The Sad State of the Republic

Last November, the Czech government, led by Prime Minister Václav Klaus, was forced to resign in the wake of allegations that, among other things, the Civic Democratic Party, led by Klaus, had access to a slush fund held in an unauthorized Swiss bank account. In the period between those resignations and the appointment of an interim government, President Havel, who had recently been released from the hospital and was recuperating from pneumonia, delivered what is, in effect, a state of the union speech to the Parliament and Senate of the Czech Republic on December 9. His address, translated below, was interpreted in much of the Czech press as an attack on Klaus’s policies. But more than that, it presents an aspect of Havel rarely seen in his speeches abroad. It reaffirms, in the theater of domestic politics, his longstanding belief in the importance of the institutions of civil society.

—Paul Wilson,
February 4, 1998

Senators, Members of Parliament, Members of the Government:

With a certain degree of simplification it can be said that the life of our society—just as the life of any society under any circumstances—has two faces, one of which, in one way or another, is visible through the other.

The first face consists of the things people do: they go to work, with varying degrees of success, they engage in business, they marry or they divorce, they have children or remain childless, they associate in various ways, they go on holidays abroad, they read books or watch television and, if they’re younger than most of us, they go dancing in discotheques. All things considered, I think our everyday life is incomparably better and richer now than it was in times when almost everything was forbidden and almost everyone was afraid to say aloud what he or she really thought.

The life of our society, however, has another face, which we might describe as the relationship of citizens to their state, to the social system, to the climate of public life, to politics. It is our primary responsibility to concern ourselves with this second face, to try to understand why it is so gloomy and to think about ways to brighten it up—at least a little.

At present, this face is, in fact, quite glum. Many people—and public opinion polls confirm this—are upset, disappointed, or even disgusted with social conditions in our country. Many people believe that once again—democracy or not—there are people in power who cannot be trusted, who are concerned more with their own advantage than they are with the general interest. Many are convinced that honest business people operate at a disadvantage, while dishonest profiteers get the green light. The belief prevails that in this country it pays to lie and steal, that many politicians and civil servants are on the take, and that political parties—though they all, without exception, declare their intentions honorable—are secretly manipulated by shady financial cabals.

After eight years of trying to build a market economy, many…

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