Vaclav Havel: I Was Told in 1968, "You Must Become President"*

Interview | December 20, 2011, Tuesday // 10:10|  views

Former Czech President Vaclav Havel (left) with Maxim Behar (right), then Managing Editor of Standart Daily, in Havel's first ever interview for a Bulgarian media back in 1994. Photo by Miroslav Zajic

*In tribute to Czech playwright, dissident and former President of the Czech Republic and Czechoslovakia Vaclav Havel, a key figure in Eastern Europe's post-communist transition, who passed away on December 18, 2011, the editorial team of (Sofia News Agency) and is offering to your attention a reprint of Havel's first ever interview for a Bulgarian media – made by former Bulgarian journalist Maxim Behar, then the Managing Editor of the Standart Daily, and today a leading PR expert.

The interview was published on June 20, 1994, in the Standart Daily, and in Maxim Behar's book "Secondary Instinct" in October 2000.


Vaclav Havel: I Was Told in 1968, "You Must Become President"

Vaclav Havel (1936-2011) – President of Czechoslovakia from 1989 till 1992 and of the Czech Republic from 1993 till 2003. A famous Czech playwright and intellectual, one of the authors of "Charter 77". He was jailed three times for opposition activity during the communist period. He is a co-founder of the Civic Forum association after the "Velvet Revolution" at the end of 1989.


Mr. Havel, do you remember who first told you that you will become president?

I heard that for the first time in 1968 when I published an article in a literary newspaper. The same day I came across my good friend Honza Tsiska by the river. He told me: "Vaclav, this article is perfect. You should become a president."

How did you react back then?

We both laughed and went for a drink. After that I was told one more time that I should be president. It was in jail where without a doubt all criminals saw me as the future president.

The criminals?

Well, yes. For them, we, the political prisoners, were something like an alternative government, and they viewed us with great respect. As we were shaving one morning, a friend told me, "Listen, you will become president one day but I want to ask you something. You are too soft. Before you get formally elected, give me three days to settle all accounts with the entire communist lot, and then you can govern."

You didn't give him that chance?

Thank God, I didn't.

And then?

Then, many years after the conversation before the sink came the dramatic 1989, and I think that Mihal Kocab was the first who pulled me to the side in the theater "Na Zabradli" to tell me that I should agree to become president. For the third time in my life I took it as a joke but two days later it was no longer a joke because they started to talk seriously about it at the Civic Forum. After that I was unanimously elected president by the communist parliament, and I was the first non-communist president in the entire Soviet Bloc.

I asked you about what happened "then" because Adam Michnik often tells a story about how he was the first to tell you that you will be president, long before the collapse of communism.

Aha, you know, you are right. I remember now about a conversation in my villa in Hradacek in the summer of 1989. "Solidarity" had just won the elections in Poland. Adam Michnik was a successful deputy, and I was an ordinary dissident but that didn't prevent us from being good friends. It is true, absolutely true – he said to me then that I should be president, and I only smiled, and didn't even reply to him.

Many Bulgarians are aware of who you are, and many aren't. That's why it's normal to ask you – and it's normal for you not to get offended – who is Vaclav Havel?

It would be very hard for me to answer this question. You'd better asked the people around me, look at what I've written. Understand that I cannot talk about myself. Actually, why not. This is how I'll reply to you: Vaclav Havel is an ordinary Czech.

You are going to Sofia only for several hours. This could be construed as an underestimation of Bulgaria – a country with which the Czech Republic has very close relations.

President Zhelev has already been on a visit here, and I was in Sofia back when Czechoslovakia still existed. We couldn't get done everything that we were supposed to get done together even though Mr. Zhelev and I have known one another since our dissident years. It's no underestimation, to the contrary. I am going on a visit to Romania where I've never been at all, and I said to myself – there is no way I can be this close to Sofia, and not go at least for a while to meet again with President Zhelev. What is more, Bulgaria has a relatively large Czech community, it has had a strong Czecho-Slovak club. I am extremely sorry, I have been meaning to but I have never had the time to pay greater attention to my compatriots in your country.

Is that all linking you to Bulgaria?

We are two countries which – whether we like it or not – now have common concerns. We got out of communism at the same time, and are now struggling with its consequences. Both we and you have no guarantees that one day we won't make mistakes. That's why, the more we exchange experience and consult one another, the greater the likelihood that we will get away faster from the shadow of communism.

There used to be exchange of experience earlier, too.

Oh, God, you know it yourself that this is about something totally different. Up until several years ago we had some kind of strangely directed friendship in which everything was clear and precise. After that, when the COMECON and the Warsaw Pact collapsed like straw houses, when it became visible that this entire market had been artificial, it turned out that we must build something totally new.

What's that?

I will say it in one word: democracy.

That's clear but you that love for democracy also goes through the stomach. Because of that, don't you think that we would help one another much better if the Czech Republic and Bulgaria had a free market, without duties. At least we have traditions in that.

In principle, the Czech Republic is in favor of maximum trade liberalization. I will be talking about that in Romania, and we are obviously going to discuss this matter in Bulgaria but all of that requires time. Right now a group of experts around myself are study the opportunities for boosting trade with your country. By the way, the same goes for Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia.

All of that would have been much more simple if Bulgaria were a member of the Visegrad Four. Would you support Bulgaria's accession to this group?

It's not so easy.

What exactly – Bulgaria's accession or your support?

Let me first tell what the Visegrad Four really is. All the more so, because Bulgaria perhaps has illusions in vain about this matter. The Visegrad group was created, more or less, in a somewhat revolutionary way based on purely geographical principles by three neighboring states – Czechoslovkia, Hungary, and Poland. This was the time when we were liberating ourselves from the Soviet hegemony. When we desired greatly – and that's why we did it successfully – to destroy the Warsaw Pact. We needed one more thing – to demonstrate to the West that we are capable of cooperation. These three countries hadn't had the best relations among them in their entire history, that's why we wanted to show that we can rise above our mutual problems. And nothing more than that.

Have you achieved that?

Most of the goals that we had set at the beginning have already been accomplished.

Does this mean that there is no Visegrad Four any more?

It depends on how you perceive its "being". We no longer gather solemnly, we no longer sign anything. Instead, we have several groups of experts who are thinking about how to make inter-country trade more active. But these are issues that are of interest only to these particular countries.

I take your reply to stand for your unwillingness to me if you would support Bulgaria if it ever wanted to one of you, the four states.

I think that discussing who wanted to join where and be, or not be would be very impractical right now. The Visegrad Four has never been an organization with structures. It's never had elected bodies, or a secretariat. Nobody can be admitted to, or excluded from it. It is what it was created on geographic principles between then three, and now four countries.

Then you believed that no country has the chance to join this union, whatever its goals and structure?

I think that its expansion right now is pointless. I am personally a supporter of the small regional communities. Just like Scandinavia, or Great Britain, there is Visegrad. But doesn't mean at all that there is no thinking about something more from the Balkans. It's just that you are in the south, and we are in Central Europe. This has hardly brought us any advantages but it is a historical and geographical fact. Small communities can react quickly and practically; on top of that, they have common interests, and can fight for them much more efficiently.

So you advise us to set up a Balkan Federation?

God forbid me from giving you advice. In the very least, I haven't been authorized to do that. But why don't you create one, too! The fact that everybody wants to join something new as soon as it appears is much of a thing of the past. We are all nervous, everybody is mindful of whether the other one might beat them in integration with somebody else. Everybody wants to be integrated with everybody else and everywhere. Well, that can't work.

You have so many common interests with Greece and Romania. It's doesn't matter which one is a post-communist state, and which one isn't. Greece is a NATO and EU member state, it could be very helpful in a Balkan community or union, it doesn't really matter what you will call it. If one day this nightmare in the former Yugoslavia comes to an end, there will probably be states from there too wishing to join. Albania is trying to do whatever it can in order to become a democratic country. You together with Turkey are in turn part of the Black Sea cooperation zone. The Czech Republic is not a member of it, and has nothing to do over there...

The Czech Republic and Slovakia have been two separate states for a year and a half now, and this separation is invariably connected with you name. What would have happened today if the federation had been preserved?

This is the hardest question whatsoever that you can pose to a politician...

That's why I am posing it.

What would have happened if something hadn't happened... I really don't know but I have the feeling that if Czechoslovakia had not divided itself, we would still have been wasting our time with tens of thousands of legal questions and proving who is more right. I am the last person who could be happy about the divorce between the Czech Republic and Slovakia but that's what the reality is. This federation could have continued to exist only in an artificial form. I don't know... It could have seen a different development. But politics is not biochemistry – you can't predict what will happen when mixing together two substances. There are always many unpredictable possibilities.

Do you believe the argument that right now in Eastern Europe everything leftist has become rightist?

...and everything rightist is leftist.

No, the rightist is just gone.

The truth is that to a certain extent there is a chaos in these terms. However, the chaos was much greater in the past few months of the communist period, and the first few months after its collapse. Back then, the communist would call "rightist" any enemy of totalitarianism. For example, in their eyes, socialdemocrats would be rightist, while the communists themselves described their internal faction as left and right. This created a great chaos with these terms. But it seems to me that the situation now is not so worrying. The leftists and the rightists are starting to make sense, and people gradually comprehend what it is all about. Even though personally I am no supporter of this type of division. I am more interested in who is right than in whether they are leftist- or rightist-oriented.

You've proven that literature needs a little politics. Don't you think that politics needs a little literature, i.e. creativeness?

I think that the most important thing in politics is the aesthetic taste, aesthetics, and the ability to create structures, to construct. Style is also very important, it does matter how a politician talks. If they use banal, excuse me for saying that, journalistic expressions, nobody would listen, and therefore nobody would believe them. You need to know when to start and when to stop. And that's not a matter of learning – you either have it, or you don't.

One of the greatest post-communist events in the former federation [of Czechoslovakia] was the opening of the secret files of the Members of Parliament. Was all of that so necessary?

We needed to look the past in the eyes in some way. We couldn't just say – past is past, we don't care about it. This had to be done somehow. It was done in the most stupid way possible, and this is a fact. Don't forget that that's an extremely complex issue. What is more, no post-communist country ever proved that it can cope with it. Perhaps the Germans did the best job but that's relative, too. I did not like at all the way Czechoslovakia tried to face the past. But, thank God, that is now in the past, too.

The former communists in Eastern Europe are starting to make a comeback rather triumphantly but this time they are armed with rightist economic programs. Aren't you afraid that they same thing could happen in the Czech Republic?

I think that this can be ruled out in the Czech Republic. For several reasons. One of them is that Prague had the most conservative communist regime of all Warsaw Pact countries, and it was so rotten and discredited that I don't envy its successors. This is one of the reasons they've been bickering among themselves now but there is also something else – in the Czech Republic there is not a single serious leftist power offering anything. The kind of political left that they have in Slovakia, Poland, or Hungary simply doesn't exist here. There is just one hardline communist party whose members are those who don't wish to do away with the illusions of their lives. What is more, there are two more small communist parties with whom one can talk but they are simply no election players or threats for anybody. Well, there is something else, too. The most competent and smartest communists in the Czech Republic have become capitalists long ago, and have been voting for the most rightist parties. Simply because for them, too, capitalism is better than communism.

Don't you feel a longing sometimes for your dissident years? Because power changes people a lot, after all.

I wouldn't say I've felt a longing. But it is true that there used to be something in that time that I really miss. There was an atmosphere of solidarity, devotion. Regardless of their differing viewpoints people knew that they had to stick together, not to betray one another, not to inform of the others. The state security service tried many times to break the dissidents and never managed to do that. I remember that at a police interrogation the investigator was asking me questions but was reading them because they were sent to him from somebody above. The back page of the sheet facing me, however, had instructions on how to work with dissidents. Item one there said that ideological differences among them had to be used in any way possible.

That's why they would tell those who had never been communists – what do you have in common with Mlynar, he is a regular apparatchik who took part in all trials after the war. However, they would tell Mlynar himself: "Comrade, it's no big deal. You're one of our own, just a bit different, but don't do that... What do you have in common with that Havel?" But nobody would give in to them. There, I miss that solidarity, I'd like to see it now, too, but in the entire society.

"I am sad that I didn't manage to paint the fence, I hope it can make it till the spring because this is the best thing I've done in my life, and I will probably never do anything better" – this is what you wrote to your wife Olga from the prison many years ago. Have you found time to paint the fence of the village in Hradacek?

Not only have I found no time to paint it, not only has my wife found no time to paint it but to this day I've never managed to find a man who would do that. On top of all else – the fence is still standing intact.

Do you still think this is the best thing you've done to date?

With my hands – yes.

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Tags: Vaclav Havel, Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia, Czech President, communism, dissident, anti-communism, Visegrad Four, Visegrad Group, Warsaw Pact, Soviet Union, Soviet Bloc, COMECON, Maxim Behar, Zhelyu Zhelev


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