Prelude to the present

By Martin Jan Stránský

December 3rd, 2008

In a few short weeks, the Czech Republic will assume the presidency of the European Union. To many of you EU officials, our attitude and approach can politely be described as disconcerting. As a Czech citizen, I hope to give you an explanation.

From our birth as a nation in 1918, we Czechs have moved through history with big steps rather than smooth strides. Following World War I, our legionnaires achieved worldwide recognition by fighting their way home from Siberia over thousands of kilometers. In 1938, we were prepared to lay down our lives to face Hitler’s fascism, but the great powers among you sold us to Hitler for a false peace. Overseas, our fighter pilots joined the Royal Air Force to help save Britain, while, at home, we assassinated the head of the Nazi protectorate, only to pay a bloody price in return. At the war’s end, General Patton was ordered to stop in Plzeň so we could be “liberated” by the Russians. In the Prague Spring of 1968, we again sought freedom and appealed to the West for help. None came.

In 1989, we finally became free. However, freedom is not the same thing as democracy. Our first president, Tomáš G. Masaryk, noted that democracy takes 50 years to form. Not only must one establish democratic institutions, but they must be staffed with civic-minded thinkers who come from a civic-minded public.

As a people, we have not been afforded the luxury of self-rule. After 1918, our attempt was snuffed out after 20 short years. Though we once again are reaching for 20 years of self-rule today, we are considerably worse off. Our elites, along with any sense of certainty that we may have had, have been wiped out. We remain handicapped by post-communist morals as well as a history that punished those who begged to differ. Our reaction has been to withdraw into ourselves. This is why we excel in sports, culture and the sciences, for these are all areas that are difficult for outsiders to influence. We shun giving something for nothing, since basic principles count for very little. We lead Europe in the number of atheists and in the number of divorces. We harbor the only remaining communist party in the former Warsaw Pact that refuses to renounce its links to a bloody past of torturing and killing its own citizens. True, we are bothered by omnipresent post-communist corruption, but, just as with everything else, we shrug our shoulders. Seventy percent of us never go to vote.

For us, rulers and empires have never signified anything good. We’ve had our share of them. When one came to liberate us from another and we waved their flag, it was only a matter of time till someone else made us pay for it. That is why we mock great powers over our (very good) beer, be they old Austria, Germany or Russia. For many of us, Brussels and the EU tap into this sensitivity: another distant ruler with laws no one really bothered to explain.

Today, we are like a 19-year-old adolescent who grew up without proper parenting. Confronted with the unbelievable opportunity of leading Europe, such an adolescent can react either with humility and buckle down to the task at hand, or regress into chest-pounding and bluffing. As part of the campaign to introduce our citizens to our EU leadership, our politicians came up with the slogan “We will sweeten it for them.” Bravo! But we ourselves don’t even know what we want or what to expect. How could we? It would have been far simpler for our prime minister to simply state that during our leading of the EU, we have the following three goals: one, two, three. But, unfortunately, he can’t, since our political system is still young and, therefore, governed by survival tactics instead of open discussions on key issues.

Perhaps the best example of our current adolescence is our president, Václav Klaus, who is not only a product of the communist state, but also unfortunately infected with a fatal dose of narcissism. His deep-seeded need to always be the center of attention, coupled with his inability to grasp complex issues, have forced him to rely on populist tactics — this time trying to convince the rest of us that the EU is the work of the devil. His disjointed statements, such as his claim that the EU represents to us all the same threat as the former Soviet Union, serve to irritate an ever-increasing number of citizens and politicians here and abroad. At the same time, his refusal to acknowledge opposing points of view and his inherent lack of vision and true statesmanship resonates with an ever-decreasing number of citizens at home. Our nation’s interest is not to wrap ourselves in the Czech flag. Our interest lies elsewhere: in a strong and united Europe. No wonder that Klaus has never received a formal invitation to a state function from any major European power or from the United States. As a Czech citizen, I therefore urge you to strike Klaus off potential invitation lists, for Klaus is busy securing for himself the distinction of one of the worst post-1989 phenomena in our history.

Fortunately, our foreign policy is decided by our government and not our president. In this respect, I would like to point out the pro-EU stance of the current government, as well as the concerted effort taking place between our two major opposing political parties regarding our EU presidency.

I hope the preceding words will help you understand why we, as a people, are so full of contradictory traits — not to mention our schizophrenic politics. We support NATO, but most oppose the planned American radar base here; we are for EU membership but against the euro. We feel the lure of the future but are unable to shed the weight of our past.

To conclude, I ask you not to underestimate us, for deep in our hearts, we are aware of just what we can and can’t accomplish. We are exceedingly careful, but, if needed, exceedingly brave. In the last minute of the last hour, we always deliver. I ask you, the rest of Europe, to please be generous with us and to work with us so that we can appreciate what true partnership can mean. As mature democracies, we believe that you yourselves recognize that for true success to occur, it must take place on all sides.

The author is a Prague-based physician, publisher and Czech citizen. He is the great-grandson of Adolf Stránský, Czechoslovakia’s first Minister of Commerce; grandson of Jaroslav Stránský, a former Minister of Justice and Education; and son of Jan Stránský, co-founder of the Czechoslovak desk of Radio Free Europe. – The author is a physician and the publisher of The New Presence.


The Prague Post3.12.2008

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