On whataboutism and Czech underperformance

The discussion with Edward Lucas on why we compare ourselves with the West, what lies beneath the turn in Czech foreign policy and what might be the sources of alleged Czech underperformance continues.

Photo: Flickr.com/Valentina


I am glad that Edward Lucas replied 1 to my reaction 2 to his Confessions of a Czechophile. 3 His reply made some things clearer to me and in some aspects confirmed that our views of certain issues remain disparate. In response to Lucas’ claim that his responsibility is to “inform the readership” and not “play psychotherapist.” I would like to point out in advance that I do not expect Lucas to become the psychotherapist of my Czech soul. My opening paragraph was intended more as an ironic, casual introduction rather than a description of the author’s actual state of mind. I did not want to act as an irritated Czech ready to chase the critical foreigner over the border with a stick in his hand. Especially when, as the editor of the Czech section of the V4Revue, I frequently review articles documenting the elites’ incompetence, corruption or ignorance in the face of global or pan-European phenomena. Even less do I call, as Lucas suggests, “for ‘better PR.’”

Nevertheless, it would be foolish to deny that a cognisant observer perceives a discourse on the problems of his own country more sensitively – be it due to merciful self-delusion or a belief that he has a better understanding of the context and is more aware of the facts, which admittedly could problematize the given opinion. It is also true that small nations are undoubtedly touchier and more sensitive to what foreigners say about them. We often imagine ourselves as champions and any contrary view is like a cold shower to our perceived glory. Displeased reactions serve to cover up our insecurity and low self-esteem.

We do not make it to the pages of the leading global media often and when we do, it is in relation to some embarrassing or downright condemnable incident, be it a presidential pocketing of a pen, or a xenophobe’s advice to walk pigs to the mosques. 4 If there is one thing that has remained our oppressive legacy of the 20th century (and by that I do not mean only the Communist regime but also the previous WWII and post-war periods), it is the lack of capacity to think critically and confront our opinions in a cultured manner.

I am sorry that my comparison of Czech society coming to terms with its communist history and Great Britain’s efforts to obscure its colonial past came across like the old Soviet joke, when Moscow responded to the US’s criticism of its regime with a “well you beat up your black men.” 5 Germany and the UK are fortunate to have been able to cultivate their political cultures and democratic institutions for a somewhat longer time than we have. If I refer to them, and occasionally resort to the said “whataboutism”, I do so, at least in my eyes, for good reasons.

As newcomers to the European Union we perceived these countries, and I believe some of us still do, as role models. We admired Germany’s economy, functioning bureaucracy, political culture and ability to come to terms with its burdensome totalitarian past; as well as the UK’s openness, cosmopolitanism, and ability to debate and accept the opinions of others. In my view, it is then natural to ask how the Germans or Britons approach some of their own issues. And it is quite a disappointment to see that when it comes to similar problems – that is, coming to terms with the oppressive legacy of the immoral or straight-out criminal acts of their own past regimes – the democratic Western governments acted much like the Communist ones, destroying evidence and concealing their histories. Not to mention the fact that this was happening until relatively recently, and not only in response to the “justified” threat of the Cold War.

Perhaps these are still the residues of self-deception inherited before 1989, when the official propaganda from Moscow painted everything exclusively in rosy colors. People did not trust this and thus an opposite automatism was elaborated, in that all that came from the West was thought to be positive and pretty much beyond criticism. Lucas speaks of the UK’s failures with the confidence of a person who has been able to track these controversies and debates from their very outset. However, for some of us, they are an unpleasant revelation.

Unfinished lustration

Speaking of the past, let’s have a look at one specific topic: Lucas claims that the Czech lustration was “…sadly incomplete,” and goes on to say that, “it has not prevented StB collaborators from holding high office, as we now see all too clearly.” The main objective of the lustration was to preserve the nascent democratic regime and safeguard its key institutions, especially those addressing security, from infiltration by the former regime cadres. In this respect, the Czech lustration laws seem to have fulfilled their primary purpose. 6 In international comparison, they belong to the most rigorous ones. 7

If we speak of an “incomplete” lustration a quarter of a century after 1989, we must determine when the process becomes complete. What is the target state? Does it entail the life-long prohibition of all functionaries and representatives of the former regime from public offices, including those who collaborated with the StB, or are suspect of such collaboration? It was none lesser than Václav Havel and his dissident colleagues such as Petr Uhl or Anna Šabatová whose attitudes towards the lustration acts were more than reserved; they considered them to be only a temporary solution to protecting the revolution. As president, Havel vetoed their prolongation, expressing his view that democratic principles – which encompass the rejection of the collective blame that was embedded in the lustration laws by default – were superior to the requirements to protect democracy’s fragility, however legitimate these might have been. If he had his way, lustration would have been abolished long ago and there would have been no legal obstacles preventing the former members and collaborators of StB from entry into politics. The fact that the governing coalitions – both Left and Right – decided to maintain lustration at least points to an effort to come to terms with the communist past. As such, it is in itself an important argument against the label of a ‘sadly incomplete’ lustration.

Lustration is a process that could not have been planned and very few knew how it was going to look in 10, 15 or 20 years. If we understand it in Havelian logic as a protective tool or a necessary evil for the stabilization of the democratic regime, then abolishing it should have been followed by societal and moral discourse. Such moments call for civic society to rise and subject the past to a critical discussion. Czech society has been, and still is, trying to undergo such a reflection, some more successful than others. Thus, if StB collaborators – be it the real or alleged ones – suddenly enter the political scene, it is not so much the problem of an unsuccessful lustration but rather the result of the voters’ willingness to tolerate it.

Changing of guards

The change in Czech foreign policy, including a revision of the earlier strategy and priorities derived from the Havelian concept, is an undeniable fact. Different views of foreign policy are coming to the forefront, embodied by Petr Drulák, Secretary of the current Foreign Minister Zaorálek. But as I see it, he does not criticize Havel’s understanding of human rights out of an utter disagreement – it is more a rejection of the belief that it would lead to a significant improvement of Czech Republic’s reputation. 8 In line with the post-Bush era critique of neoliberal interventionism, the goal of which should have been to spread democracy, Drulák condemns the “false universalism” that a certain group used to paint the image of an ideal society that they then tried to force upon everyone else. 9

I personally do not agree with Drulák on this; freedom and human rights are universal and it would be great if everyone had the chance to enjoy them like we do in Europe. But building free societies – and this is what Drulák is referring to – is not possible without the basic fundamentals of modern civilization where political rights and freedoms must be complemented with social and environmental rights. 10 Or as the historian, Pavel Kolář, said, the problem could lie in the fact that the previous foreign policy “ignored social rights while focusing solely on political rights, but the latter cannot function effectively without the former.” 11 It took Europe the entire 19th century and two disasters before even a part of it achieved the state of that “ideal” society, which could be entitled to teach others – if they were interested, that is.

It is also questionable whether the Czech Republic “used to hold the high ground on human rights” at all, as Lucas puts it. The former Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg claimed that human rights promotion was the priority of Czech foreign policy since 1990 and it was something that made the Czech Republic famous. Yet, when confronted by the interview host with statistics on arms exports, he turned into a pragmatist defending the cooperation with Saudi Arabia – a valued ally. “Life is not ideal,” he confessed when he was forced to admit that he awarded a civic activist during his visit to Azerbaijan, the same year that the Czech Republic shipped that country “security equipment” such as tear gas, that could be used against anti-government protesters.  12

Lucas used the word “sad” when stating that the Czech government was, “no longer willing to risk Chinese wrath on their behalf.” Similarly, Carl Gershmann reproached Czech President Zeman for having distanced himself from Havel’s legacy when, during a visit to China, he completely ignored the issue of human rights and, “accepted China’s position on Tibet and Taiwan.” 13 I am no expert on China, but even I have noticed that in the past 25 years relations towards them have changed dramatically all over the world, and the attitude held by Havel in 1990 is no longer applicable in 2015. Havel’s relationship with the Dalai Lama was very personal. They were close friends and spiritually connected, which also must have affected their official relations; and contemporary Czech politicians do not have the same rapport with him.

In this sense, Havelian foreign policy must be understood in the context of Havel’s personal transformation from a dissident and engaged intellectual into a politician. Frequently those who speak of Havel refer to the 90s, when his charisma and reputation truly seemed to be the best “brand” for the Czech Republic. Havel’s attitudes stemmed from his personal beliefs and experiences with the Communist regime and he became a moral symbol, the epitome of the 1989 revolution. 14 These were also the times of the victorious Cold War, Euro-Atlantic optimism, and a satisfying “end of history.” However, others thinking about the latter part of the 90s and the first decade of the new millennium have another Havel in mind: a Havel worn-out by domestic disputes and necessary compromises; a Havel transformed into a statesman defending the interests of his country – by then a member of the EU and NATO, and a US ally; a Havel who appeared to have had retired the critical intellectual within 15 and who was best described by his very own movie, Leaving (2011).

Lucas condemns my argument about Cameron doing the same (accepting China´s view on Tibet) as unacceptable whataboutism and concludes that, “Czechs are ‘entitled’ to act as badly as the British do.” As I stated earlier, I do not identify with foreign policy assessment from a moral perspective, but from a pragmatic point of view. I would have agreed with Lucas had he used the word “unwise” instead of “badly”. Olga Lomová, a renowned Czech expert on Czech-Chinese relations made exactly this observation in an article published by the V4Revue in October last year. She argued that an automatic stance towards China from the position of inferiority based solely on the size of the economies of the two countries is a grave mistake and that the Czech representation’s blind acceptance of the Chinese leaders’ claims is shortsighted. Lomová notes that the Czech Republic is willingly, “throwing away the legacy of Václav Havel and the human rights agenda,” yet, in her opinion, this is not a problem because it is “bad”. Instead, she sees this as a misguided tactical move, in which the country deprives itself of a place at the discussion table: “the eager acceptance of the Chinese policy of non-criticism of its internal affairs devalues the CR as an equal partner in diplomatic relations with China.” 16

Lomová stresses that in negotiations with China it is essential to know what the Chinese need and expect from doing business with the West. They are interested in our historical experience with political and economic transformations, from the Prague Spring of 1968 and Charter 77 to the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and the consequent division of Czechoslovakia in 1993 – all that in a peaceful, non-violent manner enabling stable growth of the economy and social cohesion. 17 The question of dealing with freedom and human rights played an important role in all of this, and in this context, the Czech insistence on the topic would confirm that the Czech Republic is in a position as a discussion partner with something to offer.

A divided society

The timing of this redefinition of foreign policy priorities, natural in any democratic system, is not exactly fortunate. The crisis in Ukraine is in full swing now and we are in a new Cold War with Russia. Therefore Lucas’ question about whether the Czechs are willing, “to help Ukraine, deter Russia and defend Europe,” is quite legitimate. Lucas observes that the Czech people do not seem to be, “exerting great political pressure on their leaders for a chance of course,” in what he sees as an unenthusiastic and inglorious reaction to the threat of Russia´s intervention.

To be quite honest, Czechs do in fact tend to quickly cope with the unsettling challenges of foreign policy with the traditional, “that does not concern us,” and a, “we’ll manage somehow.” To a certain extent, this might be the average Czech’s strategy resulting from historic lessons which was also criticized by Gershmann with a reference to Havel when he said: “we’re surrounded by mountains, those whirlwinds from the outside world will blow over our head.” 18 Thus civic engagement, whether with respect to the outer or inner world, has often been encouraged by some disturbance or strong leader such Masaryk or Havel, who with their knowledge, charisma and vision, could surpass the domestic “slow waters”. Such a leader is now missing and for the time being, we have to make do with more or less competent politicians – pragmatists who may be able to score on the home turf but do not have the skills to effect a larger impact.

To make it worse still, the lack of leadership is complemented by a deep division of society into two antagonistic camps that are not listening to each other. For one camp the last direct presidential election signified an extension of the struggle for Václav Havel’s legacy, while for the other, it offered a chance to express their dissatisfaction with the current state of politics and Right-wing government. The election brought Miloš Zeman to Prague Castle and fully exposed the brutal chasm in Czech society, which does not merely copy the Right-Left divide; it appears to be much more profound, containing a number of further separating lines, especially those social, economic and cultural in nature. 19 Some authors excuse the voices speaking against the EU and the US, and at the same time for Russia and Putin, like those of Václav Klaus and Miloš Zeman, because they are targeting primarily domestic audiences with the aim of uniting their followers, showing them that their leaders back strong opinions. Because the presidential office in the Czech Republic does not hold any real powers, attributing any value to such statements is pointless: “the post of Czech president is purely ceremonial.” 20 I do not agree with this – the office of the president has a tradition in the Czech politics, from Masaryk to Beneš, Gottwald, Novotný, Husák or Havel, and the recent change of the election procedure have even increased its symbolical significance. Klaus, Zeman and in the end even Havel’s misfortune is the that they have understood their office to be another form of governing instead of a symbolic representation of their country; as an inseparable aspect of daily executive politics as opposed to an institution standing above politics.

This internal antagonism is then also reflected in the perception of foreign-policy issues, often in the form of rather incomprehensible attitudes. As Jan Čulík explains, “(m)any Czechs are irritated by the sustained anti-Russian propaganda in the Prague media, which often borders on racism, and as a reaction to this they tend uncritically to support Putin.” 21

Driving to half throttle

Lucas invites me to comment on the reasons the Czech Republic is lagging behind its peers. To be able to state unambiguously that the Czech Republic’s progress has been significantly slower than that of Poland or, say, Estonia would require a more extensive analysis focusing on specific indicators with clearly set benchmarks. Without facts and figures, we would slip into a useless exchange of impression-based statements, and I prefer to refrain from this. We do know that the Czech Republic ranks 37th out of 144 countries in the world and 2nd out of the 10 new member states of the EU 22 in 2014-15’s overall Global Competitiveness Report. 23

Of course, there are a number of long-standing problems that really do limit or even prevent this country from adequately moving forward. We could start with weak participation in political life. This applies not only to elections but also to membership in political parties, which then easily fall prey to average talent in better cases, or political gold-diggers in the worst ones. 24 The outcome is corruption and nepotism. In this respect, we may consider the influx of EU money from the structural and cohesion funds a curse that gave birth and sustenance to a number of corrupt regional networks, resulting in series of “ghosts”, or redundant and overpriced “memorials”. 25  Politics is not attractive for younger generation, and thus new ideas are stiffled and we’re left with dinosaurs setting the agenda and recycling old concepts that are some 20 years behind the schedule. We are free to think anything we want about Zeman and Klaus, yet in this respect, one cannot deny their political talent and determination.

A relatively new threat for the Czech Republic arises from the growing oligarchization, because the country and its economic (and hence political) resources are parceled out between several groups whose power is limited only by the power of the other groups. The danger lies above all in the vertical linking of economic, political and medial powers, which is best symbolized by Finance Minister Babiš. 26  In a number of industries, such as telecommunications, large corporations managed to achieve a comfortable state of oligopoly instead of a competitive environment, which inevitably leads to overpriced services and technological obsolescence. The situation is especially desolate in the areas that call for a strong, proactive state such as the buildup of infrastructure.

In the past 20 years, we let ourselves be seduced by the illusion of the “lesser ”, “cheaper” or “leaner state” mottos, which resulted in a misguided understanding of the relationship between the state and the market. A free, liberal market does not require a weaker, but rather a stronger functioning state. Yet in our case, we see oligopoly and an uninhibited cooperation between corporations to the detriment of the customer in the areas that should be governed by the free market and harsh competition; whereas in sectors where the state should impose its monopoly, we find an arena cleared for political entrepreneurs. It is as if we are doing everything upside down: we are being pragmatic in situations calling for idealism, while in the moments that require realism and a ruthless pursuit of one’s goals, we remain naïve.

 

Notes:

  1. Edward Lucas, A Czechophile Responds, V4Revue.
  2. Jan Adamec, Confessions of a Czech… A Reply to Edward Lucas, V4Revue. 
  3. Edward Lucas, “Confessions of a Czechophile.” Kritický text Edwarda Lucase, 25 September 2014.
  4. The President of the Czech Republic (2003 – 2013) Václav Klaus was caught on cameras taking a pen during his state visit to Chile in April 2011. Tomio Okamura is a Czech entrepreneur whose party — Tomio Okamura’s Dawn of Direct Democracy — got 342 339 votes (6.88%) in the 2013 parliamentary elections. The Washington Post quoted him: „As part of his recommendations, Okamura, 42, suggested that Czechs “breed dogs and piglets as pets and walk them near their neighborhoods and mosques.““ Ishaan Tharoor, Japanese-born politician tells Czechs to walk pigs near mosques, 5.1.2015, The Washington Post.
  5. Lucas: „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.“
  6. Since 1991, 466 753 lustrations were carried out in line with the Act no. 451/1991 – 10 178 with a positive result, 456 575 with a negative one.  A total of 24 503 cases were lustrated based on the Act no. 279/1992, with 475 of them evaluated as positive and 24 028 negative. 
  7. David Kosař, “Lustration and Lapse of Time: ‘Dealing with the Past’ in the Czech Republic,” Eric Stein Working Paper No. 3/2008. 
  8. Kateřina Šafaříková, Havlova politika byla chybná a škodlivá (Havel’s policy was wrong an harmful), Lidové noviny, 30 May 2014, p. 4
  9. Ibid.
  10. For a detailed analysis of the recent shift of the Czech foreign policy see Lucia Najšlová, “A clash of selective empathies: human rights and the West in Czech foreign policy“, 14 July 2014, Inside V4.
  11. Pavel Kolář, Čecháček boží a hříchy světa (The Czech of God and the sins of the world), Lidové noviny, 10 January 2015, p. 19.
  12. An interview with the former Minister of Foreign Affairs Karel Schwarzenberg on arm deals. Šéf TOP 09: Dodat zbraně zemi porušující lidská práva nevadí (The Head of TOP 09: It is ok to deliver arms to countries infringing human rights), DvTv, 13 November 2014. I would like to gratefully acknowledge Lucia Najšlová for pointing out to this interview and also for her argument on Czech arm export to Saudi Arabia.
  13. Opinions: Carl Gershman: Are Czechs giving up on moral responsibility?, The Washington Post, 16 November 2014. 
  14. Jan Čulík, Why Washington Needs to Get Over Vaclav Havel, Foreign Policy, 11 January 2015.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Olga Lomová, The Czech Republic and the People’s Republic of China. “Good old” relations restarted?”, V4 Revue, 20 October 2014.
  17. Olga Lomová: Naše zahraniční politika vůči ČLR (Our foreign policy towards the PRC), Deník Referendum, 6 December 2014.
  18. Opinions: Carl Gershman: Are Czechs giving up on moral responsibility?, The Washington Post, 16 November 2014.
  19. Jan Čulík, Why Washington Needs to Get Over Vaclav Havel, Foreign Policy, 11 January 2015.
  20. Ibid.
  21.  Ibid.
  22. Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia.
  23. The Global Competitiveness Report 2014–2015 „…assesses the competitiveness landscape of 144 economies, providing insight into the drivers of their productivity and prosperity. The Report series remains the most comprehensive assessment of national competitiveness worldwide.“ 
  24. Zdeněk Kudrna: Kupme si demokratické strany (Let’s buy democratic parties), 19 September 2014.
  25. FrankBold: “Public money and corruption risks: A comparative analysis,” 2013. 
  26. Jan Adamec: Who Owns the Czech Media?, V4Revue, 5 February 2014.
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.