Havel's Exit Strategy

Article excerpt

He was the hero of 1989, the philosopher king of Czechoslovakia's bloodless, cheerful and inspiring "Velvet Revolution." And soon, little more than a year from now, after 12 years in the Castle high above Prague, Vaclav Havel will step down as president of his country. This shy intellectual, a playwright cum dissident turned politician, will be missed on the world's stage, where he has long been admired for his modesty, wisdom and personal courage. Yet when it comes to his own countrymen--not to mention the Czech political establishment--his prospective retirement is cause for relief. Out of touch. A meddler, they call him. And Havel, who has admitted to feelings of depression, is well aware of those unkind sentiments. Which perhaps explains why he's leaving not only his presidential offices but also plans to spend far more time out of his country.

Fast forward to next year. Havel sits on his veranda, sipping his morning coffee and, together with his wife, looking out to sea. Accompanied by a couple of dogs, perhaps, he will stroll along the steep streets of the Portuguese coastal town of Albufeira. Then he will go back to his house on a hill, which has served as his getaway in the Algarve since he bought it two years ago. From the very beginning of his political career, Havel has dreamed about returning to his writing. And that's what will keep him busy in his study, a sort of intellectual exile, far from the prying eyes and sharp tongues of home.

At 65, Havel has found that the accumulated resentments against him are taking their toll. Once revered as the country's liberator from communist thrall, he now ranks fourth in public-approval ratings, with only 51 percent of voters still voicing their support. As president, Havel has only very limited powers. But he has been at frequent odds with parliamentary leader Vaclav Klaus, currently the leading candidate to succeed him. While Klaus snipes at Havel from the right, Social Democratic Prime Minister Milos Zeman shares his open disdain of the once august denizen of the Castle. These leaders of the country's two major political parties have little patience for the mustachioed little man who makes grandiose speeches about the human condition--while they carry on the gritty daily business of government.

There's another reason that Havel has been demoted from near-cult status. …