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Worldview: Havel on democracy: We haven't left the path

Václav Havel, former Czech president, playwright, and most revered of Eastern European dissidents during the Cold War, came to Philadelphia last week for the U.S. premiere of his new play, Leaving, at the Wilma Theater.

Václav Havel, former Czech president, playwright, and most revered of Eastern European dissidents during the Cold War, came to Philadelphia last week for the U.S. premiere of his new play,


, at the Wilma Theater.

Havel's seminal 1978 essay, The Power of the Powerless, inspired nonviolent resistance to communism in the 1980s; in his writings from prison, he captured the essence of democracy better than most writers in the "Free World."

When he was last in Philadelphia on July 4, 1994, to receive the Liberty Medal, democracy seemed in the ascendancy worldwide; an air of triumphalism pervaded Washington. Yet even as he spoke in front of Independence Hall, Havel warned that, in our increasingly globalized world where tribalism is on the upswing, "everything is possible and almost nothing is certain."

So I sat down with Havel to seek his evaluation of democracy's status two decades after communism's fall.

Havel looked relaxed, but tired and thin (the result of serious illness). He retains his raspy voice and puckish sense of humor (when I took him to South Street in 1994, he tried to elude the Secret Service by ducking into a bar).

The playwright insists that the tragicomic plot of Leaving is not autobiographical. The main character, Rieger, an outgoing leader of an unnamed country, is reluctant to quit high office - or his government villa, which is ultimately seized and turned into a mall, casino, and brothel.

Yet Havel seems relieved to have relinquished power (and eager to start a new career as a film director, turning Leaving into a movie). Nor is he as glum about democracy's prospects as his play might have one believe.

"Naturally, it turned out that everything was more complicated than we thought during those first revolutionary days," he says slowly. "Democracy is a hard nut to crack, and it's hard to build.

"People have problems with democracy even when they have decades of unbroken continuity," he added. "Nevertheless, it seems to me we [in former communist countries] are moving forward toward those basic ideals, and we haven't left the path."

Does he worry about the effect of the economic crisis on European democracy?

"It was necessary to quickly build up a market economy [in former communist countries] via privatization," he replies. "But what was dangerous was turning the market economy into an ideology where it was almost compulsory to use the word marketplace in every sentence. The free market without any regulation has led to a lot of criminal activity."

Still, despite the crisis: "I think the process of unifying Europe has survived a lot and will survive this as well."

What concerns Havel more is the dizzying effect of globalization on society in ways that undermine democratic trends. These pressures push "national groups and minorities" toward tribalism, which can lead to terrorism. "We've always had war, but the warring sides have never had as much potential [for destruction]," he says. "Terrorists soon will have the possibility to steal a nuclear bomb."

Against this bleak trend, Havel still sees the possibility to expand democracy. He advises democracy seekers in authoritarian regimes such as China never to give up hope.

"I always tell them one thing," Havel says: "You must never expect instant success. You mustn't allow yourself to be upset if people around you say 'why do you keep beating your head against the wall when you know the wall won't fall?'

"I tell them they shouldn't take that into account. You should do things because you consider them to be right and because your conscience tells you to do it. You never know how things will turn out."

I ask if the West should try to impose democracy where its spirit is not well understood. Think Iraq or Afghanistan.

"We have a tendency to understand the term democracy in institutional terms," he replies, "such as executive, legislative, judicial. We tend to believe we're exporting democracy, freedom, and equality if we impose these structures in the context of a different civilization.

"I think we shouldn't be speaking about democracy so much as human rights, human freedom. Any given country should then translate these ideas into institutions that fit their traditions. I'd be very careful with the export of democracy.

"I put special stress on the idea of human dignity, something I became acutely aware of when I was in prison."

Finally, with an eye toward divisions within America, I ask Havel what he would say if he had a chance to speak again at Independence Hall.

At first he takes a pass, insisting that the United States is too large and complicated to pass judgment. But then he adds: "American society is extraordinarily pluralistic," which he sees as its main virtue, despite worries here that U.S. pluralism may be morphing into ugly factionalism.

"America's civil society can serve as an example not only to Czechs but to Europe as a whole," Havel insists. "I consider this very important because . . . it is one of the main guarantees against a slide into authoritarian rule."

From his lips to God's ear.