Where do we go from here?

It will take time and peace for the Czech national identity to emerge. As a people, we still don’t know what it means to be Czech.

By Martin Jan Stransky 
The Prague Post
(September 16, 2004)

Fifteen years ago, we became free. But despite NATO and EU membership, complaints of a “lack of progress” and an uncertain future are still heard. Where does our future lie?

To answer, we need to examine two points. The first is our history. Czechs have always been subjects of a larger multinational structure, be it the Roman, Habsburg, Nazi or communist empires. The fact that we have always been subjugated meant that we never learned the art of self-rule. Furthermore, when we did try to strike out on our own (as in 1938 and 1968), the world looked the other way and we paid a heavy price. That’s why in 1989 we chose the easy way out. Instead of confronting the past, our dissidents drafted a compromise with the ruling communists, in which the latter merely transformed themselves into a capitalist mafia without relinquishing control. There was no true revolution, since freedom doesn’t equal true democracy. This simple but ignored fact explains comments such as “Nothing has really changed.” In 1918 Czechoslovakia’s first president, TomasGarrigue Masaryk, said that for democracy to take root, 50 years are needed. He was only given 20, and we’ve only had 15. Just as in Masaryk’s “First Republic,” today’s political scene, with its stagnant politicians and their self-serving power struggles, serves as a reminder that our willingness to engage in a true democratic process that forces change is much closer to that of a Russian than to a German.

The second point is that the above history forged our present national character. Frequent changes (an 87-year-old Prague resident saw his country renamed seven times) created the tendency to scorn institutions, avoid conflict (what I like to call alibistic behavior) and prefer one’s own solution to that of others. The latter meant that we were very industrious but only for ourselves, not the employer or the state. The turning inward of society further strengthened negative traits such as jealousy and the tendency to take criticism personally. As society imploded, an absence of national identity ensued, along with a twisting of national values. That explains our going berserk over things that can’t be taken away from us, such as gold medals in hockey, while our reaction to EU entry — something that has clear-cut and far-reaching effects on each one of us — was lukewarm at best.

‘Natural position’

So where do we go from here? Our history means that for us, entry into the EU marks a return to our “natural position.” Instead of Vienna or Moscow, we now have Brussels. Our susceptibility to rule from above will result in a country that is ruled by the president locally and Brussels distantly. One only needs to look at the steadily increasing activity of local regions via their direct lobbying and interaction with Brussels (just as they did with Vienna under the Habsburgs) and the increasing politicization of President Vaclav Klaus (just as was the case with Masaryk). Prague politics shall remain dysfunctional and become increasingly marginalized. Fortunately, the inertness of our Prague politicians shall be compensated by the cultivation of those who have gone off to the European Parliament, where the modus operandi is compromise instead of confrontation. The effect is already apparent in the right-wing opposition Civic Democratic Party (our largest representative inBrussels) and its about-face regarding opposition to an EU constitution. Our political scene will therefore be divided into two groups, with the Brussels group gaining more influence, perhaps even supplying our next president.

The economic results of our return to our native state can already be seen — and shall continue. During the latest so-called crisis of government, the crown achieved record strength, the Czech Republic became the most sought-after country in Europe regarding outside investors while registering the highest number of new millionaires (per capita), and exporters registered an unbelievable 55 percent growth in orders compared to 2003.

Four obstacles

But our return to our native state doesn’t mean that we shall become more democratic. Here, there are four main obstacles. The first is our aforementioned inexperience with democracy itself. The second is our associated inability to deal with our past. Our second-strongest party, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (which never renounced its past, unlike all of its sister parties in Europe) is allowed to exist in a schizophrenic parallel with our other democratic parties and institutions. The third is our system of coalition rule, which guarantees that Czech alibism and refusal to take the blame for anything shall continue. We need to be able to see who is responsible for what. Furthermore, our EU membership now guarantees that if any one party were given control, it would run up against the Maastricht criteria, which should check any populist excesses. Finally, there is the absence of role models. Here, as opposed to Masaryk, Klaus is failing in his role. A president shouldn’t criticize, divide and negate on international agreements. Klaus does all three actively, as evidenced by his recent veto of the EU’s universal extradition policy. Klaus’ present popularity in fact serves as proof of our democratic naivete, since it’s not possible that our lives improve via preferring his “strong” style of nationalistic jargon and creation of false external threats. This stifles the positive traits that a small nation such as ours must embrace, such as tolerance and willingness to compromise.

On our path into our future, we shall increasingly touch our past. In Frantiskovy LazneSept. 25, there will be an unveiling of a monument to Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, while in Plzen we shall erect a statue of U.S. Gen. George S. Patton. As a people, however, we still don’t know what it means to be Czech. For our national identity to emerge, we simply need time and peace. That will give us the space we need in which to find ourselves, to slowly clean our house, and to one day be just as comfortable thinking of ourselves as “us” instead of “me vs. them.” Thus, we will look not just to our Olympic gold, crystal and beer but also to our flag and to those who came before us and contributed to our nation to aid us in facing our future as one of the great peoples of Europe.

— The writer is a physician and the publisher of The New Presence and Pritomnost magazines. This piece was written for The Prague Post.




The Prague Post16.9.2004

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