Love and Truth: Václav Havel in Bratislava, Twenty Years After 1989

by Timothy Snyder
from The New York Review of Books – Blog

It can’t happen often that citizens of one country gather to honor someone who was the president of two other countries, all the while claiming him as their own. But so it was on November 18, 2009, twenty years after student protests in Prague that began the Velvet Revolution led by the playwright Václav Havel. Now the former president of both Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic had come to Bratislava, the Slovak capital, to talk with Slovak students about the events of 1989. Although these young people remember neither those events nor the dissolution of Czechoslovakia that followed three years later, they greeted him with standing ovations and sincere expressions of respect.

Havel had opposed the split of Czechoslovakia into Czech and Slovak republics, caring more for its multinational society than he did for the economic arguments made for a separate Czech state. It is hard to say that the end of Czechoslovakia was good for the Czechs or the Slovaks. Many believed the establishment of the Czech Republic would allow the Czechs to pursue economic reform and join Europe. But both the Czech Republic and Slovakia joined the European Union at the same time, in 2004; the Slovaks use the euro while the Czechs do not; and the current Czech president, Vaclav Klaus, opposes European integration. Meanwhile the Slovak government, led by former communists in a coalition with nationalists, cynically exploits nationalism. Would any of this be possible if Czechoslovakia had remained intact? Though the question is moot, the thought was hard to avoid. Slovak students understand Czech. Havel speaks Czech to his Slovak friends, and they speak Slovak to him. In this sense, Czechoslovakia has not disappeared. more

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