The Czech Fall from Pride

A long white winter in most inhabited places is usually followed by crisp Easter sunshine, yet we may be come to witness quite the opposite in the development of our country: a shift from an artificial weather warming to a long-term cold depression. To put it cynically: for twenty years the Czech Republic has lived beyond its means – and I don’’t mean the state debt. For a long time the charisma of the two most colourful characters in modern Czech politics – Václav Havel a Václav Klaus – has disguised the real state of Czech society. The task of unmasking it has fallen to Jiří Paroubek. At first sight it may seem that the only thing that is depressing is the revolting political wrangling, which has gradually exposed to the public the corruption that has become an obvious part of every single public tender, from a bicycle path in the suburbs through IT systems in government offices to military mega-tenders. However, the real problem may be buried much deeper. Ice hockey might provide the most apt sports metaphor: following a few miraculous years the local team discovers that the best times are over. Miracles don’’t recur, there will be no second Nagano [the 1998 winter Olympic Games in which the Czech Republic won the gold medal], and even getting into the semi-finals seems an unattainable goal in the long run. That’’s the state we’’re in.

For the first eight years or so the political elite tried to lead the nation. This approach came to an end in 1997 when, in what might be termed our Sarajevo, an undeclared war broke out between most of the media and Václav Klaus and instead of leading the nation the ODS chairman opted for pandering to it, albeit quite timidly to start with. The fall of Klaus’’s second government brought about the failure of a broad social transformation coalition and augured the beginning of an end of a pre-war republic fairytale of a country that is more successful than its neighbours. The June elections will be the culmination of this regressive though hardly undeserved, development.  All the apparatchik Paroubek did was speed up the process.

Maybe the nation’s elite will finally be forced to admit that the dream of a free West was just a dream not shared by the majority of the population. The political and social situation in the country is certain to remain incredibly calm – by this region’s standards – maybe almost too comfortably so for normal life. Except that instead of catching up with Germany or the United Kingdom we will finally take our rightful place alongside our brothers and cousins the Slovaks and Austrians. What lies ahead is corruption, populism, pusillanimity and politicization of everything down to every single construction tender and every schoolmaster recruitment.

It would be unadvisable to contribute to the atmosphere of hysteria that seems to thicken every year among a certain part of the right wing electorate like fruit flies over a glass of wine. So far no election has ended in real disaster and this one won’t either. Yet it is quite likely that after the election our modernizers will finally face the truth: the majority does not share their idea of the degree of cooperation with the West as a whole and is not keen on a US missile shield or on sending soldiers to Afghanistan, preferring instead to spend in office canteens the monies earmarked for tanks and fighter jets. The majority does not want to be responsible for saving up for their old age. They don’t want to contribute to the cost of medical care or medication. They see themselves as the victim that the authorities are supposed to look after. And – unlike the past years – the people are no longer ashamed of this kind of attitudes. This deeply rooted etatist outlook has for many years been disguised by Václav Havel’’s near radical pro-Western policies and prime minister Václav Klaus’’s liberal pronouncements. For a long time our public lacked someone capable of articulating its infatuation with a strong state – deep down, even Miloš Zeman was an intellectual, whose populism was limited mainly to his rhetoric. Of course it is possible that the local populists won’’t be able to sell the public their fairytale Of the Kind Czar who will take care of old babushkas as well as of Olympic medals. However, I am afraid that we are much closer to Fico’’s Slovakia than we were willing to admit twenty years ago.

Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article appeared in Orientace, a supplement to the daily Lidové noviny.