I’m one of those people that has difficulty writing anything negative about Vaclav Havel, and not only for his defiance in the darkest days of the communist regime and his heroic role during the Velvet Revolution. I’ve lived here in Prague for a long time and both during his presidency and after, you can almost always count on Havel saying and doing the right thing: from supporting dissidents worldwide and civic activists at home to critiquing the excesses of Czech-style capitalism and acting as an effective foil to his long-time rival, Vaclav Klaus.
But I think this time Havel has made a mistake. In case you missed it (from the newssite Czech Position):
President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, in Prague to attend the three-day Forum 2000 conference, on Monday awarded former Czech president Václav Havel his country’s highest state honor — the Order of Saint George. Accepting the award in the Georgian embassy, Havel said he hoped Georgia would return to the country’s official borders soon without bloodshed.
According to the Czech News Agency (ČTK), Havel called for Georgia to be given open access to all EU institutions and the right to decide its choose its defense allegiance without outside pressure. This was a clear call for Georgia to be allowed to join NATO and for Russia not to pressure the former Soviet state to do otherwise.
Clearly, Havel is one of Georgia’s biggest, high-level boosters, and this was an opportunity to thank him.
“We are all sons of Vaclav Havel,” Saakashvili said at the award ceremony, according to Rustavi 2, a Georgian channel. “For anybody who grew up on the other side of the iron curtain and dreamt of freedom or democracy, for activists and reformist leaders all over the world and especially in our region, I think his name resonates more than anyone else’s. The end of the Soviet Union was not the end of history; it was the beginning of history for all of us. Thanks to you and many others, Vaclav, we were allowed to leave the cold museum.”
Should Havel, however, have accepted such an award or even put himself into position to be offered such an award? Let’s put aside for now, the long-running criticism of Saakashvili’s centralization of power and neutering of the opposition. We can even chalk up to bad judgment that he was one of the first to congratulate Lukashenka for his victory in the deeply flawed elections of last December (Saakashvili’s view was: any enemy of Russia is a friend of mine).
But does everyone already forget his government’s overwhelming use of force against unarmed demonstrators in 2007? Human Rights Watch published a 102-page report at the time and concluded:
“Our research clearly shows that the Georgian government crossed the line when police chased and beat peaceful demonstrators, and threatened and intimidated journalists,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The November 7 police operations were not legitimate means of policing. They have done serious damage to Georgia’s reputation as a champion of human rights.”
Besides all the nasty violence used against protestors, special forces troops also raided the Imedi television station and shut it down, forcing journalists to lie on the ground with pistols to their heads.
And it isn’t as if Saakashvili and the government suddenly learned their lessons and no longer do this sort of thing, as HRW has continued to document:
“I am writing to express our profound concern about the growing number of physical attacks on opposition activists and peaceful demonstrators who have been engaging in the protests that began in Tbilisi on April 9,” wrote Holly Cartner, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division in the spring of 2009. “Based on reports by the ombudsman’s office and the Public Advocacy NGO Coalition, and a number of Human Rights Watch interviews with victims, we are concerned that the attacks appear to be a concerted effort to intimidate the demonstrators and prevent them from exercising their right to freedom of assembly.”
And this from earlier this year:
“Even if the Tbilisi demonstration was unauthorized, nothing can justify the beating of largely peaceful demonstrators,” said Rachel Denber, Europe and Central Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “Police responsible for beating protesters should be held to account.”
Police pursued fleeing demonstrators, kicking and beating many, using rubber truncheons. In one case, they chased down demonstrators who had taken shelter in a nearby cinema, detaining them and kicking and beating many as they exited. One journalist who was briefly detained reported to local media that he had seen a large number of injured protesters at the Tbilisi main police station, some requiring medical assistance.
All of that should have been enough to possibly negate an invitation for Saakashvili to Forum 2000 and certainly for Havel to accept such an award, unless he would have been willing to offer some constructive criticism. Instead, Havel offered only praise, and with it his moral authority, something especially meaningful to Saakashvili. In contrast, the support of realists in North America and Western Europe is fully transparent: They are solely concerned with Georgia’s role in the region as a counterweight to Russia and will let the Georgian president off with minor rebukes as long as he stays the course. One would expect more of Vaclav Havel.
Photo by Martin Kozák from Wikimedia Commons.