Czechs and other Europeans will bid a final farewell to Vaclav Havel. The writer, activist and politician not only embodied the new, democratic Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic; he was the consummate intellectual turned politician. This transformation does not happen often. The collapse of the communist regimes in the Eastern bloc countries swept away the former political elites, and the ripple brought to the fore dissidents who, in fact, were not prepared for the rapid demise of communist rule in Eastern Europe. Until the late 1980s, no one even suspected it was possible.
The only exception can be found in Poland, where the political resistance movement, Solidarity, emerged at the dawn of the 1980s as an alliance of dissident intellectuals and leaders of worker protest movements. This is probably why the transfer of power in Poland was better organized and happened sooner than in other countries – half a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, which came to symbolize the end of the communist era.
Initially, power in Poland went to the victorious coalition. The electrician Lech Walesa became president, and the scholar and publicist Tadeusz Mazowiecki became prime minister.
In other countries, power fell from the clutches of communist leaders into the hands of their most famous opponents, the intellectual class: writer and translator Árpád Göncz in Hungary, philosopher Zhelyu Zhelev in Bulgaria and playwright Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia. Havel stayed in power longer than the others and gained the broadest international recognition.
In the early days of the revival of the democratic states in Central and Eastern Europe, the function of intellectuals was to guarantee a liberal path forward. In other words, they had to prevent these countries from descending into nationalism and populism after the collapse of communism. Once these societies broke free of the ideological grip of communism, all formerly suppressed attitudes began to surface. Before the advent of the Soviet system, the political landscape in the region was extremely diverse, including some very unattractive and undemocratic tendencies.
Of course, the presence of leaders with moral authority was not the only thing keeping these ugly impulses in check after the downfall of the communist regimes. The West and its institutions and rules provided an external framework, to which Moscow was the antipode. To remove, once and for all, the threat of falling back into Russia’s sphere of influence, Central European nations sought to integrate into Western structures, and so they rapidly shaped their domestic political models to fit the Western European mold. However, this was an uphill road, and Central Europe was rocked by upheavals throughout the post-communist years.
Havel did not possess great power, as the Czech Republic has a parliamentary system. However, his personal authority enabled him to play a stabilizing role, and he did not shy away from political battles. Opinions vary on his abilities as a practical politician, and his time in office was tumultuous – from the breakup of Czechoslovakia to harsh economic reforms and privatization. But the details are unimportant: he will go down in history as a consistent liberal who upheld European values at home and abroad.
Havel lived to see the triumph of his ideas – the collapse of communism, the demise of the Soviet Union and the admission of the Czech Republic to the EU and NATO – but he departed this world just as the achievements of the late 20th century in Europe came into doubt again. The crisis of European integration, the erosion of EU institutions and the mess in NATO have created new conditions. The framework that the Central and Eastern European countries have adapted to in the past 20 years is coming loose, threatening to leave the post-communist countries on their own. Many are discussing the threat of populism and nationalism.
Hungary, whose policies have departed far from European norms, shows that the dangers present in the early days of the country’s transition to democracy are still very real, twenty years later. However, there are no longer any moral leaders capable of rejuvenating the ideals of liberalism and democracy. Moreover, the logic of the European project has created a vicious circle. To continue this project in its current form, it is necessary to make tough decisions contrary to the will of the majority. But democratic legitimacy is essential for this kind of decision-making.
For all the complexities and dangers inherent in the transition of post-communist Europe to the new realities of the late 1980s-early 1990s, there existed a clear-cut and understandable system of axes. This is something that Havel, a man of clear views, emphasized all the time. Now everything has become more intricate because it is not clear what to appeal to. The obliteration of ideological boundaries and the rise of moral relativism beg the question: Is it even possible for new moral leaders to emerge in Europe?
Where might they come from? Havel’s moral authority was based on his reputation of a devout anti-communist who had been harassed for his views. In general, moral authority is rooted in some kind of resistance. Does this mean that to become a moral leader in Europe one must necessarily reject the modern European arrangement that has obviously exhausted its potential and requires renovation? But, in this case, the leader would have to renounce what Havel fought for: a liberal Europe.
Will this leader be an intellectual like Havel or a charismatic working class leader like Walesa? It’s hard to say. Currently the European scene is dominated by bureaucrats. But one thing is clear – any future leader will inevitably run into conflict that is tougher in some ways than in the final days of the communist era. The reason is clear: by that time the entire system in Eastern Europe had been deeply discredited, whereas the current European arrangement is still regarded as a viable model, although the deepening crisis suggests otherwise.