29 December 1989: Václav Havel Becomes President of Czechoslovakia

Today marks 84 years since the birth of Václav Havel.

On this day, 30 years ago, the leader of the Velvet Revolution Vaclav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia. It is interesting that he was not elected for that position directly by the people, but by the Federal Assembly (Czechoslovak parliament).

Havel was appointed to that post as the leader of the Civic Forum – the opposition movement that started the Velvet Revolution.

Havel became the first post-communist Czechoslovakian president; initially reluctant to take up the post, the playwright turned president guided his country to greater freedoms.

President Havel’s first New Year address, broadcast on Czechoslovak Radio three days later, was one of the most famous of his career, and in many ways was a watershed in the country’s history.

“It would very unwise,” he said, “to interpret the sad legacy of the last forty years as something foreign, left to us by our distant relatives. On the contrary, we should accept this inheritance as something that we allowed to happen to ourselves. If we accept that, we understand that it is up to us all to do something about it. We cannot blame it all on our previous rulers – not just because that would not be true, but also because it could weaken the obligation which stands before each of us, the obligation to act independently, freely, responsibly and quickly.”

“The last few months,” Havel said, “and especially the last six weeks of our peaceful revolution, have shown the huge human, moral and spiritual charge and the high civic culture, slumbering in our society behind the obligatory mask of apathy. Whenever someone has said of us that we are like this or like that, I have always protested that society is a very mysterious creature and that it is never a good idea to believe just in the face that it is showing at a given moment. I’m glad I was not mistaken. All over the world, people are looking with amazement at how these pliable, humiliated and sceptical Czechoslovak citizens, who had seemed to believe in nothing, found such an astonishing strength and wisdom within themselves, to shake off the yoke of a totalitarian system in a completely decent and peaceable way.”

Only in 1990 were free elections for the president of Czechoslovakia held and resulted in Havel’s victory. He remained president of Czechoslovakia until 1992 when Slovakia declared its own constitution, and Havel resigned because he did not want to preside over the country’s breakup. Czechoslovakia indeed soon fell apart.

In the independent Czech Republic, Havel stood for election and was elected president in 1993. He remained on that position for two terms, until 2003. He was, therefore, president of two countries (Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic).


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