As retiring president, Václav Havel somewhat neglected one of his duties, namely to initiate and foster the discussion on the institution of the presidency as well as on what type of a person would suit the job. As a result, the institution today remains defined by personality. Should this be the case? What should our president be like?
We all agree, that the president should have traits universally admired and that he shoud foster the national good. In this regard, an analysis of president Václav Klaus, one year after assuming the office, is very telling indeed.
Why is Václav Klaus popular?
Klaus wasn’t even president for one minute, before his supporters and opponents got into a shoving match in the courtyard of Prague Castle. Why is it that Klaus generates such negativity in some, but has an overwhelming popularity rating among the rest?
The first reason is, that Klaus is “one of us.” He grew up in Prague’s Tyle square, owned the rickety Trabant as his first car, and except for two forays abroad (Italy’66 and the USA’69), studied in the communist state. Like most citizens, he saw the world through the glasses of the normalization regime. Like most, he never did anything to warrant sentencing. As opposed to Václav Havel, Klaus was part of the “silent majority.”
The second reason behind Klaus’ popularity is, that he satisfies our current psychological needs. In a recent poll, citizens gave Klaus high marks as a “representative, able and intelligent politician,” but rated him far lower in categories of “moral behaviour and honesty.” Why? The Czech historical experience is one of constantly changing authorities and rules. As a result, Czechs give credence more to authority figures and personal intuitions than to systems or institutions. Klaus’ image is more important to the average citizen than are his political views.
Czech psychologist S. Hubálek wrote: “an immature society elevates personality extremes, extreme in their narcisism and egocentrism…to serve as their totem poles.” Klaus’ statements that “we are the best” and his claim that ruminating over issues such as morality is not productive, is exactly what today’s Czech wants to hear. Hubálek claims that this helps society to raise its self-image. Klaus understands this principle well, and uses it to full advantage. The result is, however, that such a state does not foster the emergence of meaningful values and conduct, and begs the question, does Klaus serve us do we serve him?
A little psychology
The answer lies in reviewing the president’s own psychological profile, which is that of a narcisist. This condition is brought about by negative experiences which result in feelings of inadeqacy. To compensate for this, a person often rebounds in the opposite direction, working extremely hard (and usually very well) to gain acceptance. He surrounds himself with admirers, seeking positions where he will be universally acknowledged, while exuding arresting self-confidence. For a narciscist, the means always justify the end – acknowledgement of his popularity. Any attack, however trivial, can result in inapropriate behaviour (such as Klaus’ smashing of a reporter’s ringing mobile telephone while he was being interviewed by another reporter).
All criticism of himself as well as associates is deplored and taken personally. When his party deputive Miroslav Šrejber was arrested for tax fraud, Klaus claimed it was a provocation directed at him. For the narcisist, he must hold center stage. There is no compromise, only victory.
The means by which a narcisist achieves his goals are primarly destructive. The first is the aforementioned division of people into groups, with subsequent counterattack. For example, Klaus labels dissidents, students, political analysts, journalists, citizen’s initiatives as “clearly leftist, non-liberal, disdainful of standard democratic mechanisms, trivially moralizing, unable to learn from reality, nonpractical and nonpragmatic”
To increase his popularity, Klaus relies on populistic jargon. He claims to be the protector of “our Czech rights” without once stating just what “Czech” rights are, how they differ from therights of other Europeans. According to Klaus, European equality can be achieved only if “all participants adopt the true parameters that are reflective of the citizens of each individual state.” What true parameters are those?
Transfer of blame and simple denial are other methods used. For example, in a recent BBC World interview (broadcast to 200 countries), Klaus responded to a question about Amnesty Internatinal’s claim about discrimination in the Czeh Republic by labelling the organization as untrustworthy. He responded to the British parliament’s view on Czech discrimination of the Roma by stating “that’s such a stupid and silly statement, that I won’t even react to it.”
To remain at center stage, there are two methods used. The first is directly complaining to the press for more coverage, as was the case with his recent trip to the US. The second is not acknowledging public rivals, as evidenced by Klaus’ absence at the recent cermonies in which former president Havel received the country’s highest honors.
Czechoslovakia’s first president T.G. Masaryk claimed, that “democracy is discussion.” For Klaus, true discussion presents real threat. Any public debates with Klaus therefore take place only with the standard old political guard or with reporters he approves of, never with political scientists or informed independent journalists.
Regarding issues where the outcome isn’t clear, Klaus will always opt for avoiding any course that risks loss of popularity. This is why he refuses to tell us how he voted in the referendum for EU entry, the most important post-1989 issue facing the nation. In a true democracy, it is unthinkable to imagine that a president would not tell his nation how he voted.
What then, is Klaus’ understanding of democracy? Here, Klaus emphasises “free action” and freedom itself. He believes that it is important that we conduct ourselves “as individuals.” For him, freedom in and of itself is the “guarantor as well as the mechanism of the emergence of proper individual conduct.” The process from such free conduct to the emergence of collective democratic behavior is not something which Klaus explains in detail. Rather, he believes that the free and uninhibited state is “the chief factor that leads to a worthwhile future.” Numerous examples, from imperial India up to the Balkans and Iraq show that such a view covers very few bases. The principle that democracy is built on, namely that there exist certain fundamental human rights, is viewed by Klaus as a social construct that impinges on individual freedom.
Regarding politics, Klaus firmly believes that if a citizen has anything to say, they should enter politics. Our president believes that citizen’s initiatives “usurp power that belongs to the politicians,” and that “alternative political procedure, based on communitarism,NGO-ism, and corporativism, will push politicians out of the picture.”
A key principle in democracy is the mandate of the citizen-voter. As chief architect of the Opposition agreement, which united his ODS and the oppositon party into a single ruling coalition, Klaus violated this principle. This led to the blurring of government and opposition and to the infiltration of profit sharing and financial corruption into politics, seeding political-corporate clientelism in virtually every political party. In return, the members of these political parties then closed the circle in electing Klaus president.
Klaus therefore views democracy as a largely procedural entity for guaranteeing the continuation of the status-quo of the current political elite. The net result for us is, that Klaus’ yearning for power and popularity will not allow him to support open democratic mechanisms such as debate and compromise, nor to present any specific vision for the growth of democracy in the Czech Republic.
The communist past
A key issue for any Czech president is, how should he deal with the communist party, the past, and questions associated with it ?
Klaus gives us his answer: “settling with the past and possible issues of guilt is something that I view as a matter for the individual. To speak aloud regarding the morality of others…has always appeared to me as something a bit inappropriate. I do not believe the abstract entity called society can reconcile itself with its past”
Klaus’ experiences and view of the communist past are a direct contradiction to those of his predecessor. Even though Klaus was expelled from the Academy in 1968, he stated that the view that “many of those who lost their jobs after Prague Spring ended up worse…isn’t entirely correct. Many chose a job in which they could remain untouched. Jobs such as watchman, furnace stoker and the like, offer certain irregularity, perhaps time to read Heiddeggar…I would say that many of those who lost their jobs after 1968 could have become a clerk….but they didn’t want to do daily boring work. That was their choice.”
According to Klaus, the period also presented another advantage: “I would say, that at the individaul level, our own confrontation with the pressure of the system and lack of freedom, with a clear boundary between good and evil, in many respects presented an advantage regarding moral orientation, which those living in an enduring free society did not have.” Klaus goes on to state, that “it is noteworthy, that communism, in whose name monstrous crimes were committed, was itself created by people who were raised in free societies.”
Klaus’ most recent statement is his principle of the “not-communist.” According to Klaus, it was the “not-communist” citizens, who by virtue of their massive but purely passive non-participation in the system, instigated its demise. This blatantly populistic demagoguery ignores the fact that the communists actually preferred the silent citizen, and that the system could not have existed without active support and participation from within. In 1987, Czechoslovakia had the highest (and rising) percentage of communist partymemebers of any communist-bloc nation. During that time, Klaus, as a passive “not-communist,” refused to sign the petiton for the release of the dissident Václav Havel.
The result is, that Klaus’ position toward the communists and the past actually legitimises both, and encourages their perpetuation, supporting Klaus’ image as representing “all ordinary citizens.” Issues concerning national guilt and morality are therefore viewed as superfluous. Regarding the communist party, our president will deal with it purely on practical grounds as pertaining to his popularity. It is largely because of this that history will view Klaus as the epitomy of the post 1989 “transitional” politician, one unable to shed the stigmata of communist era thinking.
Europe and the future
In a few short months, we will be full EU members. However, the average citizen thus far has no concept of what this will mean. What does Klaus know of the EU and what is his vision for us in it?
Klaus views EU entry primarily as a threat to his domestic standing. True to form, his reaction is that of counterattack, claiming that “a unique coalition of European political elites, Brussel beurocrats and certain cosmopolitain intellectual groups…are accelerating the European integration train without regard for the true interests of the European citizen.” Just whom is he speaking about?
Regarding our role in the EU, Klaus emphasizes the need for “our Czech position” to be respected in an organization that can “swallow us up.” Just what the “Czech position” is or just how the organization can swallow us up, is not explained. Instead of information, the president offers up scare tactics, viewing EU entry as a “trap from which we will not be able to escape,” and which will lead to “a weakening of standard democratic processes.” How? With domestic corruption at a level higher than in any existing EU state, how can our entry into the organization threaten us?
The result of the president’s statements has been the creation of a schizophrenic mind-set. Though Czech citizens did vote for EU entry, they still have no idea of just how EU entry will impact on their lives, while being told by their president that traps and dangers lie ahead. As president, Klaus is completely ignoring his responsibility in supporting the nation’s future. His stance regarding the EU will lead to his marginalization within it. This will collide with his need to hold center stage, and could lead to further conflicts.
What a president shouldn’t
As the representative of every citizen, the presdeint must never divide segments of society against each other. It’s unthinkable that he should assault citizen groups solely for voicing their opinion!
The president should keep his word. After being elected, Klaus promised that he would not interfere in routine political issues. From his vetoing tax bills to other issues, he has broken his word repeatedly and continues to do so.
The president should avoid scandal. Here, the best indicator of future performance is past performance. As head of the ODS party, Klaus carries the responsibility for multiple party scandals, from overseas accounts to phony sponsors and tax fraud. His public ads with Volkl skiis and certain Czech magazines represents disdain for avoiding conflict of interest. The recent use of his car and bodygaurds to ferry his lover to private trysts, as personally witnessed, attests to his use of the office.
Above all, the president must not lie. When Klaus published his aforementioned “not-communist” article and then invited the commnists to negotiate with him at Lány, the Head of the Confederation of Political Prisoners Stanislav Stránský (no relation to author) sent him a letter, in which he expressed “surprise at Klaus’ statement about communists.” The president replied: “You are only concerned with attacking me personally, as a party with which you politically disagree…I have never had any meetings with any communists.” Klaus’ advisor Ladislav Jakl explained his boss’ blatant lie thus: “the president would have appeared weak if he left (81 yr old) Stránský’s letter without a reply.”
What the president should
During the process of transformation, the president should not support the status quo, but rather strive to change it. He should remember, that presidential popularity does not equal success for a nation, as was the case with Lukašenko, Mečiar, Milosevič, and others, and instead, focus on democracy building.
This is the tragedy of Václav Klaus. As a highly intelligent and talented person, he has everything it takes to do the above. He is capable of establishing a humanitarian style while supporting the opening up of society, and offering the country vision and inspiration as it enters into the new European order. This would tremendously strengthen Czech self-confidence and Czech national identity. If Klaus were to do this, he would truly become a great statesman. Now, with his popularity at peak, is the ideal time. Enacting the above steps is exactly what would keep him at the top.
In every nation’s history there are key moments that greatly influence its course. I believe that now is such a time. If there is a voice of the people, then it belongs most to those who have given the most for it to be heard. Klaus’ attacks of dissidents, intellectuals, citizen’s groups and political prisoners guarantee that we shall not develop the values necessary for a bright future. Klaus’ comfortable misinterpretation of the communist past means that all “uncomfotable” issues, from our expulsion of the Sudeten Czechs to Roma discrimination, shall continue to be swept under the rug. His emphasis on populist statements rather than fact means that we shall remain guided by emotion rather than by constructive debate, thus supporting the existing post-communist status-quo.
Therefore, if our society and post-communist state changes for the better, it will be because of mechanisms that president Klaus has no part in, or those which he actually opposes. Our improvement will occur not because of, but despite of, the president.
Martin Jan Stránský
Physician, publisher The New Presence
|The New Presence||spring 2004|
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