Former Czech President Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who led the peaceful revolution that toppled communism in the former Czechoslovakia, has died. He was 75.
A spokeswoman said Mr. Havel died in his sleep early Sunday at his weekend house in the northern Czech Republic with his wife and a nun at his side. A former chain smoker, he had a history of chronic respiratory problems that physicians traced back to his Cold War years in communist prisons.
Mr. Havel was his country's first democratically-elected president after the 1989 non-violent “Velvet Revolution” that ended four decades of communist repression. On taking office, he oversaw Czechoslovakia's transition to a free-market economy and democracy, as well as its peaceful 1993 breakup into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
U.S. President Barack Obama, in a statement Sunday, praised Mr. Havel's “moral leadership,” saying he “lived with a spirit of hope.” He said the Czech leader's peaceful resistance “shook the foundations of an empire” and “exposed the emptiness of a repressive (communist) ideology.”
In Prague, where black flag flew over Prague Castle, the presidential seat, Czech citizens lighted candles at the monument to the Velvet Revolution.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed Mr. Havel as “a great European” who fought for freedom on the continent, while British Prime Minister David Cameron said all of Europe owes the former president a “profound debt” for bringing freedom and democracy to the continent.
Former Polish President Lech Walesa, who spurred the fall of communism in his homeland, said Vaclav Havel's voice will “be greatly missed” in Europe, “above all now when it is experiencing a great crisis.”
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, in a message posted on Twitter, called the Czech icon “a voice for freedom” and “one of the greatest Europeans of our age.”
Mr. Havel left office in 2003, just months before the Czech Republic and Slovakia joined the European Union. He was credited with laying the groundwork that brought the Czech Republic into the 27-nation bloc, and was president when the republic joined NATO in 1999. But he said his proudest presidential moment was the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact – the Moscow-led military alliance that lasted until 1991.
Mr. Havel first rose to prominence after the 1968 Soviet-led invasion that crushed the “Prague Spring” reforms of Alexander Dubcek and other liberally-minded communists in the former Czechoslovakia. His plays were then banned by hardliners installed by Moscow who sought to crush any traces of those reforms.
However, he continued to write a series of underground essays widely seen as some of the most damning critiques of what communism did to society and the individual in post-World War Two Europe.