A Czechophile responds

I was interested to read Jan Adamec’s critique of my “Confessions of a Czechophile” and would like to offer some belated thoughts in return.

Foto: CreativeCommons/rachuzet

For a start, I should say that as a journalist, my responsibility is to inform the readership, not to play psychotherapist. It was neither my intention to hurt feelings nor to soothe them. The reader who responds with denial, rage or depression to criticism may have his own reasons, good or bad, for feeling that way—but the argument has to be settled with fact and argument, not emotion.

Another factor to bear in mind is that Czechs (along with several other countries with similar historical experiences of marginalisation) are perhaps overly sensitive to what outsiders say about them. An article by an English journalist berating Belgium, Denmark or Sweden (to take three other mid-sized European countries) would be unlikely to attract much attention. Certainly an article by a Czech journalist about Britain would attract none. That may be unfair and even deplorable (and in any case there is not much I can do about it), but it is the way things are.

The first point I want to make about the article in question is that I am not claiming that I was an expert on the region, or the then Czechoslovakia, at the time I was living in Prague in 1989-90. I explicitly noted that I arrived ‘bursting with ignorance’. I can see that it is annoying to be the subject of the attentions of someone inexperienced (nobody wants to be a surgeon’s first patient, either) but all journalists (even Czech ones) have to start somewhere. 1

I also think that my point about the revolution’s temporary glow has been misunderstood. It was indeed exhilarating (a judgment which is widely shared by others who experienced it). But my somewhat cautious and gloomy attitude from the months before the revolution was my main framework for analysis, and I reverted to it afterwards. I thought—and think—that the Velvet Revolution was a glorious exception to the general run of politics. On this Adamec and I agree. Life is full of nice surprises and inevitably they are followed, for the most part, by disappointment.

On the subject of lustration, I meant no disrespect to Ján Langoš and Václav Benda by not mentioning them by name. But at the time I left, the dismantling of the StB was clearly proceeding too slowly, and the rolling up of KGB and GRU networks not at all. That was grounds for gloom. In retrospect, it looks justified. The “lustration” process has been sadly incomplete. It has not prevented StB collaborators from holding high office, as we now see all too clearly. Other countries have done better on this. My StB file was “skartovani”. My Stasi file was not.

I am particularly sorry to see Adamec resort to the hackneyed tactic of “whataboutism”. I am a long-time campaigner against excessive government secrecy in my own country and others. I am the first to criticise British official duplicity and the many shameful things which my country has done in Europe and elsewhere in past decades. If I were defending Britain, then Adamec would be justified in highlighting an inconsistency between what I attack abroad and accept at home. But I am not, so his point is unfair and irrelevant.

I agree that I did not devote much space to the history of the 1990s. These events are rather boring to most readers and were not the point of the article.  What I was trying to do was to highlight some limited but I think interesting similarities between life before November 1989 and the political and social climate now. I left in 1990 feeling rather gloomy about the country’s future, and 24 years I think that gloom was to some extent justified.

I am baffled by Adamec’s argument on human rights. Havel and his friends defended Tibetans, Cubans and others because of a conviction that their cause was just. Adamec argues that this was ‘not so much an idealistic but rather a pragmatic and non-controversial choice, as these regimes ranked high on the official Euro-Atlantic list of the “evil” doers.’ I think that is simply untrue. Other deeply Atlanticist countries did not do the same.

Tibetans, to take a particular example, were deeply grateful for Czech support. Now they see that the Czech leadership is no longer willing to risk Chinese wrath on their behalf. That’s sad. Again Adamec resorts to “whataboutism” by pointing out that David Cameron is scared to meet the Dalai Lama. My answer to that is ‘so what?’ The Czech Republic used to hold the high ground on human rights. Now it has dropped to the level of the United Kingdom. That is surely grounds for sorrow. Of course Czechs are “entitled” to act as badly as the British do. Every country can make its own choices. But they do not necessarily have to take the cowardly and cynical option.

I would make a similar point on defence spending. German defence spending is deplorably low (and what Germany does spend goes mostly on the wrong things). That weakens European security. But it does not excuse the Czechs and Slovaks (or Latvians or Lithuanians) scrimping on defence. They are the ones at risk, who are asking other countries to send their men and women to die for them—and risk World War Three. They should show that they take their own defence seriously if they want others to do so too. I entirely agree that Europe relies too much on America. It should do more. But European security will not thrive if the frontline states appear careless about the threat.

This shift away from Atlanticist commitment is indeed all the more striking given the Czech and Slovak contribution to, and sacrifice in, the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. America certainly took Atlanticist sentiment too much for granted and the decision to cancel the radar was clumsy and damaging. But in the end, the question is about what Czechs feel about their own security and sovereignty. Are you willing to help Ukraine, deter Russia and defend Europe? President Zeman, to put it mildly, is not enthusiastic. The Czech government has not covered itself in glory either. The Czech people—despite the demonstration on November 17th—do not seem to be exerting great political pressure on their leaders for a chance of course. More justified grounds for gloom there.

Then we come to the EU. Perhaps I was too harsh on Vladimír Špidla. But it is not good enough to say that the Czechs can afford disengagement and dilettantism. One of the great posters of the Velvet Revolution was “Zpet do Evropy” showing a ladder leading up a cliff which cut across a map of Europe. Well, you got there but then have not made the most of it. Others did better, from far more difficult starting points. In particular the Czech Republic had a notably more advantageous starting point than Poland. It had (a far) better infrastructure, no foreign debt, harmonious industrial relations and a relatively competitive economy. So why, after 25 years, has progress been so much less good? The Baltic states started from an even more difficult position and—especially Estonia—have streaked ahead. Posing the question is not a sign of neurosis. I would like to hear Adamec’s own thoughts on Czech relative underperformance.

My remark about Václav Klaus as “sinister” was my assessment in 1990. However his baffling (and inconsistent) pro-Putin and anti-EU stance, his peculiar temper tantrums and unsavoury associates have given me no reason to revise that judgment.

I do not understand the point about ‘Havel’s people’, which is based on supposition and outright error. As it happens I was the first journalist to write about Zeman when he made a public break with the regime in the weeks before the revolution. He has been to my flat and drunk my whisky. Though I was a friend of Havel’s I was not a close one (no visit, no whisky). I didn’t see him much after 1990. Though he liked my books and was kind enough to endorse them, I was rather critical of him as president. I admit I was sorry that Karel Schwarzenberg (another friend, though again not a close one) did not win the presidency. But I wrote a rather complimentary piece about Zeman when he first took office. It is available via Google.

One of the most annoying reactions to criticism is the call for “better PR”. The Czech Republic has a good image—better than it deserves, I’d say. It has great foundations because Prague is beautiful, Smetana tuneful and Kundera readable. Czechs enjoy the services of excellent, energetic diplomats. But the way to deal with shortcomings is not better messaging. It is to rectify the problems.

My main contention was this:

The apathy and passivity of many Czechs and Slovaks I meet reminds me poignantly of 1989. They do not actively like the way their country is run. The ruling elite survives on inertia and its control of resources; true believers in its virtues are non-existent. But for most people the daily struggle to maintain a decent life is exhausting. People do not have the energy to try to change the country. And if you are really unhappy – and this is a big change from 1989 – you can always leave.

I think this is true. Opinion polls show that Czechs are unhappy with the way the country is run. If we had had opinion polls pre-1989 they would surely have shown the same. But mounting a challenge was hard then (because of active political repression) and it is hard now (because of entrenched, lucrative cartel-like arrangements in national politics). I agree that there has been no mass emigration from the Czech Republic (though a lot from Slovakia) but my point was that even a small amount of emigration acts as a safety valve. That is a big difference from the ČSSR.

I do not want to get into the intricacies of Czech politics (I am no expert) but I do think that the spirit of “Defenestrace” and “Vymente politiky” has clearly abated. The role of Kalousek, mentioned by Adamec, exemplifies the point I was trying to make. There were high hopes for TOP 09. They proved largely groundless.

Adamec points out the encouraging results of local elections. I completely agree. That is why I wrote:

The best hope may be individual honest politicians in local government showing that it is possible to make changes.

In short: I am happy to be accused of short-cuts. Writing readable pieces of a manageable length always involves leaving things out. I am glad if in this longer article I have filled in some of the gaps. But I dispute the claim that I was patronising, unless it is impermissible for foreigners to make any criticism at all.


  1.  As a footnote, I should point out that I was not exactly ‘at the beginning of my professional career’. I was 27 and had been working as a journalist since 1984. I had worked in Northern Ireland during a nasty period in the troubles, covered Yugoslavia fairly thoroughly, lived and studied in Poland, been a senior producer and presenter in the BBC World Service current affairs department, and then worked as the BBC’s Berlin correspondent. I am sure I could have been more expert, but I think by the standards of the time it was not an affront to decency that I set up shop in Prague. 
Edward Lucas

Edward Lucas

is a senior editor at The Economist, the world’s foremost newsweekly. His expertise includes energy, cyber-security, espionage, Russian foreign and security policy and the politics and economics of Eastern Europe. He is also a senior fellow and contributing editor at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).