Confessions of a Czech… A reply to Edward Lucas

When I read The Economist’s correspondent, Edward Lucas’ Confessions of a Czechophile, in which he subjects the current political and social situation in the Czech Republic to dire criticism and rebukes Czechs for their apathy and passivity, not dissimilar to that of the pre-1989 years, it felt as if I was going through a medical report that diagnosed me with an incurable disease. And my response was like that of a patient, too, exactly in line with psychological textbooks. I was first taken over by denial – Lucas was wrong in so many respects! Next, I became outraged with this “foreigner’s” nerve to lecture us. Then I sat down to the negotiating table, trying to have an impartial look at both the positives and negatives of the post-November development. A depression soon sat in – what if Lucas was right? What if this seasoned journalist, experienced observer and worldly intellectual saw what we were unable to see at home? Is it really so terrible, and are those Poles or Estonians so much ahead of us?

Photo: Edward Lucas (CreativeCommons/TEDxKraków:Ela Żubrowska)

The carnival of revolution

Lucas opens his article Confessions of a Czechophile with personal memories of the times when he was a foreign reporter in the former Czechoslovakia, where he was caught in the whirlwind of the Velvet Revolution in Prague. He sets the greyness, apathy and inertia of the late-normalization against the sudden November outburst of revolutionary activity. As a historian, and also as a person who was 11-years old at that time, I am trying to sympathize with Lucas’s personal attitude, which we all imprint into our work. I understand that the revolutionary months must have been exhilarating, and for a number of people, they came to be the defining experience that shaped their value orientation well into the future. Their parents and grandparents most likely responded to the Prague Spring of 1968 or the end of the WWII in much the same way. I also realize that it may be natural then to measure this experience against everything that followed. Moreover, Lucas was at the beginning of his professional journalistic career and struck with luck with such a scoop to report on.

As a direct participant and enthusiastic admirer of the 17th of November, Lucas appears to be unwilling to accept that the “carnival of revolution”, with all its grand gestures and hopes of change had come to an end – the revolutionary “poetry” had quickly been replaced by commonplace “prose”. When Lucas writes that already in January 1990, he was ‘fed up’, and that it was clear to him ‘the revolutionary magic was ebbing as fast as it had flowed’, one cannot help but add … ‘so what?’ It is natural – coded in the DNA of any upheaval or turn of power – that the dazzling revolution is followed by the establishment of new orders. The ideals encounter everyday realities, and developments deemed too radical may even provoke a corrective backlash.

In assessing the situation, Lucas confines himself to terms such as ‘intoxicating, exhilarating, gloom’, which I would be ready to accept from a weekend tourist, but not from a long-term and informed observer and analyst. In his interpretation the past quarter of a century dissolves into an indefinite time zone, in which the reader does not know which particular events are being referred to. Rushing through the 90s merely stating that ‘far too little was changing’ already borders on intolerable journalistic shortcut. And the evidence? According to Lucas, it is the slow process of coming to terms with the past: ‘The toxic legacy of the StB remained undigested’. Coming to terms with the past was difficult for all countries of the former Soviet bloc and I would not say that the Czech lustration laws displayed a lack of effort to tackle the StB heritage, at least in terms of security and political acceptance. But perhaps we could have drawn lessons from the UK and its “exemplary” approach to coming to terms with some of the darker aspects of its colonial past – select documents were simply destroyed, while others were, until recently, unlawfully concealed from the sight of researchers and the general public.

Lucas is missing a Czech or Slovak counterpart to Joachim Gauck who could ‘help the country deal with the torments of past compromise and betrayal.’ Has he possibly forgotten about the unfortunately prematurely deceased Ján Langoš who led the Slovak Nation’s Memory Institute at the turn of the millennia? Or, despite some of his controversial views, Václav Benda, the director of the Bureau for Investigating the Crimes of the Communist Party in the 90s? Rather than owing to Gauck, East Germans were lucky to receive the moral, institutional and logistical support from their richer and more experienced brother.

Human rights and feelings of guilt

The Czechophile Lucas is also sorry to see the once-prominent Czech concern for human rights protections in the world wane into insignificance. This is true in the sense that after Havel’s departure, the theory and practice of Czech foreign policy has been curved towards greater pragmatism. It is experiencing a “Havelian” and “Klausian” counterrevolution – in the first case, it is breaking away from a purely pro-US and anti-Russian orientation, and in the latter from the anti-EU stance. However, the times enabling the ‘once-stellar concern for human rights’ have changed as well. The American dream of exporting democracy and human rights has been, for various reasons, discredited. The support of anti-regime activities in Tibet, Cuba or Belarus, backed by Havelian charisma and dissident ethos, 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. So, Czech Republic did not risk much; it even proved to be smart PR. Then again, why should now the Czech pragmatists go with their heads against the wall when all European leaders, including David Cameron, hypocritically turn their back on the Dalai Lama? But perhaps we are not entitled to act the same as our Western role models.

Lucas additionally criticizes the Czech Republic and Slovakia for having ‘fallen away from the Atlanticist camp.’ The reason for this should primarily be the low level of spending on defense. From 2009-2013, Czechs and Slovaks allocated 1.1% and 1.0% of their GDP to defense respectively, which is similar to Hungary (0.9%) or Latvia (1.0%), yet significantly below Poland (1.8%) or Estonia (2.0%). These figures certainly provide grounds for caution. In light of the news about the pathetic combat capability of the greatest European country – Germany – who spends an “astronomic” 1.3% of its GDP on defense, one may justifiably ask whether these figures hold any water, and whether those few tenths of percent really exclude us from the Euro-Atlantic community. To the contrary, we may ask if the relation between the level of “Atlanticism” and defense spending should not be just the opposite. Reliance on the US demonstrably brings about a sense of security resulting in postponement of the creation of a genuine European army and hence an increase of effective defense capability of the EU. There seems to be something to that joke in which the more than 500 million Europeans implore the 300 million Americans to defend them against the 150 million Russians!

Moreover, it is somewhat tasteless and inadequate to blame insufficient commitment to Euro-Atlantic values on a country whose soldiers have taken part (and died) in the majority of NATO missions in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq or Pakistan; and whose government a few years ago gambled great political capital against its citizens’ will to place an American radar on its territory, only to later learn that the new US Administration had changed its mind. Such lessons of the Atlantic alliance in practice are not forgotten easily.

One may fully agree with Lucas’ opinions about the weak Czech trace in the EU, including the failed EU presidency in 2009 or the national administration’s modest ability to promote its people and positions within the Union’s bureaucracy. Czech attitude towards the EU has been long-term distant, unexcited and sometimes even unnecessarily critical. Being wholly surrounded by allies, the Czechs have the luxury of enjoying a geopolitical shield. This is not their merit, but neither their fault. For instance Estonia needs the EU and NATO much more urgently – it is almost a question of national survival, and the level of involvement reflects this. The Czechs do not feel about the EU in the same way. However, when Lucas speaks of the ‘dire choice’ of the Czech EU Commissioners it is not quite clear who is on his mind. Is it the main negotiator of the Czech EU accession Pavel Telička, the former Prime Minister Vladimír Špidla, or the professional diplomat Štefan Füle? Or does he refer to the newly designated Věra Jourová, whose choice however – in light of the problems faced by the Hungarian or Slovene candidate – by no means appears to have been dire? Surely, they were no visionaries, no Churchills or Schumans – just regular executive officials. But a “dire choice”?

And then there is the case with Poland. Comparison with our Northern neighbor has long been a favorite pastime of Czech intellectuals, some diagnosing this as “the Polish complex”. Yet, Lucas’ observation that the ‘contrast with Poland’s exhilarating economic and diplomatic ascent is painful’, is not so much proof that the Czechs are lagging behind, as it is a statement about Poland. The country has, after tens and hundreds of years, finally assumed a full-fledged role within Europe and is currently experiencing its pinnacle era. After the historical disasters and geopolitical defeats, Polish membership in the EU and NATO affords it sufficient time and peace to develop into an economic and political power that we would all like to see it be – a healthily confident, humbly responsible and prospering leader of Central and Eastern Europe.

Havel’s orphans

For Lucas, most of the ‘bright spots’ that he acknowledges to have occurred in the context of the Czech transformation were connected to Václav Havel. Klaus, another key characters of the time, is dismissed with a single curt sentence: ‘I found Vaclav Klaus sinister’. Miloš Zeman is not even mentioned. So the cards are dealt clearly from the outset. This is another reason why I dare to include Lucas in the group of so-called “Havel’s orphans”. This is by no means a pejorative label, quite to the contrary. These are the people whose encounter with Havel, his ideas and deeds became a meaningful, if not the determining experience in their understanding of politics. Now they miss him dearly as a politician and a spiritual leader. They keep looking for his reincarnation, not infrequently falling prey to pragmatists who shrewdly misappropriate Havel’s message. The quickest one to make use of Havel’s name to rehabilitate his own reputation was the “coal baron” Bakala, followed by the cunning ex-Christian Democrat Kalousek who, with Havel’s banner above his head, rode on the back of Karel Schwarzenberg to accomplish his political comeback.

It is then logical that after repeated disappointments in identifying a “second Havel”, the above mentioned apathy and resignation have entered the scene, as it was the case in the presidential elections marked by the failure of Havel’s “heir”, Schwarzenberg, in favor of the more popular Miloš Zeman. When politics does not run in line with “Havel’s orphans’” liking, and brings to power the “wrong ones”, argumentation may easily slip to chagrinned phrases such as ‘the ruling elite survives on inertia and its control of resources’, which I would much rather expect in the election rhetoric of one extremely leftist opposition party. This declaration is so flexible and vague that we may readily apply it to Cameron’s Britain, Putin’s Russia or Holland’s France.

Lucas also comments on the so-called anti-corruption movement saying, ‘I fear that the anti-corruption movement has discredited itself’. However, it is not clear what he imagines under this term exactly, or why it should have discredited itself . Is it perhaps a reflection on the lamentations of those who in their sudden anti-corruption ecstasy miss a sufficient number of “godfathers” and bribers behind the bars? When something has been neglected for a long time, setting up new mechanisms and changing attitudes is a long-distance run. The first ones to fall off are those that start doubting and condemning the entire endeavor after the first flop. It is as if Lucas has contracted the typically Czech virus of narrow-mindedness. Or does Lucas resort to the arguments of the jilted Right, who discredited itself in the previous parliamentary term – now watching the unstoppable ascent of oligarch Babiš with envy and disbelief, while moaning that it was their Prime Minister Nečas who released the anti-corruption floodgates, which cost him his own head?

Good-bye, Czechia?

Lucas’s article is, to an extent, a confirmation of the Czech incapability to sell themselves well to the outer world and a failure in what we may call “national PR”. This failure is typical both for the authorities as well as individual politicians who frequently prioritize their own egos over national interest. Unfortunately their voices are loud, and it is often their ill-advised or shortsighted comments that stick in the minds of foreign journalists.

After the phases of denial, anger, bargaining and depression, one should expect acceptance to settle in. Lucas is in many aspects right and the author of this text is the last one to come up with excuses for the negative features of Czech politics, society or national character. However, it is not possible to accept the shortcuts and jumps in argumentation, the double standards or the somewhat patronizing approach to countries of the former Eastern bloc.

In many areas, today’s reality of the political and social life in the Czech Republic suffers from the gradually surfacing consequences of long-term negligence. However, the Czechs do not seem to be ready to simply take it. Despite the low turnout, the results of this October’s municipal elections, in which several civic society movements succeeded against the established powers, proves anything but ‘the apathy and passivity of many Czechs and Slovaks, who do not actively like the way their country is run’. In fact, contrary to Lucas’ perception, they do seem to have the will and ‘the energy to try to change the country’. Lucas concludes that ‘if you are really unhappy – and this is a big change from 1989 – you can always leave’”. So the only difference from 1989 is the option of emigration? Czech citizens however have taken a different approach. There has been no massive outflow to the prospering and booming West – no “Good bye, Czechia”.

Jan Adamec

Jan Adamec

is editor of the V4Revue, historian and political scientist. His area of expertise is the history of Hungary, USSR and Czechoslovakia 1948 – 1957. He graduated from Central European University in Budapest and Charles University in Prague where he currently completes his PhD degree with thesis about the Hungarian uprising in 1956.