Continuing our commemoration of the late president Václav Havel we talk with Tomáš Sedláček, the renowned economist who, in 2001 as a precocious university graduate, came to work for Mr Havel as an economic advisor at the age of 23. In a special interview, he began by describing his first meeting with the iconic figure.
“The first time we met was at Hrádeček, which was the president’s residence, and there we were debating the securities commission – one of the things that was a part of my portfolio, that I was looking at, was at the members of the committee, and the way the securities commission worked. And of course I was very, very nervous, because it was of course a person for whom not only I but the whole nation had huge respect. But this nervousness fell away in the first… not even a minute, and he was so very kind. It was a pleasure to meet him. You know, one is always nervous when meeting his or her boss, especially when it is such an important person, but after those first few minutes I always looked forward to meeting him without any fear or hesitation. Even as a young man, I felt a great air and a kind approach from him. So it was a great pleasure and the nervousness went away extremely quickly.”
And so was it a strictly working relationship or did you also feel like he was a friend?
“I don’t think I could go so far as to call myself a friend, we never spoke informally, but we would see each other from time to time, also because after leaving Prague Castle we maintained the custom of meeting on a somewhat regular basis in one of the Prague pubs, and also a couple times at Hrádeček, which you know was always his humble centre of gravity. And we also tried to work together on other projects, he was so kind as to endorse both of my books with an introduction. And this is the way we worked, and I have tried to carry on the heritage of his sort of humanistic approach to economics.”
How would you describe his grasp of economics and business issues?
“Well he had a very original grasp of it. He understood it in the very wide context of society and the age, and Europe, and really, globally. I must say that he was a little away from and ahead of the mainstream thinking in the Czech Republic, but he had a huge influence on it. He was the one who was always trying to say that economics was more than just money and profit, and that companies have a larger role to play. This today is quite a common view, not only in the world but even in the Czech Republic, but ten years ago when he started propagating the idea it was truly original and controversial, and I think he had a huge impact on the way that Czech society looks today. And the Czech economy, I think, would be much more narrow-minded and more closed without him. And I also think that, being a big European, he played a huge part against all the anti-European voices here in the Czech Republic, so that - at least during his reign and influence – we were a credible member of the European and NATO structures.”
When you will find yourself, 20 years from now, thinking back on Václav Havel and your time working with him, what specific occasions will come to mind?
“Without any doubt, he already has become a legend during his lifetime. Not only a legend, I think something even more: he’s become a symbol of a certain way of thinking that was very close to the Prague upper tier and intellectuals, and you know, all the people who worked with hope and ideals that go further than just short-term profit.
“As for me personally, I will always remember him as the one who was able to dance with the Rolling Stones and then hold a credible meeting regarding the most important issues, not just of the Czech Republic or Europe, but truly globally. I will always remember him as the one who was able to open doors everywhere, who always tried to be helpful and humble, and also the way he constructed his thinking – always trying, and succeeding, to look at things from a vantage point that was original. And I think this is something that we all have learned, and are learning from him.”
Lastly, from your own point of view, looking into the future, what kind of impact will the death of Václav Havel have on Czech society, and will it change anything?
“I think it will. I was extremely surprised at how many people came to Wenceslas Square on Sunday; it was really a huge crowd. And I think that only now we will slowly learn to realise the gift we had, which comes only once to a nation in a very, very long time: that there is born a personality that is recognised – truly recognised, without a doubt by leaders all around the world. And the ceremony on Friday, for which the biggest personalities of the world are planning to arrive, is a symbol of that. I think we’ve lost something. I think we will learn to appreciate him a little more. And as was always the case with Havel – him being a little bit of a prophet - we may only understand some of his thoughts later on, then they become more transparent.”