Dec. 19 (Bloomberg) -- The Czech Cabinet meets today to begin discussing a state funeral for Vaclav Havel as the European Union plans tributes for the anti-communist dissident playwright who became president.
Prime Minister Petr Necas’s government meets in Prague at 4 p.m., while all EU sessions in Brussels will start with a minute of silence to honor Havel as a freedom fighter and the first post-communist Czech head of state. Thousands of Czechs yesterday poured onto Wenceslas Square, the center of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, to light candles and leave flowers.
“I am personally affected because he was the symbol of what happened here in November 1989, he did a lot for the Czech Republic, for its transition to democracy, to the structures of the European Union,” said Necas. “His departure is a big loss because he still had a lot to offer in politics as well as society.”
Havel, who died in his sleep yesterday after a long illness, was an international icon for opposing totalitarian regimes in the former Soviet bloc and helped lead the country to democracy. He was president for almost 13 years and counted figures including Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa as friends.
Around the world, leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama, EU Commission President Jose Barroso and German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent condolences and noted his prominent place in the fall of the Iron Curtain and the spread of democracy into eastern Europe.
“His peaceful resistance shook the foundations of an empire, exposed the emptiness of a repressive ideology, and proved that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon,” said Obama in a statement yesterday from the White House. “He also embodied the aspirations of half a continent that had been cut off by the Iron Curtain, and helped unleash tides of history that led to a united and democratic Europe.”
Black flags fluttered under gray skies at Prague’s Hradcany Castle, the seat of the president’s offices overlooking the capital. Havel’s coffin will be displayed in the Vladislavsky Hall in the castle beginning on Dec. 21.
A crowd in Wenceslas Square observed a minute of silence as men wrapped the statue of St. Wenceslas in black fabric. Some shook keys and shouted “Long Live Havel.” Others sang the Czech national anthem as the crowd followed a Czech flag down the street toward the center of the city.
“Vaclav Havel is dead but his legacy will live on,” one of the speakers at the event, told the crowd. Wenceslas is English for Vaclav.
Czechs also gathered at National Boulevard, where a bronze tribute to the Velvet Revolution hangs on a passage wall, well- wishers burned candles to show their respect.
Two girls laid a packet of cigarettes at the monument, a symbol of of Havel’s long-time smoking habit that was a cause of much of his illness. An accordion player stood nearby playing a slow and mournful version of “Wasted Love.”
“It’s a great loss, though we expected it because he was so sick,” said Miloslava Ticha, 64, who came with her husband Frantisek. “He was a real personality. He doesn’t have a worthy successor. There’s nobody of his stature on the Czech political scene.”
Officials will also open a book of condolences for citizens to sign beginning today. Havel served as president of Czechoslovakia from the end of 1989 until 1992. In 1993, he became president of the Czech Republic, which was founded after the split of Czechoslovakia into two countries, a move he opposed.
While his official authority as president was limited by the Czech constitution, Havel used the presidency as a platform for building what he called a “civil society.”
As one of history’s only philosopher-presidents, he sought to educate his fellow citizens in speeches and regular radio addresses about how a democracy was supposed to function.
“I remember him with deep gratefulness,” Miroslava Nemcova, the speaker of the Czech lower house of parliament, said by phone. “He was at the wheel when we proceeded from communism to democracy and I will always be grateful to him personally because he changed my life with this.”
Nemcova recalled Havel’s habit of signing his name with a little heart on his personal documents and called him a “man who was a mixture of modesty and moral authority.”
The former Czech leader, whose motto during the transition to democracy was “love will triumph over lies and hatred,” was frail and leaned on a cane in his last public appearance on Dec. 10 when he greeted the Dalai Lama in Prague.
State television and radio switched to broadcasting highlights of Havel’s life and playing music often associated with him, including songs by singer Suzanne Vega and Frank Zappa. Politicians and former advisers also began the process of contextualizing Havel’s place in modern European history.
In the years after the fall of communism in 1989, Havel’s reputation and his ideas brought international renown to his new country. He was a strong advocate for expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. Under his presidency, the Czech Republic became a NATO member in March 1999 and joined the EU in 2004.
Havel’s dwindling popularity at home at the end of his terms in office may now be re-evaluated by citizens, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said in an interview on Czech state-run television.
Schwarzenberg noted Havel’s “humbleness” and “honorability” and “courage” and said citizens will “feel this loss” for a long time as Czechs recall Havel’s importance.
Havel, who won more than a dozen international prizes for his political and peacemaking efforts as well as his writings, was imprisoned three times for opposing the communist regime in Czechoslovakia and altogether spent almost five years behind bars.
He was one of the first three spokesmen of a 1977 movement known as Charter 77, in which a group of Czech intellectuals called on the communist government to respect human rights.
Petr Uhl, a fellow-dissident and political activist who served time in jail with Havel remembered sitting with Havel in court waiting to be sentenced. Though he disagreed with Havel over the president’s support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Havel’s friendship with George W. Bush, they remained friends, he said in a phone interview yesterday.
“For all 20 years I appreciated that Havel was the representative of a civic society, that he was against consumerism and technocraticsm,” Uhl said.
Havel was born into a prominent Prague family. The communist regime kept him from studying where he wanted to, so he attended a technical university. He left his studies in 1957 and became a propsman in a Prague theater after completing his military service.
He was eventually accepted to the Prague DAMU theater academy. After the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Havel worked various jobs, including as a laborer in a brewery, a job that went on to inspire his play “Audience.”
From 1960 to 1988, Havel wrote 17 plays, many of which were performed on stages around the world. During the same period, Havel became known for his political essays, which included “The Power of the Powerless” and “Politics and Conscience.”
His final years were dominated by “Leaving,” a play about a politician who finds difficulty relinquishing the power he had come to enjoy. A film based on the play was released on March 22, 2011, and Havel attended the premier in Prague.
He also worked on assembling his personal papers for a library, which is in the planning stages in a building near the castle he used to occupy as president.
--With assistance from Douglas Lytle in Prague. Editors: James M. Gomez, Alan Crosby
To contact the reporters on this story: Lenka Ponikelska in Prague at firstname.lastname@example.org; Ladka Bauerova in Prague at email@example.com; Krystof Chamonikolas in Prague at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: James M. Gomez at email@example.com