Archive | December, 2008

>From Citizen Havel to Citizen Klaus

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It’s little depressing that Czech politics is as far as the mainstream West European media is concerned is Václav Klaus and little else. To emphasize the point BBC Radio 4 gives us a polished , accurate and listenable documentary 15 minute documentary on Klaus in its Profile slot, but airbrushes the rest of Czech politics and some far more important, but personally less magnetic, Czech movers and shakers from our attention. Indeed, not a single currently active Czech politician gets interviewed in this eve of the Czech EU Presidency special.

Václav Havel, however, also still gets a media look-in sometimes, coincidently, the same evening I also at last get a free moment to watch the DVD of Občan Havel (Citizen Havel), the epic documentary following Václav Havel at close quarters over the decade he spent as Czech President from 1993 to 2002. The director Pavel Koutecký, who died before work on the film was completed ,has close access to Havel and we see some interesting behind the scenes stuff: Havel’s thoughts about whether to stand for the Presidency of the soon to emerge Czech Republic having resigned as Czechoslovak President in mid-1992 as it became clear the federation would disintegrate; numerous strategy meetings with advisors over beer and Becherovka (Head of the Presidential Chancellory Ivan Medek emerges as suprisingly politically astute and forceful) ; the President nipping off the a crafty cigarettel the constant minutiae of dress, appearence and protocol; a few pointed remarks from Havel in the mid-1990s about the petty bourgeois provincialism of the (right-wing) political elites running the CR and and some pointed quips about then Prime Minister) Klaus (Advisor: “If he asks for a second option, what will you suggest?”, Havel: “Resignation”).

We also get the big political and personal moments in Havel’s life: his election and re-election as President in 1993 and 1998; the death of his first wife Olga; his own cancer; re-marriage to Dagmar Veskrnková; the Rudolfinum speech laying into the record of the Klaus government; the electoral victory of the Social Democrats.

It’s all rather free form, overlong and uneven, however: too many shots of presidential dog(s) lapping up bowls of water on the margin of major press conferences. And, I suspect, even Czech viewers with an interest in politics will have been left struggling in places to work out which events are going on and when. There’s also little in the way of access to real political decisions; the closest we come are some scenes of Havel’s consultations with party leaders after the deadlocked 1996 election (“I wish [Christian Democrat leader, Josef] Lux was premier, he’s someone you can deal with”) and here, some pompous and patronizing acting for the cameras by Social Democrat leader Miloš Zeman in his meeting with Havel is the closest we get to seeing the Czech politicsal process unfold.

As a personal portrait of Havel (no mere citizen, of course) it’s ultimately rather unrevealing: Havel didn”t like formality, but manged the role of Head of State role; liked a drink and a cigarette; had passable, basic English; was indeed too much of a intellectual, given to viewing politics in philosophizing and moralizing vein; was politically hostile to Václav Klaus; got a bit distracted by symbolic issues like the re-opening of the Slavia cafe ; had limited political power; was a basically decent and popular President.

I look forward to watching Citizen Klaus in 2013 or so…

>Too many cooks don’t spoil political broth, say Israeli leaders

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Another interesting article in the Jerusalem Post, this time about arguments from the country’s politicians, that, contrary to received opinion, the proliferation of small, short-lived, single-issue/interested based parties in Israel is good for democracy

>Israel pensioners party banks on stars

>The Jerusalem Post reports that the leader of Israel’s fractious pensioners party GIL has replaced its current MPs as with celebrities/personalities on the party’s electoral list for the forthcoming Knesset elections. Polls suggest GIL will at best gain two MKs. Reports from STA suggest that Slovenia’s pensioners party DeSUS is also taking a beating in the polls only months after its record near 8% score in the country’s elections. However, this may be part of the new left-wing coalition’s sudden drop in popularity.

>If I only had a brain…

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In the wake of a not too well received panto last year, this year he theatre Royal Brighton has the Wizard of Oz as its big festive show . For copyright reasons, they stick closely to the film script with only a few panto-ish touches supplied by producer (the Good Witch of the North looked suspiciously like a Good Fairy) and audience (the Wicked Witch of the East got roundly boo-ed on every appearance).
“You’ll be blown away” the poster said. Well, not quite. But it was a good time was had by all. My daughter and my niece knew the story and liked the songs, munchkins, flying monkeys, melting witches and other fairytale stuff. I liked it, of course, Wizard of Oz is actually a political allegory. A populist parable about the advance of financial and industrial capitalism in the late 19th/early 20th century US and a covert pre-Keynesian appeal for economic reflation by issuing currency backed by silver (as well as gold). As Hugh Rockoff of Rutgers University explains in The Journal of Political Economy (98: 739-60, 1990) Dorothy represents traditional rural American values, Toto the Teetotalers, an influential compoenent in the US Populist movement, the Scarecrow the farmers; the Tin Man the industrial workers; the Cowardly is Lion William Jennings Bryan the Populist Democratic and unsuccessful four time presidentiial candidate; the Munchkins are the citizens of the East Coast the Wicked Witch of the East is Democrat Grover Cleveland; the Wicked Witch of the West is Republican politician and later US President William McKinley; the Wizard Marcus Alonzo Hanna, chairman of the Republican Party; the Yellow Brick Road is the gold standard; Oz is, of course, the abbreviation for an ounce of gold (or anything else).

Others see the 1939 film, a Depression era musical concoction with multiple writers which drew on various of the many Wizard of Oz books written by L. Frank Baum earlier in the century, as a a satire on the New Deal and the technocratic Keynesian fixes it (the fraudulent Wizard adulated by the people being FDR, whose magic is less effective than good ol’ family and rural values that finally will Dorothy back to Kansas). And, of course, there are more recent parallels. Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s devasting reportage of the inadequacies and self-delusion of US occupation administrators cocooned in Iraq’s Green Zone, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, also has a WoOZ allusion (Is George W. the Scarecrow or the Wizard, though?).

For anyone interested, there’s an excellent overview of economic, political and religious allegories in the WoOZ by Quentin P. Taylor of Rogers State University, as well as a Wikipedia article on the same subject, and useful hub site with links to various critics’ essays here. And, if you’re really interested there’s also an academic book on the subject: Ranjit S. Dighe (ed.) The Historian’s Wizard of Oz — Reading L. Frank Baum’s Classic as a Political and Monetary Allegory, (Praeger Publishers, 2002). Wow.

In truth, however I was most taken with bit of social satire at the end when the Wiz tells the Scarecrow not to too worry about his lack of brain:

“Why anybody can have a brain – a very mediocre commodity. ( … ) Back where I come from we have universities – seats of great learning – where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts, and with no more brains than you have. But – they have one thing you haven’t got – a diploma!’. “

He then awards the Scarecrow a Th.D., Dr. of Thinkology (Mind you, only an honorary one. – nothing too unethical here). Not sure if this is promoting wider participation in higher education drawing attention to the problem of degree inflation or just a good of populism anti-intellectual smack in the face. Still, I laughed anyway and was still smiling when forked out for some very overpriced magic wands on the way out…

Update: And, for anyone, who doesn’t like political and social allegory, there is a more or less politics-free radio essay on the Wizard of Oz, by Salman Rushdie for next week here on the BBC Radio 4 website.

>Topolánek: From TotalPolitics to total meltdown?

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TotalPolitics.com very flatteringly email me to ask for posts to the survey they have carried out among MEPs. A ‘staggering’ 70 per cent of British and Irish MEPs and the majority of MEPs across Europe believe they are less respected than their domestic legislators. I was less than staggered.
Rather more interesting, however, is the magazine’s interview with Czech PM Miroslav Topolánek on the prospects of the Czech EU Presidency, especially as I had the bad luck to miss Topol’s lecture at the LSE yesterday due to dose of flu.

TotalPoliticsgives a fair summary of the awkwardness Klaus-Topolánek relationship, but rather overlooks the fact that with the Czech EU Presidency virtually upon us the Topolánek government and President Klaus do not seem to have worked any modus vivendi or division of labour about who will do what in terms of representing the CR during the six months it will be at the head of the EU.

The Total Politics report’s comment that “[t[he Czech Republic is the first of the Warsaw Pact countries to take on the Presidency” also grated a little: strictly speaking true, of course although Slovenia was actually the first post-communist CEE new member state to preside, Presumably is a piece of Czech spin.

What the Czechs – or, at least, Topolánek and various government ministers – wouldn’t give for some dull-as-ditchwater Slovene style consensus? I mean there is actually quite a lot of consensus on European and foreign policy issues across the political spectrum, Communists and Klaus apart, but the rumbustious and adversial nature of domestic Czech politics just now is rocking the boat even more than the Klaus crusade against Lisbon and the chimera of a European superstate.

The Czech parliament has just, for the first time ever, rejected deployment levels in foreign peacekeeping missions, despite concessions to the Social Democrats over proposed troop numbers in Afghanistan. Two Greens and one Christian Democrat abstained, while Communist and Social Democrats were solidly against. And, literally as I write, the opposition has just voted through the abolition of charges for prescription medicines. This time, reports aktualne.cz three Civic Democrat deputies long opposed to Topolánek on a mixture of personal and ideological grounds (pro-flat tax, anti-Lisbon) Vlastimil Tlustý, Jan Schwippel, Juraj Raninec, absented themselves from the Chamber, as did a further ODS deputy Jan Klas and one Christian Democrat, Libor Ježek. The Christian Democrats have long held reservations about charging for medicines, although a deal was supposed to have been reached a few weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the Social Democrats are trying to play hardball about some form of political truce or understanding with the government to allow the Czech EU Presidency to pass smoothly. They will do it, they say, in return for early legislative parliamentary elections next year. Given the state of the polls – which suggest the Social Democrats would win so handsomely they might even to able to govern as a single party majority government – this invitation to commit political suicide stands no chance of being accepted.

The scrapping of charges will, of course, be overturned by the Senate, where the government still has a reliable majority, and 400 or 500 Czech troops will go on serving in Afghanistan under some kind of ad hoc emergency arrangement, but, the goverment looks pretty shaky. For some the temptation to just press head and destabilize EU2009.cz regardless if it meaning finishing off Topolánek must be enormous….

>Poland: mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the most social of them all?

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The Warsaw Voice reports the latest political shenanigans around the law restricting Poland’s currently wide ranging entitlements to early retirement. President Kaczynski has vetoed the bill, putting the small post-communist social democratic left in a (for once) important position: their votes would be needed by the liberal-peasant coalition govenment to overide the veto. Having looked like they might initially play the role of defenders of social welfare and big and early pensions, they now seem likely to opt for the role of modernizing opponents of the conservative-national right and help overturn the veto. Well, this is Poland, after all.

>Romania on their minds

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An interesting post by Manuel Alvarez-Riveraon on the recent Romanian elections – and the working of the new election system – can be found the Global Economy Matters blog here. Further interesting discussion can be found on the Fruits and Votes thread on the subject. There is also a link to Robert Elgie’s newish blog on semi-presidentialism.

>Libertas.eu unveiled, Libertas.cz unseen

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So, Declan Ganley has extended his Irish-based anti-Lisbon Treaty NGO-cum-lobby group Libertas into an EU-wide political movement Libertas.eu intent on fighting next year’s euro-elections in a host of EU states including, interestingly for me, the Czech Republic.
The only countries where Libertas.eu is not recruiting ‘high calibre candidates’ are France, and Denmark, – presumably as they are already well equipped with purpose-made eurosceptic parties and movements, such as the June Movement of veteran campaigner Jens Peter Bonde – and Ireland, where Mr Ganley’s Libertas organization is already well advanced in plans to field a list. Apart from the links for Estonia, Sweden and Poland all the recruitment ad are in English, suggesting that there is perhaps not a well organized network of Ganley supporters waiting to take the EU polticial stage. Libertas.eu thus seems more akin to a political franchising operation following the modus operandi established by the late Sir James Goldsmith’s UK-based Referendum Party, or in a slightly different way, Silvio Berlusconi’s launch of Forza Italia. Indeed, academics have already identified both a ‘franchise party’ and ‘business firm model’ of party emergence, only the Europe-wide nature of the franchising is novel.

The irony of a eurosceptic (and, in fairness, I should say that like most eurosceptics, he refutes the term) founding the first EU-wide political party is, of course, not lost on commentators, but a more interesting question, but there is a certain logic to it. A more interesting question s whether local eurosceptic groups will relish being invited to send applications to the Ganley’s Dublin and Brussels HQs for approval . Not surprisingly, the well established UK Indpendence Party feels Mr Ganley needs no UK branch. It’s also hard to imagine Václav Klaus or any of his very opinionated collaborators , who have been in the euroscepticism business much longer than Libertas, sending their CVs off to win Mr Ganley’s imprimatur.

Politically, there is the also the question whether a Europe-wide platform is really quite the way to go for forces which say that they value diversity and national sovereignty. On a pressure group level there are plenty of precedents of national groups forming EU-wide platforms, but whether political euroscepticism can reduce itself to narrow set of lobby demands is rather dubious. Put bluntly, who needs a European level eurosceptic platform – beyond Mr Ganley that is?

What Mr G does seem to have, of course, is money. Or perhaps the ability to tap the EU for campaign funding. This – and the imminence of European elections next year – seem to be the key reason that Libertas.eu has been launched as a political/electoral platform, rather than a civil society organization or pressure group along the lines of the original Irish Libertas.

>Ljubljana diary

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I arrive at night Ljubljana’s Jože Pučnik Airport (newly renamed after the dissident and statesman, who led the anti-communist DEMOS coalition and founded what is today the centre-right Slovene Democratic Party – just ejected from office in parliamentary elections). We’re then whisked by minibus in pitch darkness in the direction of Slovenia’s capital. I try to imagine picturesque mountains and well tended , frosty fields outside, although breakneck narrow roads and the minibus’s driver’s juggling of fag, mobile and steering wheel tends to distract.
20 minutes later we’re dropped off near the station. It’s looks pretty unprepossessing , but after I’ve walked a couple of streets things get neater and better tended and I am in a street lined with imposing 19th century banks and hotels. Then, suddenly, I am in Prešeren Square, the heart of the city. It’s draped all over with blue and white Christmas illuminations and, slightly less magically, filled with oompa music . There are some open air stalls and bars and I treat myself to Carolian sausage and a honey brandy (medica) to psyche myself up for the search for my hotel Three minutes later I am already there. Ljubljana is indeed small.

(….)
Viewed in daylight, my initial impression is that Ljubljana that has the look and pace of a Austrian or Scandinavian regional capital albeit with some architectural gems and government ministries unexpectedly thrown in. My Slovene colleague at the University of Ljubljana has been incredibly helpful and I have interviews to do and a translator to help out recruited via the local student union. First port of call is Slovenia’s pensioners’ party DESUS, where I meet both the party’s General Secretary and it 2002 presidential candidate Prof Anton Bebler, whose flawless English and political science background make for a very smooth and interesting interview. (Slovene academics, I later discover, often make the transition to politics, not infrequently acting as independent expert nominees for ministerial posts).

The headquarters of Slovenia’s main labour federation is, understandably, a smaller and more compact affair than the vast echoing trade union HQ I visited in Prague last month, But it also seems busier and more business-like – Slovenia is the most unionized country in CEE and, although membership rates have slipped – is still a force to be reckoned with. The representative of Slovenia’s pensioners’ trade union who are kind enough to make time for me despite being are on a tight schedule, are clear and informative. They also ask me some good questions at the end. Next day at the Slovene pensioners’ federation, my translator- who has more experience with arts and cultural events than issues of interest aggregation – has a much more challenging time, especially when discussion turns to the political structure of Socialist Slovenia’s highly complex, multi-layered brand of self-managing socialism. Luckily, she is resourceful and clever enough to cope and I am (just about) well informed about socialist Yugoslavia to follow it all. Terms like ‘self-managing community of interests’ are now part of my (very limited) Slovene vocabulary. Going over my notes and the diagram my interviewee helpfully drew for, I realise that such legacies are indeed central to what I’m interested in.

Making an early New Year’s resolution to learn some proper Slovene, I head off to buy a dictionary and a grammar for foreign learners. All the bookshops, bar one, seem to be owned by Mladinska knijga but, in any case, there’s a good (if expensive) selection of both. There’s also an interesting selection of English language books on politics and current affairs mixed in with the Slovene language ones. Later I’m very pleased to meet political blogger Pengovsky and over lunch I learn inter alia that Slovenes are, as I had suspected, big readers and bad drivers and, that electoral appearances aside the the Slovene right has never enjoyed the social and political traction it has elsewhere in CEE. There are , admittedly, bitter arguments between Slovenes about the moral and political status of the wartime communist partisan movement and collaborationist domobranci , but a Slovene lustration law or a flat tax reform would be about as likely as a snow flake in July.

(…)

Before meeting to colleagues at the Social Sciences Faculty, I still have a little time to kill. I feel a a bit guilty just walking round the Old Town seeing the sights, so as the rain sets in I set off for the Museum of Contemporary History, which is just outside the city centre in grounds of the Tivoli park in a small chateau-cum-palace. By the time I get there, the skies have darkened and the rain is pouring. I’m dripping wet and also the only visitor. They switch on the lights and multi-media displays especially for me. There’s a special exhibition about Slovenes in the First World War as well a permanent exhibition about the Slovenia’s ‘s 20th century history. I am struck by the intensity of the propaganda drive to attach Slovenia to the emergent Yugoslav state in 1990s; the fact that even the most radical Slovene nationalists seem not to have contemplated independence (perhaps Slovenia, like Slovakia was then too small and too poor); and the slightly odd jumps from darkly condemning post-war crimes of the Tito regime against political opponents to celebrating Slovenia’s industrial achievement in 1960s and 70s.

The exhibition culminates with a room commemorating the Ten Day War in 1991, when Slovenia’s territorial forces and police put up unexpectedly stiff resistance to the Yugoslav Federal Army’s brutal, but ill-coordinated (and ultimately short-lived attempt) to keep them in the disintegrating Yugoslav federation by force. A multi-screen documentary tells the story through well cut archive footage interspersed with interviews. It is emotive and manipulative in places – there is a broader and much grimmer political outcome to think of – the Ten Day War as the overture to wars of Yugoslav succession) but every new country needs a founding narrative, and as these things go, seems one that stands up. As I watched the scenes of tanks pushing aside bus barricades and angry crowds chanting ‘okupanti‘ at soldiers at passing armoured vehicles, it all struck me as eerily reminiscent of August 1968 in Czechoslovakia – and, of course, Czech failure to resist after Munich September 1938 is still an open wound. I suppose the Czech equivalent is the Velvet Revolution, but can (and has) been dismissed as the overdue collapse of a rotten regime, rather than an active national project.

(…)

I turn up at Pučnik airport an hour before my 7am flight. I needn’t have bothered. The usual security and passport checks take a grand total of 20 minutes, boarding takes place 10 minutes before take off. There are various coffee bars in the recently modernized airport, but they are all closed. I sit and sleepily re-read Sherlock Holmes for a while. Most of the passengers sensibly appear at the departure gate five minutes before boarding. The Adria Airways jet, is like Slovenia itself, is small and comfortable but unflashy and unfussy. At Gatwick we walk for 25 minutes to get to passport control.

>Klaus quits ODS

>Well, subtly poisonous indeed, but not quite what I expected. A rather (probably deliberately) flat and – indeed, sad sounding – four minute speech from Klaus in which he says that he is resigning as Honorary President of ODS because he has been unable for a long time to identify with many of the party’s positions. He regrets it ‘ongoing transformation from a party of the right into a party of the centre and lobbyist interests’. In truth, it was and always has been both Some delegates reportedly to have cried. No call for a split, but a move that makes one more likely. No doubt the intended and calcultated outcome.