Jan Sokol – Part 2: Zeman grasped the chance to mobilise people who were not winners of the political changes

Jan Sokol, photo: Ian Willoughby

Philosopher and one-time dissident Jan Sokol is perhaps best-known among the Czech public as a failed presidential candidate, having missed out to Václav Klaus in the final round of voting in 2003, the last time the country’s head of state was chosen by legislators. Professor Sokol has known the current, directly elected president since before 1989 – and offers sharp criticism of Miloš Zeman in this the second half of a two-part interview. But first we discuss the period when, after the fall of communism, he was finally allowed to pursue an academic career.

Jan Sokol, photo: Ian Willoughby
In the early 1990s you started teaching at Charles University. What was it like at the university then, so soon after the revolution? Was it a kind of “year zero” situation, where many of the older academics had to leave?

“Yes. At least at Charles I think the change was deeper than at other universities.

“And in the humanities it was pretty deep.

“Half of the teachers at the School of Philosophy were replaced.

“The places were taken by people whom I knew, friends – a big part of them students of [Jan] Patočka.

“It was a time when it was possible to make rather deep changes.

“We then started what later became the School of Humanities, the new faculty of Charles, inspired partly at least by the liberal American education scheme.

“I think it was successful, and something which in normal times would be hardly possible.”

Getting back to politics, one question that still persists to this day is whether the Communist Party should have been banned after the Velvet Revolution. What do you think about that issue?

“I think it is typical naivety [laughs].

“In the country there were one and a half million former or current members of the Communist Party.

“You cannot send them to the moon [laughs].

“You have these people here. Their 13, 15 percent of the vote would always be there.”

But they weren’t all committed Communists – the 1.5 million people weren’t believers, I’m sure.

“I think the Communists were not dangerous – until the revival of Russian, dare I say, imperialism.”

“Partly so, but one should not underestimate the fact that they were for 20 or maybe even more years together as a political elite.

“So they had their connections and all that.

“I think it would suffice to have a look at Romania, the only country which prohibited the Communist Party and then had these former Communists in all other political parties.

“So I think it is very naive to think that this would change things.”

In 2003 you stood in the third and final round of the presidential election in which Václav Klaus became the president. If I understand it right, Klaus was elected partly on the support of the Communist Party. How did you feel? The Communists had impacted your life for so many years and then you stand for president and it’s the Communists who stop you becoming president.

“Yes. It is different, you know. The Communists changed somehow – mostly because they became a permanent opposition.

“It was a completely new role.

“For me communism was always something alien.

“I was never attracted by it and I spent much time analysing what the theoretical mistakes of communism were.

“So what was after ’89 or after ’90… the Communists played a somewhat different role.

Václav Klaus, photo: Filip Jandourek / Czech Radio
“You know, when we made in Parliament the first bill of human rights, it was the Communists who supported it.

“Unlike some right-wing parties, who were skeptical about it.

“I think that they were not dangerous – until the revival of Russian, dare I say, imperialism or the Russian politics of expansion.

“So now are the Communists are dangerous just as an exponent of Putin’s Russia.”

Václav Klaus was the last president elected by Parliament. After that a public vote for president came in. Looking back, was that change a good idea?

“No, it was a big blunder.

“When the idea first came up in the late ‘90s I wrote several articles explaining why it is a mistake.

“First, it deepens the divisions within society.

‘The presidential campaign is necessarily full of dirty things [laughs], so the candidates necessarily become dirty by the campaign.

“Only very, very determined people can dare to undergo the campaign.

“The president becomes implicitly a sort of opposition against the government.

“Only very, very determined people can dare to undergo a presidential campaign.”

“This is a very dangerous development.

“So I think the direct election of the president has no advantages and only disadvantages.”

Are those disadvantages greater when the president is somebody as politically skilled as Miloš Zeman?

“Yes. Sure. I would put rather inversely. That is, only people with such political skill, energy and ambition – unbridled ambition – can become president.”

You’ve known Mr. Zeman since I believe 1988. When you look at him today… He used to be a socialist, but now he supports Trump. He’s quite pro-Russian. What do you think is his political motivation? What’s driving Miloš Zeman and his politics?

“Yes, this is for me a sort of enigma too.

“When I met him for the first time, he was a Masarkyian idealist.

“We were two years together in Parliament and collaborated closely, because I was the spokesman of the biggest caucus whereas Miloš was head of the Budget Committee.

Miloš Zeman, photo: Filip Jandourek / Czech Radio
“And we were really friends.

“Then I think in high politics he had several very bad experiences.

“I don’t know what exactly what they were, but he became very cynical, which he was not before.

“So today I think the most salient feature of his personality is this cynicism.

“Because he is playing a primitive whereas he is a fairly educated man.”

Why is he playing a primitive, as you put it?

“Because he grasped the opportunity to mobilise a broad public which is people who were not winners of the changes but losers, people who are afraid of the changes.

“You can see this in the whole of Eastern Europe – this sort of rebellion of people afraid of freedom.”

But again about Mr. Zeman, what do you think it is that’s driving him? Does he have a coherent ideology? What is pushing him to act politically as he does?

“I’m afraid he doesn’t have any ideological line.

“He is simply looking out for opportunities – and if not he himself, then people close to him, people who are simply looking after money.

“Not for themselves, but for the campaigns…

“You know, they are doing something similar to what Putin does – namely they try to mobilise oligarchs to support them.

“I think the most salient feature of Zeman’s personality is this cynicism. Because he is playing a primitive whereas he is a fairly educated man.”

“This is what Klaus does, and Zeman too.

“[Zeman has] good contacts with the richest people, who help to run a permanent campaign for him, in the media, on TV and so on.

“And he is giving them opportunities to make some good business deals and so on.”

But would you say that Mr. Zeman himself is motivated by money?

“I don’t think so.

“Zeman is motivated by power and by being publicly known – having public resonance.”

I know it’s a very big question, but generally speaking how do you view the state of Czech politics right now?

“Well, rather calmly.

“In the upper levels, it is rather dirty – this is true.

‘The case of the prime minister is sad.

“He’s a man who was finance minister and has problems with taxes, a man who has a conflict of interest and so on.

“This is a sad story.

“Klaus, Zeman and Babiš have actually dissolved, or lost, the prestige which Havel earned for this country.

“In the upper levels, Czech politics is rather dirty. The case of the prime minister is sad.”

“It’s practically completely lost thanks to these people.

“But on the other hand that the country is running well.

“Not only economically but in all respects we are much closer to the successful democracies than we were in the ‘90s.

“We have freedom like never in history, and so on.

“It would be a question as to what the role of politics is in this, but in any case I cannot say that we would be poorly off [laughs].”

I was reading that you’re a big contributor to Wikipedia. What do you get out of that? What’s the attraction?

“Yes. Firstly, at my age [83] it is difficult to write a book.

“Because I would have difficulty in keeping together the line of a book.

“But it is very interesting to write short texts, like encyclopedic articles.

“And second, I realised it is a way how you can really come into contact with young people.

“Young people are not very fond of reading – but all of them use Wikipedia.

“So [laughs] it is writing where you can be sure that somebody reads it.”