Archive | December, 2009

>Dr Novák Goes to Prague

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As the last 2009 issue of the news magazine Respekt points out, one of the few political players who will be able look back on difficult, confusing and not very good year for Czech politics is caretaker Prime Minister, Jan Fischer. Chosen for his obscurity, adminstrative competence, colourlessness and lack of political partisanship and clout, Mr Fischer, the head of the Czech Statistical Office, has since morphed into the Little Big Man of Czech politics, enjoying record approval ratings even has he oversees painful economic medicine and has gained a degree of leverage and free of manoevre from the parties that put him into office. He also, of course, shoulld include the judges of the Czech Constitutional Court on his New Years card list as it was their decision that scrapped the planned bringing foward of scheduled parliamentary elections as unconstitutional – and hence extending is term of office from one summer to one year. Rumour (vehemently denied by Mr Fischer himself) even has it that he might, at the crucial moment, throw in his lot with the new TOP09 party, still doing well in the polls having edged narrowly ahead of the Communists in to take third place.
So what going on? Alas, as a little judicious underlining of the Respekt profile by Ondřej Kundra makes clear, there is little mystery in Mr Fischer’s seemingly unlikely political stardom and the magazine pretty much answers its own questions even before it has asked them.

As Respekt flatteringly notes, Fischer

“… has none of the usual arrogance of political bigwigs (papalášské projevy) taking the form of insulting journalists and political opponents, speeding madly through red traffic lights with sirens on, or opulent holidaying with lobbyists (s lobbisty) [something of a dirty word in Czech, lobbista]. And his personal life too has not changed since he left the Statistical Office to take up the post of Prime Minister. In fact, his life hardly differs from that of the ordinary Czech (běžného Čecha)

Every morning he goes out of his high-rise flat to walk the dog, and when his packed schedule allows, relaxes by taking weekend walks with his second wife Dana in the Krkonoš Mountains. He enjoys reading (his favourite authors are Karel Poláček and Isaac Bashevis Singer) and has for years regularly driven to have lunch and his favour patisseries in an ordinary (řadové) restaurants in a small, Central Bohemian town near to where he owns a small holiday cottage (chalupu)”

We also learn that he’s very goal oriented and has learned good English

In other words, Mr Fischer is, or appears to be, ordinary, decent (I am thinking of the Czech word slušný here) person and a non-politician with a modest lifestyle of a ‘typical’ Czech: hard-working and desire to educate himself still further; high-rise living in communist-era flats; a dog (no doubt a dachshund) ; safe, rather middle brow literary tastes; cheap, unpretentious pub meals and a sweet tooth; and a liking for healthy outdoor pursuits not too far afield from the family chata or chalupa (roughly the Czech equivalent of the Russian datcha).

You’ve heard of Mr Smith Goes to Washington.

Well, this is a sort of Mr Novák Goes To Prague.

For me – however, worthy, dull and ordinary Mr Fischer may actually be – this rings hollow. Indeed it smacks of cliché. The same rather fawning pen portraits of the unremarkable but honest Czech official cataputled to high political office can be found in the early 1990s describing Václav Klaus who, let us remember, also had a powerful work ethic, lived in a high rise flat , learnt good English and enjoyed hiking. The reference to the small town Bohemia is also rather archetypical. Admittedly, the CR is a country whose pattern of settlement is characterised by a predomince of small and medium towns. But the small-medium sized town iand its values are in many ways the ‘typical’, ster eotypical Czech community that you can see snow covered on a dozens of Czech Christmas and New Year cards. Not for nothing did Karel Poláček use the okresní město (‘county town’) to depict Czech society in microcosm.

As different elements of the profile makes clear, Mr Fischer is, in fact, probably, like Mr Klaus, a more complex, unusual and interesting character than the dull Everyman evoked above. He is, for example, not only the Czech Republic’s first Jewish Prime Minister – no big deal in the CR except for various nutcases on the neo-Nazi fringe – but also the first PM seriously to practice or profess any religious faith. He is also someone very much part of the Czech administrative elite: a well paid, well connected civil servant close the heart of government for years – indeed, the only highly placed official to regularly attend cabinet meetings – and, of course, someone whose early career begins in the late communist era and includes the obligatory Communist Party card.

The profile has, however, hit on a deeper truth. This is (sometimes) how many Czech would like their rulers to be: technocratic, dull, like them and apolitical, at least in the sense of being non-party or non-partisan.

So it is actually this more Dr Novák Goes to Prague or Engineer Novák Goes to Prague as Czechs in their anti-political fantasy lives – stoked to a high degree by much of the country’s intellectual discourse – would reallly to be rescued by well qualified ordinary technocrat rather than a completely average (wo)man in the street.

And, in fairness, both the writer and Mr Fischer himself clearly realize that the current caretaker PM’s political superstar-dom is the Czech public’s latest fling with anti-political intellectual populism seeking temporary respite in government thinkers, artists, technocrats and aristocrats
As both note Mr Fischer does not need to put together a programme beyond that of ‘normal admionistration’ of the state; run a party, contest elections, broker coalitions and trade-off all the multiple demands these throw up. No wonder he can remain calm and civil and avoid slagging off political opponents in emotive, overblown rhetoric.

Happily, Mr Fischer ain’t no Fujimori in the making and seems perfecti;y aware that he is riding the crest of the latest anti-political wave and will soon need to step down and walk away into the sunset, noting that

‘People in my position must be under political control, must – in short – emerge from voting by the public. Because there is always the rise that a populist could emerge, who could start to abuse this position, build up in own position on it. That’s unacceptable. A bad signal for democracy’

Indeed. Perhaps more worrying is the sneaking suspicion that many Czech voters wouldn’t actually be at all that bothered if their country took a few years off politics to be run on liberal lines by a committee of upright but approachable technocrats – a sort of Central European Hong Kong. Perhaps as a province in the liberal-market Mitteleuropa run from Vienna by a caste of solid (unelected) Habsburg-schooled administrators, which Hayek and von Mises projected in 1940s.

>Flexible friends

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SSEES is visited by two members of the much re-constituted but officially legendary Plastic People of the Universe, the underground rock groups whose trial in 1976 spurred the formation of Charter 77: Vratislav Brabenec, one of the founding originals, and Eva Turnová who has been the Plastics’ bass guitarist since 2001. As this is, in Czech dissident terms, the equivalent of a royal visit, the current Czech ambassador to the UK, translator, Havel confidante, one-time politician – he led the Civic Democratic Alliance in its terminal breakdown phase in 1997-8, but enough of that – Michal Žantovský introduces proceedings in Masaryk Common Room. He sensibly sticks to water, leaving the red wine to the visiting Plastíci, chipping in the occasional translation, but like the good diplomat he is otherwise listens and doesn’t say much.
An array of armchairs and Peter Zusi’s relaxed and informal moderation give the event something of the feeling of an intellectual chatshow and we get a variety of observations and recollections: how the group was named after a Frank Zappa song, but, Brabenec later discovered, in exile in Canada slightly suggested the flexibility of a talking credit credit in aTV ad;
how records were smuggled in and traded on black market burzy in the woods near Prague in 1970s and 80s; how musicians made amps from electrical hobby kits; how boring the 1976 trial was; how capitalism is indeed the same as communism; how Brabenec fell over into middle of a performance at the National Theatre, but was forgiven.

The final question, from the Masaryk Society’s Michael Tate, who has brilliantly organized both this event and the Plastics’ concert in London at the South Bank in January, asks whether the group has not become too disneyfied as kitsch cultural icon. But it’s late in the evening and they need a cigarette, so all we get from Brabebc is a rather zen answer to the effect that the group’s credo is “Don’t be Stupid” – which would also make a good slogan for a university, I thought. Eva Turnová more straightfowardly explains that they are somewhat allergic to ageing hippies, who remember the group from 1970s and prefer to play for young people and international audiences. She can speak Chinese.

Brabenec was also interviewed this morning on the radion in the slightly unlikely venue of the BBC’s Midweek programme – listenable here.

Update: Tom Stoppard who was in the audience at the event (note to self: he was probably the bloke with the white manbag) and has played a big role in enabling the Plastics’ gig at the South Bank – has written a profile of the band and its music in the Times.

>Going green with ODS in Copenhagen

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In a loosely Cameroonian spirit, the Czech Civic Democrats (ODS) are calling for global environmental responsibility over climate change at the Copenhagen conference: a tough call, as they are not entirely agreed that it is taken place and, if it is, what is causing it. The two most prominent ODSáci attending the conference are a case in point: ecological expert and one of the few plausible green figures in the party, Senator Bedřich Moldan, and the more climate change sceptical MEP Miroslav Ouzký.
The result? A confused press release, which carefully doesn’t mention the cause of climate change, but instead stresses a grab bag of lesser (but shared) ODS concerns: money must not be wasted; the competitiveness of European industry must not be damaged; deforestation in the Third World is a/the key issue; technology not emissions limits will save us; big countries are dominating the conference and obstructing an agreement (wake up and smell the fair trade coffee, gentlemen). Somehow the party is more irritating in confused, evasive mode, than it is when in traditional Klausian flat earth mode.

>Fractured alliance

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Tim Bale’s brief on the Parliamentary Affairs website trails some of the arguments and analysis about the new European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group in the European Parliament that Tim, Aleks Szczerbiak and I have been working on.

>Eastern Europe’s climate of opinion

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The Guardian teams up with liberal newspapers around the world to make a quintessentially middle-of-the-road appeal for moderate and sensible agreements between world leaders to rein in carbon emissions at Copenhagen. East European partner newspaper are, however, conspicuous by their absence: Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza, Russia’s embattled Novaya Gazyeta and no less than two Slovenian newspapers (serious broadsheet Delo and the popular Večer), but no press voices from Hungary, the Baltic, Slovakia, Romania or (possibly no surprise here) the Czech Republic.
Perhaps The Guardian just wanted a representative sprinkling of global opinion. However, medium sized, Old EU countries are much better represented. As one of PhD student points in a journalistic blog thinkpiece, CEE states, intellectuals aside, tend not to do global responsibility or even want much of a hand on the tiller of global governance. Too used to being transition states stoking the fires of economic growth to realize that they are part of the global North. But as Czech philosopher Václav Bělohradský, anti-capitalist liberal, pithily observed, when viewed from Africa a butcher’s shop in Munich or Prague looks pretty much the same.