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 Monday, 12 February, 2001, 13:55 GMT
Profile: Dissident president's bumpy ride
Vaclav Havel
Tarnished hero: Havel's popularity has waned
The dissident playwright who led Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, Vaclav Havel, has been beset by poor health and by growing disenchantment at home during his last years in power.

The hero of 1989 was re-elected as president nine years later by only a narrow majority - tarnished by political infighting and disappointed public expectations.

Havel's background as a dissident playwright and former prisoner of the communist regime made him the natural leader of the bloodless revolution which swept the old regime away.

Vaclav Havel
Revolution leader: Havel in Wenceslas Square
Mr Havel was born in 1936 into a wealthy family which had lost everything under the communists. He was labelled "too bourgeois" to be allowed a secondary education, but later studied by night while working as a laboratory technician by day.

By the 1960s, he was a successful playwright, and after the flowering of the Prague Spring - the reformist revolt led by Alexander Dubcek - his criticism of the communists became more blatant, and he won world acclaim.

But the Soviet invasion of 1968 drove him back underground, his work banned and performed only in the homes of sympathisers.

He spent five years in prison, and helped found the Charter 77 movement for democratic change.

He may look old and ill but he is still the fighter who was ready to spend more than five years in prison

Former dissident Jan Urban
But Havel insists that he remained at heart an artist, not an activist.

"I never wanted to be a political writer," he once said. "I think that good writers and good art, and particularly good theatre, is always political - not because writers and directors want to be political, but because it is something which is in the substance of theatre."

After the Velvet Revolution, the newly-installed President Havel enjoyed a honeymoon period, lauded around the world and at home.

He was having fun too: Reports say he used a child's scooter to whizz around the corridors in his vast palace, and he made American musician Frank Zappa an honorary cultural ambassador.

Crowds
At first Havel was feted as a hero
But the fairytale went sour. Slovakian nationalists campaigned for, and won, independence. Havel's beloved country was divided into two and he was shouted down by demonstrators.

The post-revolution gloss grew more tarnished because of his perceived inappropriate meddling in domestic politics.

He was seen as contributing to the fall of the former Prime Minister, Vaclav Klaus, after delivering a highly-critical speech which sparked widespread controversy.

More recently he entered the fray again, siding with journalists at Czech Television as they battled the appointment of a new boss they accused of political bias.

Health problems

Ill-health has also dogged him. The former chain-smoker had to have part of his lung removed during cancer surgery in 1996. Since then, bouts of bronchitis, pneumonia and intestinal problems have required repeated stays in hospital.

But journalist and former dissident Jan Urban says Mr Havel remains a fighter.

"I think that we're talking about a very tough guy," he said.

"He may look old and ill but he is still the fighter who was ready to spend more than five years in prison, when he was deadly ill as well and still went his course. I'm not afraid of Vaclav Havel giving up."

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