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Despite vibrant economic growth and unemployment rates at their lowest in over two decades, there’s a lot to worry about.by David S. Jackson 14 December 2018
What is “the shape of Central Europe”? That was the question posed at a recent symposium in Prague by the Aspen Institute, and the answer, unfortunately, was not encouraging.
All the media attention on Central Europe lately has been on “illiberalism” and what have been described as populist, “anti-democratic,” and anti-immigrant trends in Poland and Hungary, mainly, with an occasional worrying glance at their Visegrad neighbors Slovakia and the Czech Republic. But Aspen’s day-long program was much less concerned with those issues than with uneven economic, social, and defense-related development, particularly in the country sometimes referred to as Czechia.
Like their neighbors in Poland, Czechs have prospered economically in recent years (4.3 percent GDP growth last year, with 2.9 percent unemployment). But the analysts who probed beyond those rosy figures painted a more troubling picture of an underlying society that is largely unprepared to compete economically in a future of skilled, value-added jobs, and is still handicapped in some ways by its legacy of communist domination, even though it ended nearly three decades ago.
The panel on education, for example, described an under-financed system where secondary schools are still teaching outdated, trade-related skills of the past. The educational system “seems to be actually moving backward,” reported Bohumil Kartous of EDUin – an independent, Prague-based NGO focusing on educational reform. “[It] does not prepare the younger generations for either the future or even the present.”
In the Czech system, the headmaster has broad authority over a school, including overseeing teacher development. But many Czech headmasters are suspected of having been chosen for their political connections rather than their leadership or teaching skills. Meanwhile, paltry salaries and dim prospects for advancement have made attracting or holding onto good teachers a nationwide problem.
Czechs are also grappling with internal social divisions. A growing perception of inequality of wealth, opportunity, health care, and government services has bred resentment not only between citizens but also between individual villages and geographical regions.
While there are real differences, Aspen’s panelists said they were aggravated by the tendency of politicians to over-promise and under-deliver, which has led to increased support of anti-state and protest political parties and factions. The economic disparity (and despair) is so great that some people in the nation’s poorest areas, particularly in the western part of the country near the German border, say they miss the economic security they felt they had under the communist regime.
Personal indebtedness is another problem: nearly 1 in 10 Czechs has been affected by a debt-related property seizure, while half have been hit by three or more. Most of the seizures are not for homes and cars, but for small consumer goods loans. (The government is working on legislation aimed at forgiving debt without making the problem worse.)
In the area of defense and national security, the Czechs, like their neighbors (except the Poles), are still far below their promised 2 percent defense spending commitment for NATO, a shortfall that has drawn criticism from a succession of U.S. presidents. Although the Czechs have promised to reach it by 2024, an accompanying Aspen report declared that “highly unlikely,” adding: “The vast majority of the NATO member countries spend much less on defense than appropriate and needed.” Meanwhile, their training, weapons, equipment, and transport infrastructure fall further behind not just NATO’s but their own defense needs. During one of the symposium’s panels, retired Czech Gen. Petr Pavel, former Special Forces commander, said the military has to rely on “obsolete technology” because, despite plans to spend 20 percent of its budget each year on defense, the government spent only 11 percent last year (and 7 percent the year before).
Most Czechs recognize the threat from Russia and the need for NATO membership (71 percent support it), but Aspen’s researchers also found a disturbing wobbliness when people were asked about their personal commitment to the nation’s defense if needed. The Czech government has begun to address the importance of protecting the population from not only military but also propaganda (social media disinformation) threats, but the healthy economy has prevented it from getting any closer than two-thirds of the way toward its national goal of a 30,000-strong armed force.
Meanwhile, none of Aspen’s analysts expect a pan-European Army – an idea that is periodically floated by Western European politicians – will ever replace NATO. “Europe is not ready to abandon the idea of national states,” said Jakub Landovsky, Czech deputy defense minister for policy and strategy, who said Europeans can’t even agree on where the money should be invested or who should be in charge.
The news wasn’t all bad. Czechs have made progress in some important areas: corruption is down, for example, and the judicial system is independent and respected. But the government bureaucracy is heavy-handed, expensive, and expanding; distrust in the parliament and political parties is widespread; and neither the government nor the culture encourages entrepreneurs, which hampers the nation’s economic competitiveness.
The societal weaknesses revealed at Aspen’s symposium do more than threaten the nation’s prosperity. They also make it vulnerable to economic and political exploitation by countries such as Russia and China, which has been trying for years to lasso the Czech Republic into its predatory “Belt and Road” strategy.
If there is an overall lesson emerging from the forum for the Czechs (and their neighbors), it is that defending their independence and sovereignty will take more than increased defense spending. It will also require national leaders willing to invest in the future by reducing the heavy hand of the state, teaching their children 21st century skills, and creating entrepreneur-friendly economies that will give them a place to put those skills to work building their nation’s future.
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