Carl Gershman is president of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Monday is the 25th anniversary of the start of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. To mark the occasion, a bust of Václav Havel, the leader of that revolution, Czechoslovakia’s first post-Communist president and one of the most significant intellectual and political leaders of the Cold War era and its aftermath, will be unveiled Wednesday in the U.S. Capitol. Only three other international figures have been honored in this way — Britain’s Winston Churchill, Hungary’s Lajos Kossuth and Sweden’s Raoul Wallenberg — and Havel eminently deserves to be among them.
When he addressed a joint session of Congress just three months after the revolution, Havel spoke with deep feeling about his country’s indebtedness to the United States, including for President Woodrow Wilson’s great support for the founding of Czechoslovakia in 1918, U.S. sacrifice and leadership in three wars — two hot and one cold — to save freedom in Europe, and the American founding documents that “inspire us to be citizens.” Havel emphasized the importance of morality in politics and economics and said that we should base our actions on “responsibility to something higher than my family, country, my firm, my success.”
That sense of moral responsibility for others led Havel, until his death in 2011, to be one of the world’s leading advocates for human rights. While his support for nonviolent opponents of dictatorship such as the Dalai Lama, Liu Xiaobo, Aung San Suu Kyi and Oswaldo Payá was unqualified and deeply felt, it was never based on purely humanitarian concerns. He believed that people such as himself, who had experienced Communist totalitarianism firsthand, had a special responsibility to warn the affluent West about the dangers of appeasement, and he felt that a “politics where economic interests are put above basic political values are not only immoral, they are suicidal.” In his last years, he applied this thinking especially to Russia and China.
Though the Czech government will be represented by Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka at the ceremony Wednesday, there is growing evidence that the government has strayed drastically from Havel’s legacy. At the NATO summit in September, Czech President Milos Zeman got into a public argument with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt when he denied that there was “clear proof” of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. He also denounced Mikhail Khodorkovsky as “a thief” soon after the exiled Russian opposition leader had come to Prague to deliver the keynote address to the annual conference of Forum 2000, an organization founded by Havel in 1996. “If there’s anything I don’t like about the Putin regime,” Zeman said, “it’s that he put only Khodorkovsky in prison and not more oligarchs.” Last month, during a visit to China focused on boosting trade ties, he further separated himself from the Havel legacy by ignoring human rights and assuring Beijing that he accepted China’s position on Tibet and Taiwan.
The policy of appeasing Vladimir Putin and putting economic relations with China above human rights is being reinforced today by the Czech foreign ministry, which is in the process of terminating the assistance that has been provided to dissidents in Cuba, Belarus and China through a government program called TRANS, short for Transformation Aid. The deputy foreign minister in charge of revamping the program, Petr Drulák, has said the Havel approach to human rights is based on a “false universalism” that seeks to “impose on others our idea of the ideal society.” Linking Havel and his followers to “American neoconservatives,” Drulák said in an interview with the Czech newspaper Lidové noviny that “this policy was truly wrong and harmful.”
Havel’s mentor was the Czech philosopher Jan Patocka, to whom he dedicated his seminal essay “The Power of the Powerless.” As explained by the Polish writer Adam Michnik, Patocka believed that the Czechs, though a small European people, had what he called “a Great History” as well as “a Little History.” It was great, Michnik wrote, “when they independently and creatively have engaged in matters of universal significance — for example, when they formed the vanguard of the European Reformation movement and paved Western Christendom’s path toward ‘lay’ formations of Christianity. Their history has been petty whenever the Czechs have ensconced themselves, or have been ensconced, in the ‘banality of provincialism.’ ”
This provincialism also worried Havel, who criticized what he called “Czech small-mindedness. Look after Number One, don’t get mixed up in other people’s business, keep your head down, don’t look up — we’re surrounded by mountains, those whirlwinds from the outside world will blow over our head, and we can go on burrowing away in our own little backyard.”
This week, Congress will honor a man who represented the great history of the Czech people, earning them renown throughout the world. May the ceremony celebrating Havel’s life send a message to his successors that they do their nation and its reputation great harm by retreating into small-mindedness at a time when whirlwinds from the outside world are gathering with very dangerous force.