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The Czech Way

One commentator says his country has learned some hard lessons since the Velvet Revolution but wonders how much wiser it is for all that. by Erik Tabery 2 March 2009 [The annual One World film festival will take place in Prague 11-19 March before traveling to other cities in the Czech Republic. This year it will focus on the past 20 years of post-communist life in Central Europe. The films will be grouped into five themes, one of which is Lessons of Parliamentary Democracy. Essays introducing each of the themes, like the one below, can be found on the festival’s website. — TOL]

PRAGUE | Soon after the revolution power was seized by politicians who believed that a Czech form of capitalism could be practiced in Czechoslovakia. The idea of a Czech way was not new; in 1968 there had been many left-wing politicians and intellectuals who believed in a Czech way to socialism. Both specific ways had a tragic ending.

The post-revolution idea that it was better to avoid foreign investors and let local shady operators get rich quick caused many a problem. Foreign firms were willing to abide by the standards and laws they knew, but people who got rich overnight and not in an honest way wanted to grab all they could. Moreover the state, the government, political parties had a stake in proving that the Czech way was feasible, so they improperly subsidized and otherwise aided businesses. Those businesses sent money to party coffers in exchange. This symbiosis was fatal and became the foundation for a phenomenon now known as “tunneling” or asset stripping.

The unexpected came to pass in 1997. Journalists finally began to fulfill their role, unearthing corrupt links between ODS [the ruling Civic Democrats] and businessman Milan Srejbr. The scandal, in which Srebjr made generous contributions to the party shortly before he won a steelmill during privatization, was huge and the government fell. ODS broke up, and the public saw the light. The greatest lessons from the first half of the 1990s were that it was crucial to separate business from political parties, there was no such thing as a Czech way, nationalism in economics leads only to trouble, and, finally, a free press is the key to a free society.

The first half of the 1990s also taught us a lesson in the field of foreign relations. Then-Prime Minister (now President) Vaclav Klaus was very much against the construction of a gas pipeline that would bring to the Czech Republic gas from Norway. If it were not for small parties that threatened to leave the cabinet over this, we would be fully dependent on Russia today. We could see where this leads at the beginning of this year in Slovakia, which would have collapsed without aid from the West.

In the 1990s many politicians claimed that Russia would never be dangerous again and hence it was not necessary to join NATO. Developments in Russia, from the moment Vladimir Putin became president, showed that foreign policy and defense must be built with a view of what can happen. Moscow is again making its voice heard, speaking of the Czech Republic as a country that falls within the sphere of Russian influence.

In the same way a number of politicians took a disapproving or at least dismissive position toward the European Union. But if we were not a member now, it would be even harder to tackle the financial and energy crises.

The fact that despite considerable resistance on the part of some politicians we managed to join NATO and the EU is a remarkable success. These developments have shown us clearly that it is easier to tackle problems together and that such a group can enhance the importance of smaller states. Does anyone think Putin would receive the Czech prime minister if he did not preside over the union?

ON GUARD

The end of the last century taught the Czechs another lesson. This was when ODS and the Social Democrats signed an opposition agreement meant to curb the independence of the central bank and the president’s powers, change the election system in favor of the big parties, take control of the security services, and undermine the independence of the media.

It was revealed at that moment how important an active civil society, and independent institutions and media, were. If it were not for demonstrations and public protests, the political parties would have carried on their practices. If it were not for the Constitutional Court, they would have pushed through tendentious changes in the system. If it were not for the media, no one would know what is going on in the country.

Czech society has entered a further development phase that is much more complicated. During the first 15 years of freedom it was quite easy to describe and criticize iniquities in politics. The wrongs were so patent and so blatant that it was easy to fight them.

The politics of the last three years has given rise to a great many problems. ODS has recruited, under very suspicious circumstances, defectors from the competition, the Social Democrats, and the government has inadmissibly interfered with justice in favor of its member, Jiri Cunek, a government minister who had been accused of taking bribes.

For their part, the Social Democrats have, for the first time in modern history, agreed to deal with the country’s totalitarian Communist Party and have even formed regional councils with it. The Social Democrats, led by Jiri Paroubek, have come up with the basest populism that we’ve seen since 2002, when ODS was still led by Klaus. There is one difference, though: whereas ODS met with strong opposition from the voters to nationalistic populism seven years ago, the Social Democrats had staggering success with social populism in the regional elections of 2008.

It is suddenly hard to define what is good and what is bad. Resistance against the practices of the “opposition agreement” united most intellectuals; at present, many are split as some campaign against a red and others against a blue [European] dictatorship. Because of the strong opinions they are willing to overlook fatal shortcomings in their own camp.

It is like this in a non-insignificant part of the public, who are willing to ignore ethical violations provided this brings them some benefits.

The lessons of parliamentary democracy show us that it is a never-ending process and it is necessary to be always on the alert. One must find the inner courage to listen to others and be prepared to argue against majority opinion. History has taught us this lesson many times. Those in the minority in Britain who spoke against making concessions to Hitler were right. The handful of people who warned against the false promises of the Communists in 1946 were right.
Erik Tabery is the editor in chief of the Respekt newsweekly.

Reprinted with permission of People in Need.
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