By any standard, the transition toward democracy and market economy in Central Europe was almost miraculously successful. For that, Václav Havel deserves a significant share of the credit. Besides displaying enormous personal courage and determination in opposing the mortally rigid regime of Gustáv Husák’s era, he helped start the right conversations about the future of the country, once the window of opportunity for political and economic reforms was opened.
I have only one personal recollection of the shy and diminutive man: I saw Havel, from a distance, at a meeting in one of Bratislava’s squares in the early 1990s, at a moment when he was being yelled at by a small group of egg-throwing and jeering Slovak nationalists. Of course, two years later Czechoslovakia was non-existent. Although the Slovak’s path was much bumpier than the Czech Republic’s, both countries joined the European Union in 2004, and have become completely normal—almost boring—places.
Much has been written about Havel’s idea of “living in truth” which he professed and practiced, often at great personal costs. But it is also necessary to highlight his role in the post-revolutionary period. Although Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe crumbled under their own weight almost automatically, it was not always entirely clear what would replace them. And, looking at the post-Soviet space as a whole, the transitional outcomes ranged from those that have been extremely successful – the Baltic countries, Czech Republic, or Poland, to name but a few – to outcomes which have been rather disappointing.
This divergence in political and economic outcomes might appear paradoxical, given that many of the countries were subjected to the same initial reform packages, which included economic and political liberalism. In some places the same reforms were more likely to be retained than in others.
How can we explain this divergence? In short, ideas and rhetoric matter. In retrospect, it should strike us as obvious that the countries where there was a shared sense of direction toward democracy and market economy fared much better than those where such an understanding was not strong enough. The Czech Republic – just like Poland, Hungary, or the Baltic states –had this sense of direction. There was no doubt the Czechs wanted to be a part of the democratic Europe. As a result, the population was prepared to accommodate the often painful reforms.
The Czechs were extremely lucky to have a cultural and intellectual elite, including the dissidents and also various semi-legal groups of economists, who had an appreciation for the importance of limited constitutional government, self-organizing force of the civil society, and also of free markets.
The Arab Spring countries, for instance, do not seem to be quite as lucky as the Czechs. When discussing economic policy with Egyptian politicians, for instance, one is reminded more of the apparatchiks of the 1980s than of figures such as Havel, Walesa, Klaus, or Bokros. And it is not just a matter of personal appearances. The total number of books translated into Arabic over the last 1,000 years is smaller than the number of books that is translated from English into Spanish every year. Even during the most sordid of Husák’s years, the Czechs have not lost contact with the outside world – partly thanks to their geographic location but also thanks to samizdat publications and support from abroad.
It is therefore reasonable to be somewhat pessimistic about the immediate prospects of countries like Egypt, Syria, or Libya. However, we should not lose hope, and – if inclined to help the Arab world – we ought to invest in the intellectual, cultural and journalistic life in those places, even with the prospect that the return on this investment might materialize relatively late, in the same way as many Westerners did in the 1970s and 1980s in Eastern Europe. As Václav Havel’s personal example demonstrates, ideas and rhetoric can change the world for the better. They did so in Eastern Europe, and they can do so again in the Arab world.
Dalibor Rohac is deputy director of economic studies at the Legatum Institute in London.