civil society

Last interview with Vaclav Havel: To bomb Belgrade was a tough decision

An image of late Czech President Vaclav Havel sitting in an arm chairWe publish the last interview given by the late Czech President Vaclav Havel, which was given to our contributor Jakub Janda in December 2011 on the issues of civic heroism, human indifference and what turned out to be one very frustrating translation. It is exclusively available in English only at our magazine.*


Jakub Janda (JJ): When you received Prize of Jaromir Savrda last year you mentioned that „something like a dissident resistance is needed even today with different appearance and in different form“. Could you please specify what kind of appearances and forms do you have in mind?

Vaclav  Havel (VH): If I spoke of a different kind of the dissident movement, it was not obviously related to the observance of civil rights and liberties ensured by constitution. In this sense the dissident movement is a thing of the past, or at least I hope so. I rather had on mind civic engagement as resistance against human indifference, civic apathy or bureaucratic bullying.

JJ: Do you think that engagement with civil society is a challenge for today’s youth? What is the source of the contempt of some Czech politicians for civil society and civic initiatives?

VH: Civic engagement comes naturally to young people. For the coming generation it is an inherent part of their social attitude, which sets them apart from the generation of their parents and grandparents, who were growing up under a totalitarian regime. Civil society is met with contempt especially at those politicians, who perhaps speak of freedom, but actually fear manifestations of citizens’ will and see them as a threat to their power and influence.

JJ: Where do you see a line beyond which it is necessary to face evil with force? Your reservations about some activities of the third resistance [the editor’s note: an overarching term used for the Czechoslovak anti-communist resistance movement between 1948 and 89] are well known, yet you also received criticism for your support of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.

VH: That needs to be considered from a case to case; there is no ready-made solution available and it is necessary to use all means to prevent such a strike from happening. Nevertheless, it cannot be ruled out in advance as we would thus show that we are not willing to fight off evil. The international community decided on the strike in former Yugoslavia only after ten years of intensive, but unsuccessful negotiations that especially the Milosevic’s regime had used in perpetrating new atrocities and ethnic cleansing. Notwithstanding the humanitarian catastrophe and war suffering it was a tough decision. I naturally have not ever pronounced that statement on humanitarian bombing which is attributed to me. That nonsense appeared in the follow-up of multiple translations. I said that the reasons for the strike had been humanitarian, because there had been on-going massacres and expulsions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and million refugees had been on move in Kosovo.

JJ: What means to you the cooperation of the Czech and Polish dissent?

VH: Czechoslovak-Polish solidarity, trans-border cooperation and meetings on the frontier had a crucial significance as an entirely new experience. And not just for our dissent, but also for communist rulers. Moscow counted that there will be revolts in satellite countries from time to time – as in Hungary of 1956, Czechoslovakia of 1968 or Poland of 1980. But for national opposition movements to cooperate that was a new element and a cause of great fears for the communist power.

Thank you for the interview,
Jakub Janda


* Translated from Czech by Stanislav Maselnik.