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    A Times Editorial

    Havel's self-effacing greatness

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 19, 2003

    Next month, Havel will step down as leader of the nation he transformed. It is a tribute to his self-effacing manner and egalitarian spirit that his historic tenure is ending with so little fanfare. His legacy will be a democratic government and a progressive society that avoided the worst pitfalls of the transition from a half-century of communist rule.

    More than any other post-communist leader -- more than all but a handful of recent American leaders -- Havel champions the power and beauty of Western culture. He helped to turn the scabrous music of Frank Zappa into the soundtrack of a revolution. He lived the dark ironies of Kafka's fiction. And he encouraged a nation to liberate itself through the freedom of thought that provocative music and literature can inspire. He had the physical and moral courage to endure censorship, imprisonment and the suffocating intimidation of Soviet tanks and troops.

    And then, after his people's totalitarian oppressors were miraculously toppled by the force of simple idea, Havel rolled up his sleeves and devoted himself to the tedious work of building a new society that would provide not just the pure joys of freedom but also the more prosaic pleasures of working street lights, warm clothes and reliable garbage service.

    In his farewell speech to Czech lawmakers last week, Havel urged them to continue working for freedom and dignity for all people. As president, he set a generous example of encouraging freedom of expression -- even when it was used to protest actions of the government he came to represent.

    Two years ago, when Havel played host to meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Prague, many of the gathered leaders expressed concern that protesters would disrupt the sessions. Havel reminded them that street protests have their place. "I'm not against some kind of manifestation, so long as these demonstrations do not threaten people's lives and properties," he said. "Actually, I'm a person who rather enjoys a carnival. Our revolution against communism had a carnival feel to it."

    Havel's time in political office is coming to an end, but the carnival goes on, and people around the world can look forward to enjoying, and being inspired by, Havel's next act.

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