The Broader Picture: Here we are again

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The Independent Culture
TO BE INAUGURATED President of two different countries in just over three years - only a Central European writer could imagine it. Vaclav Havel became President of Czechoslovakia in December 1989, only a few weeks after the Velvet Revolution. He resigned last July and spent some cheerful months fishing, laughing and doing up his house while Czechoslovakia split in two. Then, after some arm-twisting, he agreed to return to Prague Castle: this time as President of the Czech republic of Bohemia and Moravia.

Like love, the first inauguration is special. In 1989, Havel was not so much appointed as crowned, and the ceremonies were a wild, tearful carnival of new liberty. It all happened so fast and so happily that the other heads of state had no time to come, but sent telegrams instead. The biggest people there were Alexander Dubcek, speaker of the parliament which elected Havel, and the indomitable old Cardinal Tomasek of Prague. They are both dead now. So is the season of joy.

The second big day, three weeks ago, was more conventional. Havel took off his jeans and struggled into his presidential best suit to lead a parliamentary republic now operated by professional politicians, divided by the usual party hedges and ditches. This time, the heads of state had enough warning to turn up, and Havel invited Josef Koudelka, the famous photographer of the '68 invasion of Prague, to take the pictures. Some of the other presidents were good company, like Lech Walesa, still an impudent electrician at heart. Others were stickier, more solemn.

This presidency will be less fun. All the ex-dissidents who crowded into the Castle with him in 1989 - clever, merry old friends from the days of small theatres and big prisons - have gone. The conspiratorial evenings round the kitchen table in the presidential apartments with cigarettes and whisky and laughter, will be rarer. This time, Vaclav Havel, though he sees himself as everybody's President whatever their views, must pay respect to the policies of the Czech government and its imperious prime minister Vaclav Klaus. It's time we in the West stopped thinking of Mr Havel as a writer whirled up into national leadership by a delightful miracle. His friend, the writer Ivan Klima, said of him: 'Right from the beginning, when I got to know him, Havel was for me in the first place a politician, in the second place an essayist of genius, and only lastly a dramatist'. Klima used to say half-jokingly, when Havel was in and out of prison, that he had become a playwright because at that time the theatre was the only place where political opinions could be expressed. Vaclav Havel is certainly wise and decent. But he is tough, too, and he will manage.

(Photographs omitted)