By Dinah A. Spritzer, Special for USA TODAY
PRAGUE — Europe's most famous Cold War warrior
and former communist political prisoner was
excluded from a ceremony yesterday where Russia
and the U.S. took steps toward world peace.
Vaclav Havel, the president of Czechoslovakia and
then Czech Republic for 13 years, was not invited to
the signing of the START II nuclear arms reduction
treaty by President Obama and his Russian
counterpart Dmitry Medvedev, which took place in
Prague Castle's Spanish Hall, where the playwright-
politician gave his farewell speech to a standing
ovation from the Czech Parliament.
Was the ceremony snub Obama's revenge because
Havel, along with 20 other ex-Central and Eastern
European leaders, signed an open letter to the
American president last summer that warned of a
menacing Russia and complained that their region
was "no longer at the heart" of U.S. foreign policy?
"No, that would have made the Americans invite me,"
joked the spry 73-year-old in a rare interview at his
office here near the gold-domed National Theater.
The treaty-signing guest list of politicians and
dignitaries was determined by the Prague Castle
office, now presided over by President Vaclav Klaus.
Castle spokesman Radim Ochvat said he did not
have the answer to why Havel was not invited.
Klaus, the conservative Thatcherite critic of the
European Union, was Havel's archnemesis — the
anti-Havel — for as long as the Czech lands have b
een free from Soviet domination.
During this period there have been only two
presidents, both named Vaclav.
Klaus, a populist-pragmatist, has accused his
predecessor of being a dreamer and downplays the
role of active dissent in the fall of the communist
But Havel was not miffed at the oversight.
"I'm glad, I am very busy," said Havel, who is
preparing for the U.S. debut in Philadelphia next
month of his latest play Leaving, about a politician
who can't get used to being out of office.
In fact, he is not even worried much about the
intensifying Russian-American engagement,
addressed as "creeping intimidation" by the July
2009 letter, also signed by Polish dissident-turned-
president Lech Walesa.
The letter was "whiny," admitted Havel, who said its
language was too pushy, perhaps because so many
contributors were involved.
In other words, he didn't write it.
Further, he thinks the START II treaty signing is a
"good thing," even though Russia and the United
States "can still blow up the Earth many times over
with the weapons they have." Havel said he trusts
Obama to handle the Kremlin with the proper
"I met with Obama when he was in Prague last April
and he seems to be more careful now, taking things
step by step," he said.
Obama's self-described "reset" of Russian-American
relations has alarmed some of those who long
suffered under Soviet-inspired regimes.
The open letter to Obama had been written less than
a year after Russia went to war with the former Soviet
state of Georgia, and two years after then-Russian
president and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
threatened to point missiles at European cities such
as Prague if they hosted U.S. strategic missile
Obama has since backed off the Bush administration
plan and is offering instead to place short- and
long-range missile defense sites in Romania and
Poland, which he believes will be more effective
against an Iranian nuclear attack.
Still, longtime proponents of a strong transatlantic
relationship are unhappy at what they see as the
weakness of NATO, an American-led organization,
in the face of a more active Russia.
"Russia has been flooding NATO and the European
Union with diplomatic proposals on how we should
organize our defense," said Sen. Alexandr Vondra,
another signer of the open letter to Obama who led
the failed Czech effort to host a U.S. missile defense
radar base. "Diplomacy is just war with another
name," said Vondra, with an edgy smile.
Havel, now more of an outside observer of such
tensions, reflected that the last two big world wars
"started in Central Europe, not Niger," so he does
not regret that a letter was written to remind Obama
not to neglect the region.
But there are those, like Estonian President Toomas
Hendrik Ilves, who thinks Obama does not need
Along with 11 other Central and Eastern European
leaders, Ilves attended a dinner with Obama in
Prague yesterday at the U.S. ambassador's residence.
(There has not been an ambassador there for 14
months, a sign to some like Vondra that proves the
U.S. could pay more attention to its Central
However, Ilves said those in the region who fear that
a closer relationship with Russia is to their
detriment "should remember we are in NATO and
have Article 5, " which stipulates that an attack
against one NATO member is an attack against all.
"We don't have go through life feeling neurotic,"
said Ilves, who was raised in New Jersey before
moving to the birth land of his parents after the
Soviet Union crumbled.
Havel is also feeling more relaxed these days now
that Putin, who he noted was a former KGB agent, is
at least to foreign eyes, no longer the sole
determiner of Russian foreign policy.
"Putin and Medvedev were both Communists, but
Putin was a KGB agent," Havel said. "Medvedev is
more like the many post-communist playboys we
see around us today, but he has a chance to go his
own way. I hope he takes it."