Timothy Snyder: Klaus won the moral contest with Havel

Timothy Snyder

US historian Timothy Snyder is a leading specialist in the history of Central and Eastern Europe and World War II. He also takes a keen interest in contemporary international affairs and his latest book explores how Russia revolutionised information warfare. Recently journalist Filip Nerad interviewed the Yale academic for the programme Interview Plus on Czech Radio’s Plus news station – and their talk touched on much that relates to the Czech Republic.

A Czech parliamentary election will take place in October. In recent years there has been much evidence of Russia’s attempts to intervene in, for example, the US presidential elections or to influence voting through disinformation campaigns. To what extent are elections still a fair competition today? And how much are they influenced by these various external interventions?

“I think having elections that are fair competitions should be an aspiration of every democracy.

“Whether it’s the Czech Republic or whether it’s the United States, we should be thinking, What are the internal conditions that we need to have competitive elections?

“And in both of our countries there’s an issue there with free speech, and so on.

“There is a Russian disinformation presence in the Czech Republic, and Russia certainly has its favourites among Czech politicians.”

“The external issue becomes worse when you have internal problems.

“The way that external actors behave is that they look for the weaknesses in the system, they look for the divisions in the society.

“So the best way to hold off external intervention is to try to solve as many problems internally as you can.”

So should we in the Czech Republic also be afraid of something like that? Or does that fact that we are not such an important international player as the United States, Germany or the UK – which have been the targets of these interventions in recent years – in a way save us?

“No, no, no. I would say it’s the other way around.

“In general Russia experiments with smaller countries and then it tries things with bigger countries.

Miloš Zeman | Photo: Michaela Danelová,  Czech Radio

“There is a Russian disinformation presence in the Czech Republic, and Russia certainly has its favourites among Czech politicians.

“So no, I think it’s the other way around.

“I think it’s rather accidental that the US was such a success for Russia.

“I don’t think that they expected it would work so well in the US.”

You’ve said that we in the Czech Republic have some terrible politicians. Could you name some? Who in your opinion is a terrible politician in the Czech Republic?

“Well, if we’re speaking about the information space and about Russia, then your president would be near the top of the list.

“The Czech president is someone who is worse than naive about Russia.”

“He’s someone who is worse than naive about Russia and exhibits, to my way of thinking, a terrible attitude about the press.

“Elections without a free press are essentially just a ceremony in which power maintains its previous role.

“So, everyone has terrible politicians, everyone can have terrible presidents, but if we’re talking about Russia and free speech, I guess there’s an easy answer in your country.”

Central Europe has functioned historically as a kind of buffer zone between Germany and Russia. What is its role today, when it’s a member of the European Union and NATO?

“History never ends. It’s nice to think that joining the EU and NATO somehow means that life is over and there are no more challenges.

“But as we see that’s clearly not the case.

“And the struggle for democracy and the struggle for freedom is much less about territory now than it used to be.

Photo: pixel2013,  Pixabay,  CC0 1.0 DEED

“It used to be about tanks and mines, and now it’s much more about memes and minds.

“I think in a strange way the role of Central Europe is the same as it has been for much of the last hundred years, which is that it’s a kind of experimental zone.

“A lot of the things that happen in the West, happen in Central Europe first – and in a more intense version.

“For example, tuneláři [tunnelers, asset strippers in the post-communist period] and oligarchy – you had that form of corruption first.

“We are in a certain way moving in that direction in the US.

“The cyber stuff that we talked about before – that was very intense in Russia and Ukraine and Central Europe before it reached the US.

“So I think the answer is you’re still a zone of experimentation, for better or for worse.”

What is being experimented on now in Central Europe? What is the feature that is being tested on us?

“It used to be about tanks and mines, and now it’s much more about memes and minds.”

“That’s very good question.

“It’s not just coming from the outside, of course – it’s also coming from your own rulers.

“I think there’s a kind of theory of democratic emptiness, where you have elections and you have political parties but somehow it’s all empty.

“There aren’t enough facts, there aren’t enough values, there are just procedures.

“And the procedures, rather than revealing a reality or changing a reality, just enforce the status quo.

“Hungary has gone very far in that direction and Poland is moving slowly in that direction.

“It’s a model which Russia is the example of: You have elections, they just don’t mean anything – they’re empty.

“It’s something like that, it’s a kind of democratic emptiness.

“It’s sad and melancholy, because it used to be that there were intellectual and moral challenges to democracy.

Václav Havel | Photo: Tomáš Adamec,  Czech Radio

“They might have come from terrible places, but at least they embodied some kind of human ingenuity.

“Right now it’s empty democracy versus full democracy.

“The enemy of democracy is an absence. It’s always in disguise.

“It’s always taking something away. It’s always criticising, it’s never adding anything.”

I would like to also go a little bit to the past, to the late Czech president Václav Havel, whom you quote very often in your books. Since his death, is the Czech Republic still a moral leader in the European or Central European area, as it was in the period after the Velvet Revolution?

“My view is that there was a moral competition between Václav Havel and Václav Klaus, and Václav Klaus won.

“That isn’t to say that I’m in favour of Václav Klaus, but I think if you look at the Czech Republic today it’s much more a Václav Klaus Czech Republic than it is a Václav Havel Czech Republic. And I say that with regret.

“I’m struck by how well The Power of the Powerless describes the problems of Western democracy.”

“I think there was a political competition between two moral ideas – very different moral ideas.

“Havel’s idea was something like horizontal community, the authenticity of individual personalities encountering one another, and politics being secondary, politics being about enabling people to live the lives that they authentically should live.

“Whereas for Klaus politics was an instrument to create a kind of economic transformation.

“That economic transformation was quite corrupt from the very beginning, largely thanks to Mr. Klaus.

“And that, I think, has defined the Czech Republic morally.

“But Havel himself, the Havel of the 1970s and 1980s, remains a giant. He remains an enormously important figure.

“And his analysis… when I re-read his Letter to Husák, or especially The Power of the Powerless, I’m struck by how well it describes the problems of Western democracy.

“I read it first in the 1980s and there’s all this stuff at the end about how communist Czechoslovakia shows the problems that the West will have in the future.

“When I read that in the 1980s I had no idea what he was talking about. It seemed ridiculous to me.

“But now it actually seems prophetic and accurate, because Havel was very much concerned about the mechanisation of things.

“He was concerned about things becoming predictable.

“Whereas he understood freedom to be about unpredictability, improbability.

Václav Klaus | Photo: René Volfík,  Czech Radio

“He was worried about a social machine which forces us into what he calls the ‘most probable states’.

“That’s how he defines repression – that you are being forced to do these things which are likely, which are probable. And freedom is about recognising the unpredictable, beautiful, authentic thing in yourself.

“That for me is a profound analysis, which doesn’t just concern Czechoslovakia in the 1970s; it’s very much about the West and all of us today, where there is now a big machine: there is now the internet.

“It does tend to make all of us less interesting.

“And when you’re less interesting, it’s very hard to support a civil society and it’s very hard to support a democracy.

“So Havel remains a very important figure for our times.”