It seems somehow fitting that Vaclav Havel should pass away a year on from the self-immolation of Mohammad Bouazazi and just hours before the death of Kim Jong-Il.
While the Tunisian street vendor, whose sacrifice sparked the Arab Awakening, personified the power of the powerless, the North Korean dictator has presided over what Havel recently called one of the world’s “most staggering human-rights and humanitarian disasters”
Havel has now departed his “tired and weakened human shell” but he will continue to inspire, says Igor Blaževic, a close confidante. He gathered up his strength for two final political acts, he said – “to meet once more his good friend Dalai Lama and to call upon the Russian opposition to unite following the recent elections.”
“Back in the early 1980s, when Poland was frozen under martial law and Czechoslovakia, as it was then still called, suffered under one of the stupidest of all of communist regimes, the Polish dissidents and the Czech dissidents resolved to have a meeting,” (above) writes Anne Applebaum:
By separate routes, they made their way to their mutual border, high in the Tatra mountains. I once saw the photographs that were taken to mark this improbable occasion: A dozen blue-jeaned activists, veterans of Solidarity and Charter 77, grinning widely, toasting the camera, celebrating the fact that they had eluded their respective secret police services once again. It looked like a lot of fun.
This Czech-Polish dissident dialog* was the “one of the prologues” to the Velvet Revolution, said Havel, in a 1990 address to the Polish Parliament.
It was as a dissident that Mr. Havel most clearly championed the ideals of a civil society. He helped found Charter 77, the longest enduring human rights movement in the former Soviet bloc, and keenly articulated the lasting humiliations that Communism imposed on the individual.
The charter’s affirmation that political legitimacy rested on “the authority of truth and the authority of conscience that demands it speak the truth” eventually proved the inspiration for and found expression in the Civic Forum movement that brought down the communist regime.
Charter 77 also provided the inspiration for Charter 08, the manifesto of China’s democracy movement. Havel championed the cause of the charter’s co-author Liu Xiaobo and his fellow dissidents, and considered Liu Nobel Peace Prize as confirmation that there is a “moral minimum” of rights and values shared by all nations and civilizations.
It was Havel’s “simple human decency” that proved inspirational for so many other dissidents and democracy advocates, says political analyst Jirí Pehe, while the concept of ‘anti-political politics’ was also central to his thinking.
“There was a certain mistrust of political parties, and although he later embraced them as standard democratic structures, he still put a lot of emphasis on civil society, morality and so, the kinds of things you don’t normally hear about from professional politicians who entered politics through parties and got to the top,” says Pehe who served as Havel’s chief political advisor in the late 1990s.
“The subversive power of the truth, he so eloquently brought to light, was somehow known intuitively to me but his writing helped strengthen and clarify my conviction,” she says.
It was some years later that she finally met him, at a Capitol Hill event to celebrate his work which he turned into an occasion to highlight ongoing democratic struggles.
“He used the time dedicated to honor his remarkable achievements to give visibility and support to obscure dissidents from around the world, known to no one but the security forces in their respective countries,” she notes.
Although his formal commitments diminished when he left office, Havel remained politically engaged, extending support to beleaguered democrats and dissidents living under autocratic rule – from campaigning against authoritarianism in Belarus to welcoming the democratic thrust of the Arab Awakening.
Arab democracy advocates have refuted the skeptics, just as the anti-Soviet dissidents did, he said recently.
“Western journalists were telling us for years: You charter-signers and dissidents are Don Quixotes. You are not supported by the working class or farmers or some serious political power,” he said. “I was saying: Be careful. Be careful. What do you know about what’s happening under the surface of the society?’”
Democracies must provide assistance to transitions, but even “more important than the institutional aspect is the political culture,” he said.
Unlike some latter-day emerging democracies, Havel exercised what he saw as the moral imperative to extend solidarity and support to “beleaguered but like-minded figures abroad,” as The Economist notes:
He invited the Lithuanian leader Vytautas Landsbergis to Prague, as that country struggled to turn its declaration of independence from Soviet occupation into reality. He brought the Pope to Prague, overcoming the neurotic anti-Catholicism and secularism of some Czechs, who remember the counter-Reformation and priestly privilege as if they were yesterday. He was a close friend of the Dalai Lama—almost the first foreign dignitary he received as president, and a visitor in the last days of his life. Others might counsel friendship with the mighty Chinese; for Havel matters of principle were just that. Having themselves been forgotten captives, the Czechs could not possibly forget the plight of the Tibetans, the Uighurs, the Belarusians and the Cubans……He laid other ghosts of the past too: opening warm diplomatic ties with Israel and giving full co-operation to outside efforts to track down the many Arab terrorists who had trained in Czechoslavakia under communism.
His addresses to his fellow citizens on New Year’s Eve 1989 and 1990 “make illuminating and moving reading,” it adds.
Havel remained wary of what he called “the old European disease” –a “tendency to make compromises with evil, to close one’s eyes to dictatorship, to practice a politics of appeasement” – and supported efforts to establish a European Endowment for Democracy.
“Havel was the epitome of a dissident because he persisted in this struggle, patiently, non-violently, with dignity and wit, not knowing when or even if the outward victory would come,” writes Timothy Garton Ash:
The success was already in that persistence, in the practice of “antipolitics” – or politics as the art of the impossible. ….In his famous parable of the Schweikian greengrocer who puts a sign in his shop window, among the apples and onions, saying “Workers of all countries, Unite!” – although, of course, the man doesn’t believe a word of it – Havel captured the essential insight on which all civil resistance draws: that even the most oppressive regimes depend on some minimal compliance by the people they govern.
“Live not the lie” was the motto Havel shared with Solzhenitsyn, writes David Remnick: “it was essential to live within truth, and he always wrote as a free man, forever ignoring the lies and the jackboot of his oppressor.”
Truth and morality were integral to Havel’s politics. Communism’s most noxious legacy was the “spoiled moral environment,” he said, on his first day as the freely-elected president of Czechoslovakia.
“We have become morally ill because we are used to saying one thing and thinking another,” he said. “We have learned not to believe in anything, not to care about each other. . . . Love, friendship, mercy, humility, or forgiveness have lost their depths and dimension. . . . They represent some sort of psychological curiosity, or they appear as long-lost wanderers from faraway times.”
Morality is also integral to Havel’s notion of democracy which, he held, had to be more than a set of institutional arrangements – free and fair elections, separation of powers, civil liberties, etc. – necessarily incorporating cultural and spiritual values if it is to maintain a genuinely universal appeal.
“The only salvation of the world today, now that the two biggest and most monstrous totalitarian utopias humanity has ever known–Nazism and Communism–fortunately have collapsed, is the rapid dissemination of the basic values of the West, that is, the ideas of democracy, human rights, civil society, and the free market,” he wrote in a celebrated and prescient essay on Democracy’s Forgotten Dimension for the Journal of Democracy.
He anticipated that democratic institutions and free markets would ultimately breed disillusion if they failed to address people’s needs, including their cultural and spiritual longings.
“[E]ven if this blueprint appears to Western man as the best and perhaps the only one possible, it has left much of the world unsatisfied,” he wrote. “To hope in such a situation that democracy will be easily expanded and that this in itself will avert a conflict of cultures would be worse than foolish.”
Democracy “is seen less and less as an open system that is best able to respond to people’s basic needs–that is, as a set of possibilities that continually must be sought, redefined, and brought into being. Instead, democracy is seen as something given, finished, and complete as is, something that can be exported like cars or television sets, something that the more enlightened purchase and the less enlightened do not.”
If democracy is not only to survive but to expand successfully and resolve those conflicts of cultures, then, in my opinion, it must rediscover and renew its own transcendental origins. … The relativization of all moral norms, the crisis of authority, the reduction of life to the pursuit of immediate material gain without regard for its general consequences–the very things Western democracy is most criticized for–do not originate in democracy but in that which modern man has lost: his transcendental anchor, and along with it the only genuine source of his responsibility and self-respect. It is because of this loss that democracy is losing much of its credibility.
The separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers, the universal right to vote, the rule of law, freedom of expression, the inviolability of private ownership, and all the other aspects of democracy as a system that ought to be the least unjust and the least capable of violence–these are merely technical instruments that enable man to live with dignity, freedom, and responsibility. But in and of themselves, they cannot guarantee human dignity, freedom, and responsibility. The source of these basic human potentials lies elsewhere: in man’s relationship to that which transcends him. I think the fathers of American democracy knew this very well.
Havel was a recipient of the National Endowment for Democracy’s prestigious Democracy Service Medal, joining the ranks of such luminaries as Lech Walesa, the late Congressman Tom Lantos, and the Dalai Lama.
*The NED funded the Communist era dissident dialogs clustered around the Warsaw-based New Coalition and the Wroclaw-based Polish-Czechoslovakia Solidarity.
“We’ve always considered this grant, dollar for dollar, the best grant the NED has ever made,” the endowment’s president Carl Gershman recalled.