Fifteen years of the Czech Republic

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Welcome to Radio Prague’s special New Year’s Day programme dedicated to the 15th anniversary of the foundation of the Czech Republic. The country now celebrates two foundation days – October 28 in memory of the establishment of Czechoslovakia in 1918, and January 1. On that day in 1993, Czechoslovakia split into two countries – Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The latter anniversary seems to be rather less celebrated, as if it had happened by coincidence. To discuss the achievements and the losses, the victories and the defeats of the 15-year-old Czech state, I’m joined in the studio by Professor Vladimira Dvorakova, a political scientist of the University of Economics in Prague, Dr. Josef Skala, an advisor on foreign issues to the Czech Communist party’s central committee, and Jaroslav Plesl, deputy editor-in-chief of the daily Lidove Noviny.

The Czech Republic seems to be doing very well at the moment; the economy is growing, the Czech crown is strengthening, the unemployment rate is very low, and we have a government which is introducing long awaited reforms. Professor Dvorakova, are Czechs living in the best of times since 1989?

Vladimira Dvorakova: “I think it depends on which Czechs we are talking about, there can be different opinions. I would say that lots of people were probably afraid in 1993, at the beginning of the new state there were a lot of uncertainties. Looking back at the whole process of the transition now, I think that it was a success story although we are challenged by various problems. I did some comparisons of transitions in other parts of the world and I think that this one is more successful than experts thought it would be in the beginning.”

Mr Plesl, would you agree with that?

Jaroslav Plesl: “I would totally say that we are living in the best times ever. I don’t think the Czech Republic has ever been so well off as it is right now. We are enjoying an incredible amount of freedom and an incredible economic boom. The perspectives for the country are only positive now.”

Mr Skala, is your view different in any way?

Josef Skala: “I agree with Ms Dvorakova on one point, and that is concerning the manner in which the federation split. It was peaceful, without any violence which – if you compare it to some other countries in Eastern Europe – was way better. I would however not agree with what has been said about what has been happening since the split of the country. Everybody knows that the split itself took place against the will of the majority of the population both in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It also opened the door for what I would call neo-liberal extremism. Just now, we are on the eve of what some people call the ‘revolution of the rich’ which is making the rich richer and the poor even poorer.”

But would you agree that the standard of living is constantly rising?

Josef Skala: “There is a minority in the society which is living much better than before. But the great majority of the society is living at best on the same level as they were some 15- 20 years ago. And there are many people who are living even worse.”

I see your views on this are very different. Mr Plesl, do you have anything top say about this?

Jaroslav Plesl: “I believe that for most people, the most important fact is that we live in a completely free country where nobody is sent to jail for whatever he or she thinks, says or writes. That is a major change compared to the communist past of the country.”

Let’s go back now to the time 15 years ago when Czechoslovakia split. How did you personally feel about it?

Vladimira Dvorakova: “Well, I was born Czechoslovakian, and I think the identity of most Czechs was Czechoslovakian first and only then Czech. I remember that on the night of the split, when they first played the Czechoslovak anthem and then the Czech anthem I started crying. I felt that something was over. My children asked me what was going on. I didn’t know how to explain that to them so I said a very silly thing. I told them that from then on, we didn’t have bears in our country anymore because bears only live in the mountains of Slovakia. Now I am optimistic because I heard some bears are moving from Slovakia to Moravia as well. I was strongly against the split but as a political scientist I was aware of one problem. The political scene was debating the problems between Czechs and Slovaks all the time and there was no space to deal with other issues that were urgent. Now, 15 years later, I can accept that and say that after all this was perhaps the best solution. In some sense though, I am till this day sure that it was not inevitable and there were other alternatives.”

Mr Skala, do you think that it was not inevitable, that it could have been prevented?

Josef Skala: “I am absolutely sure that it could have been prevented. Those who remember that period and who don’t follow politics only in tabloids and similar sources would agree with me that the decision was made because of very personal political ambitions of a small group of politicians. The elections in 1992 produced totally different results in the Czech lands and in Slovakia. The structure of the Federal Assembly at that time and its rules prevented any majority of Czechs against Slovaks, which was in fact blocking any efforts to advance in the way the Czech Republic took up after the split. But let me draw attention to the economic dimension. During the previous period, we, the Czechs, were providing quite big subsidies to the Slovak part of the country. There was a big re-distribution of the national income in favour of Slovakia, and there were many investments in Slovakia. By splitting the country, we simply lost these assets; we don’t own them any more. This does not make sense – why should we have lost such big assets?”

Some might argue that the issue of Slovak autonomy and independence would have remained on the political agenda if Czechoslovakia had not split. What is your stance on this, Mr Plesl?

Jaroslav Plesl: “Absolutely. I think the split was absolutely inevitable. I remember I was at university at that time, I was 19 and I had lost of schoolmates who were Slovak. We shared the opinion that it was very important that Slovakia become independent. Even Slovaks who were against [Slovak PM] Meciar and the nationalist parties thought that it was going to be much healthier for Slovakia to get through this nationalist period in its own state. It would see what it was like to be independent. It would experience not only the benefits of being an independent state but also the costs. Among my peers, the sentiment about the split was very positive as far as I remember. I felt happy when the country split on January 1, 1993.”

Looking at the issue of the split of the country in a broader context raises an interesting question. One of the things the current Czech Republic is often criticized for from abroad is the way it treats its minorities. This problem seems to be ever present in modern Czech history – pre-war Czechoslovakia had problems with a large German minority. Would you ever think of the split and of the establishment of two independent countries as the Czechs getting rid of yet another minority – the Slovak one this time?

Vladimira Dvorakova: “In a sense, this can be a viable interpretation. One of the problems of living together was the issue of institutions and the way the Federal Assembly worked. On the other hand, we find this in many other countries where they have minorities. The problem is whether or not people are able to communicate, to find compromises, to look for consensus. Back then, we did not really have a culture of finding compromises and solutions. The majority of people, according to public opinion polls from the time, were against the split but there was no ability to find a compromise on how to live together. This might even have some implications for the future because now there is this precedent which says, ‘you have a problem? You can transfer your minorities’. It was accepted that we would not have problems with Slovaks once they became independent. But this attitude was manifested even later with the Roma when you think of the way the law on citizenship was passed. I know that they even called it ‘the anti-Gypsy law’ at the Interior Ministry when they were working on it. The law left a lot of the Roma, who originally came from Slovakia, without citizenship and without any social support. Some might have thought that we would have solved the problem by sending them back to Slovakia. This only changed after pressure from abroad after which the Roma were able to get Czech citizenship and equal rights. This does have to do with the principle that if there is a problem the best solution is to send it somewhere else.”

Josef Skala: “Let me expand on this a little. If am not mistaken, we have several hundred thousand Slovaks working here at the moment. The problem which we kicked out of the door is now coming back through the window, as we say in Czech. Secondly, the Roma issue is the most twisted repercussion of all the developments we are talking about here. The Roma are people with a different culture and their adaptation to the European culture is a long-term process. During the previous regime, we had very good results in this area – these people were working, they had housing, they had basic elements of modern culture. Today the situation is totally different and it is one of the sources of tension within the society which is growing and causing big problems including rising crime levels and so on.”

Mr Plesl, what is needed for the Roma community to feel at home here? Do they need a string leader? Do they need to generate some kind of political movement among themselves?

“I think it is absolutely inevitable that they establish a political movement which will enter mainstream Czech politics. Unless they do this, they are never going to achieve an equal status. For this, education is crucial. Unless we see a strong base for the Roma elite in Czech society – which, thank God, has started shaping up recently – we are not going to move anywhere with this problem. It really requires a great deal of education and a great deal of affirmative action to get them educated.”

One of the issues that is constantly reappearing in the Czech Republic has to do with the country’s communist past. Recently, several public personalities such as singer-songwriter Jaromir Nohavica have been accused of collaborating with the communist secret police, known as the StB. Mr Skala, what do you think of the way Czechs have dealt with their communist past?

Josef Skala: “Look, in the 1980s there were 1.7 million members of the communist party. Perhaps not every family but ever other family had a member of the communist party. I am quite proud of not having gone the way many others did trying to distance themselves from this and that. Coming back to your question, let’s apply the same standards. I belong to the generation which had nothing to do with what went on in the 1950s which was really very problematic. In spite of this, I still feel some sort of moral trauma. I think this should never have happened and even my generation bears its legacy. We are permanently thinking of how to prevent anything similar happening in the future. But at the same time, the Cold War was not initiated by Stalin or [Czech communist leader] Gottwald. It was an attack from the other side; it was a defence against the other side which brought about things that should have never have happened. But this would be a big topic for a big debate which I am sure we cannot have today.”

That certainly would be a big topic. Mr Plesl, do you agree with those voices which say that the communist party should have been banned right after 1989 as a criminal organisation?

Jaroslav Plesl: “No, I am liberal and I believe that nothing should be banned. I would even legalize the Nazi party unless they attack somebody but otherwise they should be able to say what they want. And I believe the same with regard to the communists. But I personally think that the worst aspect of the communist legacy in this country is the destruction of values in the society. And I can see that even in people of my own generation. I think that people have gotten used to the fact that they can get a lot for free, that they don’t have to be active in order to gain. That is something they have learnt from the communists and that is my greatest personal problem with the communists.”

Vladimira Dvorakova: “Well, I think that we concentrate too much on questions such as the collaboration with the secret police. They are important for researchers and you can find information to understand what went on. But speaking of the people whose names are in the secret police file while not knowing what the circumstances were and what really happened – that can be easily politically abused. What I miss, though, is a real study of the past. For me as a political scientist, it much more important to understand how control was gained, how decision making was done, how the state apparatus functioned, and so on. These things continue even after the end of regime.”

Jaroslav Plesl: “But we do know how the system worked. It was a totalitarian regime which kept control over the society by blackmailing people, by sending them to jail, by taking their jobs from them, by preventing them from joining their families which left for the West. It was a repressive system that was constantly destroying freedoms of all the people living in this country disregarding whether or not they were members of the communist party. Everybody was basically living in jail. So we know how the system worked. I completely understand that some people feel offended when they find out that somebody helped keep the regime alive by cooperating with the secret police. I feel offended when I find out that somebody who is in the public arena, in the government or wherever reported to the secret police on the actions of people around him. And I understand why because even though I was 16 in 1989, I remember things that were really bad about the regime. You just cannot adore somebody who helped the regime that would not let you visit your relatives in Switzerland because you might not come back. You know, what is this? From today’s point of view, it seems totally bizarre and I think I will have a very difficult time explaining to my children what it was like to live under communism.”

Vladimira Dvorakova: “But, you know, I am talking here really about research on the topic. What you just said are the basic features but it is extremely important to understand how it really worker, all the tones of it.”

Jaroslav Plesl: “It was just blackmailing, criminalizing people. We know the basics.”

Vladimira Dvorakova: “So you agree with me that it is good for nothing to have this Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes because we know how they worked?”

Jaroslav Plesl: “I do think so. We will only find out about more and more people who were helping the communists.”

Vladimira Dvorakova: “Are you saying that we don’t need to study the Holocaust because we know how it worked as well?”

Jaroslav Plesl: “I think we do. I think it is important to study it but it’s not going to reveal any major news about the system. It’s good for historians, but I don’t think this is going to have an effect on the thinking of the society just like no new findings about the Holocaust are going to affect the societies of Germany or Israel or Poland.”

Josef Skala: “I think we are putting together a picture of the past here that is quite far from reality although some elements Mr Plesl was talking about were true. But the whole of the reality was totally different.”

Jaroslav Plesl: “I was living here.”

Josef Skala: “Me too, me too.”

Jaroslav Plesl: “But you were a part of the establishment, and I wasn’t. Of course you are defending it.”

Josef Skala: “There are many people who were part of the establishment and they now have billions, you know, like some ministers of Vaclav Klaus’ governments. I was not any agent or any StB officer. I simply went my own way; that was my personal decision. One day, you know, there will also be lists of collaborators of BIS [the current Czech intelligence service] and other agencies. Do you really believe that they don’t intervene in our lives?”

Surely they don’t burn people’s fingers during interrogations.

Josel Skala: “Look. We are now 18 years from November 1989. If you compare it with the mid-1960s – the period between 1989 and today is just about as long as the period from 1948 and the mid-1960s – if you compare the atmosphere in Czechoslovakia in the middle of the 1960s and now. Compare to what extent the regime, if you want to call it that, was still looking for scapegoats and explanations of its mistakes and problems in the past. Now it is not ten, but a hundred times worse. We are permanently looking for those guilty of causing today’s problems.”

Jaroslav Plesl: “That is not true. We have elections; we get rid of the political elite and establish a new one. This is how it is resolved in a democracy.”

Josef Skala: “Most people back then did not have the problems of which you talk. They were living in a totally different atmosphere.”

That remains to be settled in one of our future debates here at Radio Prague. My final question for today is: When you look back 15 years ago, is the Czech Republic where you then thought it would be in 2008?

Vladimira Dvorakova: I think I was perhaps a little too pessimistic. I would say that although I am critical of a number of things, it is better that I supposed it would be.

Jaroslav Plesl: I think the Czech Republic is some 10 to 15 years ahead of my personal schedule.

Josef Skala: Paradoxically, the mistake I made when forecasting the post-1989 period was in that even I was not expecting that all the positive achievements from the previous decades would last for so long and would delay all the social and other repercussions for so long.

That was the final answer on Radio Prague’s special New Year’s Day programme where our guests Professor Vladimira Dvorakova, Josef Skala and Jaroslav Plesl discussed the developments of the Czech Republic which was founded 15 years ago today.