The Czech Republic will hold three days of national mourning for former
dissident and leader Václav Havel, who died on Sunday. Mr Havel paved the
way for democracy in Czechoslovakia in 1989 and was the leading figure of
the Velvet Revolution. Speaking at a press conference after an
extra-ordinary government meeting on Monday, Prime Minister Petr Nečas
said the cabinet wanted to honour Mr Havel not only as the first
post-Communist president, but also as a symbol of all-encompassing change
in society. During the mourning period, flags on public buildings will be
lowered to half-mast and a minute of silence will held at 12 pm on Friday
in Mr Havel’s memory.
A moral icon and symbol of the modern Czech state, former president Havel died on Sunday morning at the age of 75 after a protracted illness. The former dissident, playwright and politician passed away in his sleep at his country house Hrádeček, in northern Bohemia, tended to by his wife Dagmar. Mr Havel’s health had deteriorated in recent months, forcing him to limit his public appearances. The last time he appeared in public was last week, when he received the Dalai Lama during his Prague visit.
During the national days of mourning, all casinos and betting agencies will remain closed; there is a possibility also that sports events may be cancelled. In addition, organisers have been asked to gauge the appropriateness of planned public events and the media have been asked to carefully consider broadcast content. The cabinet is also preparing a special bill in the name of the former president, recognising his merit in leading the country out of totalitarianism to freedom and democracy.
Václav Havel will be given a state funeral on Friday, December 23, at Prague’s St Vitus Cathedral. The ceremony will begin at noon. The location was confirmed by Radim Ochvat, spokesman to President Václav Klaus, after details were agreed on Monday by Mr Klaus in a meeting with Mr Havel’s widow, Dagmar; the Archbishop Dominik Duka was also present. Two who have already confirmed attendance include US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband, former US president Bill Clinton. Former Polish President Lech Walesa, the leader of the Solidarity movement in the 1980s, will also attend and other expected guests – who have yet to confirm – include the Austrian, German, and Polish presidents and German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Hundreds of people have been paying their last respects to Mr Havel, bowing in silence before his closed coffin at the former church of St. Anna in Prague. The site opened at noon on Monday. Mr Havel’s widow, Dagmar Havlová, placed a bouquet of roses with a black ribbon on her husband's casket. Others, too, have been bringing flowers. Ornamental details in the hall were put together by Mr Havel’s friend and former collaborator at Prague Castle, architect Bořek Šípek.
In related news, members of the public began lining up to sign condolence books at Rothmayer Hall at Prague Castle on Monday morning. Five tables, covered in black cloth, were provided for the occasion, near a Czech flag and a photograph of Mr Havel, who died on Sunday at the age of 75. The first to write his condolences was Mr Havel’s successor to the presidency, Václav Klaus, followed by the heads of Parliament, Milan Štech and Miroslava Němcová, and Archbishop Dominik Duka. Dozens of others waited their turn shortly before the hall’s opening. One condolence book is for public figures (and VIPs) – four others are for regular visitors wishing to pay their respects. Visitor lines have swelled throughout the day. The hall will be open until 8 pm.
The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, has praised the Mr Havel as a
statesman for his commitment to the highest humanistic values; he made the
statement in a condolence letter sent to Mr Havel’s successor Václav
Klaus. In the letter, Mr Gorbachev recalls the former Czech president’s
official visit to the Kremlin in 1990, during which future ties as well as
the departure of Russian troops from Czech soil were discussed. Mr
Gorbachev and Havel met again in 1992 at the Czechoslovak Embassy in
Moscow, the former leader points out. He writes that he hoped that their
meetings left a positive mark on Czech-Russian ties.
Richard von Weizsäcker, the former German president, also remembered Mr Havel on Monday, telling journalists that he had been a true friend and a role-model. He made the comment after signing a book of condolences at the Czech Embassy in Berlin. He made clear that Mr Havel had helped Germany to correct past wrongs it had committed against its neighbours, including Czechoslovakia.
Around the world, acquaintances and close friends of Václav Havel alike, have continued to express grief for the former statesman and former dissident who led Czechoslovakia to democracy in November 1989. American singer and songwriter Lou Reed – of Velvet Underground fame – a close friend of Mr Havel’s after the Velvet Revolution, issued a short statement on his website remembering him. He called his death a “terrible loss for the world” and a terrible loss “for him personally”. The American performer took part in a special concert, marking the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, back in 2009.
European institutions the European Council, Parliament and Commission, as well as NATO headquarters, flew their flags at half-mast on Monday in honour of former president Václav Havel, while the European Council held a minute of silence in the former statesman’s memory. A day earlier, upon hearing of Mr Havel’s passing, EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy credited Mr Havel with “creating history in his country”, while the head of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso called him “a true champion of democracy and freedom”. Mr Havel was seen as one of the most important figures in the push for the Czech Republic joining NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004.
Czechs have paid tribute to their late former president not only on St. Wenceslas Square in the Czech capital, but also outside of Hrádeček – the country home Mr Havel loved, where he passed away in his sleep on Sunday. Tributes to Mr Havel outside the cottage include flowers, candles, and even two bottles of Trutnov beer left by someone recalling the years 1974-75, when Mr Havel, persecuted by the former Communist regime, worked as an assistant labourer. The experience inspired Mr Havel in the writing of his famous theatre play The Audience. Candles or flowers left outside have also included messages including “Thank you” and “We won’t forget”.