Archive | November, 2009

>Everything stops for tea


It’s Friday afternoon, getting dark and the SSEES building is slowly emptying of staff and students before the weekend. One person heading into the building, however, is UK’s ambassador to the Czech Republic Sian Macleod. My SSEES colleague, Czech and Slovak literature specialist Peter Zusi, get to serve the tea and talk to the ambassador, who is a former professional violinist and also served in Moscow at the time the Soviet Union was slowly crashing down around our ears. She could perhaps have been forgiven for thinking that Prague would be a calmer posting, but that would be to reckon with the perfect Lisbon Treaty storm created (almost) around the country by Václav Klaus.
As reformed Klausologist, I hear myself – somewhat as if in an out of body experience – saying that criticisms of VK as villain of post-1989 politics are overdone and that both the popularity of the current technocratic caretaker government and familiar Havelian diagnosis of the Czech Republic as in a permanent malaise brought on by parties, professional politics, lack of civil society, failure of elites etc etc are riff that the Czech intelligentsia and, well, somewhat overdone. Rather like the Sovietologists of the 1970s, who defined themselves as anti-anti-communist, I find myself becoming anti-anti-Klaus.

Before I can discredit myself any further, however, the discussion happily turns to Czech culture – not with me obviously, several students from the SSEES Czech Seminar have shown up – so there are some useful recommendation of things to read and listen to, including Czech-Moravian folk updaters Čechomor – as well as the news that the veteran rockers, who inspired Charter 77, Plastic People of the Universe will be visiting SSEES on 15 December. Politically speaking, I also learn that Cameron ally Greg Hands is chair of the parliamentary Czech and Slovak group and can speak both languages. Another interesting element in the unusual mosaic of the European Conservative and Reformists group that colleagues at Sussex University and I are following with some academic interest.

A very relaxed and interesting conversation moves from how you say ‘letters of accredition’ in Czech (pověřovací listiny) and ends up on Russian poetry. The ambassador needs to go. As a Senior Lecturer, I, naturally, get to stack the dishwasher. There’s no one around. The building is almost deserted. Time to go home.

>A tale of two Slovakias


SSEES marks the 20th anniversary of November 1989 with two contrasting Slovak speakers – a nice touch, as the fall of communism in the Czechoslovakia is so often reduced to events in Prague. The Magic Lantern, Václav Havel, speech from the balcony of the Melantrich building, vast crowds packing Wenceslas Square, more crowds crowds jangling their keys in unison at rallies on the Letna plain to ring out the change of regime. Dozens of local transitions get forgotten as does and a fully fledged Tender (or Gentle) Revolution (Nežná revolúcia) in Slovakia. Similar, but different to the Velvet Revolution played out in the neighbouring Czech lands
The first visitor to SSEES is Fedor Gál, Slovakia sociologist, researcher, opposition activist and (latterly) film-maker and media entrepreneur, who is presenting his new documentary Dobré ráno, Slovensko (Good Morning, Slovakia) which chronicles the last days of the regime, the revolution and first six months of 1990 as the Public Against Violence movement Gál chaired (see photo below) started to be bruisingly pushed aside and internally fracture under the growing pressure from Slovak nationalism, some of it animated by ill concealed anti-semitism. Gál left to live in Prague in 1992, but is still well known enough to drawn an audience of 60-70. Most, as I later discover, are young Slovak and Czech students, though almost none from SSEES curiously enough.

Things get off to a bad start when, after opening remarks, it becomes clear that the English language version of the film won’t play. We can, however, show it in Slovak, which is OK for around 80% of the audience and perhaps a blessing in disguise as the English version is overdubbed, rather undermining its effect, rather than subtitled. The film, however, is powerful and well made and in the Q and A that follows Gál shows himself to be a magnetic and charismatic speaker. If you wondered why he was a revolutionary leader, this would answer your question. The questioners are all young, the question all in Czech or Slovak, self-translated in English. Everyone agrees that communism-nationalism-and-populist social-democracy are all part and parcel of the same illiberal conundrum that plays to the lowest, materialistic and most provincial inclinations of the Slovak and Czech populace and still haunts the region. Why did thy not handle things more smartly? Boli sme blbí, Gál tells his listeners in a line you feel he’s probably used before. But given the revolutionary avalanche of events and the fact he bowed out of politics almost two decades ago, that’s perhaps a more than acceptable answer.

Showing up in the grander circumstances on 17 November itself to give a lecture, Slovak Prime Minister, Robert Fico represents precisely that Other Slovakia (my phrase) that Gál and his listeners so dislike. We had expected a bland speech, but characteristically Fico decided to deal with controversial issues bluntly and head on: not everything under communism had been all bad -welfare standards were higher and teaching in universities ‘more systematic’; there had been privations and bureaucracy – he himself had had to queue through the night to book his honeymoon to Malta; the revolution was not a cause for unbridled celebration as the ‘tribunes of the revolution’ didn’t deliver on promises of fairness and freedom and hacked away a lot of ordinary people’s social certainties in their pursuit of economic and party self-interest (until the arrival of R. Fico and Smer, you understand. Politically, this is some extent a necessary move as in 1989 Fico was a member of Communist Party of Slovakia (having joined in 1987) working at the Institute of State and Law of the Academy of Sciences, although on the other hand some Czech Social Democrats have similar backgrounds as bright young things in the late socialist nomenklatura and don’t feel the need for such a ‘balanced’ assessment of the old regime.

The main achievement of the revolution in this rather interesting Fico-ean interpretation was that it opened up the way for an independent Slovakia and for further economic modernization, although an over dependence on car construction for export would entail an economic strategy based on high public spending in these days of global recession, partly to invest in education.

In the Q & A Fico switched to Slovak, ostensibly for the sake of not being misquoted or misunderstood by the Slovak media in not quite perfect English, but presumably also because he knew he was going to say something worthy of that night’s TV news. There were three questions to which he gave long, unfazed confident answers, perhaps being Robert Fico he could guess what he was going to be asked: the quality of Slovak higher education (admittedly poor, too many universities, too much local pride at stake); what would he do if he were a Slovak Hungarian (cherish and protect his own culture and learn to speak perfect Hugarian); and did he think there was a trade-off between freedom and prosperity (no but golden plated freedom could be a bit costly – Slovak officials weren’t well resourced enough to deal with too many freedom of information requests).

My sympathies were, it must be said, not with Fico, who made a more convincing case for himself on his last visit in UCL in 2006. On the other hand, he has turned out to have played the smarter political game and, as one leading specialist on Slovak politics, reminded me after afterwards it is a sign of progress to have ‘bog standard left-wing politics’ dominating the Slovak political scence not the more paranoid and dangerous nationalism of the Mečiar era – a period oddly absent from Fico’s speech – albeit suffused with a bit of dodgy nomenklatura nostalgia for social cosseting of the normalization era.

The text of the speech doesn’t seem to be on the net yet, but extracts from YouTube can be seen here. Gál’s film (broken down into 14 short episodes) can be seen (in Slovak) here.

Update: A video of the full lecture has now appeared on the UCL-SSEES website here.

>The Czech right: culture, folk roots and a bit of fusion


Public engagement is flavour of the month just now, so when asked out of the ether to contribute something about Czech politics to the launch issue of cultural-political monthly intended to fill the gap left by the winding up of the long-established Czech intelligenstia Literární noviny I agreed. The venture is, rather unusually, being undertaken by a newly formed cultural and publishing co-operative (an institutional form rarely seen in the CR outside the housing sector)

Clearly, I should have asked for some CDs in payment as well as a small donation to charity because, as I later discovered, the moving spirit behind the project who contacted me, Jiří Plocek is a musician and sometime member of famed folk/jazz/bluegrass fusionists Teagrass. Still, readers who you want to improve their reading experience might want to click in to one of the group’s performances with Hungarian singer Irén Lovász here

The topic they asked me to write on, framed in an interestingly Czech terms (since when did anyone in the UK care about the authenticty of anything? ) was:

“Is there an authentic political right in the Czech Republic?

When observers question the authenticity of the right in the Czech Republic, they generally have one three things in mind: 1) that the Czech right’s largely pro-market orientation makes it an alien import ill suited to Czechs’ Central European traditions; 2) that on a European level the Czech right is an isolated and odd phenomenon with few real partners beyond the British Tories; or 3) that right-wing parties and ideologies in the Czech Republic have, wittingly or unwittingly, been little more than a cover for corrupt and self-interested networks of politicians, businesspeople and officials. All three contain elements of truth but also strong elements of caricature.

The emergence of strong liberal-conservative right wing in the Czech Republic after was one of the early political surprises in post-communist Central Europe. Many observers assumed that Czechoslovak politics would be shaped the country’s ‘social democratic tradition’ or cultural and geographical proximity to the social market economies of Austria and Germany. A Czech centre-right, if it emerged at all, was expected to be Christian Democrat in outlook. The rise of Václav Klaus in 1990-1 backed by a coalition of Civic Forum anti-communist grassroots activists and the formation of ODS quickly put paid to such illusions – as did the early electoral marginalization of KDU-ČSL.

However, that the civic right that coalesced around Klaus did have social and intellectual roots extending back the normalization period and back to 1960s followed: the penetration of Western neo-conservative and neo-liberal ideas into Czechoslovakia during the brief window opened by the Prague Spring; the discrediting of the once strong Czech democratic-socialist tradition after the 1968 invasion; the frustration of a generation of well educated people stifled by the rigidity of the Husák regime; the isolation of dissent from the bulk of Czech society; the parallel formation of ‘grey zone’ of technocrats including Klaus and other liberal economists, who were left by the regime with little to do but read and bide their time. In hindsight, it is clear such phenomena set the scene for the emergence of a powerful civic right in early 1990s.

However, the Czech right arguably has some deeper historical roots. Despite an Anglo-Saxon Thatcherite veneer in many ways ODS was more national-liberal Contemporary Czech right-wing eurosceptic concerns with ‘national interests’ or the Czech place in an emerging federal Europe would have been immediately recognisable in Czech political debates 90 or 100 years ago. Viewed in this perspective, the unlikely phenomenon of ‘Czech Thatcherism’ is simply the latest assertion of a liberal Czech national identity in a region dominated by Austro-German traditions of corporatism and state paternalism.

Such independence can, however, breed isolation. While KDU-ČSL seamlessly integrated into broader West European family of Christian Democratic parties, Czech right-wing commentators have often agonized about whether ODS is in European terms truly a ‘standard’ authentic party. This issue has been starkly illustrated by formation in the European Parliament by ODS and the UK Tories of the new European Conservatives and Reformers group (ECR). While the Tories and ODS are well matched in their enthusiasm for free markets and dislike of the Lisbon Treaty, the remainder of the ECR is an uncomfortable mix of Latvian and Polish nationalists, Belgian populists and Dutch Christian fundamentalists. Such concerns about the inauthenticity of Czech right are, however, probably misplaced. Right-wing forces across Europe form an uneven patchwork of beliefs and traditions that defies easy categorisation. The Civic Democrats’ political pas de deux with the British Tories and lack of other major European allies suggest political weakness, not political abnormality.

A more lingering doubt is raised by the relationship between business and politics on the Czech right and the suspicion that right-wing parties’ ideological commitment to competition with the left is in reality skin deep and always set aside when money, power or political office are at stake. For many the sight of Miroslav Topolánek and other leading right-wing politicians sunning themselves on an Italian yacht in the company of a ČEZ lobbyist and a leading member of ČSSD graphically illustrated this. Those with longer memories may recall how cut throat electoral ODS- ČSSD competition in 1998 was succeeded by the Opposition Agreement, or how Václav Klaus successfully sought the support of Communist deputies in his bid to become President in 2003.

However, although shot through with an unedifying sleaze and graft – and an often brutal, pragmatism – in many respects Czech party politics is a highly conventional contest of left and right. As much political scientist have found Czech right-wing politicians and voters consistent and clear of ideological pro-market views and – quite often, at least – vote and act accordingly. The Czech right is also consistent in its social and electoral constituency: a distinct younger, better educated, better off urban electorate worked disproportionately in the private sector and tending to live in Bohemia rather than Moravia. Such a base has proved too narrow to deliver the right convincing parliamentary majorities, but is a common profile for conservative parties inclining towards market liberalism across Europe.

Over the past decade, political deadlock between left and right has repeatedly forced the Czech Republic’s major political parties of right and left, against their own inclinations, into ad hoc political co-operation. The current Fischer government is simply the latest instalment in this pattern. Pragmatic deal making or overarching left-right co-operation pacts such as the Opposition Agreement do not, however, make Czech parties of the right less authentically right-wing (or parties of the left less authentically left-wing). Indeed, co-operation across ideological and party divides has been a recognisable pattern in many European democracies, including interwar Czechoslovakia, and has often been a successful model for national development.

Taken together, this suggests that two decades after the fall of communism the Czech Republic does indeed possess a distinct and authentic right-wing rooted in the country’s culture, history and society. Authenticity is, however, in itself not a lodestone for good politics, effective government or political success. Indeed for critics of the Czech right such as Jiří Pehe the problem is precisely that it draws all too authentically on nationalistic and provincial reflexes of Czech society. Such judgements are probably too harsh, understating the liberal and modernizing impulses that have animated Czech right-wing politics.

One thing, however, does seem certain. When Czechs look their country’s right-wing they will, to some extent, see themselves reflected back. Whether that is a pleasant sight is, of course, a matter that they themselves must decide.”

Update: The free launch issue of Kulturní noviny did indeed appear and can downloaded in PDF format here

>Fairtrade with Josef Vissionovich


Tesco’s fairtrade coffee bears an image worrying reminiscent of a youngish Stalin. Somehow, I don’t think Josef Vissonovitch would have approved of Fairrade – as we know, he was not one to approve of petty bourgeois commodity production. Still, no doubt this will encourage the friend of mine who always turns down the fairtrade option and asks for a cup of capitalist-explotation filter coffee, though perhaps some kind of rebranding might be in order. Freedom Blend? Capital Coffee?

>Gambler Klaus knows when to fold ’em

>Inwardly, I never quite thought it would do it, but stony faced and behind closed doors he did. Václav Klaus signed the Lisbon Treaty and so the whole ratification shermoz is over – at least fo rnow and until they realise that the whole hybrid federal-confederal confection that this the EU political system needs some further reform and we do the whole thing again.

If VK can draw any crumbs of comfort, it is that his profile on the European stage is higher and his reputation amongst all but the hardest of hardline eurosceptics enhanced by his last-man-standing act of the last few months. He may even pick up a few Brownie points among the Czech public for squeezing concessions, albeit of a meaningless and symbolic kind, out of the EU. Who, after all , could disagree that the Beneš Decrees need defending for all time? Not many Czech politicians and not very publicly.

A second crumb that may cause the Czech President a wry smile is that his decisions dumps British Tory leader David Cameroon, whose touchy-feeling, bluey-greem modern conservatism he is known to abhore, acute political difficulties as he will be under acute pressure tfrom his party’s eurosceptics o deliver on his ‘cast iron’ guarantee of a British referendum on Lisbon. Cameron’s only personal opt-out clause from keeping his promise – that he wouldn’t do it if the Treaty had already been ratified and was in force when he entered office may cut little ice there.

Why did Klaus acquiesce in the end? The answer it seems is that once the rest of the EU gave him whatever historical guarantees he could name concerning the Beneš Decress gidt wrapped and on a plate, he had a weak hand made up of increasingly fancifully challenges to the Treaty in Czech Constitutional Court. When it contemptuously rejected the last as irrelevant question mongering, he had no more cards to play and like The Gambler in the Kenny Rogers song, he knows when to fold ’em. The Czech President’s democratic mandate was simply to weak to make bloodyminded defiance in the name of the Czech nation a real option and there was always the risk the main parties might just find the wherewithall to defenestate him through some constitutional amendment.