Polish visit turns sour for Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel

Former Czech president Vaclav Havel visited Poland this week to launch the Polish edition of his latest book. But the warm welcome he received in Kracow quickly turned frosty, after Mr. Havel commented on the political situation in Poland, advising the country to call early elections as soon as possible, preferably with international observers present.

Vaclav Havel
"Havel na Wawel" or "Havel to Wawel Castle" the crowd chanted as the former Czech president arrived in Kracow. Sixteen years ago, this slogan was spray-painted on many Polish buildings, reflecting the high moral esteem in which the former Czech dissident was held and the Poles' desire to have a man of his stature in their own government. But the warm welcome turned frosty during a news conference for Mr Havel's latest book Strucne, prosim, which has come out in English as To the Castle and Back. A Polish journalist asked Mr. Havel what he thought of the political situation in Poland and in his forthright manner Vaclav Havel advised early elections saying that it would be in the interest of Polish democracy if international observers were present. His words caused outrage across the political spectrum and the former Polish dissident and president Lech Walenca was not the only one to tell Mr. Havel to keep his advice. Polish journalist Marek Aurelius Penzivol said Mr. Havel's words had relegated Poland to the developing world.

"His words made a very bad impact on the Polish people because despite our problems we are convinced that we live in a democratic state. The political situation is not good right now - we are all aware of that. But this does not mean that the country's democracy is in any way endangered."

Vaclav Havel was clearly taken aback by the storm of negative feelings that his words evoked. He said he had merely spoken his mind and apologized to anyone who might have interpreted his words as an offence.

"I certainly did not come here with the intention of creating further tension. Had I known what effect my words would have, I would have refrained from commenting. However, I cannot take them back because I do not think that there is anything truly offensive or shameful about elections being monitored by international observers. Unfortunately the political tension here is so high that even the least offensive remark -which would normally passed unnoticed - can create an explosion."

In Prague Czech politicians hastened to mend the breach. The Czech Foreign Ministry distanced itself from Vaclav Havel's words and Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Vondra told journalists that he did not consider Poland's democracy to be in jeopardy. What may be in jeopardy is sales of Mr. Havel's book in Poland and it will clearly take a while for the Polish public to forgive and forget the all too frank words of advice from their one time hero.