Czechoslovakia's leading communist-era dissident and the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, on March 1 presented a human rights award in Prague to the Belarusian rights activist Alyaksandr Byalyatski, head of the Vyasna human rights center until it was closed down by the Belarusian authorities. Havel's symbolic support for the award -- the Homo Homini prize presented at the annual One World festival of documentary films focused on human rights -- is the latest example of Havel's longstanding backing for Belarus' democratic opposition and came at the end of a week marked by another diplomatic spat between the Belarusian and Czech governments. RFE/RL's Belarus Service asked Havel to explain his stance on Belarus and share his advice to Western leaders and also to Belarus's opposition ahead of presidential elections on March 19.
RFE/RL: How do you explain your consistent support for Belarusian democrats?
Havel: I sympathize, but I am not alone. It is an element of the Czech Republic's current official policy to sympathize with anyone who is striving for more liberal, more democratic conditions, with those who want to change an authoritative system because we have our own experience to draw on and because we feel a heightened responsibility to show solidarity with those who are striving after roughly what we ourselves sought after.
RFE/RL: The KGB today arrested several young people in Belarus. On TV it was also announced that an opposition conspiracy against the regime and against Belarus had been uncovered. You have rich experience as a dissident. What would your advice to Belarusian dissidents be? What can be done about the secret police in general? How can one deal with them? And is it possible to do something against it?
Havel: To be yourself and, simply, to retain a sense of detachment and take the high ground, and to take it all with a bit of humor. I recall our dissident days as days of relative happiness. There was a sense of solidarity between us, we stuck together, and at the same time we didn't take ourselves too seriously. We weren't obsessed with anything. It is true that everyone tends to remember the good rather than the bad. Still, a measure of distance, a sense of the bigger picture, and also persistence, that's what is most important.
RFE/RL: Russia, is currently the only country in Europe that openly supports the regime of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. What do you think about that? What can the Western governments, Western countries do to counter that? Or how can the topic be addressed with Russia?
Havel: I think they should say openly what they think and not shut their eyes. And conceal nothing. After all, it should be the case that partners and friends are frank with each other and can say what they think.