Vít Klepárník of new think tank CESTA: left should no longer be a dirty word

Vít Klepárník

A group of Czech intellectuals including political analyst Jiří Pehe, sociologists Jan Keller and Tereza Stöckelová, and others, felt that ever since the fall of communism, political discourse in the country has been dominated by a right-wing agenda, articulated by a number of liberal and conservative institutes. To provide alternatives and to oppose these views from a left-wing wing perspective, these intellectuals established in January a new political think-tank called Cesta, or Path. In this edition of One on One, RP spoke to one of Cesta’s founders, political analyst Vít Klepárník.

Vít Klepárník
“The reasons for establishing the new think tank include the dire conditions triggered by the global economic crisis as well as the changing role of the state under a different political and economic climate. But I would personally highlight the economic transformation initiated by the government of prime minister Mirek Topolánek in 2006.

“There is a long-standing imbalance in the public sphere in which a large part of the Czech elites consider the term ‘left’ a dirty word, and we hope that CESTA will help change that.”

Do you think that the reason why many Czechs don’t like hearing about the left has do with the legacy of communism?

“I think that to a certain extent, it does have to do with post-communism and people’s experience from the 1970s and 80s. Some people who now hold key positions in Czech politics and economy grew up in that time, and they remember their experiences from that time.”

Several Czech governments in the last 15 years were led by Social Democrats. How did they contribute to the image of the left wing?

“I think that some Social Democrat leaders were in fact a contributing factor to the way the left was perceived in the Czech Republic – but they were not the main factor. The general atmosphere in the society is not directly affected by one or two political leaders or a party.”

How do you expect the new think tank will change this in practical terms?

“We primarily want to work with the public and the media. We want to be heard, and I think that after two public debates we have organized, we are heading in the right direction. We want to formulate new ideas, responses to new challenges. Our main goal is not to work for the government or to meet political orders, which is what think tanks do in the US, for example. We want to educate the public and to change the ideas of political leaders.”

One of the Czech political leaders, the acting chair of the Social Democrat party, Bohuslav Sobotka, is one of CESTA’s founding members. How closely are you linked to the party?

“We don’t work closely with the Social Democrats although we are personally linked to Bohuslav Sobotka. He has great intellectual potential, and he works with other intellectuals in the Czech Republic, for example with sociologist Jan Keller, who is a member of CESTA’s board of directors.

Bohuslav Sobotka
“There are natural ties between the Social Democrats and CESTA but they are not official or exclusive. We said we wanted to cooperate with various streams within the Czech left and centrist politics – with the Greens, the Christian Democrats, and possibly also with some radical left-wing groups and initiatives such as ProAlt.”

There are two major Czech left-wing groups. Besides the Social Democrats, there is also the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia that has at times played a bigger role, and at other times had little relevance. How do you see their role?

“I think that the Communist Party has found itself in a paradoxical position over the last 20 years. They have no potential for forming a coalition on the national level but they function normally in ways that are perhaps less obvious, on other levels of Czech politics.

“They have formed coalitions with the Social Democrats in six of the country’s 14 regions; they work normally in municipal councils around the country. I think one of the problems is that there has been this wave of anti-communism that is still alive in the Czech Republic but I think it’s ever emptier.

“From the point of view of political science, I think the Communists are not part of the system which causes an imperfect alternation between left-and right-wing governments. The system is not functional because there is a ghetto which is cut off from all the other political camps in the Czech Republic.”

Who do you think is in a position to change this? Is it the Communist Party itself, or should perhaps the Social Democrats drop their ban on forming a national coalition with the Communists?

“I believe that steps must be taken on both sides. It’s not only a problem for the Communists or only for the Social Democrats and other groups. There must be changes on both sides in the future that will bring changes to the system. And I think there are already certain symptoms of these changes – for example, the parties do cooperate on the regional level.”

One pundit – Jan Macháček in the weekly Respekt – welcomed CESTA but said you were missing the point in criticizing the dismantling of the Czech welfare state. He said the current government is attacking the concept of a welfare state only verbally, and will in fact spend more this year than it did in 2010. Do you think the government will remove some of the features of the welfare state?

“It’s obvious that the situation within the government is not clear. We don’t know what will come in the future, but I think that some of the government’s proposals are damaging the public sphere, be it health care, social services, culture, state employees. I also think that the so-called equal tax is in reality a digressive tax which would ruin the middle class and the poor people.

“I think that right wing parties are in fact changing their strategy. The funds that go into the welfare system are the same or maybe smaller but several steps have been introduced that will channel these funds into private businesses, which will in effect further increase the differences between the rich and the poor. This severely damages the status of the middle class.”

In your own academic formation, you specialized in US foreign policy. How did you get involved in CESTA?

“I got an offer to get involved from a former classmate of mine who works with Jiří Pehe, the head of CESTA. I don’t think there is any contradiction in my specialization and working for the new think tank. We would also like to debate the problems of Czech foreign policy, that of the EU, US, and so on.”

As a specialist in the field, how do you see the Czech position within US foreign policy?

“The US has a continuing interest in central and Eastern Europe which goes back not only to the early 1990s but to the end of WWII. I don’t think there is any great difference between the policies of George W. Bush and those of Barack Obama but as many commentators have noted, Obama’s polices are more multi-lateral. The US is not neglecting central Europe but its main partner is now Russia, and the main goal of the Czech foreign policy is now to work within the EU. From this point of view, the US is not the Czech Republic’s major partner.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on February 14, 2011.