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Czech President's Star Tarnishing at Home

Eastern Europe: Though Vaclav Havel remains widely respected internationally, his constituents accuse him of elitism and haughtiness.


PRAGUE, Czech Republic — In the frenzied celebration of the Czechs' first Olympic gold medal in ice hockey, there was bad news for President Vaclav Havel.

"Hasek to the castle!" a crowd chanted, touting star goalie Dominik Hasek for president. "Havel to the ice!"

The chant was the latest sign that the once universally adored playwright-president has fallen from grace.

For reasons ranging from his handling of a domestic political crisis to a nasty family wrangle over property and the clothes and manner of his second wife, Havel is the butt of criticism and jokes unthinkable a year or two ago.

More and more Czechs fear that, at 61, their president is becoming a haughty elitist who has lost the clear focus he had as an anti-communist dissident.

Even he acknowledges the problem. Receiving the victorious hockey team after the Nagano Olympics, he thanked them for boosting the national mood. "People are nice to each other--even to me," he joked.

For years after the Velvet Revolution swept Havel from dissident to president in December 1989, he enjoyed dream approval ratings of 80% or more.

He is still respected worldwide for his pluck in fighting communism and for his ponderings on the human condition. But at home, Havel spokesman Ladislav Spacek agrees, the president has become an ordinary politician, open to the criticism others face.

"Especially after he got married to a younger, pretty woman and had [legal] troubles with his sister-in-law . . . and most especially since he started to solve the political crisis," Spacek said.

But it's not just politics or new First Lady Dagmar Veskrnova, a 45-year-old actress, that set tongues wagging.

Since his remarriage in January 1997, and surgery for lung cancer just before the wedding, Czechs sense a change in the president who preached "living in truth" as a dissident and in 1989 wanted "truth and love to overcome lies and hatred."

"Havel in dissident times was a very, very different person," said Jan Urban, a fellow former dissident who now publishes Transitions, a monthly about post-communist societies. "We somehow forgot that once you get power, you start thinking that you can move things other than by consensus."

Two recent books underline the change.

One is a biography of Havel's first wife, Olga, who died of cancer in January 1996 after 31 years of marriage. She emerges as a woman of grace and discretion, tolerant of her husband's several affairs and supportive throughout the difficult dissident years of jail and persecution.

The other book, whose cover proclaims it was "authorized by Vaclav and Dagmar Havel," recounts their courtship and first year of marriage. The cover shows them looking like landed aristocrats, posing on a deep sofa with pedigreed dogs. Inside, they appear in evening wear adorned with sashes that suggest a noble order.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, insiders with knowledge of the president's thinking said the book reflects a new idea of Havel's: that Czechs need a "first family," a la the White House or European royalty.

Commentators are scathing.

"Havel has become a singular elitist," Martin Danes wrote in Mlada Fronta Dnes, the country's best-selling serious daily. He "slowly is entering into the spirit of the role of a monarch--an enlightened autocrat."

Viktor Slajchrt, writing in the weekly Respekt, called the book a sad and outrageous attempt to boost the first lady's popularity.

He said her enemies include "journalists, staff of the president's office and the Czech public, telling ugly jokes." Her friends, he said, are "the Clintons, the Chiracs, the Spanish and Norwegian royal couples."

Parliament was particularly angered by Havel's perceived new haughtiness when he left on Christmas vacation as guest of the Spanish king and announced he wouldn't lobby for the legislature to reelect him when he came back.

Lawmakers repaid Havel by not electing him in the first round of voting in January and giving him a bare one-vote majority in the second.

His wife shocked Czechs with her behavior at the parliamentary session, whistling and booing when the extremist leader of a right-wing party spoke.

A month earlier, Havel had further angered legislators with a stinging critique of political leaders during an address to both houses of Parliament. He said they focus only on the financial benefits of post-communist freedom, while failing to build public morale or a civic-minded society.

Although Havel used the term "we," it was clear he was really criticizing everyone but himself--and especially Vaclav Klaus, who oversaw the Czechs' rapid transition to capitalism but was voted out as premier over a party finance scandal in December.

The speech was no surprise to Klaus. He and Havel were always at odds. But they kept the differences more or less hidden until Havel maneuvered to oust Klaus, who was widely seen as capable but arrogant and had lost a working majority in Parliament.

Spacek, the presidential spokesman, said opinion polls after the December speech found most Czechs "welcomed it and are grateful that the president clearly said the truth."

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