Archive | November, 2008

>That Klaus interview – an extract

>And -for anyone interested – here is the key section of that Klaus interview with MF Dnes translated. The full interview (in Czech) can be found here.

“In Lidové noviny it was reported in connection with different views in ODS that a new eurosceptics’ party is to be formed, which has your support and in whose formation people working with you are involved. Is this true?

I’m not aware that anyone working with me has founded a party. It’s been rumoured for several months that a party might enter the elections to the European Parliament next year wishing to focus on these elections, but not wishing to enter the left-right conflicts of Czech politics. But whether there has been a shift from rumour to the real formation of such a party, I don’t know.


It’s rumoured that such a party would be very close to you.

Then I would have to found it [To bych ji musel založit já.]

And are you planning to found it?

Certainly not today. It’s not something I can be forbidden from doing as President, but I don’t aspire to it.

In other words, you think such a party will be formed?

You’re forcing me to guess. I don’t know.

Would you support it if it had a programme which you agreed with?

It’s simply essential that there be a party which views the processes being played out in Europe today realistically and which doesn’t kow-tow to powerful forces abroad [která by nepoklonkovala v uctivém předklonu před mocnějšími za našimi hranicemi]. I would consider such a party extremely necessary in the Czech Republic and anywhere else in Europe. I would definitely support something like that. If I took all the emails I’ve received at the Castle in the last few days responding to my speech before the Constitutional Court in Brno, then such a party could have a reasonable number of members.

Would you join such a party?

I don’t know if I am currently nominally in a party today today.

But you are in ODS

Probably for a few more days yet, yes.

A few more days yet, what does that mean.

You’ll see.

Hang on, does that mean you’re going to leave ODS?

That’s something you can speculate about.”



>Klaus to quit ODS and back new eurosceptic grouping?

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And, as emerges in the daily papers, what Václav Klaus seems to have up his sleeve is the formation of a eurosceptic civic association-cum-party loosely modelled on the Libertas organization of Irish eurosceptic entrepreneur, Declan Ganley, which recently hosted the Czech President in Dublin. The new grouping, which seems likely to be based around the resources and personnel of the well-established Klaus thinktank, the Centre for Economics and Politics (CEPin), and is reported to be considering contesting in next year’s Euro-elections. The provisional name for the project is said to be Libertas.cz, although as this is the web address of a military re-enactment society, which re-stages long lost historic battles (is that an omen?) if the project ever did get legs, the grouping would have to come up with some more obviously resonant name.

The ever cautious Klaus has, it seems, left it to others to develop the project (although his leading thinktankers have all denied doing so) and feed the rumour mill rather in the same way that ex-Social Democrat leader Miloš Zeman has allowed a Friends of Miloš Zeman Society to be set up to promote his (probably non-existent) chances of gaining the Czech Presidency. However – equally characteristically – in an interview with MFDnes Klaus expresses qualified approval for the idea of a new eurosceptic right-wing grouping in Czech politics and when asked about his future in the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) said that he didn’t quite know his membership status (odd, since he is actually Honorary President of the party – apparently he doesn’t have to pay dues so his membership can’t lapse), but will be in it “for a few more days yet”. They can speculate about if that means he is leaving the party he tells them.

There seem to be two immediate factors prompting the very Klausian piece of kite flying: 1) the Constitutional Court’s clearing of the Lisbon Treaty, which Klaus is vehemently opposed to as the first step on the road to an European superstate and extinguishing of Czechs’ right to rule themselves (see his speech to the Constitutional Court for a rehearsal of these now familiar arguments – parliament can now go ahead and ratify it and, despite the government’s minority status and whatever support Klaus might muster from some ODS deputies and senators, both chambers will ratify it by large majorities ; and 2) the increasingly obviously failure of mayor of Prague, Pavel Bém’s attempt to unseat PM Miroslav Topolánek at the Civic Democrats’ forthcoming congress. Bém was backed by Klaus and tried to sound some the right ideological notes with his call for a return to the party’s vote and some out-of-the-blue denunciations of the Lisbon Treaty, but VK’s endorsement is perhaps not a great recommendation to many sections of ODS party , who were, after all, desperate to rid themselves of Klaus in 2002 and with his hasty challenge to Topolánek after the regional and Senate elections clearly overplayed his hand.

With little support outside Prague – and of course, as Topolánek’s surprise election in 2002 and Klaus’s own emergence as leader of Civic Forum way back in 1990 show, it’s the regions that really matter – Bém’s campaign seems doomed. Various political allies have already deserted him and his power base in Prague is said to be crumbling. Some possibly dubious business dealing during his time as mayor, a slightly comic action man image (he took time out to climb Mount Everest) and the various very expensive watches he sported whilst claiming to value a thrifty and modest lifestyle have also done nothing to add to enhance his credibility. His decision to press on with the leadership challenge despite all this and force a vote at the ODS congress as a way of showing political toughness and resolution is interpreted by many as a sign of bad judgement and a quixotic temperament.

What chance does the new Klauspartei have? Well, if we think of it as a revamp of CEPin, it clearly has ideological resources to run a campaign and some basic organization and finance, would garner a lot of interest as a new force associated with the ever magnetic Klaus; and, especially, in a low turnout second order election like a euro-election might pick some chunk of the vote, perhaps 10-20%, who knows? However, despite Klaus’s profile and possible financial pulling power and the ability to perhaps draw in some ODS members, it would – as a small outfit with an annual income of 4.7 million crowns a year in 2007 and we can roughly estimate from its 2007 Annual report about 5-10 million in capital assets. The eStat thinktank originally founded to the reform and reduction public administration, but has recently taken an increasingly eurosceptic turn has also very publicly projected itself as a Czech Libertas and has links with Ganley’s movement. need a very quick injection of cash and organizational fight an effective national campaign. Not impossible – after all Silvio Berlusconi managed it Declan Ganley and his financial backers are said to be willing to put money into a ‘Czech branch’ of Libertas (although – especially if it were formally registered as a party – they would have to be careful to stay on the right side of Czech legislation). But a tall order nevertheless. In loosely comparable circumstances in 1998 the liberal anti-Klaus breakaway, the Freedom Union, lost a lot of momentum because of organizational weakness and problems of internal co-ordination in a four month run-up to election.

But, the experience of the 2002 parliamentary elections suggests, Europe is not a high salience issue for Czech voters and, crucially, most right-wing voters favour steps towards further political integration embodied in the defunct EU Constitution and nowreformulated in the Lisbon Treaty. Topolánek’s argument that pragmatically, Lisbon is the best deal the Czech Republic (any anyone else) can get and that the real choiie is not Prague versus Brussels, but Brussels versus Moscow – an imperfect by functional EU versus creeping Russian influence over fractured, disintegrating Union – is one that is likely to resonate more with many centrist and right-wing voters.

The real issue is perhaps the impact that Libertas.cz might have on the fracturing Czech right. Here the underlying issue is how wide, how ideologically pure and how militant the Czech centre-right should be: Topolánek in his bluff but practical way has worked out that it needs to be broad, pro-market but pragmatic; and work on accomodating itself in a meaningful sway to ocial forces and small parties it can’t shift aside, rather talking the purest Thatcherism and cutting haphazard deals on the side. The then Czech Foreign Minister and ODS Deputy leader Josef Zieleniec reached very similar conclusions in 1996 (and that without the failed intermezzo of trying to be a flat tax crusader that Topolánek inherited from Klaus and tried in 2002-6 – does anyone remember the Blue Chance programme?). Klaus, of course, thinks different and has over the years stirred some potent ingredients into his own distinct ideological brew (climate change denial, forays against multi-culturalism and immigration and so on).

I can’t see any of this taking much root in the CR, beyond perhaps some small and shorted lived minor party. Klaus should perhaps re-read some of his own speeches of the earlier 1990s warning against high faluttin’ ideological waffle and urging hard-headed pragmatism to deliver social and economic change on the ground. Still he may yet do for the Czech right.

Will his ultimate legacy be to destroy the party he created so successfully in 1990-2 ?

Update: HN reports Petr Mach, the Executive Director, of Klaus’s CEPin thinktank as saying that the foundation of Libertas.cz is a dead certainy (hotová věc), but that he has nothing to do with it. He is, however, considering founding a eurosceptic party along with former Klaus aide and ODS founder (now returning to the fold after splitting with VK in the 1990s) Petr Havlík. Their decision will be dependent on how things turn out at the ODS congress. More smoke and mirror? Well perhaps, although apparently, the difference between Mach et al and the initiators of Libertas.cz (whoever they are) is that they want to set up a party capable of contesting the 2010 parliamentary elections, not just a disponsible, one-off formation for the Euro-elections.

>Into the grey

>An interesting up-to-date briefing on population ageing and reform in emerging economies by the Oxford Centre on Ageing appears here.

>Prague diary 2

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I fly into Prague in the evening – there aren’t that many people on the flight and the airport too seems strangely unhurried. One of my fellow passengers immediately gets on to his mobile and starts complaining about the crumminess of Gatwick airport and the unheard of and pointlessly draconian checks on the size of his hand luggage s kterým jsem procestoval půlsvěta.
The smaller, newer and modernized Ruzyne airport does indeed compare pretty favourably, but for some reason, I can’t get my battered old mobile to work, so I can’t tell anyone anything.

(…)

The next day I make my way the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. I had expected some kind of grand and imposing structure in keeping with the well rooted social welfare traditions, but it a large, but fairly unremarkable 19th century building tucked away a few streets away from the Rašin Embankment. For some reason, I always expect government ministries to be full of new furniture and sharp suits, but, as ever, both my interviewees are down-to-earth, business-like and friendly.

(….)

Getting off the tram by the National Theatre, I’m tempted to get out of the icy cold and write up some notes in the Slavia Cafe, the historic haunt of the Prague intelligenstia and in 1980s dissidents, which renovated and re-opened about a decade ago as a tourist trap cum upmarket coffee stop. However, as I go in, I notice the restaurant next door has halušky as dish of the day and my stomach quickly wins out over my intellectual prentensions. Halušky, coffee, mineral water set me back a modest 202 crowns. I flit between writing notes and watching the live coverage of the Constitutional Court’s ruling on the Lisabon Treaty on the TV over the bar. No one else is paying any attention to it. Unsurprisingly, the judges rules unanimously that that it is entirely constitutional and parliament can go ahead and approve. A sour looking Václav Klaus appears on screen saying it was a political decision and he expected it all along. We then get cameos from Prime Minister Topolánek and foreign Minister Schwarzenberg saying it’s a good thing and can we get on and ratify it now. Klaus probably still has a few tricks up his sleeve though, not least because he will have to sign it when the two houses of parliament do ratify it and the Constitution allows him to take his time.

(…)
The Chamber of Deputies has newer décor, but less friendly receptionists. Perhaps they don’t like the political complexion of the person I’ve come to speak to. On the other hand, it is eight in the evening and the remade, updated version of the classic 1980s Czech soap Hospital on the Edge of Town is showing and they’ve probably had a long day. A few people working late drift out. Using my brand spanking new Czech mobile, I finally sort out where I am supposed to be. and meet my interviewee. The parliament is a maze of unlit, sometimes unheated, corridors but eventually we get to the right parliamentary club’s offices, where a deputy gives me some thoughtful views about social policy.

>British politics: Leaked membership lists highlights surban far-right

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I am (briefly) back in the UK. The papers are full stories about the far-right British National Party, prompted by the leaking and posting online of a list of the party’s 12,000 members. There’s a lot a hand wringing about data protection and privacy, although I kind of wonder whether there is actually an argument for Estonian style total transparency about party membership. There they are all legally online.
Although the original site has been taken down, I found the list easily via Wikileaks and looked through to see if anyone I knew was listed (no) and how many BNP members there were in our town (ten – of whom five seemed to using an accomodation address). More interesting politically is the geographical mapping of the party’s membership, which show a large concentration of members not only in London and major conurbations in the North and Midlands, but also in more prosperous and monoethnic suburban and retirement towns along the South Coast.

>Prague diary

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I’m in Prague – doing more interviews with age-oriented NGOs and pensioners’ interest groups. After Brno and Hradec Kralové, Prague at first seems to be terribly crowded and hurried, but after travelling around a bit on bus and metro a bit and making a few arrangements, I quickly realise, that compared to London, the Czech capital and its pace of life is all still on very human scale. Contrasting organizations have contrasting locales: the Život ’90 NGO is headquartered in a cobbled streeton the outskirts of the Old Town, a few metres from a postcard view of Prague Castle across the Vltava. The slightly unreal air is added to when walking a little further down the street after the interview, my wish for an internet café and somewhere to buy groceries are instantly granted. I stand in a queue with some Ukrainian building workers in a oddly old fashioned grocers with all the good behind the counter, then have a cup of coffee, wriite up some notes and check my email in the café. It’s approaching lunchtime, but I’m the only customer.
The office of the retired trade unionist’ organization also has a fantastic panoramic view across Prague from its ninth floor office in the massive communist-ara House of Trade Union. But there any similarities end. The trade union HQ is situated on the historically working class, traditionally bohemian, but now rather down run-down Žižkov district. Ugly on the outside, it size and scale inside are imposing despite its rather faded and worn appearance. More palpable perhaps are the sense of emptiness and inactivity in the wide, dimly lit corridors. The Czech trade union movement is still a force to be reckoned with, but, as my hosts explain over coffee and chlebičky, is in slow decline, meaning the pensioners’ movement needs to hedge its bets and be more than just organiying as the retired wing of the labour movement.

The Economic University is just up the road and, perhaps because of this, there are various cheap shops and cafes nearby. I pop into one for another coffee and a few minutes to collect my thoughts and go over my notes away from the icy rain outside, but succumb to the cheap pizza on special offer (two slices for 80 crowns). I go upstairs to get away from the blaring radio. Ithe upstairs is empty apart from an old lady sitting in the reading Literární noviny, who has also taken advantage of the same special offer. The pizza is excellent.

I head back to my hotel. In the metro some some of the passengers are amused by a bit od neatly written political graffiti

“Co to je za svět?
… komunisté zpět”

They agree, as Czechs always do, that things are indeed going to the dogs. Slightly odd , as Prague is still very much controlled by the right and the Communists are zpět only in five of the country’s 14 regional authorities and only have direct represention in the regional executive in two.

I flop down in front of the a generously sized hotel television, but quickly tire of Euronews and instead watch a historical docu-drama called Kdyby (‘What If’) on ČT2. This week’s counterfactual is what if Czechs had resisted the Munich Agreement in 1938 and fought the Nazi invasion. The programme’s answer is plausible if obvious: they would have lost in a few weeks or months, but gone down albeit fighting with Prague in ruins. Less convincing, is the fact that the main dramatis personnae are a serious of obscure generals: we never see Beneš or the other politicians, who really made the real decisions in 1938 and might – perhaps? – have decided otherwise. It would, for once, also be useful to have some historians’ views interspersing the rather wooden acting and cod 1930s radio annoucements.

>Greys push Serbian coalition for pension hike

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Serbia’s pro-European government has (more) problems because of an obstreperous junior coalition partner. However, it’s not the communists-turned-socialists-turned-nationalists-turned-something-else of the Socialist Party who are the problem, but, reports B92, their allies and sidekicks in the Party of United (or if you prefer Associated) Pensioners (PUPS). And, for once the issue, isn’t nationalism but bread and butter who-gets-what politics that anyone can understand: PUPSs is straightforwardly demanding a big and costly pension hike. Similarly hard bargains have been driven by pensioners’ parties in the newly formed quad-coalition in Slovenia and the now defunct Kadima led administration in Israel.
Update: And, just to update, Earth Times reports that a deal has been signed

“In the end, the smallest partner in the ruling alliance, the pensioners party PUPS, wrangled a concession to keep a 10-per cent increase of pensions that it promised its voters ahead of May polls.

To compensate, [Serbian PM Mirko] Cvetkovic was forced to agree to a freeze in public sector salaries starting immediately and lasting until at least October 2009 – which may lead to protests and strikes.”

A neat illusion of generational politics and the usefulness of a small kingmaker pensioners’ party? Perhaps, although Balkan Insight notes that the deal does involve then freezing pensions in 2009

In Croatia similar pressures linked to an IMF bailout reportedly threatens the Sanader government’s coalition with the (much weaker) Croatian Pensioners’ Party (HSU), although I dare say he may manage a little more easily without the HSU’s one deputy.

>Klaus: Good for Ireland and good for Europe

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No sooner does Václav Klaus turn up in the Irish Republic, hobnobbing undiplomatically with local eurosceptics during a ‘private’ part of his presidential visit then polls appear showing Irish voters may back the Lisbon Treaty. It certainly can’t be because of the ruling party’s ‘Yes’ campaign, whose worthy but soporific efforts can seen by clicking the image above.



So, rather than being the EU’s leading ‘dissident’ as he suggests, a sort of Andrei Sakharov of European integration silenced and held under house arrest in Prague Castle, by totalitarian europhiles, the Czech President, it seems , is be more the Gorbachev of the eurosceptic movement. As soon as he turns up to show a little fraternal encouragement, things go spectacularly belly up Just think Mikhail Sergeyevich’s efforts to promote democratic socialism on visits to China and East Germany in 1989.

>Grey days in the Czech Republic

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I am on the road in the Czech Republic , or rather on the rails – travelling by tram and train – using some study leave and a small grant to do some research on interest groups representing pensioners. It is an unresearched field – indeed, apart from a lot of literature on the American AARP and to a certain extent on the Canadian and Swedish senior movements – there is not a lot even on West European cases. Perhaps a little too under-researched then.

Today I am in Brno. I used to live here, so I know the city reasonably well, although the tram routes have been confusingly changed and it seems impossible to get a cheap cup of coffee anywhere in the city centre. Social policy and social security seem to be the flavour of the month in the Czech Republic just now: the Social Democrats are taking over in the regions rolling back prescription charges wherever they go, sometimes in coalition with the Communists, sometimes with newly pragmatic local Civic Democrats and sometimes alone, but with a little help from the Communists.

The weather is grey and autumnal. Three fully kitted out ice hockey players walk through the city centre, but no one bats an eyelid. I get the tram back to where I am staying to type up my research notes and listen to the man in front complaining that he bought a second hand mobile and the girlfriend of the previous owner keeps ringing him up by mistake.
Tomorrow I go to Hradec Králové.

>Poland: retiring early retirement

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The Warsaw Voice reports protests by trade unionists over the scaling back of early retirement schemes – one of the last remaining special social policies of the transition period intended – some say – to dampen down the possibilty of Latin American style social unrest. Probably the political system is stable enough, the government popular enough, the coffers empty enough and workers in declining heavy industies weak enough to allow this to happen now. Public sector workers may have few unpleasant surprises up their sleeves, but as events last year in Bulgaria showed, no one cares that much if the education system grinds to halt.