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Give Me a Break

The Czech political class has its own peculiar strategy for handling world events.

by Katerina Safarikova 18 December 2013

Remember that infamous video where the then Czech President Vaclav Klaus was caught pocketing a ceremonial pen at a press conference while on an official visit to Chile?


Later, the American talk-show host Jay Leno spoofed the incident with a skit where Klaus' pen grab is the misdirect allowing his "partner" to slowly but surely pocket everything on the table – pen, flags, microphone, water glass.


Those were good times. Everybody knew about us Czechs and laughed. And it’s good to make people laugh! So watch out – we have a new skit for the world.


The scene was a session of the Czech parliament on 6 December, when Prime Minister Jiri Rusnok was heard and seen telling two governmental colleagues, “Dude, now Mandela has gone and died.”


Rusnok uses quite rustic language in talking about how he would rather not attend the funeral of the late South African leader, since the trip would disrupt his other arrangements. Turning to the minister of defense, he says, “Dude, I dread having to go.”


This use of street language to comment on the death of an honorable hero sent the video viral in a hurry, and a funny Czech politician story made it to the world stage again. From CNN to The New York Times, the BBC and the German media, all eyes were on the small country in the heart of Europe.


The language Rusnok and his ministerial colleagues used isn’t a big deal. Or at least it shouldn’t be. It was standard Czech guy talk: most Czechs use the earthy expression “ty vole” scattered throughout their talk on a daily basis. Literally “you ox,” the term can mean anything from “dude” to “asshole,” depending on the context. Five times in little more than a minute, Rusnok used it in a private chat during a break – but the parliamentary microphones were still on.


More than the vocabulary, what was striking about the conversation was the tone. The annoyance, the griping about what a nuisance it would be to travel all that way, maybe even on a regular commercial flight, to pay his last respects to Nelson Mandela.


The foreign audience probably didn't catch that tone. If they did, they’d learn one more thing besides “ty vole.” And that is how Czech politicians, as a subset of Czechs in general, are unamused by foreign events.




Professional politicians usually like to be part of world events. They see it either as natural, which is the case mostly of leaders of former empires and of current great powers. Or they take it as a professional must, good manners, a way to network with the powerful. Sometimes, it is almost funny to read the angry statement of, say, a parliamentarian from Luxembourg on mischief and  manipulations during an election in some distant country. But then, it’s their job.


Czech politicians are different. The vast majority lack that inner urge, or the manners, to show interest in the outside world.


The prime minister’s chat might have been exceptional for its earthiness. But it was very mainstream and standard judged by its content. The “I don’t care” or “Give me a break” stance when it comes to foreign events is in the DNA of most Czech politicians. If somebody actually cares, he or she is dubbed naive and silly.


Not a few social scientists and political commentators tried to put Rusnok’s lines against the broader historic background, and the conclusion was as follows: This country was run by foreign powers for many centuries and its politicians had to listen to Vienna, Berlin, or Moscow. Now, after a quarter century of blessed freedom and independence, the almost genetic reaction of the ruling elite is to shun the outside world.


True, Vaclav Havel was different. But he was an exception, a freak of Czech politics. Jiri Rusnok, on the contrary, is as typical an example of his class as he can be.


We can push the politicians to look beyond their narrow horizons and hope for a more engaged generation of leaders to come. But until that day comes, you can bet the prime minister would rather run off to a Champions League soccer match at home than do his duty in a faraway land.


Oh and by the way, Foreign Minister Jan Kohout was delegated to represent his country at the memorial ceremony for Mandela.

Katerina Safarikova is a journalist with

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