Archive | Václav Havel RSS for this section

Does Eastern Europe have lessons for Brexit Britain?

Vote_Leave_-_geograph.org.uk_-_5002468

Photo Bob Harvey, CC BY-SA 2.0,

In the aftermath of the EU referendum a number of Central and South East Europeanists wrote blogs reflecting on possible parallels between Brexit and break-ups of multinational socialist states like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in early 1990s.

There are certainly parallels to be drawn.  They lie, as Catherine Baker notes, often in the political dynamics of exiting a large multi-national structure: the desire of smaller nations (Scotland) to ‘exit the exit’; the woes of asymmetric federalism, where nations ina multinational union have varying degrees of autonomy; the changeable nature of public opinion; the EU as a symbol of modernisation and liberalism (the ‘March for Europe’, and the normalisation of  radical positions through by media coverage – and now social media ‘echo chambers;.

Scotland’s (now much more likely) exit from the UK – as noted in the lead-in to #indyref – had echoes not only of Yugoslavia’s disintegration or Czechoslovakia’s ‘Velvet Divorce’ in 1992 but also – more distantly, but perhaps more pertinently –  of the dilemmas faced by small, newly independent Central European states emerging from the Habsburg Empire in 1918. Read More…

Havel: For young radicals or middle aged and middle of the road?

Václav Havel has lent his name and inspiration to many events and movements. His dissident writings have been translated into Arabic, serving as point of reference for activists and thinkers contemplating entrenched but brittle authoritarian regimes.

 More expectedly, perhaps Havel’s is a liberal oppositionists in Putin’s Russia which – as Havel himself suggested in later life – has seen communist structures morph into a new repressive structures.  So it’s no surprise to see a Guardian commentary by Natalie Nougayrède that flags Havel and the Central European dissident movement as inspiration for young, radical left movements that have emerged in Western and South Europe.

It’s a balanced piece, which notes the obvious differences between normalisation era Czechoslovakia regime and the far more open and competitive political and social systems of Western Europe.  The typewriter and carbon paper technology of 1970 and 80s samizdat is also clearly a world away from networked and internet-based communications of the early 21st century – even for those fighting authoritarian regimes thumb drives and encryption software have replaced clandestine printing and duplicating.

And Nougayrède is surely right when she suggests Václav Havel is in some ways an unlikely source of inspiration for Podemos, Syriza and similar movements (themselves often the products of mash-up of various heterodox Marxist traditions, Trotskyist, Maoist, Euro-communist etc)

 The sharp critique of Western societies Havel expressed in his writing of 1970s and 1980s as somewhat less extreme version of a single impersonal technocratic mass civilization mellowed after the fall of communism into a pragmatic, if critical, acceptance of conventional parliamentary democracy, capitalism and the European Union.  Havel’s disdain for party politics and big scale economics also saw him quickly outmanoeuvred after 1989 by opponents, on both left and right, who realised more quickly than he did both that parties were necessary workhorses of democracy and that voters’ concerns about economic security and prosperity needed addressing head on. Read More…

Comrade Baggins? When Middle Earth met Middle Europe

It’s not difficult to Christmas shop for my nephew.  Any of an array of Hobbit-branded products drawing on the latest New Zealand -filmed Peter Jackson blockbuster franchise would do. I settled on a DVD, a map of Middle Earth and a poster-sized calendar.

But – to borrow Timothy Garton Ash’s quip about Central Europe–tell me your Middle Earth and I’ll tell you who you are.

An interesting meme has been doing the rounds of the Czech internet in the past year: a review (or so we are told) of The Lord of the Rings published in 1977 in the (then) central organ of the Czechoslovak Communist Party Rudé právo denounced Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece as a work of thinly disguised bourgeois and imperialist propaganda:

The Kingdom of Evil belching smoke and ash is transparently located in the East.  The working class, uniting to build heavy industry by the sweat of its brow, is depicted as revolting and evil orcs. (…) Those living the West – overflowing lands of milk and honey – the elves (that is the aristocracy), men (bourgeoisie) and hobbits (farmers) on the other hand live a prosperous life (although it is not explained how they get it) and their only problem is the ‘threat’ from the East.

The ‘forces of good’ are represented by a set of representatives of these reactionary circles… Their leader is Gandalf, a spreader of reactionary ideologies, which keep the population in ignorance and fear of progress. (…)

Small wonder then that Saruman, the defender of the oppressed and friend of progress, is branded a traitor and his stronghold is destroyed by a band of fanatical reactionaries. When he spread socialism to the Shire he is caught and subject to punishment without trial by the hobbits supported and paid by the capitalist powers of Gondor… But socialism cannot be destroyed by throwing its relics, not even its most sacred relics, into the fire. Hold out against encirclement by your reactionary neighbours Mordor!

It was not entirely clear if the review is real. As it turned out it was a clever pastiche. No date, scant referencing and no trace of in the archives. And, of courses, rather too much of hint of tongue-in-cheek for the notoriously humourless Rudé právo.

Image: www.ackablog.cz

Image: www.acka.blog.cz

But that’s beside the point. It is exactly what Rudé právo could, or should have written about Lord of The Rings in mid-1970s. Moreover, the pastiche does seem to have drawn heavily on real Communist-era article published in Poland in 1971.

Because Communist regimes did have a problem with Tolkien and particularly with Lord of the Rings. Read More…

Václav Klaus: A political phenomenon without political power

Photo: DerHuti  Wikimedia Commons   <a title="Licence" href=" http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en"

Photo: DerHuti Wikimedia Commons

In many ways a medium-sized Central European country like the Czech Republic could hardly have wished for a better president: an experienced, energetic and erudite politician of international standing able to engage both with the big European issues and handle the domestic problems thrown up by fractious politicians and crumbling coalition governments.

 A president tough-minded enough to periodically remind its citizens that they were living not in an impoverished mafia state, but in a tolerably well-administered, reasonably prosperous, if inevitably flawed, European democracy.

 As president during the last ten years Václav Klaus has been all of these things.

 But he has also been a blisteringly controversial head of state, whose views have often been sharply at odds with most of his fellow politicians or fellow citizens. Provocative and unignorable, Klaus has been loved and (more often) loathed both at home and abroad. He leaves office facing an indictment for treason brought by opponents  for alleged constitutional violations. He is, as Czech political scientist Lubomír Kopeček rightly terms him in a recent biography, a political phenomenon.

 But what lasting impacts does Klaus’s ten year period in office really leave? Read More…

Schwarzenberg: From castle to Castle?

Karel Schwarzenberg

And no sooner do I post on Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg at Chatham House than he decides to make waves in Czech domestic politics by announcing that he will be a candidate for the Czech Presidency, when Václav Klaus steps down from second and final term in 2013.

Media are reporting – in the style of the old Klaus vs. Havel coverage – that it stems from one too many eurosceptic broadside from the current occupant of Prague Castle. I suspect, however, that Mr (I mean Prince) Schwarzenberg is far too canny to make such spur of the moment decisions and that it represents a neat, logical and fitting exit from his unlikely career as party leader: the announcement was made at the second national congress of his TOP09.

If I was a TOPák, however, I wouldn’t be that enthusiastic.  Provided age treats him kindly – he will be 75 in 2013 – Schwarzenberg would, undoubtedly be a distinguished and effective head of state. But his exit as party leader would politically destabilising for TOP09, a loose alliance of local politicians, business interests and ex-Christian Democrats, which would look a whole lot less attractive with an aristocratic anti-politician at it helm. And, as the unhappy experience of Havel and Civic Movement shows, on/off presidential parties rarely prosper.

Vladimír Špidla

In the bigger picture, President Schwarzenberg would predictable and a safe choice, a re-assuring avuncular figure in times of trouble. But could the Czechs really not find someone younger, and conceivably perhaps – and I know this is a bit shocking – even female? Someone not part of the dissident/technocratic/business/intellectual establishment that has run the CR since 1989? Is there a Czech Mary Robinson in the wings?

It’s interesting that, despite being a media darling, Schwarzenberg’s popular rating with the voters is a mere 14%. In a direct election, legislation for which is chugging along uncertainly, he could quickly become an also-ran.

Knowing Czech politics, though – and if it were to be a direct election – it could easily be a Czech Sarah Palin. Of the establishment candidates mentioned here Přemysl Sobotka, the moderate and independent long-time Civic Democrat Senator, and ex-caretaker PM Jan Fischer would safe, if boring choices. Personally, if we’re doing grey ‘n’ technocratic I would go for ex-Social Democrat PM and former EU Social Affairs Commissioner Vladmir Špidla, whose rather grey public persona belies a more interesting and colourful figure. Špidla I have always felt, is one most under-rated figure in Czech politics.

Jiří Paroubek

Two other former Social Democrat PMs, Miloš Zeman and Jiří Paroubek – both populist bruisers of the first order – can also be assumed to have presidential ambitions. Either would be a potentially credible candidate in a popular election capable of pulling in Communist voters any directly elected left-wing president would need, but have too many parliamentary enemies to make it through the current indirect system where only deputies and Senators vote.

Paroubek, however, seems to be more concerned with building up his new LEV21 party and is on the record as urging one-time rival Zeman to run for head of state (probably hoping to hoover up voters and activists  from Zeman’s  own small vanity party SPOZ party, which pulled in an expected 4% in last year’s elections.

EU Czechs and balances

Karel Schwarzenberg Photo: Henrich Boell Stiftung

I’m sitting listening to Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg. I look up occasionally at the map on the wall and wonder what projection it is. Europe seems big and fat compared to the more politically correct/geographically accurate cartography I usually see.

But that’s kind of appropriate. Schwarzenberg is, after all, speaking to me – and the rest of a Chatham House lunchtime audience –on the record about the role of smaller EU member sin the post-Lisbon Treaty.

It’s interesting to see Schwarzenberg in person. Presentationally, he conforms to the media stereotype of distracted aristocratic anti-politician:  he looks tired, sports a crumpled-looking bow tie and speaks at  an ambling conversational pace with an unplaceable Central European accent.

 I’ve never bought into all the noblesse oblige hype surrounding Prince Schwarzenberg whose TOP09 party is one of the mainstays of the Czech Republic’s centre-right government and may yet become the dominant force on the Czech right. But a couple of minutes listening quickly highlights that he  has the state of the EU and European politics carefully and subtly thought through.

 The small state angle is a classic Czech motif dating back to Masaryk and beyond, (although as chair William Wallace dry comments the Czech Republic is one of the ‘bigger small countries’ in the Union) but Schwarzenberg uses it to good effect.

 Although it had always had a few small members, until the 2004, he argues, the EU had always functioned – and actually functioned quite well – as a big nations’ club. Eastern enlargement had changed all that bring in an influx small new CEE states, most of which lacked the economic wherewithal to join the Euro.

In harmonious tandem

Paradoxically, however, expansion to 27 upped the power of bigger states, who gained from drive to create more workable decision-making structures, which resulted in the Lisbon Treaty.

 The need for speedy action in current crisis had upped the power of bigger over small states. Indeed, in some sense the euro crisis had made EU governance a tandem of two big states – read France and Germany. (This, Schwarzenberg noted was kind of appropriate given that Maastricht and the Euro were essentially a Franco-German political compromise intended to anchor and clip the wings of a re-united post-Cold War Germany – the contradiction of introducing a common currency without adequate economic governance had been left unaddressed, setting up the current crisis.

 Big states bossing it might be an effective (and necessary) way of running things post-crisis– and the EU had never exactly been run democratically since its foundation – But a big state-driven EU was aggravating an already acute trade-off between efficiency and legitimacy, opening up the democratic deficit (although he didn’t use the term – I have ‘citizenship gap’ in my notebook).

All non-EU traffic turn off here?

 Moreover, the distinct politics of the Euro crisis management being decided by the 17 Eurozone members, splitting the Union into two bloc: although no one had an interest in Euro meltdown, on certain issues the 17 might act as a bloc against the other ten members. As the 17 were likely to adopt steps towards further political/economic governance integration, a two-speed Europe was opening up. As on a motorway, those moving slowly and gradually falling behind might, he suggest, be tempted to turn off at the nearest exit.

 So small states needed some new channels to participate (I presume both in their own interests and for the sake of EU legitimacy, although this didn’t get mentioned). But what channels? One would be to operate in flexible informal blocs. Visegrad (despite having one Eurozone state and three non-Euro states) worked well did similar Nordic, Benelux and Baltic groupings. Another was to be useful and effective especially in niche role: the Czech Republic’s special mission was to be a promoter in human rights – its diplomats had been active over Burma, Cuba. Eastern partnership and the Western Balkans (‘a powder keg’) were also spaces to watch.

 Rather refreshingly Schwarzenberg offered to grand vision or or clear blueprint offered for EU reform. Just the thought – in response to a question from the Swiss ambassador – that the Union had in the fullness time to find itself way to a Swiss style arrangement, but with member states retaining the trapping of traditional statehood (like national armies) for the sake of legitimacy and as part of a system of checks and balance. Democracy mattered less than balance.

Nevedieť, kde je Slovensko, to je také ...

 The Q and A also tracked back to the question of a dual EU with discussion of an inner (Euro-)zone and outer core of members with roughly Danish level of integration. Intriguingly, we didn’t get to hear where the thought the Czech Republic should or would end up, although geography and economics ruled out British style debates about more extensive disengagement.

Overall, it was surprisingly sceptical take for a politician associated with the liberal ex-dissident europhile centre of Czech politics. Indeed, in its basic diagnosis, it didn’t seem that far removed from some of views you could hear Václav Klaus express, at least in his more cautious days in 1990s.

Still, I guess we’re all eurosceptics now.

Slovakia, in case you wondered, was not mentioned once.

>From Citizen Havel to Citizen Klaus

>

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…