With Havel's death, his legacy faces new threats

December 22, 2011 - 12:41 PM
Poland Havel's Legacy

FILE - In this Oct. 3, 2008 file photo, former Czech Republic's President Vaclav Havel looks on during an exclusive interview with The Associated Press in Prague, Czech Republic. With former Czech president Vaclav Havel being bid farewell in a state funeral Friday, there are signs that his legacy is under attack across the region. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — When Czech playwright Vaclav Havel was thrown in prison for his anti-communist writings, life for people across the East Bloc was shaped by the soul-crushing repression of rigged elections, tapped phones and isolation behind the Iron Curtain.

Today all that has changed for 10 ex-communist states who threw off Moscow's rule and are now in the European Union. Fair elections, freedom of speech and easy travel abroad are such a part of life that young Czechs and others often have little understanding of the hardships their parents remember vividly. It's a testament to the achievements of Havel, Poland's Lech Walesa and others of conscience who toppled communist regimes peacefully in 1989.

But even as Havel is bid farewell in a state funeral Friday, there are signs that his legacy is under attack in central Europe, particularly in Hungary, where a leader with an authoritarian streak is consolidating more and more power for himself and his allies.

And it's not just Hungary: press freedom has eroded in Latvia and corruption is destroying hopes for opportunity for many across the region — most acutely, perhaps, in Bulgaria and Romania, two of the EU's poorest new members.

"Havel's legacy has triumphed, but it is a legacy that will never be complete," said Jacek Kucharczyk, a leading Polish political commentator. He sees an assault on the spirit of Havel across the region today, with various levels of threat depending on the country.

"Democracy and human rights are not given once and for all," said Kucharczyk, president of the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw. They "require constant vigilance."

Several months before his death, Havel said he was largely pleased with the enduring commitment to basic rights in his own Czech Republic, though he lamented the alienation of many from political life.

"But in essence, I wouldn't say we've betrayed or abandoned anything," Havel told The Associated Press in an interview in February, 10 months before his death Sunday at the age of 75. "It seems to me that our country is still following the path our citizens decided to take then (in 1989)."

Indeed, much is going well for the Czech Republic, whose economy and civil society have flourished. Thanks to Havel's moral leadership, Prague has also emerged as one of Europe's leading promoters of human rights in countries including Cuba, China and Burma — repressive states of particular concern to Havel.

And Poland, the largest of the ex-communist members now in the EU, is by almost every measure a success story. Warsaw has become the EU's leading promoter of democracy in neighboring Belarus and Ukraine, while also advising Tunisians and other Arab Spring revolutionaries on the art of holding free elections and forging constitutions.

Poland's own recent elections, in October, kept the moderate pro-EU government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk in office — even as the economic crisis toppled several other European governments this year.

But even in economically ascendant Poland, which managed the feat of posting growth while the rest of Europe slumped into recession in 2009, some people are drawn to political forces advocating xenophobic and homophobic views.

Though no radical forces hold political office, the existence of a large and violent far-right made itself known during riots in Warsaw marking Independence Day on Nov. 11. The troublemakers, many of them soccer hooligans, injured police officers and trashed cars in the worst street violence Poland had seen in years.

That was an isolated incident. In countries suffering economically, there are more persistent threats.

Human rights groups, the United States and the EU are particularly concerned about Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party is stacking the courts in its favor and increasing control of the media as it struggles to consolidate a strong hold on power.

Orban has been able to do so because voters, frustrated by an economic crisis brought on by the mismanagement of the previous left-wing government, gave his conservatives a two-thirds majority in parliament in 2010 elections. At the same time, nearly 17 percent cast ballots for the far-right Jobbik party, which blames many of Hungary's problems on Jews and the Roma, or Gypsies.

It's proof — if any was needed — that authoritarianism, xenophobic nationalism and other illiberal tendencies can be temptations in times of deep economic uncertainty.

Over the past 18 months, Fidesz has used its unassailable majority to make changes to laws and even the constitution to give lawmakers and the government unprecedented power over other institutions — from the judiciary and the media to the central bank and the state audit office.

"I see the situation here as being quite alarming," said Ferenc Koszeg, a former lawmaker and founder in 1989 of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights watchdog.

On a scale of one to 10, with one being an ideal democracy and 10 a dictatorship, Koszeg said he would now put Hungary at seven.

In Latvia, a small Baltic country, media freedom took a serious blow after powerful oligarchs waged a successful takeover of Diena, an influential newspaper which had been exposing wrongdoing by businessmen and politicians. That happened on the eve of 2010 elections, essentially silencing critical coverage of some candidates.

Freedom House, a U.S.-based group, cited "negative developments for press freedom" in its latest report on Latvia, where reporters have been harassed and had their phones bugged in recent years.

And everywhere corruption remains a scourge that denies people equal chances at finding work, starting a company or getting a fair hearing before a judge.

Zhelyu Zhelev, a Bulgarian philosopher and communist-era dissident who became his country's first democratically elected president, believes that "the unresolved battle against corruption and organized crime" remains the biggest challenge to Bulgaria's progress.

"The state has to win this battle if we want to achieve a well-functioning democracy," Zhelev told the AP.

In neighboring Romania, journalists, human rights workers and government critics say they live in a state of paranoia due to a sense that they are under constant state surveillance.

The country operates seven intelligence agencies — more than under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu — though the NATO member has no foreign enemies.

"There are way too many secret services for a country of 22 million ... and too little control," said Diana Hatneanu, director of the Helsinki Committee in Romania.

The secret service aligned to the Interior Ministry, in particular, is probably being used "to get lots of information about people (they) don't like — political enemies, journalists, non-governmental organizations," she said.

But even those who helped topple repressive regimes warn against too much pessimism. Central Europe, even with the rising threats, remains a space of civil liberties and freedoms that people can only dream of in Belarus, Kazakhstan and other countries further east.

"The situation in central Europe is good," said Bogdan Borusewicz, a former Polish anti-communist activist who is now the Senate speaker. "And that is partly due to the efforts taken by Havel. And by Lech Walesa. And by all of us here."

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Associated Press writers Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Karel Janicek in Prague, Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Romania, Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary, Gary Peach in Riga, Latvia, and Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, contributed to this report.

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Vanessa Gera can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/VanessaGera