Jan Sokol - unafraid of walking in shadow of Vaclav Havel


It's just hours to go until the presidential election, when university professor Jan Sokol challenges Vaclav Klaus for the post of Czech President. In 1998 Professor Sokol served briefly as Education Minister in the interim government that followed Mr Klaus's resignation, and in the early 1990s he was a member of the federal Czechoslovak parliament. A former dissident, Jan Sokol is described as a highly talented man with considerable negotiation skills, but does he have what it takes to defeat one of the country's most experienced politicians? When I visited him at Charles University's Faculty of Humanities - where he serves as dean - I began by asking him to recall the moment he was asked to stand for president.

"The question should be which moment was the first. I've been contacted several times in the past, but I always declined, because I felt that it was not meant seriously. This was the first time that it was serious, and because the prime minister came with his most prominent opponent inside the party [the Social Democrats], I understood that they meant it seriously. And we spoke for one or two hours here, at my desk, and then we said yes, let's go."

What's it like to be thrust into the media spotlight from a position of relative obscurity?

"Maybe you observed that I was really overwhelmed with interviews this week. I did so many that it was somewhat tiring. But this is the price of being unknown. I think that on the other hand, I have a big advantage of not being implicated in what happened here in top politics during the last years: all those links and obligations. So I have free hands - this is my advantage I think."

So it hasn't taken a toll on your private life at all?

"Of course when you enter politics you give up much of your private life. On one hand there is a legitimate interest, on the other there are calumnies. But you have to count on both."

Your opponent - Vaclav Klaus - you can accuse of him of many things, but he's no political naïf. He is one of the country's most experienced and skilful political operators. Are you not frankly nervous running against someone of his calibre?

"No. I am seldom nervous, and I've known Vaclav Klaus for many, many years. At a certain time after 1990 we were even fairly close to each other. Yes, I think we now offer very similar opinions, the difference is they were my opinions long before."

One opinion which could be described as controversial is your alleged stand on the Sudeten German issue and your alleged support for more dialogue with the Sudeten Germans. A lot has been said and a lot has been written about this, and it's being used especially by the Communists as one example why they won't support you. Can you just clarify your position on dialogue with the Sudeten Germans?

"Yes, most people are referring to a petition I signed - I didn't write but I signed - eight years ago. This should be underlined. But my position remains the same. It is that on the one hand the actual relations and the property and legal relations of Czech citizens cannot be changed. There is no question of any restitutiton and so on. And there is no question of doubting the legitimacy of the Czech exile government, [which issues] the so-called Benes decrees. This is - for me - out of the question. On the other hand, those people are our neighbours, it is a group in Germany with a certain political influence, and the Czech Republic cannot behave as if they did not exist. Of course a position of a private citizen is difference from the position of a president. A president cannot make such steps on his own initiative. So this I understand fully, but I think that Czech-German relations made a lot of progress in the last eight years, maybe thanks to such courageous steps like that petition."

If you become president, you will be succeeding Vaclav Havel, a man who has made a huge impact on the Czech Republic and Czechoslovakia after the fall of Communism. Are you not worried about being endlessly compared to Vaclav Havel?

"Today it's a very different situation. Vaclav Havel became president in an almost revolutionary situation: he was a sort of comet on the skies, so this cannot be repeated. But on the other hand I think the role of the future Czech president is very different. We are not in a situation of revolution, of destroying the old and building new institutions and so on. It's now a question of firming those institutions. So I think the future Czech president has to do much more less spectacular work on making these institutions firm. That means the fight against corruption, making state institutions more transparent, more regularly functioning and so on. This is my first priority."

There are stark differences between the Czech presidency as seen by Vaclav Havel on one hand and Vaclav Klaus on the other. They have very different visions of how the Czech president should behave. What's Jan Sokol's vision of the Czech presidency?

"The Czech president is, by constitution, not a competitor for political parties, but their partner. The parties have to make divisions and fight each other during campaigns, but the president's role is to bring them together as soon as possible after the election and bring them to an efficient collaboration. We will probably always have coalition governments. And that's why the Czech president has this role. Moreover, the president should be a symbolic face of the abstract state, if possible for any citizen. Not only for the winners of the elections, but also for the losers."

Turning again to the Communist era, I was very surprised - startled even - to learn that your father-in-law was Jan Patocka, a dissident and one of the first signatories of Charter 77 who died shortly after being interrogated by the Communist secret police. Some dissidents I've spoken to, among them John Bok, speak of Patocka being "murdered" by the Communists. Did your father-in-law's death not instil in you a hatred of the Communist Party, and if so, do you still hate the Communists today?

"There I can rely on my father-in-law's own position, who always said that hatred is nonsense. A collective hatred - to say there is a group labelled 'Communist', and those you have to hate. This you cannot do in private life, and even less so in public life. I am very, very careful about any expression of Communist moods or Communist habits, but these such moods are today not limited to the Communist Party itself. There are others who behave in a similar way. You have to be careful about people's actions, not so much their labels."

It's just a few hours before you and Vaclav Klaus appear at Prague Castle for the election. Tell me honestly: what do you think your chances are?

"I've forbidden myself from making any guesses. It's for others to guess. My role is to make my chances as large as possible. Perhaps you should ask the bookmakers!"

Well Professor Sokol, thank you very much and may the best man win.

"Thank you."