Pavel Dostal

Playwright and Minister of Culture
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Pavel Dostal, politician and playwright: born Olomouc, Czechoslovakia 25 February 1943; Minister of Culture 1998-2005; twice married (one son, three daughters); died Brno, Czech Republic 24 July 2005.

During the final six months of his life Pavel Dostal, the Czech Republic's Minister of Culture, emerged as his country's most popular politician. Dostal's huge popularity and his impending death were in some ways connected. After he announced last autumn that he had been diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas, which subsequently spread to his liver, Dostal attracted widespread sympathy for his determination to carry on in his demanding post while battling the disease.

But sympathy and admiration for Dostal's courage - for many months he would undergo chemotherapy towards the end of each week and return to work on the following Monday - came on top of long-standing public respect for a likeable man. A theatre director and playwright who was a political non-conformist during the Communist era, Dostal never lost the common touch. Unlike many of his fellow-politicians, he spoke a language people could easily understand. His devotion to maintaining and enriching the Czech Republic's cultural heritage in the face of sectional interests attracted considerable personal support for him.

Remarkably, Dostal also managed to stay on good terms with a wide range of politicians. He was a natural bridge-builder, who was able and prepared to work with all factions across his Social Democratic Party and often across party- political divisions. He was the longest-serving member of a succession of centre-left governments, having been in office for seven years under four Social Democratic prime ministers.

Dostal was born in 1943 in Olomouc, a medium-sized town in Moravia. Trained as a chemistry technician, he showed much greater interest in the arts, and in his early twenties worked at the experimental theatre in his native town. He was also a fervent supporter of the brief-lived political experiment associated with Alexander Dubcek, the Communist Party's reformist leader, during the Prague Spring of 1968. When Dubcek's policy of "socialism with a human face" prompted a Soviet-led military invasion of Czechoslovakia in August that year, Dostal was involved in keeping anti- occupation broadcasts going on Czech Radio. He resigned from the Communist Party the following year in protest against Dubcek's removal from the leadership and the reimposition of an increasingly hardline Communist rule. Unlike many others of his generation who gravitated towards liberal or conservative thinking, Dostal remained a left-wing opponent of the Communist regime.

As part of his punishment, Dostal was forced to take menial jobs, working as a stoker and labourer during the next two decades. On occasion, his pro-democracy sympathies landed him in trouble, and even as late as October 1989 - just a few days before the "Velvet Revolution" swept away Communist rule - he was detained by police for distributing a political petition.

With the return of freedom, his plays, television scripts and sketches could now be performed - although his literary output did not, in any way, match that of his more illustrious fellow politician and playwright, Václav Havel. Having acquired a taste for politics in the pro-democracy movement during the Communist era and then in the heady days of the Velvet Revolution, Dostal moved into full-time political activity in the more formal setting of the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly.

After the break-up of Czechoslovakia at the end of 1992, he worked for three years at Olomouc Musical Theatre, but re-entered parliament as a Social Democratic deputy. When the Social Democrats returned to power at the head of a coalition in 1998, Dostal appeared to be the ideal choice for taking on the culture portfolio. He did his best to fulfil the expectations surrounding his appointment. Dostal inherited a difficult legacy from his predecessor, Pavel Tigrid, who believed in rolling back the state's involvement in the world of arts funding and regretted not having abolished his own ministry. Coming from a more centre-left tradition and as someone associated with the provincial theatre in Olomouc, Dostal was fully aware that financing the arts could not be left largely to the market or sponsorship by corporate and individual donors. He worked hard to raise funding from all sources.

Dostal fought his main battles with the Catholic Church and aristocrats of ethnic German origin who were trying to recover properties confiscated during Communist rule. He strongly believed that the state's stewardship of the national cultural legacy should not be called into question. He resisted restitution claims, and to do that he exploited Czech traditions of anti-clericalism and - in relation to the ethnic German aristocracy - widespread support for President Eduard Benes's post-war decrees that had deprived the Sudeten Germans of their property for having co-operated with Nazi Germany.

His opponents accused him of leaning on the courts to back his stance, and of helping to finance those who opposed the restitution claims. But, with members of the public, it earned him greater popularity. And even in his time of adversity, he remained consistent in his views. Only a month before his death he left hospital to vote for a law requiring religious organisations, such as charities, to register with the state.

By then, Dostal was close to death. His sense of humour, though, never abandoned him. When the government survived a no-confidence vote in April, Dostal expressed his relief with the words: "You know why I'm glad? I'll get a state funeral."

Gabriel Partos