On Dec. 29,1989, the Czechoslovakian parliament elected dissident playwright-turned-politician Václav Havel to be the country’s first non-Communist president since 1948. Havel, 53, who spent five years in prison for his political beliefs, heads an interim government until multiparty elections on June 8. Maclean’s Correspondent Sonja Sinclair, who immigrated to Canada from Czechoslovakia in 1939, interviewed Havel in their native tongue earlier this month at the presidential retreat outside Prague. Excerpts-.
Maclean’s: On April 9, you met with representatives of Central and Eastern European countries in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. What kind of relationship are you attempting to forge with those countries?
Havel: All of Europe is in a state of flux and, looking ahead five or 15 years, we must be concerned about Czechoslovakia’s role in this new Europe. The meeting in Bratislava was unconventional in that, in addition to the heads of state and the foreign ministers of Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary, it was also attended by the foreign ministers of three other countries [Italy, Austria and Yugoslavia], plus representatives of political parties and factions which may, some day, succeed to positions of power. Everybody agreed that we should work towards solutions to our problems, possibly on the basis of bilateral economic agreements, and that we will try to arrive at a common declaration of principles concerning the future integration of Europe, and concerning ways in which countries that have been isolated by the Iron Curtain from the free part of Europe might gradually become part of the European community.
Maclean’s: So you are talking about an allEuropean federation rather than just those countries that were represented at the meeting. Havel: I am talking about various stages of a gradual integration of Europe. Let’s say that a federation of all of Europe is our ultimate goal, although presumably a fairly distant one. As far as those countries are concerned that have had, until recently, a totalitarian regime, we use the word ‘co-ordination.’ In other words, we should co-ordinate our initiatives rather than trying to outdo each other, help each other so that all of us will have a better chance to succeed.
But there is also a more profound reason. We are bound together by a common experience which we have undergone and, above all, by the ideals which prompted us to fight that totalitarian system, by the principle of human rights,
which is indivisible. An attack against freedom anywhere in the world is, to us, an attack against our own freedom. The principles for which we fought should become the basis of the policies of our countries. So these principles
commit us to a kind of solidarity and co-operation.
Maclean’s: Do you foresee some sort of revival of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or at least a federation that might be a counterweight to a united Germany?
Havel: In my opinion, a Central or CentralEastern European union as a counterweight to Germany would not be an ideal solution. The goal as I see it is an integrated Europe, although, along the way, in the transitional phases, we may see the creation of regional groups such as an Adriatic working group, and we talked [in Bratislava] about a possible parallel Baltic group linking Poland and the Scandinavian countries, with Czechoslovakia as a link between the two. The idea would be not to create a ‘cordon’ between Germany and a disintegrating Soviet Union. Rather, we envis-
aged it as a way for those countries which have previously been isolated from Europe to become gradually integrated with it.
Maclean’s: Talking about the Soviet Union, what do you think about events in Lithuania? Do you consider them a danger to the stability of the Soviet Union, or do you believe that, as you say, freedom is indivisible?
Havel: I believe, and I said so in Bratislava, that it is in the best interest of all nations within the Soviet Union, in the interest of Europe and of the entire world, that the Soviet Union should, as quickly and peacefully as possible, find a solution that would provide its various nationalities with whatever measure of selfdetermination they desire. This is a gigantic task with which the Soviet Union is struggling. Lithuania is a kind of laboratory of the future of the entire Soviet Union. Poland’s President [Wojciech] Jaruzelski is restrained and careful with regard to Lithuania’s demands for independence, not because he is a friend of Gorbachev’s and doesn’t want to complicate his life, but because he is afraid that these rapid demands for emancipation are fuelling Russian chauvinism, a Great-Russian nationalism. And he is concerned that the Communist empire, the Stalinist enslavement of nations, might be replaced by a nationalistic Russian republic whose ambition would be to reconquer what has been lost. I believe that is true.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that the Soviet leadership should realize the inevitability of people’s desire for self-determination. When I was travelling in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, I had the impression that, sooner or later, this desire for independence would inevitably reach the Soviet empire. I thought it would take approximately 50 years; as it turns out, it took only 20.
Maclean’s: Does it worry you to see nationalism rampant within so many countries, including parts of Czechoslovakia?
Havel: This was an inevitable development. After so many years of suppression of national identities, there was bound to be a reaction in the form of nationalism and chauvinism. That is a phase that nations have to experience before they find a political expression of their independence, and before they realize that their future lies in co-operation and confederation with nations which have found their identity and, therefore, don’t need this kind of nationalism and chauvinism. These are childhood diseases which every nation must endure before it reaches the age of reason. Maclean’s: What were your impressions of Canada during your February visit?
Havel: Though I was only in Canada for two days, I came away with many impressions. Talking about physical aspects of the country, I was fascinated by its clear air and clean water. I was surprised, for instance, to learn that I was drinking tap water; no one in Czechoslovakia
would do that. I had an impression of a smoothly functioning democracy. Seeing that we, too, are building a federal system in our country, I was intrigued by the relationship in Canada between individual provinces and the federal government. For me, it was tremendously interesting to find that, in the provinces, the governing party is often the one that is in opposition at the federal level.
Some suggestions we received from the Canadian government are, in my opinion, extremely important. The huge united Germany next door to us, with its enormous potential, is of course our extremely important economic partner. But I consider it important that we should also build economic relationships with other, more distant countries.
Maclean’s: You often speak about spiritual matters and, within the first few months of your presidency, you have invited religious leaders, including the Dalai Lama, to Czechoslovakia. Why?
Havel: There are several aspects to this. The first is strictly personal and not particularly significant, namely that I am attracted by people who have some spiritual horizons. More important is the fact that, if mankind is to survive and not become extinct within a relatively short time, either because we are breathing carbon monoxide instead of oxygen, or because of the explosion of nuclear weapons, or because there will soon be 20 billion people on earth of whom 19 billion will be starving—if mankind is to survive all these and other catastrophes, there will be a need of what I call
an awakening on the part of human beings, an existential revolution, a victory of the spirit over materialism. To achieve this, it is important that a growing people with spiritual horizons should participate in public life. Maclean’s: Your countrymen say that, for the first time in decades, they feel proud of being Czechoslovaks, of being able to say that Havel is their president.
Havel: I am of course moved by what you say. I agree that a unifying president who is respected by his fellow citizens as well as abroad is needed during this confused, semi-revolutionary period. But that must not be the case in the future. Democracy must not depend on one person; everybody must be dispensable. If the president were to fall ill or if someone were to murder him, there must be 10 other people who are capable of stepping into his shoes, and who are just as qualified as he is.
Maclean’s: But as long as you are president, are you enjoying yourself?
Havel: On the whole, no. For me, it is a sacrifice, it’s a bit like going to jail. But people persuaded me that it was for the public good. Maclean’s: Someday, do you think you will write a play about it all?
Havel: I don’t think I could, because our revolution and my presidency is a drama that was written by someone above, and we are mere actors or assistant directors. I wouldn’t want to write an imitation of a play that has been written by someone above all of us. Some people may call the author the Almighty; materialists would say it was written by history. □
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