A NATION DIVIDED
In the recent elections, 27 Senate seats and 675 district seats were up for grabs. And once again, the voters stayed home. Fifteen years after the “Velvet Revolution“, the ongoing lack of voter participation and the current social and political dialogue serve to highlight the fact that the Czechs remain a nation divided.
The two castes
Even though 1989 brought freedom, as far as the decision-making process is concerned, little has changed. The fall of one system simply forced the Communists to adapt and place themselves into the strategic positions of the next system, so as not to relinquish control of the levers of power. Today, this “ruling caste“ includes not just the Communists and the politicians of Mala Strana, the cabinet and the resident, but also their extensive network of “advisors,“ and “business associates.“ Just as in the former regime, their central credo – to hold power at all costs –remains the same. Just as before, they refuse to relinquish their position (power) to others, despite numerous transgressions for which any western politician would immediately resign. However, if the Communist Party were to be banished today, there’s no reason why the political or moral climate in the Czech Republic should improve for the better. That’s because the new post-1989 members merged with the ruling cast, instead of reforming it.
As proof of the new-old political status quo, we have the Opposition Agreement, created a few years ago, in which opposing party chairmen Milos Zeman and Vaclav Klaus turned their backs on their voters‘ mandate and joined forces so as to control the government, thereby officially legalising the central credo of the ruling cast. Klaus followed this up with his theory, that the fall of Communism was actually due to the “passive resistance of the common masses“ (lower caste). This farcical statement from the president’s mouth very cleverly strengthened the position of the ruling caste in that, for the masses, it “legitimized“ their passivity.
As the system rolled along, the last person to stand in its way was Vladimír Špidla who, despite all his shortcomings, as premier was consistent in his political message. For the ruling caste, political consistency and clear messages are taboo. And so, earlier this year, Špidla was ousted by members of his own party, who put up the young prince Stanislav Grosss as their front-man. The young prince, devoid of meaningful life experiences, is the perfect object for the members of his caste to latch onto him like sucker-fish, in their rise to power. With his moral vacuum, he has surrounded himself with former Communist agents, while his closest advisers still brag in Mladá fronta dnes that they “know how to tune him“ as their “personal investment.“ But the young prince is learning on the job. Faced with the loss of his Social Democrats in the first round of the recent elections, he told the entire nation to vote Communist. After all, he argued, anyone was better than the opposition. When his party‘s debacle in the Senate elections was complete, rather than lose, like a child in a tantrum, he now wants to abolish the Senate entirely . Such is the state of democracy in the Czech Republic today.
The rules of the game
With the ruling caste firmly in place, certain operating rules apply which explain both the machinations of today’s ruling caste as well as the grumblings of the rest. The first is control of institutions. From examples too mumerous to list, one can point to parliament’s never-ending attempts to control Czech Public TV and the president’s attempts name justices of the Constitutional Court directly.
Control of insitutions is synonymous with cronyism and corruption. In a recent Newsweek survey, the Czech Republic ended up in 97th place in the world as far as an independent judiciary is concerned, while Trasparency International rated us as the fourth most corrupt nation in the EU. In the world-wide survey, we ended up behind countries like Trinidad and El Salvador.
With institutional control, the next rule is information censorship. One can look at any governmental sector. In health care for example, the biggest state insurer VZP simply refuses to give out any meaningful information of how it manages taxpayer’s money; the ministry of health refuses to give information regarding its recent scandal where millions of crowns were paid to attorneys and many more millions paid to stifle the financial claims of a foreign plasma provider, and hospitals won‘t give you your Xray even though you ask for it yourself. Those whom we pay to serve us now act as our masters, their institutions serving as barricaded enclaves.
Along with censorship of information comes absence of direct communication. Instead of facts, we get populistic jargon, such as “I mean it sincerely.“ No explanations are given, and compromise is absent. In such a system, democratic compromise and institutions like the Ombudsman that rely on dialogue, are ineffective. Instead, we are told that we are in a “new era“ where old rules no longer apply, where facts that don’t fit aren’t facts, and where today’s truths won’t apply tomorrow.
However, this is not to say that the ruling caste isn’t interested in the lower caste. The Czech Republic leads the world in the number of phone taps per population. Most of all, the ruling caste views the lower caste as a cow to be milked dry. Instead of lowering expenditures, there is an active debate raging now in Mala Strana by our ineffective politicians, on whether they should raise their pay, or that of our ineffective police force even further; the latter would make our police the highest paid police (in relative terms) in Europe. Thus, in 2005, the average pay of a state worker in year 2005 will exceed the average pay of a person in the private sector! The result is a budget deficit that threatens our future and the future of our children even more.
Should an upper caste member should find themselves under threat, the rule here is, that the best defense is an offense. The accuser is simply a fool who must resign or be discredited. Again, from examples too numerous to mention, one suffices: instead of ordering a due process to investigate the true extent of the phone tappings, president Klaus, on finding out that his phone may have been tapped, immediately called for the resignation of the Chief of Police. The extent that loyalty does exist within the ruling caste is wonderfully exemplified by the pendulous carrer of Vladimír Železný, where the rats jump on or off his ship depending on the safety afforded at the moment.
Who is to blame?
No caste system works without mutual support. In the Czech Republic, that support comes via passive support. Depending on district, from 3% to (maximally) 29% of us went to vote, which means that at most 15%. of us decided who shall represent us. For the ruling caste, such passivity plays right into its hands.
Change must come, but for it to come, it must come from within, from us. It‘s not enough for us to go into the streets, jingle our keys and go home, as was the case in 1989.
The same ten million Czechs who lived here before 1989 live here today. Václav Havel recently said, that he feels that the impatience of Czechs with the political status quo will soon come to a breaking point.. Until that happens, our continuing passivity guarantees that our children will grow up in a society that is fragmented, that lacks pride and identity, and that is part of a nation whose people and soul are split in two. In the false belief that we are better off ignoring that which we think we can not control, just like Dr Faust, we are ceeding our futures to someone else. It’s not enough that certain politicians, sociologists and citizens reminisce once per year about 1989, restricting their actions to debate, as is again the case. There must be a more definitive solution. There must be a confrontation in which one side will win, and the other will finally and definitively lose. There must be a real change.
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