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John Shattuck

Open minds, open societies


DEMOCRACY LOST one of its most thoughtful champions with the recent death of Vaclav Havel. The loss was particularly felt in Budapest, where the international university Havel helped found two decades ago is again on the front lines of a struggle over democracy.

The year opened with alarming signs that democracy is eroding in Europe and the United States. Playing on fears generated by the economic crisis, nationalist movements are asserting themselves in Central Europe to promote statist programs restricting civil liberties, reining in the media, centralizing government and curtailing judicial independence. Majoritarian politics are sweeping away checks and balances that protect minorities. Xenophobia and racism are stimulating discrimination.


Meanwhile, the European Union’s response to its currency and sovereign debt crisis is leading to limitations on the democratic authority of elected officials to determine economic policies. And in the United States, politics in a presidential election year are being corrupted by the unlimited spending of economic interest groups to achieve influence over candidates, a long-term trend accelerated by a recent Supreme Court ruling that eliminated legal restrictions on political finance.

These developments demonstrate a core truth of Havel’s legacy: democratic societies, built slowly, can erode quickly. While popular demonstrations against political and economic iniquities continue to spread in the Middle East, Russia, Europe, the United States, and other parts of the world, the struggle to build democracy has proven, as Havel predicted, much harder. Today this struggle is even more difficult because a competing model of nationalist and authoritarian governance in China seductively offers political and economic security at the expense of democracy and human rights.

At the heart of Havel’s vision of self-governance is the “power of the powerless.’’ The Velvet Revolution was an achievement of the powerless, as were the other revolutions two decades ago in Central Europe and uprisings now underway against authoritarian and corrupt regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. But revolution does not make a democracy. That takes time and the restraint of power through the process of institution-building.


Havel’s democracy is comprised of interrelated elements. First is the principle that democratic government should be limited by and responsive to the people so that it does not fall prey to the domination of one party or narrow group of economic interests. Second is the protection of minorities - political, racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, lifestyle - against repression or discrimination by the majority. Third is a guarantee that speech and communication remain free and open so that citizens can have full access to information and ideas. Fourth is an independent judiciary that can apply the laws fairly and protect the civil liberties and human rights of citizens. Finally, Havel’s democracy requires an active civil society to promote democratic participation.

Building and sustaining democracies is a long-term effort, at the heart of which is the education of open minds. When Havel and other dissident leaders in Central Europe guided the peaceful revolutions against totalitarianism, they also created institutions to promote open society. One of these institutions, Central European University, has since developed a model of international higher education whose mission is to prepare future generations for the ongoing contest over democracy.

Havel described the challenge of open society in accepting Central European University’s Open Society Prize in 1999: “An Open Society - that is, a society of free human beings exercising free association, a society that does not defer to the dictate of any ideology - requires an open human being with an open mind.’’


An open mind is willing to consider competing ideas, and an open society is sustained by institutions that protect the messiness of democratic debate. Exploring the principles of open society is a tribute to Havel’s enduring legacy.

John Shattuck is president of Central European University. He formerly was US ambassador to the Czech Republic and asssistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor.