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EUROPE: FIVE YEARS LATER : 'People must learn again to be citizens.' : Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic

November 01, 1994|Dean E. Murphy

I n his Prague office, Czech President Vaclav Havel sat for a 30-minute interview with Times correspondent Dean E. Murphy despite the stress of the moment. He had just concluded a war of words with Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus over the direction of Czech society, he was preparing for a trip to the United States and he was in the midst of the latest government crisis: the removal of the Czech defense minister.

Dressed in a glen-plaid suit with matching tie and pocket handkerchief, Havel spoke softly, rarely looked up and smoked four Camel cigarettes. Finally, at the end of the session, he broke into a wide grin when asked to pose with Sophia, a towering white figurine with a gold headband created by Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek:

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Question. In a conversation about politics in the 1980s, you told writer Karel Hvizdala that "a genuinely fundamental and hopeful improvement in systems cannot happen without a significant shift in human consciousness, and that it cannot be accomplished through a simple organizational trick." What is your assessment of the changes in Eastern Europe since 1989? Are they the shallow consequences of an organizational trick, or has there been a genuine shift in human consciousness?

Answer. I think it is valid generally that the systematic changes, the organizational ones, must evolve from some . . . new concept of human coexistence. And in this sense I think that consciousness precedes the so-called technicalities. That is naturally true also in our case, and maybe more so because the transformation of the totalitarian system into a democratic one is indeed not only a matter of several parties replacing one ruling party and the introduction of some democratic mechanisms. It is also a matter of a great transformation of thinking because people must learn again to be citizens, to rediscover the civic responsibility which the totalitarian regime did not demand from them because it required mere obedience.

They must find a new relationship to their own state and a new concept of their responsibility for themselves. These changes are naturally demanding and do not take place quickly. But I see it as the most important task, and from it all the other transformational changes evolve.

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Q. Has there been enough progress in this regard over the past five years?

A. Possibly at the time of such revolutionary joy over the overthrow of communism many of us could have had the illusion that everything would go faster. I would not say that progress is not taking place, but it needs its time. It is not as simple as it might have appeared to people at first. The former Communist stereotypes of behavior are dormant in the subconsciousness of society and are still making themselves felt. There is much evidence that changes are taking place, but there is also much evidence that they are not taking place everywhere in the way they should. Many remnants of the past are still manifested one way or the other in the behavior of people.

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Q. Would you give an example that illustrates how these changes are taking place?

A. One surprising and encouraging phenomenon is that after decades of the Communist centralized economy there has awakened in the people the spirit of enterprise. There are now in our country hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs and millions of shareholders, even though one almost thought people here didn't know what a share was. It is a very encouraging development that there is such creative entrepreneurship. It shows that people have come to accept the idea that their fate depends primarily on themselves, that they are finding a real relationship to property and a responsibility for this property, which for years had only anonymous ownership. That is an example of the good changes.

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Q. You have spoken and written extensively about the creation of a civic society in post-Communist countries, a sense of civic consciousness and responsibility that would exist between the levels of the individual and the state. Has this civic society formed in the Czech Republic?

A. The question addresses what is public and what concerns the individual citizen. That is something I personally regard as extremely important, a topic which is being much discussed in our country.

It seems to me that it is crucial that the public sphere in which citizens are engaged be strengthened, expanded and given more prominence to somehow do away with the situation in which everything is directed by the state and public property is looked after by the state. And here too you can see the potential which exists in society and is beginning to make itself felt. There has emerged for instance a number of foundations and civic communities and associations, and many people work in self-governing organizations.

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