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The night Havel became president

December 18, 2011

New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1989. I am in Prague for Reuters to report on the inauguration of Vaclav Havel as president of Czechoslovakia. The single party rule of decades is finally over, after seven weeks of a popular revolt summed up by the slogan Havel to the Castle’. In the thronged streets, people walk through the chilly air with goofy looks on their faces.

It’s not a surprise that Havel died this weekend, given his age and health, but the loss feels personal, and I miss knowing that he is around. A public figure who was loved and respected in equal measure – that is a feeling that today’s crop of leaders do not inspire.

I returned to Prague for The Guardian in November 1990 and the following summer joined other correspondents at a picnic with the president at Lany, the Czech version of Chequers. Here is the story that was published on July 12, 1991:

How Havel’s spider is changing the Castle
The shirt-sleeved president sat on a bench by the lake, sipping beer and wrestling with a thick sausage which slithered around his paper plate. Assorted correspondents formed an intimate circle around him on the grass.

Around us lay the grounds of Lany Castle, traditional country residence of Czechoslovak leaders and currently in the service of our host, Vaclav Havel. Nearby, in the summer light, more journalists sat on the lawn with the president’s assistants, in clusters of gossip.

This happy band had been assembled for a PR job with a difference – to explain how things were changing at the main presidential office. The Castle, perched on the top of a steep hill above the city, is increasingly accused of being as remote as it looks, as tensions rise and memories of the ‘velvet revolution’ fade. What was first seen as a charming unconventionality is now painted as a problem; the place is being run by a bunch of amateurs, the president is being badly advised.

Gone is the ‘society of friends’, needed in the early days to ward off hostile communist ghosts. In comes the professional team, with a line of command and defined areas of responsibility.

Mr Havel started with a demonstration of ‘the spider’: a diagram of the new structure. ‘We found we needed to strengthen individual offices, because a collective body always leads to a collective lack of responsibility,’ he explained. ‘In the absence of structures I have had the feeling of being the object of developments, in a way that manipulated me and the whole office. The aim is to become the subject. To do things in the way we plan them.’

Another aim was to make sure the truly remote style of the old communist regime was rooted out. ‘People would send letters to the president telling their life story, full of the troubles they had been through under this regime and that one, and all they got back was a rude and nasty reply from an unsympathetic official,’ said aide Eda Kriseova. There was also an emphasis on improving links with Slovakia, where disenchantment with federal institutions is on the increase. The Bratislava office of the president is being strengthened.

Mr Havel observed that as institutions gained their footing, his own power diminished, a normal and welcome process. But in a transitional society there could have been room for a strong hand. He admitted to having erred.

‘My mistake was that in the early days, when in effect I had almost total power, I did not push through certain things which ended up taking much longer. For example, the business of removing the word “socialist” from the official name of the country. I could have got up in parliament and said, “I propose x and y,’ and it would have happened in 10 minutes, but I was persuaded it should go through all the official channels. It ended up taking three months. It need not have happened.’

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