PRAGUE -- With President Vaclav Havel convalescing from lung surgery that turned up a malignant tumor, Czechs are having to consider a future without the man who led them to democracy.
They don't like what they see.
"There is no one to replace him, and nobody is even able to imagine anybody else," says Jiri Stransky, a friend of Havel's and head of the Czech chapter of PEN, the international authors' group.
"People know that he never was a liar, he never cheated them. He's always spoken quite openly and frankly with them, and that's enormously different from other politicians."
Havel won people's respect for his peaceful resistance to the Communist regime in the 1970s and 1980s, for his wry observations about its absurdities, and also for his plays and essays.
He has become almost as much a symbol of the independent Czech Republic as is the country's flag or anthem. But there is unmistakable evidence of his mortality.
Surgeons last week removed about half of Havel's right lung, and a specialist from Sloan-Kettering Memorial Cancer Center in New York arrived this week to advise them about future treatment.
Physicians say the president has a good chance for recovery, but he remains hospitalized in an intensive care unit and dependent on a respirator. Even if he were to recover rapidly, the earliest Havel could expect to return to his presidential duties is mid-January.
Havel's temporary absence from his office is unlikely to create problems in government, since the office of the president has little formal power. But the president himself commands respect far beyond the status of his office.
"At present, Havel is the chief stabilizing force in this country," says Jiri Pehe, an analyst with the independent Open Media Research Institute. "He has stretched the limitations of the presidential office. He made it what it is and that's mainly because of his authority. I don't think anyone else could do the same."
Born into a well-off Prague family in 1936, Havel might have been expected to attend a university and follow his father into business.
But Havel came of age during the early days of communism in the 1950s, when access to higher education was limited by his "bourgeois" family background. In 1960, he began working as a stagehand in Prague theaters and then became an assistant director.
Havel also began writing plays, many of which were presented in the theaters where he worked. He came to international attention in the 1970s when he co-founded the Charter 77 human rights group.
As one of Communist Czechoslovakia's leading dissidents, Havel was arrested repeatedly and spent nearly five years in prison.
He was released for the last time in mid-1989. Within six months, the "Velvet Revolution" would end Communist rule.
As the Communist system faltered, Havel emerged as the leader of the opposition. He was elected Czechoslovakia's president Dec. 29, 1989, only to resign in 1992 rather than preside over the imminent partition of Czechoslovakia. He was elected the Czech Republic's first president in January 1993.
"No one can imagine how our political system would work without Havel," says Tomas Hajek, a commentator for the daily Lidove Noviny. "The Velvet Revolution created a new system of political power, and it was built around Havel."
The influence that Havel acquired over decades has served the country well in recent months. In two separate elections this year -- one for the lower house of Parliament, the second for the upper house -- the public seemed to express its disgust with political parties by voting in record low numbers.
Politicians squabbled and squawked at each other and seemed unable to form a government.
Havel, meanwhile, has been able to stand above the fray. Not a member of any party and perceived as fair to all, he helped arrange a temporary truce that allowed a right-wing coalition to govern with acquiescence from the opposition Social Democrats.
Even while hospitalized, he may still have a moderating influence on domestic politics. His moral authority, says Stephen Heintz, director of the Prague office of the Institute for East-West Studies, pushes parties to "go the extra measure to find workable solutions to their political problems."
Havel has managed better than any other Czech politician to retain the public's respect. His approval ratings stand at about 80 percent; his portrait still hangs in tens of thousands of offices, shops and private homes; thousands of citizens have sent him flowers and cards during his illness.
Part of his appeal is that he often lets on that he would rather be doing something other than being president, and he has rarely seemed more relaxed than on the day he quit the Czechoslovak presidency. His friend Daniel Kroupa recalls joking that the then-dissident Havel would someday become president, and also recalls Havel's response: "That would be the worst thing that could happen to me."
"To assume some political office has never been my life's desire or goal," Havel said in a 1994 interview. "Nonetheless, history got the jump on me a little bit, and later I found myself, to my surprise, in a situation where I couldn't reject a candidacy for the presidency, because that would have meant rejecting responsibility for something I myself had contributed to -- to the changes in our country."
He has often seemed reassuringly un-presidential. Havel seems to hold a special place in his heart for the counterculture that formed him in the dark years before the 1989 revolution.
He spoke warmly of Frank Zappa shortly after the musician died, and he has always braved the heat, crowds and smoke to sit in on concerts of artists such as Bob Dylan, Paul Simon or the Rolling Stones.
He seems more comfortable in blue jeans and a parka than in a suit and tie; when speaking, he often fidgets or mumbles and usually has a cigarette in hand -- a habit doctors urged him to end.
And he still seems to prefer his old dissident hangouts to state dinners: An evening with Bill Clinton in 1994 saw the two leaders quaff pints of beer in a pub before heading to a jazz club.
"Havel understands people. He's had a lot of contact with regular people, and he knows their problems," retiree Frantisek Krivohlavy says in a pub just a few blocks from the hospital where the president lies.
"I've got a lot of respect for him."
Pub Date: 12/12/96