Farewell for ‘Good Czech Who Sacrificed Himself’

Source: The New York Times / By Peter S. Green /

From a snow-swept balcony in Prague Castle, President Vaclav Havel bade farewell to his fellow citizens today, bringing to an end one of the unlikeliest political fairy tales of recent times.

Mr. Havel first spoke as president from that same balcony just over 13 years ago, carried to the office by popular acclamation a few months after he was released from a jail sentence for opposing the Communist government, and only weeks after he led Civic Forum, an impromptu band of dissidents, students and actors, to overthrow it.

But with squabbling continuing over a possible war with Iraq, Mr. Havel left Czechs with a warning that their fledging democracy still faces several crucial tests.

”The time which is now at hand will truly show the extent to which we are a fully fledged part of the democratic world,” he said in a nationally televised speech tonight.

Most people appeared to pay little attention to his departure. A few hundred citizens and nearly as many tourists watched quietly as Mr. Havel reviewed the Castle Guard in a freezing wind.

”He was a good Czech who sacrificed himself for our country,” 82-year old Marie Skalova, said as she wiped a tear from her eye with a crumpled tissue.

In his brief but emotional broadcast, Mr. Havel thanked those who supported him, even when his views were unpopular.

He apologized to his detractors as well. ”To all of you whom I have disappointed in any way, who have not agreed with my actions or who have simply found me hateful, I sincerely apologize and trust that you will forgive me,” he said.

He is expected to depart for his vacation home on the Portuguese coast this week.

He leaves behind no obvious successor. The Czech president is chosen by Parliament, and no one has seemed up to the task. Last month, Parliament twice failed to choose a new president. ”This is tiresome, but it is no great disaster,” Mr. Havel said in his speech.

But he is leaving the country with a sense that it is rudderless. On Thursday, Prague’s theatrical and musical elite paid tribute to Mr. Havel in the National Theater. At one point, in a skit lamenting his imminent departure, an actor turned to him in the presidential box and, paraphrasing a famous line once addressed to the Czechs’ patron saint, said, ”Dear Vaclav, pray for us.”

The Vaclav Havel Center