WASHINGTON — Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel told Congress today his nation is "returning to Europe" from decades of Soviet domination and asked lawmakers to help by pressing the Soviet Union to stay on its own road to democracy.
In a speech to a joint meeting of the House and Senate that was more philosophical than political, the playwright-turned-president also said Americans need to learn, along with his country, "how to put morality ahead of politics, science and economics."
Havel, who reluctantly accepted the popular mandate of his country to lead during its time of rapid transition, received a two-minute standing ovation from the standing-room-only crowd in the House chamber, and appeared somewhat stiff and surprised at the reception.
As he began to speak, U.S. tennis star and former Czechoslovak citizen Martina Navratilova dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief in the top row of the visitors' gallery.
Speaking through a translator, Havel called Czechoslovakia one of Eastern Europe's "wayward children" and said it wants to coordinate its return to the economic and political mainstream with Hungary, Poland and other nations emerging from 40 years of Soviet domination.
The United States can best aid that return, he said, by helping the Soviet Union "on its irreversible, but immensely complicated road to democracy."
"The more quickly and the more peacefully the Soviet Union begins to move along the road towards genuine political pluralism" and economic reform, "the better it will be--not just for Czechs and Slovaks, but for the whole world," he said.
Addressing reporters later, Havel declined to elaborate on that call, saying it was not his place to suggest specific moves to the United States.
The members of Congress came to their feet when Havel said his country's peaceful revolution was inspired by the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence. "They inspire us to be citizens," he said.
Havel had received a warm welcome during a 2 1/2-hour meeting with President Bush on Tuesday and was returning again to the White House this afternoon before leaving for New York and meetings with business leaders--and a rock concert in his honor.
In the speech, Havel, the first head of state from his country to visit Washington, also said he recognized a need for U.S. troops to stay in Europe. But he added, "Sooner or later Europe must recover and come into its own and decide for itself how many of whose soldiers it needs."
Europe is leaving the "antiquated straitjacket" of a world dominated by two superpowers for one in which nations can stand more independently, he said. Lawmakers applauded his conclusion that American troops will be able to return home, "because Europe will at last be able to stand guard over itself."
In the meantime, he declared, "Czechoslovakia is returning to Europe."
Havel called for the removal of "as many Soviet (military) units as possible" from his country before national elections scheduled for June.