Havel’s Legacy, Forsaken?

A year after his death, Vaclav Havel would find much in the world to worry about, especially in his homeland, where ambivalence and apathy now define the tone

Vaclav Havel died a year ago, so some Czechs are naturally talking about how the former president, dissident, and champion of human rights would see the world today. Would he still wear that iconic smile, shy yet savvy?

Certainly, he would welcome the political opening in Burma and the April election of Aung San Suu Kyi, its leading pro-democracy figure, to parliament after spending most of the past 20 years under house arrest. So too the re-election of U.S. President Barack Obama and the scores of young people in the Arab world who continue to demand their rights in the face of autocrats.

 

Uneasy with Islam and adrift at home

And yet Havel would be uneasy with signs that Islamists are gaining influence in the power vacuum left by the Arab Spring. He would abhor the mistreatment of women in post-Gaddafi Libya or post-Mubarak Egypt, as Havel said a society is best measured against its respect for women’s rights. He would likely fault the West’s reluctance to intervene in the Syrian crisis and worry about Russia’s regression under Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s recent military posturing, and, perhaps most of all, the eurozone turmoil tugging at the European Union’s seams. Indeed, Havel stridently supported European unification and integration, proposing as early as 1999, in a speech before the French Senate, that the bloc could one day mature into a sort of federal state.

But what would Havel make of the current state of Czech society? For the truth is, the picture is bleak.

In 2012, the Czech government continued its three-year drift away from Europe and its ideals. Free-minded people sensed the country was moving in reverse, like the bus driver who sprayed graffiti and critical comments on political billboards and found himself in prison. In September, Prime Minister Petr Nečas said that paying too much attention to the imprisoned Russian dissident band Pussy Riot and the Dalai Lama was harming exports and Czech national interests. Last but not least, Petr Hajek, a close aide to President Vaclav Klaus, slanders Havel in a new book, calling the ex-president an instrument of lies and hatred whose ideology led to fascism.

As the first head of state to officially receive the Dalai Lama, in 1990, Havel would not stand for Nečas’ remarks, nor the prosecution of people like the bus driver. On the other hand, if Hajek’s book had been published while Havel was alive, he probably wouldn’t have lost much sleep over it. Havel was used to public criticism and, after all, he always had that coy smile to fall back on.

 

Indifference among Czechs

What would bother Havel is the reality that Czechs don’t seem to care about these troubling developments. Only a few academics, journalists, and friends of the former president have publicly criticized Necas’ speech or the bus driver’s fate. Most people are just ambivalent.

Havel spent his life fighting ambivalence and ignorance by drawing attention to underappreciated human-rights issues and other concerns – problems he felt couldn’t be ignored. He pushed especially hard at home because Czechs, he liked to say, had built walls around themselves to survive communism, walls that also helped the regime survive for as long as it did.

By fighting for his beliefs, Havel inspired others to follow suit – to care about the world outside their living rooms. But today most Czechs seem indifferent to the values he embodied, and even to the man himself.

 

Hope for a revived vision 

Indeed, right after Havel died, many Czech cities and towns wanted to rename schools, streets and public spaces after him. But, with the notable exception of Prague’s airport, most of these plans fell through once people realised there would be some paperwork involved. Faced with putting in a little effort, Czechs stopped caring about honouring Havel and his legacy. Was this just a minor, ultimately insignificant surrender or the hint of a creeping malaise? It’s too early to tell, of course. But I’m glad that the close of every year from now on will give Czechs reason to remember Havel, to see the world and themselves through his eyes and, perhaps, to fight a little harder to preserve his legacy.

 

 

  Kateřina Šafaříková is a journalist with Czech Television.

 

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