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Czech President Havel Prepares to Leave Office - 2003-01-22

At the age of 66, Vaclav Havel on February 2 steps down as president of the Czech Republic. He has been president, first of Czechoslovakia, and then, since 1993, of the Czech Republic for 13 years.

This soft-spoken playwright and thinker is the best known of the 1989 anti-communist revolutionaries still in office. His departure marks the end of an era. Jan Svejnar, a business professor at the University of Michigan and a former economic advisor to Mr. Havel, said his record as president is outstanding.

"He set himself essentially three goals. One, to eliminate communism, two, to enter NATO, and three, to enter the European Union. And at the end of his term all three are pretty much done, the first two have happened and the third one is clinched."

Jolyon Naegele, a correspondent for Radio Free Europe in Prague, has known Mr. Havel for over 20 years. Mr. Naegele, as a VOA correspondent reported on the 1989 revolutions. He compares Mr. Havel to Tomas Masaryk, who in 1918 became the first president of the new Czechoslovak state.

"He carried on the tradition of Tomas Masaryk that 'thou shall not steal.' He really did campaign for reminding Czechs of where they are and who they are. And that they shouldn't steal, which is a major problem in this society. Always has been," said Mr. Naegele.

Mr. Havel is respected worldwide primarily as a campaigner for human rights. But at home he does not enjoy such a lofty status. Mr. Naegele says many Czechs regard Mr. Havel as often petty and they resent his occasional intrusions into party politics.

"Because he didn't know how to lobby effectively, unlike Masaryk," explained Mr. Naegele. "He never served in a collective body like parliament or anything like that. He's never been elected by the people. He didn't have the experience of back room lobbying that your average member of parliament has."

Jan Svejnar has no doubt about how history will judge Vaclav Havel. "I think he has been the premiere statesman in central and eastern Europe during this period," he said. "And I think paradoxically he is much more appreciated worldwide than at home."

During his days as a dissident in the 1970s Mr. Havel built his reputation as a playwright. Friends say that in retirement Mr. Havel could return to writing essays and plays. He is expected to spend much of his time outside of Prague, in Portugal where he and his actress wife have purchased a seaside home.