Remembering Vaclav Havel: Velvet Revolutionary and Champion of Freedom
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia -- The Sunday before Christmas brought sad news around the world, but especially in my part of the world – Vaclav Havel, the dissident, writer, leader of the Velvet Revolution, former president of Czechs and Slovaks, and one of the most remarkable human beings passed away. He will be remembered as a tireless human-rights advocate, artist, and unusual leader who touched the hearts and minds of millions. I had the privilege to know Havel personally, and I feel deeply sad that my President and friend died today.
I vividly remember November 1989, when this short and seemingly indecisive and fragile man addressing the large rallies that brought down the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. Freedom-thirsty people around the country shouted in squares, “Havel for President! Havel to the Castle!” (The Castle houses the president in Prague.) The former political prisoner, who spent almost five years in communist prison, became the symbol of our struggle for freedom and the face of liberated Czechoslovakia abroad.
On February 21, 1990, he delivered a speech to the United States Congress and earned a standing ovation by the moved lawmakers. He inspired the freshly liberated people of my country and boosted our will to build an open and democratic country. The next year, in October 1991, as a young minister in the Slovak government of the Czecho-Slovak Federation, I was a member of Havel’s delegation during his first official visit to the United States. It was rewarding to see the enormous respect all politicians, including President George H.W. Bush and the members of the U.S. Congress, paid to the humble, unconventional, and highly educated president of the small post-communist country.
In spite of the efforts of Vaclav Havel and his contemporaries, political evolution in Czecho-Slovakia eventually led to the spilt of our common state in January 1993. Unlike in case of Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union, this was a velvet divorce, not fueled by hatred but a search for civilized arrangements of relationship between the two close nations.
Vaclav Havel continued his presidency as the head of the Czech Republic into 2003, and from the beginning developed cordial relations with his Slovak counterpart, Michal Kovac, and all of Slovakia. With his attitude, he helped us Slovaks to modernize and democratize our own country and always advocated for our membership in Western institutions. Vaclav Havel, both as president and beyond, was always welcomed in Slovakia, not only by political leaders and cultural figures, but also by young people with whom he openly discussed the pressing issues of our contemporary world.
Vaclav Havel remained throughout his entire life deeply concerned about human rights and democracy. He regularly issued statements calling for the release of political prisoners around the world. He was never afraid to break the sensitive line between political pragmatism and justice and was always ready to meet dissidents and to fight for liberty and truth. His statements mobilized world attention, angered autocrats, and gave hope to freedom-fighters. I can imagine how many people mourn today in Tibet, Burma, Cuba, and Belarus, which were so much on his mind until his last days.
I think the overwhelming reaction to his sudden death is related to a loss of a man with a rather rare conviction in humanity, justice, and European values in today’s turbulent times. Havel left us with a wonderful but very demanding motto: “Truth and love will win over lies and hatred.”
Pavol Demes is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund, based in Bratislava, Slovakia.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.