The Cottage Lawn

Here in Prague, it is an uneasy spring. Traditionally, spring is a time of hope. Yet as of this writing the country is going through yet another government crisis. The division between Mala Strana, the so-called “smaller town” where Parliament, the Senate, and the Cabinet all have their seats of power, and the rest of the country continues to grow, as does the associated cynicism and detachment on the part of the public. Fewer than 20 percent of Czechs approve of, or even believe in, their government.

Four weeks ago, a lone middle-class Prague businessman by the name of Erik Matous organized a weekly demonstration in front of the Cabinet offices denouncing the criminal activities of the prime minister. Others, including myself, joined him. The following week, the demonstrations made the third page of the International Herald Tribune. A week later, several more citizens started purchasing billboard space, on which they put their name, a photograph of themselves, and the quote “I am ashamed of my prime minister.” At 30,000 crowns a pop — almost double the average monthly wage — that’s quite a statement. The billboards continue to grow in number. But whether the Cabinet falls or not, Czechs know that very little will change, for the cesspool that is Czech political culture runs very deep indeed.

Meanwhile, people are lining up in record numbers to purchase the memoirs of former premier Milos Zeman. It was under Zeman that the office of prime minister started to transform itself into solid tabloid entertainment. Prime Minister Stanislav Gross, with his incredulous explanations and hysterical “apology” to the nation, in which he said he was sorry for being a screw-up, ensured that the transformation was complete. Unfortunately, as was the case when he was prime minister, Zeman still has the manners and vocabulary of a lout. His readers are not disappointed, for along with the cynical title How I Erred in Politics, Zeman does deliver, regaling us with politically insightful comments, such as his description of acting Education Minister Petra Buzkova as “a slut.”

All of this takes place against the background of France and Germany climbing into bed together at the expense of shattering the very meaning of the Maastricht criteria, thus proving to the world (and to the United States) that the notion of a unified EU that respects agreements by its members has a very long way to go indeed. The political survival of individual political camps in these EU member states is far more important to them than any signed international agreement. Czech President Vaclav Klaus, arguably the most visible Euroskeptic in this part of the world, is now wagging his finger, saying “I told you so,” thus fueling the feelings of xenophobia and second rate-ness that run so deep in this country.

And so while Erik Matouš stands in front of the Cabinet offices with his megaphone, and average fathers put their faces up on billboards protesting their prime minister, the vast majority of Czechs are hoping that spring will quickly warm up into summer. Then the prevailing unease can be muffled as the nation’s annual ritual of exodus to the country cottage gets underway. For the Czechs, the country cottage represents a time-honored retreat from the realities that they felt they could not influence, from Habsburg times through the communist era and, now, right through the present. For most, the reality of today has become more uncertain and less hopeful than it was 15 years ago. From the cottage lawn and the serene physical and mental landscape it offers, Mala Strana — just as it always has, seems very far away indeed. And, in case they should want a refresher, there is always Zeman’s book on the nightstand.



The New Presencespring 2005

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