Why Washington Needs to Get Over Vaclav Havel

Want to boost democracy in the Czech Republic? A little less finger-wagging from across the pond might be a start.

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It’s now just over a quarter of a century since Dec. 29, 1989, when the parliament of what was then the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic elected the dissident playwright Vaclav Havel to the presidency. This happened a mere eight months after Havel was released from jail by the communist regime that had imprisoned him for his activities as a human rights defender. Not many world leaders can boast of going from political prisoner to chief of state in the course of a single year.

In the early 1990s, Havel achieved the status of an undisputed moral authority, a living symbol of what then seemed to be the total success of democratic revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe. In November of last year, the United States marked the 25th anniversary of the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution by unveiling a bust of Havel in the Capitol Building in Washington, DC. That made him one of only four foreign leaders so honored. But America’s perception of Havel — the dissident playwright, the first post-communist president of Czechoslovakia, and the first president of the Czech Republic — seems stuck in a time warp, with dangerous potential consequences for the future of Central Europe.

On the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the idealized, almost romanticized, image of Havel from the early 1990s has sparked a number of moralizing articles in the American press that seem calculated to cast a thoroughly unflattering light on the current direction of the Czech Republic and its post-Soviet Bloc neighbors. A recent editorial in the Washington Post chastised the Czechs for not adhering to Havel’s “great political legacy.”

Stunning in its apparent ignorance of current Czech politics, the Washington Post article sparked a wave of fury in Czech online forums, kindling anti-American sentiments and helping to drive many Czechs further into Putin’s arms in the revived Cold War. The Post’s criticism comes against the backdrop of a major political conflict in the Czech Republic between the haves and the have-nots, and more specifically between the inhabitants of the fairly affluent capital of Prague, many of whom support pro-Western and pro-American policies, and the comparatively impoverished inhabitants of the rest of the country, who are rather skeptical of the neoliberal economic experiments to which they have been subjected since the fall of communism.

The critics object to what they see as the inherent injustice of the post-communist system. Recent opinion polls show that most Czechs are seriously concerned about job insecurity. They point to the fact that no matter how oppressive the former communist regime was for the intellectuals, there was nevertheless full employment. In a survey conducted by agency CVVM in early October 2014, 55 percent of Czechs and 64 percent of Slovaks characterized the economic system that existed in Czechoslovakia before 1989 as “better” or on “on the whole better” than the current one.

While there are still undoubtedly many Czechs who absolutely revere Havel, there are also many who regard his legacy as problematic. The latter argue that Havel’s concept of human rights was uncritically pro-American and that he fought for human rights only where it coincided with the interests of American foreign policy. No one can recall Havel criticizing human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia or other authoritarian regimes allied with Washington. Although Havel presented himself as a defender of human rights, in his speech to the U.S. Congress in February 1990 he totally ignored the poor record of America’s dictatorial allies in Central America, whose excesses were, at the time, condoned by U.S. foreign policy.

Havel uncritically supported George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. He was one of eight European leaders to sign a now-notorious January 2003 letter supporting the war, as the only president to do so. (Havel did so after Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla refused to approve the document.) Many Czechs also fault Havel for his support of the “humanitarian bombing” of Serbia in the 1990s, and note that, towards the end of his life, he failed to understand the wave of Czech civic activism triggered by the Bush Administration’s plans to build an American anti-missile base just some 50 miles west of Prague. Many were also shocked when Havel described Chelsey Manning, who leaked U.S. diplomatic dispatches to WikiLeaks, as a “common criminal.”

Havel’s Czech critics note that American foreign policy, like that of most countries, is based on national self-interest, and complain that equating Washington’s foreign policy with an impartial support of human rights, as Havel did in many cases, is hypocritical. They believe that the small Czech Republic should have the right to define its own foreign policy on the basis of respect for other cultures, and resent the notion that they should only be used as a proxy instrument for asserting American interests. (Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek told me that he took particular issue with the editorial’s criticism that Prague is hollowing out its support for democracy promotion programs, saying that “the current Czech government is fully committed to our proud tradition of supporting human rights within our foreign policy since 1989.”)

The Post editorial also attacks the current Czech President Milos Zeman for acting as “a virtual mouthpiece for Russian President Vladimir Putin, denouncing Russian political prisoners in vulgar terms, and denying Russian aggression in Ukraine.” This is a simplification. Zeman is not a would-be post-communist dictator. He is an experienced economist who courageously published a hard-hitting criticism of the economic policy of the then-Czechoslovak communist regime in the summer of 1989 and was sacked by the regime from his post as a result. In the 1990s, he was the leader of the Czech Social Democratic Party, which he transformed it into one of the country’s major parties. In 1998-2002, he was the Czech Prime Minister and his government took the Czech Republic into NATO. In January 2013, he became the first directly elected Czech president, and he was voted into office mostly by those citizens of the Czech Republic who felt themselves unrepresented by established politicians.

The Prague supporters of his opponent, the pro-Western Prince Schwarzenberg (a dual Czech-Swiss citizen), have never been able to live down their electoral defeat, and they keep organizing protests against Zeman — most recently on the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution itself, November 17, when they heckled him and bombarded him with eggs during the unveiling of a memorial plaque. The Washington Post editorial cited this disgraceful episode with apparent approval. And yet, as one Czech commentator recently put it, the members of this particular political camp would raise howls of protests against Zeman no matter what he says. Jiri Ovcacek, President Zeman’s press spokesperson, has repeatedly reassured the public that the president remains committed to the pro-Western foreign policy of the Czech government.

It is certainly true that Zeman is now behaving like a populist. He speaks to his constituents over the heads of his Prague enemies, whom he baits with provocative statements. This is immature, vain, and unworthy of a senior statesman, but it is a storm in a teacup. For all of his rhetorical excesses, Zeman is not Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, who recently declared his intention to “end liberal democracy” in his country.

What’s more, the post of Czech president is purely ceremonial: Zeman has no power. His controversial pronouncements, such as when he provocatively translated the name of the Russian dissident group “Pussy Riot” into Czech during a recent radio interview, are directed purely at Czech domestic voters. The current pro-Putin mood in some quarters of the country is also purely a symptom of the internal Czech political situation. Many Czechs are irritated by the sustained anti-Russian propaganda in the Prague media, which often borders on racism, and as a reaction to this they tend uncritically to support Putin, invariably with little understanding of the actual situation in Ukraine. (It seems hard to fault him, however, for asserting that the situation there is complicated, and that the only solution can be peaceful negotiations — an observation that, in itself, might have been taken from the talking points of President Obama or his ambassador to Ukraine.) President Zeman is fully aware of these internal conflicts and is trying to use them to his own political advantage. His supporters in the Czech Republic love him for his provocations.

Articles in the American media that scold the Czechs for failing to show adequate deference to an idealized and obsolete image of Havel will merely drive many Czech citizens further into Putin’s embrace. As can be seen from their reactions in social media, there are plenty of Czechs who see such attitudes, which have been widely reported in local media, merely as confirmation of an allegedly arrogant, colonial attitude toward their country.

Many Czechs accordingly see Putin’s Russia (quite wrongly) as a counterbalance to the alleged “evil American imperial designs” on their country. This is certainly not what American editors and writers intend — but such are the results of heavy-handed sermonizing from the other side of the Atlantic. If you really want to promote democracy in Havel’s homeland, this surely isn’t the way to do it.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Jan Čulík, a former journalist for the Czech service of Radio Free Europe, now teaches Czech studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland.

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