In its brief history, the Czech Republic has had two presidents in a row named Václav. Both have been men of extraordinary substance. Václav Havel was an eloquent playwright and courageous dissident who, in a single profoundly perceptive essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” written in 1978, explained to his people, then suffering under the yoke of Communism, how totalitarianism works – and how individuals who consider themselves weak, terrified, and alone can contribute to its overthrow and help bring about their own liberation. Millions of citizens of Czechoslovakia and other Soviet satellites who read Havel’s essay (circulated by samizdat) and took his words to heart played an active role in the fall of the Iron Curtain. When Czechoslovakia won its freedom in 1989, Havel was as inevitable a choice to become its first president as George Washington was to become the first president of the United States. (Indeed, the National Assembly selected Havel by a unanimous vote.) When Slovaks decided they wanted their own country, splitting Czechoslovakia in two, Havel ran for and was elected president of the Czech Republic, a position he held until 2003. (He died in 2011.)
Internationally, his successor, Václav Klaus, has been overshadowed by Havel. But Klaus, who served as president from 2003 to 2013, was also admirable in many ways. Havel was a poet; Klaus is a trained economist – a student of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman and admirer of Margaret Thatcher who knows how markets work. While Havel supported the European Union, which he viewed as a means of keeping the peace in Europe, Klaus considers it an all too Soviet-style superstate run by arrogant political elites who don’t understand economics, aren’t answerable to the electorate, and want to have their fingers in every pie – who are driven, that is, by a compulsion to control, to regulate, and to tax. Havel was sympathetic to Nordic-style “market socialism”; Klaus is a strong enthusiast for free markets, period. If Havel was a hero to liberals everywhere, Klaus made a worldwide name for himself as an outspoken libertarian.
After he left office, however, it didn’t take long for Klaus’s international luster to start fading. Named in March 2014 a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute – perhaps the most respected libertarian institution – he was cut loose by Cato only months later. “The alleged reason for the split,” wrote James Kirchick in a December 2014 article for the Daily Beast, “is the former Czech leader’s slavish defense of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, as well as his hostility to homosexuality and cozying up to figures on the European far right.”
Slavish defense of Putin? Could this “champion of liberty,” as Cato’s president had called him, really have thrown in his lot with the Russian thug?
Alas, yes. On February 21 of last year, noted Kirchick, “Klaus took to the website of his foundation to question Ukraine’s very right to exist as a sovereign country.” He called it an “artificial entity.” In May, Klaus commemorated the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s World War II victory by visiting the Russian Embassy in Prague with what Kirchick described as “a bevy of aging Czech communists and old KGB informants.” At a July conference, Klaus “railed against ‘unilateral pro-Western propaganda’ and offered to help divide Ukraine based upon his own experience in the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia.” In September, speaking to free-market economists at an event hosted by the Mont Pelerin Society, Klaus brought up the subject of Ukraine on his own, blaming the “Ukraine problem” on the US and EU and absolving Putin of blame. At a conference sponsored by the Russian Foreign Ministry, he said the following about the cold shoulder he’d gotten from Cato: “The US/EU propaganda against Russia is really ridiculous and I can’t accept it.”