the snide brigade—and he did it subtly, by playing on this cliché. The government had collapsed and he presented it as an “assassination” attempt on himself.

  1. 1

    Tvár: Published by the Union of Czechoslovak Writers, Tvár had two runs, one in 1964–1965, the other from the fall of 1968 until the following June, when it was shut down for good. Havel was involved in both incarnations. Klaus contributed a total of eight articles and reviews on economics and politics, all of them during the second run.

  2. 2

    The Czech economist Václav Vales was a member of the Civic Forum who served as deputy prime minister of the federal government from July 1990 to September 1991.

  3. 3

    The Czech economist Tomás Jezek served as minister of privatization from 1990 to 1992. From 1992 to 1996 he was an elected member of the Chamber of Deputies for the Civic Democratic Alliance Party, and part of a working group that drafted the new Czech constitution. He has also served as chair of the Prague Stock Exchange, and as head of the Czech Securities Commission. Dusan Trìska was deputy minister of finance from 1990 to 1992 and is credited with having designed the technical aspects of the so-called “coupon privatization” by which much of Czech business and industry were returned to private ownership.

  4. 4

    When Salman Rushdie visited the Czech Republic in September 1993, he was still under threat of death occasioned by the fatwah against him issued by Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. As a demonstration of solidarity, Havel invited Rushdie to the Prague Castle, and the next day Havel’s press secretary, Ladislav Spacek, to underscore the point, issued a press release announcing that the visit had taken place. Klaus publicly accused Havel of acting behind the government’s back, and when Havel declined to respond, Spacek issued a second statement saying that Klaus’s ministers had certainly known of the visit, and if he, Klaus, had not known about it, then it was, in effect, a government problem. In his subsequent “midnight” visit to the Castle described here, Klaus demanded that Havel retract this statement and fire Spacek. Havel formally distanced himself from Spacek’s statement, but did not fire him.

  5. 5

    In 1990, Frank Zappa (1940–1993), the founder of the Mothers of Invention rock group, came to Czechoslovakia and, on a visit to the Castle, Havel suggested that he be appointed special envoy for culture, trade, and tourism on behalf of Czechoslovakia in the US. The idea was rejected by the first Bush administration, so Havel made the appointment unofficial. Zappa died two years later of prostate cancer.

  6. 6

    The speech was published in English by The New York Review on March 5, 1998, under the title “The Sad State of the Republic.”