UNU-WIDER Remembers President Václav Havel, 1936-2011

In 1989, everything changed for Václav Havel and his country. The former lab technician, now playwright, led Czechoslovakia’s extraordinary Velvet Revolution which toppled the ruling regime. The world watched in astonishment at the display of an extraordinary uprising of people, and within weeks saw Václav Havel installed as Czechoslovakia’s new and popular president.

In the mid 1970s Václav Havel helped establish Charter 77, a movement for democratic change. Within a short space of time Václav Havel had become Czechoslovakia's most famous dissident. He was imprisoned for alleged ‘anti-state activities’, and was kept under constant surveillance by the secret police. Ironically, by the end of 1989 he found himself discussing the future of the nation with the people who had earlier sent him to prison. Communism was disintegrating, and democracy was taking its place. After 18 days of peaceful demonstrations and strikes the Velvet Revolution saw the fall of the communist government. Václav Havel once famously quipped that ‘after every party there's a hangover’, having resigned the presidency only to be re-elected leader of the new Czech Republic a short while later in early 1993.

UNU-WIDER had the pleasure of working with President Václav Havel, most recently when he gave the opening statement at our conference ‘Reflections on Transition: Twenty Years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall’, held in Helsinki in September 2009, when due to ill health he was not able to attend in person but thanks to technology he was able to give the statement by video link: (watch on -