European Affairs

A Tale of Two Václavs     Print Email
Michael Kraus

Michael Kraus“Which is the most neutral country in the world? Czechoslovakia. It refuses to intervene even in its own internal affairs.” So went an anecdote I heard twenty years ago in communist-era Prague. But now it is June 2007. The Czechs joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004, and President George W. Bush has visited Prague to make his case for the U.S.-built anti-missile shield in the Czech Republic and Poland to be built by 2012 to cope with threats from rogue states such as Iran. Formal bilateral negotiations are only just beginning; it remains unclear whether this anti-ballistic system can work or how it relates to NATO’s plans or whether the U.S. Congress will actually fund it. But none of those uncertainties forestalled Russia’s President Vladimir Putin from threatening to put those two central European facilities in the cross-hairs of Russian nuclear missiles. How popular is the shield in the Czech Republic? The center-right Czech coalition government, headed by Mirek Topolánek of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), says it wants it. But for months, Czech public opinion has run about two-to-one in opposition to the shield, with 10 percent undecided.

The previous Czech government (2002-2006), a left-center coalition dominated by the Social Democrats and their leader, Jirí Paroubek, held a series of meetings with the Bush administration regarding the missile shield. These meetings were merely exploratory, and the government kept rather mum about them, so the anti-missile shield issue in fact did not enter last year’s election campaign.

In bitterly contested elections in June 2006, the ODS narrowly edged out the Social Democrats, by such a slim margin that it took seven months, until January 2007, for the new coalition to win a parliamentary vote of confidence. It took so long, at least in part, because two potential coalitions were neck and neck, each with nearly half the 200-seat Chamber of Deputies. One group compromising the ODS, Christian Democrats and Greens finally succeeded in forming a government under Prime Minister Topolánek. The winning coalition had said in the campaign that it was willing to consider the U.S. proposal; the losing one, making up the opposition, comprises the Communists and Paroubek’s Social Democrats. The Social Democrats are willing to consider the proposal provided that it is endorsed by NATO and approved by referendum in the Czech Republic.

Given the shape of public opinion, their position is not very different from that of the Communists, who oppose it outright. The Greens, who are divided about the issue, obtained 6.3 percent of the popular vote, entering government for the first time. That they narrowly beat the five percent minimum threshold for parliamentary representation was due to Václav Havel, who publicly endorsed the Greens before the elections. While in office, Havel had shied away from formally backing a political party. But this time, his best-selling book, To the Castle and Back, when it was published last year, was marketed with a green jacket inviting his numerous readers to vote Green.

The “other Václav” – Václav Klaus, who succeeded Havel as president in 2003 – was the founder and is today the honorary chairman of ODS. He is the other reason the Czechs were unable to form a new government for so long. With a view toward the 2008 Czech presidential election – which takes place in the parliament – Klaus wanted to maximize his prospects for re-election by advocating a grand coalition but doing so in a way that avoided antagonizing the ODS, his political mainstay. In the end, the majority he wanted emerged in the parliament, but only with a razor-thin margin obtained thanks to the defection of two Social Democrats who now vote, at least most of the time, with the coalition. In this politically precarious situation, it is an open question whether the Topolánek government can last beyond August, when another parliamentary vote of confidence is scheduled.

The post-election maneuvering demonstrated what so many Czech voters resent about their political class – a mutually-reinforcing pattern involving unwillingness to search for consensus coupled with the readiness of so many politicians to abandon their party platform at a moment’s notice if such turncoat behavior enables them to stay in power. For the past decade, the Czech Republic has experienced a succession of weak coalitions and minority governments, which have often proved volatile and ineffective. The electoral stalemate also reflects the presence of the Communist Party, whose largely-unreformed character, and reluctance to address its own unsavory past and hard-line stances (for example, opposition to NATO) reduces the coalition potential of Czech political parties. The Communists, who have regularly garnered 10 to 18 percent of the popular vote in parliamentary elections since 1996, got 13 percent of the popular vote in the 2007 election, which translated into 26 parliamentary seats.

While the Communists have not been deemed a fit partner so far for any governing coalition, they are a faction to be reckoned with. Unlike Havel, who refused to deal with Communist party leaders throughout his 13 years as president, Klaus made a presidential campaign promise in 2003 to treat them like any other parliamentary party. He was duly elected with communist support (and perhaps some cash payments, according to nasty rumors that were widespread in Prague). In his first year as Czech President, Klaus chose the 14th anniversary of the November 1989 revolution against Soviet domination to celebrate the behavior of “masses of ordinary citizens” whose passivity and quiet lives under totalitarianism, Klaus claimed, had succeeded in fatally undermining the communist regime. According to Klaus, the passive masses of ordinary citizens did more to topple communism than the “various opposition groups,” comprised mostly of ex-communist intellectuals who turned militantly anti-communist. The thinly-veiled purpose of this historical revisionism by Klaus was to diminish the importance of the struggle against communist tyranny made by dissidents, especially human rights activists around Havel who comprised the civic movement, Charter 77. By implication, Klaus’s statements also exculpated the behavior of the silent majority that, like Klaus himself, had at best gone along with the rituals of the communist game and at worst actively collaborated with the repressive regime.

It was another chapter in settling scores between Klaus and Havel. Klaus had battled the president constantly, using his positions first as the ODS leader and then as his prime minister. With their very different personalities, these men – with clashing worldviews, approaches to politics and visions of the future – disagreed on major policy issues and stood on the opposite side of every crisis in the 1990s and, in fact, today. Where Havel expended every effort to maintain the Czechoslovak federation, Klaus swiftly effected its division into the Czech Republic and Slovakia; while Havel saw civil society as a kind of buffer between the individual and the state, not only a means toward the fullest participation in political life but also as an end in itself, Klaus thought civil society was a “hollow phrase,” an expression of special interests parading in the guise of public goods; when President Havel argued for decentralization of power to the regions, Prime Minister Klaus resisted devolution; where Klaus saw no clear line between the warring parties in the Balkans and publicly condemned NATO’s 1999 war on Yugoslavia, Havel defended the NATO campaign and argued that “evil must be confronted in its womb, and if there is no other way to do it, then it has to be dealt with by the use of force.” And when Klaus catered to Czech populism and nationalism and preached Euro-skepticism, portraying the Czech entry into the EU – as he said in Houston in March 2007 – as bringing “us less freedom, less democracy, less sovereignty, more of regulation, more of extensive government intervention,” Havel was an ardent Europhile who battled Czech parochialism and defended universal values. Havel has emphasized the spiritual and moral dimensions of politics: in his recently published memoir, To the Castle and Back, Havel calls for “the extrication of the human race from [a] self-destructive and automatic collapse of civilization.” In contrast, Klaus celebrates unfettered market forces. In his latest book, Blue, not Green Planet – What is Endangered: Climate or Freedom? he argues that the global warming is neither man-made, nor a problem, but an ideology that threatens freedom.

While both Havel and Klaus are popular figures at home, Klaus’s approval ratings have been running particularly high – despite the fact that many of his countrymen do not share his more iconoclastic views. In the EU accession referendum in 2003, for example, the Czechs voted overwhelmingly (77 percent) to join, and most continue to view the country’s membership in the EU in a positive light. Klaus’s opinions are treated as his peculiar prerogative, especially as he skillfully presents them in the guise of defending the abstract and appealing notions of Czech “national interests” and Czech “sovereignty.” Sketches of this rivalry appear in a long excerpt of the book, To the Castle and Back, which was published from the English translation in the New York Review of Books earlier this year (see Václav vs. Václav in NYRB, Vol. 54 No.8).

The real thrust of Havel’s volume of memoirs lies elsewhere. In it, Havel recounts his life story in many different contexts that cast him into different roles – dissident, leader of the 1989 Velvet Revolution and then head of state. In his career, he participated in and, indeed, shaped, key events, without ever forgetting his complex, all-too-human nature: as an intellectual, he ruminates on the state of his country and the world; as a man of strong convictions, he can still doubt himself; and as a private figure, he lifts the veil on his own dark moods and fears while personally embracing a vision based on hope. The book is also fun to read because Havel has a subversive sense of humor and an uncanny knack for sardonic self-observation.

Among the major achievements in which he played important roles, Havel counts the 1990 dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, Czechoslovakia’s 1997 membership in NATO and the 2002 NATO expansion that took in seven new members from post-communist Eastern Europe. Havel played an influential part in these developments, and the process was formalized by the NATO summit in Prague under Havel’s orchestration. While the demise of the Warsaw Pact enabled the region to reclaim full sovereignty, the integration of Central and East Europe into the transatlantic alliance symbolized belonging to the Western community of democracies – though the substance of that democratic promise would be tested more thoroughly by these countries’ EU accession process. While celebrating these gains, Havel, tellingly, always saw NATO membership and the “return to Europe” for his country and its neighbors as a two-way street, implying responsibility on the part of the new members for the fate of the new world order.

Accordingly, Havel in February endorsed the radar installation, arguing that the Czech Republic was failing to meet its share of contribution to NATO and that the shield was merely the first step without which NATO could not develop a defensive system in the future. As Havel put it in reference to Czech history with German and Soviet occupations: “A considerable segment of the Czech public has still not become accustomed to open negotiations and partner relations with a great power. We would be at a loss to recall in our past an instance when someone turned to us with a similar request. We are, after a couple months, obliging enough to accommodate an incredibly armed army of occupation, which invades us overnight, but in the case of a public request whether we would agree to one passive component of a future common defense, we suddenly find inside us a long suppressed defiance. Who could resist today shouting loudly his NO!, when it’s allowed.”

Without American assistance, Havel submitted, Europe is not capable of meeting the threats of the 21st century. He also declared that while he normally defends referenda in principle, he was opposed to a referendum in this instance because it was up to the government and the parliament to assume responsibility for the country’s security. “Allied agreement with a democratic partner,” Havel argued, “will not turn us into any vassal. On the contrary, we shall become vassals, dependent upon the grace and displeasure of others, if we are not prepared in time to contend with real threats.”

On the day of Bush’s arrival, Klaus, who kept pretty quiet throughout the ten months of the debate, also expressed support for the American project – in a rare agreement with Havel – and echoed Havel’s views on Europe’s security dependence on the U.S., and declared negotiations with Washington as being in the Czech national interest. But Klaus also stated that his was a qualified “yes,” because in the perceptions of many fellow citizens the presence of foreign troops on Czech territory is “a violation of our state sovereignty.” “I see it the same way,” Klaus added, while calling upon the government to ensure in the negotiations that this would not happen.

By all accounts, President Bush did well in Prague, and he appeared to learn in his talks that apart from the anti-ballistic defense, the Czechs have another troubling issue with the U.S. on their minds. The Czechs – as well as Hungarians, Poles, Balts and citizens of other new EU member states – bitterly resent that fact that they have not inherited the arrangement (known as reciprocal visa waiver) that enables the older EU member-states’ citizens to enter the U.S. easily without a need for visas issued in advance in their own countries. Unlike Americans visiting their countries, they have to deal with a U.S. consulate and pay hefty fees. Shortly before Bush’s trip to Prague, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso had demanded U.S. action on the visa waiver issue and after his talks with Czech officials, Bush made it clear he got the message. There is “no greater issue for the people of the Czech Republic than visa waiver” he said. Of course, one might say that if doing away with the paperwork in order to enter the U.S. is the greatest issue facing them, the Czechs are extraordinarily fortunate. (A Czech friend of mine claims that what his countrymen are really after is the opportunity to flee to the U.S. at the first sign of an impending terrorist attack.)

Without waiting to see what Bush might do about the visa issue, a week after his visit Klaus surprised the ODS-led government coalition – and probably Washington as well – by declaring that a referendum on the anti-missile shield would be a good thing. The next day, Vojtech Filip, the Czech Communist Party leader, thanked Klaus for his stand. So while Klaus’ move may have been debatable diplomatically, politically it is probably astute.

Whether anyone outside the Czech Republic likes it or not, President Klaus – “the other Vaclav” – seems, for now, almost a sure bet to be re-elected in 2008 for another mandate in Prague castle.

Michael Kraus is Frederick C. Dirks Professor of Political Science at Middlebury College, Vermont. He is a 2006-2007 Fulbright-Hays Fellow in Prague.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 8, Issue number 2-3 in the Summer/Fall of 2007.

 
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