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Thursday, 21 November, 2002, 16:54 GMT
Havel takes final bow on world stage
Czech President Vaclav Havel speaks at a Nato press conference
Mr Havel leaves Prague Castle soon after the summit
Nato's Prague summit marks an historic moment not only for the alliance, but for its host, Czech President Vaclav Havel.

It will be the last major international event for President Havel, the soft-spoken dissident playwright who moved into Prague Castle when Czechoslovakia threw off Communism in the bloodless 1989 "Velvet Revolution".

Having served two terms as president since Czechoslovakia split - again without violence - into two independent countries in 1993, Mr Havel is barred by the Czech constitution from standing again when his term ends on 3 February 2003.

The leaders of the 18 other Nato countries used a dinner at Prague Castle on Wednesday night to honour the man who many regard as one of his era's leading advocates of democracy.

French President Jacques Chirac presents Mr Havel a copy of Nato's founding treaty
Nato leaders honoured Mr Havel
French President Jacques Chirac described Mr Havel as "the writer and dramatist who, by the power of the pen, armed solely with courage and his faith in mankind and truth, has nurtured the hopes of the oppressed who were denied democracy", the French news agency AFP reported.

US President George W Bush said Mr Havel's life "has shown that a person who dedicates himself to freedom can literally change the course of a nation and change the course of history".

Playwright to president

Mr Havel, 66, began his professional career as a playwright in the early 1960s, but his background as the scion of a wealthy family - plus the pointed political satire of such plays as The Garden Party and The Memorandum - made him persona non grata with Czechoslovakia's Communist authorities.

By the late 1970s, he emerged as one of the leaders of the Charter 77 movement, which aimed to force the government to live up to its human rights commitments.

Havel spent more than four years in prison in the 1980s, while fellow "Chartists" were jailed or forced to work menial jobs.

A neon heart over Prague Castle marks the 13th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution
Mr Havel often signs his name with a heart
His final prison term ended abruptly when Communism began to crumble in central and Eastern Europe in late 1989.

Just over a month after massive street protests against the Communist government began, the authorities resigned en masse. Mr Havel was elected president on 29 December, 1989, ending 41 years of Communist rule.

But his years as president of Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic were marked by a number of disappointments.

He opposed the division of the country into two independent states, but did not command an organisational structure that would have enabled him to call a referendum on the subject.

He resigned from the Czechoslovak presidency in July 1992, after the division of the country had been decided, saying he would not preside over "a self-liquidating country".

President once again

He became president of the Czech Republic soon after.

His presidency has been marked by diminished influence on the domestic scene and serious health problems, even as his international standing has remained high.

Under his tenure, the Czech Republic joined Nato in 1999 and seems likely to be invited to join the European Union in December.

Mr Havel, for his part, may join the EU before the rest of his countrymen: He has bought a villa in Portugal and is expected to retire there when his term ends in February.

See also:

04 Jun 02 | Europe
20 Oct 02 | Country profiles
20 Oct 02 | Country profiles
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