Vaclav Havel celebrates 70th birthday with hundreds of friends

Vaclav Havel among the well-wishers, photo: CTK

The country's first post-communist president Vaclav Havel celebrates his 70th birthday on Thursday, so this week he invited a few friends round to eat, drink and be merry. Just a few friends - around 1,000 - who queued up outside the medieval St Anne's Church in the Old Town - a deconsecrated building which is now home to Mr Havel's Prague Crossroads cultural centre. They were there to pay homage to the man who did so much to bring about the fall of communism, and so much in the first 13 years after it. Among the well-wishers was Monika Pajerova, a student leader in 1989 who helped organise the mass demonstrations against the regime:

Vaclav Havel among the well-wishers,  photo: CTK
"Vaclav Havel is a symbol. He's a symbol of the fight of powerless people against a huge power. He is a symbol of the people who made the revolution in Prague in 1989, and he is a symbol of the fact that a dissident - somebody who was on the margins of society - can become a very successful president."

When the history of this country is written in 50, 100 years, how big a place will be reserved for Vaclav Havel? Is his role sometimes exaggerated do you think?

"I think his role is not exaggerated. I knew him before the revolution, as a spokesperson for the student movement I was present at most of the meetings. It's interesting that a person can really influence a mass movement very much. We saw it with the student movement, we saw it with Civic Forum. And it really is true that at the moments when nobody really knew what to do, how far to go, because you must remember that when it started we were really absolutely powerless people facing a big, violent regime with arms, and all the secret police structures etc, so in these crucial moments it was Vaclav Havel who knew what to do. He knew instinctively - he didn't study political science, he had no experience whatsoever - but he probably has a very good instinct what to do at a certain moment in time."

Tomas Kraus
Someone else who knew Vaclav Havel back in the dark days of the communist regime was Tomas Kraus, chairman of the Federation of Jewish Communities:

"I think people will cherish his political legacy. Because for me and for my generation, politics became something that could be done by decent people."

Is that no longer the case today?

"I don't want to be that explicit. But if you look around, politics - not only in this country but in Central Europe and beyond - became politics as it always used to be. That means intrigues, political fights, and it's not a free competition of ideas anymore. But when Havel started his political career, he was just the one who came with this idea - that politics could be done by decent, nice people, because they are convinced who are the bad guys and who are the good guys."

Obviously we're in a very difficult situation now. No government, essentially, four months after the elections. Vaclav Havel also presided over many difficult periods - 1996-7 when Vaclav Klaus had to resign for example. Do you think his absent is felt in Czech politics?

"I don't know. This is a very difficult thing to judge. I think it could be felt by ordinary people, but in the political scene I doubt there is a place for somebody like him. Because since his time, politics has become much more pragmatic, much more political. Which I don't judge - maybe it's good. But at the same time I liked the 90s much more, because the whole political atmosphere influenced the atmosphere in society as such."

Of course Vaclav Havel is first and foremost a playwright, and one man who helped bring his plays to prominence in the 1970s was fellow dramatist Sir Tom Stoppard, born Tomas Straussler in Czechoslovakia in 1937. His early meeting with Vaclav Havel in the 1970s led to a life-long friendship. I asked him to recall the first time he met Vaclav Havel.

"I was taken to his house outside Prague in 1977 I think it was. I came here for not very long, probably less than two weeks, and talked to quite a few people. Actually there are people here tonight whom I met for the first time during those days, and I kept in touch, as best as one could. The party probably represents the hundred, or thousand tributaries which will flow from his friendships and his collaborations. It's very moving to be here. I think that he's going to leave a lot behind him."

Do you think he'll be remembered as a playwright or a politician?

"Well I hope that's not an either-or question. I'm sure that there are certainly three or four of his plays which will be revived on and can't say forever, nobody can say forever, but he certainly wasn't a child of his time. His plays stand up now. As for his legacy as a politician, I couldn't presume to be familiar enough with Czech politics to answer that question. But what I hope is that what will continue after him is the sense that politics are morality."

Much has changed since Vaclav Havel stepped down as president in 2003 - and at the moment the country is mired in political deadlock. Four months since the elections, and there's still no government in power. I asked the philosopher Erazim Kohak whether his presence on the political scene is missed:

"I'm very happy that he is where he is. I think on the political scene he would be destroyed, people would not listen to him. But he would become the target of attacks, and he is very sensitive to that. I think it is very wonderful to have him as the conscience of the nation, rather than as a moving target."

You're bearing a gift for Vaclav Havel. What will you wish him on his 70th birthday?

"The strength of the Holy Spirit. And then also creativity. Fecundity. Not only in a physical sense, but also in a literary sense. I think I would like to see - though I won't see it - some day that Havel will be remembered for all the things he wrote after he ceased being president."

Philosopher Erazim Kohak, with his wishes to Vaclav Havel on his 70th birthday. I was also talking there to Sir Tom Stoppard, Tomas Kraus and Monika Pajerova. My thanks to them - and all I can add is my own birthday greetings to a man who's meant so much to so many people.