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Václav Havel, Czechoslovakia's first post-communist president, dies

THOUSANDS of people gathered in the streets of Prague and other Czech cities to grieve the death of dissident-turned-president Václav Havel on December 18. News of his death also provoked widespread reactions among the Slovak public, and among Slovakia's leading political and cultural figures, many of whom were close friends of Havel.

Former Czechoslovak and Czech President Václav Havel(Source: TASR)

THOUSANDS of people gathered in the streets of Prague and other Czech cities to grieve the death of dissident-turned-president Václav Havel on December 18. News of his death also provoked widespread reactions among the Slovak public, and among Slovakia's leading political and cultural figures, many of whom were close friends of Havel.

Havel, 75, died on the morning of December 18 at his family home in Hrádeček u Trutnova in the Czech Republic. He had been suffering from long-term health problems.

Havel served as the first president of the Czech Republic, between 1993 and 2003, but Slovaks consider him to have been their president too, as he was elected president of Czechoslovakia almost immediately after the Velvet Revolution that ended communist rule in 1989, and served in that role until 1992, when the Czech and Slovak Republics decided to split.

A prominent playwright and outspoken critic of the totalitarian regime, Havel had played a leading role in bringing about the sudden – and peaceful – end of communist rule. His death prompted spontaneous reactions among Slovaks on online social networks but also in the streets – for instance in front of the Czech Embassy in Bratislava, where people came to light candles and lay flowers in memory of the late president.

Prime Minister Iveta Radičová, who cooperated with Havel when she acted as the spokesperson of Public Against Violence (VPN), which emerged as the first non-communist political movement during the Velvet Revolution in Slovakia, wrote in her letter to Havel’s widow Dagmar that he was, for her, not only a president, writer and playwright, but also a great role model.

“Václav Havel was rightly considered a moral authority not only in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but in the whole cultural world,” she wrote, as quoted by the SITA newswire, “because for decades he was one of the most courageous truth-tellers, from the period when the vast majority of Czechs and Slovaks had resigned themselves to living a totalitarian lie or had accepted the double morality which prevailed in the satellites of the Soviet evil empire.”

Havel knew very well that one must not ask whether to be or not to be a truth-teller in any given period, she wrote.

“One simply is or is not a truth-teller, regardless of the period,” she wrote. “In Václav Havel, we have lost an extraordinary man, and one of the most humane people.”

“If Václav Havel and his life of truth continue to inspire the masses in the future, then our efforts, our everyday struggle, which often happens on a field full of trivialities, will also make sense,” Radičová concluded, as quoted by SITA.

Slovak President Ivan Gašparovič sent a telegram of condolence to Czech President Václav Klaus following Havel's death. He also expressed his condolences to Havel's widow and other family members.

“We are all deeply touched by the sudden departure of prominent Czech politician and artist Václav Havel,” Gašparovič wrote, as quoted by SITA. “A striking and respected symbol of the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution and a new democratic Czecho-Slovakia has left.”

Havel leaves behind a footprint not only in the modern history of the Czech and Slovak nations, but also in the history of the new European democracies and unifying Europe, Gašparovič noted.

“He will forever remain in our memories as a charismatic and humane personality with a unique style of conducting politics,” he wrote.

A man who remains in the memory as someone who in November 1989 did exactly what he was supposed to do in this world: that is the memory that Ján Budaj, one of the leaders of the Velvet Revolution in Slovakia, said he would retain of Václav Havel.

“That was his life’s mission, and its positive energy remains even after his death,” Budaj told the Sme daily.

“He always acted considerately towards people, even if he did not agree with them,” said political analyst and former dissident Miroslav Kusý. “If a conflict emerged, he was the one to listen and lead the discussion towards a results without raising his voice or getting into an aggressive mood.”

Fedor Gál, another leader of the Velvet Revolution in Slovakia, said he would miss Havel.

“I will try to tell the children of my children about him,” Gál told Sme. “Not that I believe that truth and love always win over lies and hatred, but because that fight alone makes sense,” he said, referring to Havel’s famous statement that truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.

Some Slovak politicians, however, were more reserved in their reactions to Havel’s death. Vladimír Mečiar, the Slovak prime minister who initiated the break-up of Czechoslovakia – a move which Havel opposed – admitted that “although we had diverse views of the Slovak needs in the common state”, Havel had become a part of Slovak history too, especially by introducing democratic principles after 1989.

The current leader of the Slovak opposition, Robert Fico, said that Havel was an important person after 1989 in Czechoslovakia and later in the Czech Republic.

“He was a politician and a man who gave a certain characteristic feature to the post-1989 era, whether we agree with him or not,” Fico said, as quoted by Sme.

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