RADIO FREE EUROPE/RADIO LIBERTY, PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
RFE/RL NEWSLINE Vol 2, No. 86, 6 May 1998
RUSSIA CRITICIZES U.S. SENATE VOTE ON NATO. Russian Foreign
Ministry spokesman Valerii Nesterushkin on 5 May said the
U.S. Senate's recent vote in favor of NATO membership for
Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic is "unlikely to
contribute to stabilization on the European continent,"
Russian news agencies reported. Nesterushkin repeated that
Russia considers the policy of NATO enlargement to be
"incorrect." But he expressed the hope that regular meetings
at the ministerial and ambassadorial level between Russian
and NATO officials will alleviate some of the "concerns"
that will arise during the expansion of the western military
alliance. Meanwhile, Anatolii Kvashnin, the head of the
Russian General Staff, flew to Brussels on 5 May to attend a
session of the Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council the
following day. LB
HUNGARIAN POLLSTER CITED FOR POSTING SURVEY ON WEB.
Hungary's National Elections Committee accused a polling
organization on 5 May of violating the country's electoral
law. Gallup Hungary published the results of an opinion poll
for the 10 May elections on its World Wide Web home page
(www.gallup.hu) on 4 May. Electoral law prohibits the
publication of opinion surveys eight days before an
election. Robert Manchin, the director of Gallup Hungary,
said his company is aware of the law and doesn't believe it
was violated. The committee has vowed to prosecute Gallup
Hungary if the poll remains on the Internet site. PB
ROMANIAN PREMIER FOR HUNGARIAN CULTURAL AUTONOMY. Radu
Vasile said on 5 May that he backs native-language education
for the ethnic Hungarian population in Romania, "Magyar
Hirlap" reported. Vasile said in an interview that while he
supported cultural autonomy, he strictly ruled out
territorial autonomy for ethnic Hungarians. Vasile said the
fact that 100,000 Hungarians had left Romania in the last
five years was unacceptable for a minority that strives to
preserve its identity. Vasile also said he supports the
founding of an autonomous university for ethnic Hungarians.
THE DILEMMA OF THE CZECH PRESIDENCY
by Victor Gomez
Czech President Vaclav Havel may be on the road to
recovery from his colostomy operation in Innsbruck, but
questions about his future in office remain. The questions
are related to two basic issues concerning Havel's health
and the Czech political transition -- one of them short-term
and the other long-term.
While the president seems to be over the worst of the
problems associated with his operation, things did not look
as rosy a few weeks ago. In April, the Czech president's
vacation in Austria was abruptly interrupted when he had to
undergo an emergency operation due to a perforated colon --
an operation that carries a 30 percent death rate.
The operation marks the second time in less than a
year and a half that Havel has undergone surgery during
which his life has hung in the balance. In December 1996,
Havel had part of his left lung removed due to cancer. His
lung condition also served as a dangerous complication
during his recent colon surgery.
Havel's second brush with death caused many people in
the Czech Republic to publicly ask questions which were
previously considered to be taboo. While it is still widely
considered bad taste to publicly speculate as to who might
succeed the president, some observers have started to wonder
out loud whether Havel should not step down. The deputy
chairman of the lower house of the Czech parliament,
Jaroslav Zverina, caused a stir when he said the president
should consider resigning in the interests of his own
health. While Zverina's own party, the formerly governing
Civic Democratic Party (ODS), distanced itself from his
remarks, his comments reflected a question that is gathering
urgency in many Czechs' minds: What would happen if Havel
were too ill to complete his second term in office as Czech
First off, there are important short-term
considerations associated with Havel's recovery. While
doctors in Innsbruck seem optimistic about his recovery,
some say there is still the possibility that he may not be
in good enough health carry out his constitutional role and
name a prime minister to form a government after the
elections scheduled for 19-20 June. The president will have
to undergo another operation during which doctors will close
his large intestine. That operation is supposed to come in
May, but according to some doctors it could be put off until
later due to complications associated with Havel's lungs.
With the current Czech political scene as fragmented
and divisive as it is, Havel will be required to play a
much-needed balancing role during the post-election
negotiations to form a new government. Public opinion polls
indicate that no potential governing coalition of parties is
likely to secure a majority in the lower house of the Czech
parliament. Havel already has proven capable of urging quick
and effective solutions on political party leaders. He did
this after the 1996 elections which ended in a political
stalemate and after the collapse of Vaclav Klaus's
government last fall.
However, if Havel were unable to perform his
constitutional role for health reasons, the post-election
period of instability could drag on longer and be perceived
as more threatening by both domestic and foreign observers.
Furthermore, if a minority government is formed after the
elections -- which is the most likely scenario -- the
possibility of more crises and instability in the near
future cannot be discounted. During such problems, Havel
could act as an important guarantor of political, and
therefore economic, stability in the Czech Republic --
providing he is fit.
The long-term considerations related to Havel's role
as president have less to do with short-term political
considerations and more to do with the manner in which his
own person has become intertwined with the presidency, and
by extension, with democracy in this country. While the
Czech presidency is a relatively weak position on paper, it
bears significant symbolic and moral authority in this
country both for historical reasons and for reasons
associated with Havel himself.
Czechs tend to associate the office of the presidency
with the person of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the first
president of Czechoslovakia from 1918 to 1935 and a towering
figure in Czech history. A professor, philosopher, and the
man most credited with achieving Czechoslovak independence
from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Masaryk has become the
ideal against which all subsequent presidents have been
measured. Havel is widely perceived as having come closer
than any other Czechoslovak head of state to that ideal.
Many Czechs still find it impossible to imagine anyone
other than Havel in the Prague Castle. In fact, many
observers consider Havel's presence to be a virtual
necessity in the current climate of political and economic
uncertainty. Such observers argue that the task of
entrenching democracy and the rule of law in the Czech
Republic is not completely finished, and that the country
still needs Havel to play an important role in that regard.
They worry that parliament will elect a successor who will
be either too weak to act as the moral arbiter Czechs still
seem to think they need or, even worse, who will be a tool
of one or another of the political forces in the country.
Obviously, both scenarios are realistic, especially
considering the currently fragmented state of the Czech
political scene. Certainly it would be better if Havel
manages to stay fit until his current term in office ends in
2003. By that time, perhaps the political scene will be calm
enough to permit a smooth succession at the castle. Then
again, perhaps it will not.
In any event, the manner in which many Czechs have
associated Havel's person with democracy in this country
poses problems. No one need be reminded that he would not be
the first "irreplaceable" political leader to be replaced.
There is no reason why a changing of the guard in the Czech
Republic, either presidential or governmental, should fare
any worse than the relatively smooth changes that have
already taken place in neighboring Poland or Hungary, or,
for that matter, in Bulgaria, where veteran dissident Zhelyu
Zhelev was unceremoniously unseated by his own former
supporters. In that sense, this country will have taken
another important step in the development of its political
culture the day a standard succession takes place and a new
president steps into the Prague Castle.
Victor Gomez is the managing editor of the Prague-based
monthly journal "New Presence."
Copyright (c) 1998 RFE/RL, Inc.
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