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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.

  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.

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