Democratic Transition

Source:  The Freedom Collection /
Interviewed April 2010 /
Václav Havel (1936-2011) was a playwright and poet who played a leading role in bringing an end to communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Havel served as the last president of Czechoslovakia (1989–92) and the first president of the Czech Republic (1993–2003).
Havel was born into a wealthy, intellectual family. For political reasons he was not accepted into any post-secondary humanities program, but eventually he was able to study drama by correspondence and began publishing articles and plays. In 1968 he was a prominent participant in the “Prague Spring,” a brief period of liberalization that ended when the Warsaw Pact stationed troops in the country.
In 1976 and 1977 Havel helped lead the effort to produce the human rights manifesto known as Charter 77, which criticized the government of Czechoslovakia for failing to abide by its human rights obligations under the Czechoslovak Constitution, the Helsinki Accords, and United Nations covenants. In April 1979, Havel co-founded the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted. He was imprisoned three separate times for his activities.
In 1989, Havel played a leading role in the nonviolent “Velvet Revolution” which brought an end to the communist political system in Czechoslovakia. Havel was elected president of the country that year. He led Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic to multi-party democracy and presided over the country’s accession into NATO. Since leaving office, Havel has committed himself to the promotion of democracy in other parts of the world such as Cuba and Burma. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2003.

I was reluctant to accept the candidacy for a long time. I could not imagine myself to be a professional politician. I have displayed, let’s say, an occasional or political behavior throughout my entire life, but never, so called, professionally.
That came as a huge surprise, but when, I did not have too much time to think about it, and the situation culminated in such a way that my election was supposed to be some kind of climax of the revolution. And, if I suddenly declined the position, then I would, I would actually undermine the whole movement. Suddenly, suddenly, it would actually fail at the peak of the movement, suddenly it would not be able to offer any alternative.
So, I accepted it and, of course, I was in no way prepared for such a function. Not as in America where it is taught how to be president since basic school. And, therefore, I was doing many different amateur things, more so because there was no office and no tradition and we had nothing to follow. The previous president governed the state from the central committee of the party. From time to time, there was some kind of ceremony when he received an ambassador. But, other than that, it was not a functioning political office.
And, we were finding all of this out when we arrived at the Prague Castle and we, ourselves, had to come up with how things should be. We had no experience. Well, it should be said that we were excused and that, that simply the politicians, the foreign politicians were good to us. All sorts of, all sorts of faux pas, something that would be a huge faux pas today, would be automatically forgiven us.
Right in the room where I worked, there was, as we found out in the course of time, some kind of a room locked from all sides, and we did not know what was inside. So, we started to dig around and it turned out that there was a super secret telex machine of the Warsaw Pact that only the heads of states or party secretaries, general secretaries could use to send telegraphs to each other.
So, we got the keys to that room and we found that machine there. It was a computer that filled up the entire room, some kind of an ancient machine from that time. So, I sent a telex to Gorbachev saying in which I wished him all the best in the New Year since this happened on a New Year’s Day.
And then, we indirectly learnt that the Russian or Soviet Minister of Internal Affairs at that time, [Kryuchkov], in some conversation commended us for finding it so soon. They probably wanted to hide it from us since they did not know yet how things would turn out and whether they might still need it.

The Vaclav Havel Center