Slovakia mourned on Monday Czech playwright, dissident and former president Vaclav Havel as one of its own, recalling his role in ousting communism and leading Czechoslovakia before its peaceful split in 1993. Havel gained a special place in the hearts of Slovaks during the Velvet Revolution which bloodlessly toppled Soviet rule and steered Czechoslovakia to democracy in 1989. But the freedom-icon who served as the Czechoslovak president from 1989 to 1992 chose to leave office after failing to prevent the disintegration of the country into two republics, amid rising national sentiments on both sides.
Yet a day after Havel’s passing on Sunday at the age of 75 after a long illness, Slovaks remembered him as their own statesman. “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone. Vaclav Havel will be greatly missed,” the Hospodarske noviny daily said, while the Novy cas tabloid called him “the world’s most famous Czech.”
And Slovak authorities declared a day of national mourning for Friday, when Havel’s funeral will be held. People gathered outside the Czech embassy in Bratislava people and a candle-light vigil was planned for Monday evening in front of the statue of Czechoslovakia’s first president and Havel’s role-model Tomas Garrigue Masaryk in central Bratislava. Under Soviet rule, Havel discreetly met with Slovak dissidents but he was not yet widely known. His presence however made a splash at the Bratislava Lyre music festival in Slovakia’s capital in 1988, where renowned US folk singer Joan Baez secretly smuggled him in as her guitar carrier.
“As soon as he came on stage, the communist secret police shut down the concert,” recalled Ladislav Snopko, former Slovak culture minister and a close Havel friend. In his twenties during the heady 1960s, Havel remained a flower child even as a leader of the Velvet Revolution — promoting peaceful regime change and refusing to prosecute former regime collaborators.
“We were tired of violence and we didn’t want a bloody revolution,” Snopko told AFP. Havel’s passing also sparked a wave of solidarity among young Slovaks on social networks, with many posting Havel’s most famous quote: “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.”