Přemysl Janýr: Czechs and Austrians are like twins

Přemysl Janýr, photo: Jackson Griffiths

The Czech Republic currently, for the first time ever, has good relations with all of its neighbours – with perhaps one exception. Relations between Czechs and Austrians, hampered by a feud over the Temelín nuclear power plant in southern Bohemia, sank to a historic low in the 1990s, and are only slowly improving. In this edition of One on One, we speak to Přemysl Janýr, the Vienna-based chairman of the Forum for Czech-Austrian Dialogue.

“It’s quite difficult to speak about relations between nations because each of them consists of a large number of individuals. We can speak about some external characteristics, like the relations between the two governments, or about the image of the other nation in the media. Right now, the relations are rather cold although they are better than some five years ago.”

How come the relations have improved?

“The relations between Czechs and Austrians have surely not improved since 1989; in fact, the opposite is the case. They worsened rapidly during the 1990s. Immediately after the collapse of the communist regime, there were plenty of mutual links and expectations and both cultures were like best friends.”

What are the major obstacles today between Czechs and Austrians?

“Some people say that the matter which divides them is the similarity. It’s important to know that both cultures are really twins, born from the split of the same Austrian culture, from the same Austrian monarchy. This established deep cultural and emotional links that even reach into the present. Depending on the circumstances, they easily turn into either positive or negative attitudes. In the past we can see certain patterns. At times of considerable activity of the Czech civic society, Austrians supported it with really great dedication. When the Czech fire faded away, Austrian enthusiasm turned into disgust.”

What is the Forum for Czech-Austrian Dialogue doing to improve relations?

“The Forum for Czech-Austrian Dialogue was founded in 2002, when relations were dominated by the worst kind of populist policies on both sides and reached their historic low. In that situation, several hundred personalities from both countries put together a petition and called on both governments to moderate their animosities and to return to a constructive dialogue. It has had a big impact that nobody really expected at the time. Today, one of the major projects is common history. This will be a publication that will intermediate not only historic facts bust also analyze their perception.”

The Austrian government helped political refugees from Czechoslovakia after the Soviet-led invasion of the country in 1968, and then again in the 1970s when Czechoslovak authorities persecuted the signatories of Charter 77. But when the Czech Republic was about to join the EU, Austrian officials were not very excited. What has changed in the attitude towards Czechs?

“First, Austrian politics went through a change of generations. People such as Bruno Kreisky, who had deep personal ties to Bohemia, or to the central European region, were replaced by younger and more pragmatic politicians who were much more interested in entering the European Union. Ironically, Austria at the same time went through a period of international isolation because of President Waldheim. A good part, though, can be imputed to the Czech side which quickly changed from non-violent freedom fighters to arrogant and unscrupulous egoists.”

Are the relations between Slovaks and Austrians different in any way from those between Czechs and Austrians?

“Yes, they are historically different. Slovakia was a part of Hungary, unlike Bohemia and Moravia that were part of Austria. From 1918, the Austrian perception of Czechoslovakia was determined by the dominating Czech part of the country while relations with Hungary developed differently. After the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1993, Slovakia is a completely new neighbour from the Austrian point of view without much historical experience.”

You settled in Vienna in 1978. What made you leave Czechoslovakia?

“I was engaged in some dissident activities, in Charter 77, and Mr [President Gustáv] Husák and I didn’t like each other very much at that time. I was more or less forced to leave the country which I refused to for some time. Then I decided to come to study in Vienna for two years, but after one year, I received this letter informing me that I had been stripped of my Czechoslovak citizenship, and we couldn’t come back to Czechoslovakia for the next 12 years.”

Did you ever consider moving back to Prague after the fall of communism?

“Immediately after the revolution, we spoke about it rather then seriously considered it, but with time, the idea became less and less attractive because we have very similar feelings about the Czech Republic as other Austrians in that what was full of hope after the fall of communism was soon replaced by very arrogant and unpleasant policies. Now I don’t think we would like to move back. But I come very often to the Czech Republic and I’m active here. It doesn’t make much difference, living in Vienna or here in Mikulov or Brno.”

We are talking in Mikulov where ten years ago, you founded a multi-cultural festival, the Festival of the Nations of the Dyje. Do you think it has helped change the way local people view ethnic minorities in the country?

“I don’t think that in the country as such, but in the region, it surely did. People are more aware of their own ethnic roots because this is a region where most people came after WWII, and most of them came from other countries, from Slovakia, Hungary, from the Balkans, and so on. They are now here in the second or third generation, and with this festival, most of them remembered their roots, their ethnic origins or those of their parents. People here in Mikulov speak about it and you can often feel that they have come to realize that ethnic diversity as a very positive feature of this region and of this town.”