The Czech Republic’s place in Europe: A work in progress

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The Czech presidency of the EU ended this June on a mixed note, having confounded allies across Europe. Was it a case of Mitteleuropa eclecticism taken too far, or a deeper reflection of Czech political culture?
In 1989, the late German-British sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf was one of many culturalists to come up with predictions on eastern Europe’s imminent transformation: he posited that whereas a country’s legal and business environments could complete substantial changes within a matter of years, if not months, a Western-style political culture might take generations to create. This was because unlike institutions, a citizenry’s deep-seated attitudes, values and stereotypes are remarkably resistant to change.
Twenty years on, Lord Dahrendorf’s postulate rings as true as ever, even when applied to countries such as the Czech Republic, one of eastern Europe’s reform leaders. In truth, many Czechs have hoped to prove his theory wrong – and they had some powerful ammunition to play with: The pre-war Czechoslovak state’s staunch parliamentarianism; the humanist beliefs of its President T. G. Masaryk; a virtual absence in the pre-war days of ultra-nationalist or pro-Nazi sentiment; a lively tradition of voluntary association. In many quarters, even the Austro-Hungarian legacy of Emperor Franz Joseph and his entrenched bureaucracy continue to be a source of pride.
Yet for all their yearning for a sense of normalcy and a wholesome international image, the Czech elites have on more than one occasion acted against their better judgment to dent that image. In fact, if one were to take a stern view of Czech culture, one might consider this self-defeating bent as one of its hallmarks. Perhaps it is the many centuries of foreign domination that have created an elusive ‘rebel-tyrant’ dichotomy and a penchant for radicalism in the otherwise conservative and at times dowdy Czech cultural psyche.
Post-1989, this tendency was quick to manifest itself. The then new President Václav Havel, for example, made very public his personal struggle to let go of the ways of his dissident playwright past when he was linked to local underground acts like The Plastic People of the Universe. Attending a Prague concert of The Rolling Stones in 1990, he showed up on stage in a T-shirt sporting  the Stones’ ‘Tongue’ logo. The youthful gesture won him the thumbs up from a New York Times columnist but caused consternation among a big part of the Czech public that had expected the first democratic president they had seen in their lifetime to fit a more ‘classical’ mould. If there was still doubt, Havel’s marriage, less than a year after the death of his first wife, herself a fellow 1970s prisoner of conscience, to a blonde bombshell of a popular comedic actress 17 years his junior only cemented the leadership’s mildly farcical style.
Those who had expected this wild streak in Czech politics to come to a close with Havel’s departure from office were disappointed yet again. His successor and one-time proudly Thatcherite finance minister Václav Klaus openly embraced a ‘eurosceptic’ (now referred to as ‘euro-realistic’) platform – months before the country’s coveted EU entry that had been 14 years in the making. To make things worse, most general elections since the Czech Republic’s peaceful 1993 separation from Slovakia have produced a hung parliament that saw the fate of successive governments sealed by a single dissenting MP, and protracted periods of interim rule. Following the June 2006 elections, it took 230 days of intense negotiations before a new Czech government could be inaugurated.
The raised eyebrows soon gave in to a sense of doom as the time arrived for the Czech Republic to assume the rotating EU presidency – one of the very first among EU’s ten new members to do so. Things got off to a rocky start – in fairness, for any newcomer, shaping a 27-nation bloc’s response to events such as the war in Gaza and the Russian gas supply crisis would have been overwhelming. Then, just as Czech diplomacy began notching up a string of successes (US President Obama’s Prague visit; pushing the EU Lisbon Treaty through the Czech parliament), the national government back in Prague was abruptly voted out of office as a result of intra-coalition bickering. What was to be a historic opportunity turned into a lame duck as another chance for the young country to prove itself among the community of European nations was squandered. In the aftermath, the deposed Czech prime minister’s alleged nude appearance weeks later at a party thrown by Italian PM Berlusconi sparked little domestic discussion outside the realm of celebrity-gossip magazines.
Does this make Czech politics an out-of-bounds subject for foreigners? Hardly; in fact, it can be a handy tool when trying to spice up a subdued conversation over a business lunch. The staggering range of local opinion alone – from nihilist rejection to studious, well-supported hypotheses – renders the topic largely non-controversial. In the process, you may be treated to a hearty dose of Czech humour. Still, there are things to keep in mind:
  • Czech history, identity and politics are complex and multi-layered. Therefore, don’t make assumptions. Ask questions instead of expecting your hosts to confirm an understanding you may have formed. Show a spirit of genuine, humble enquiry.
  • Terms like ‘Iron Curtain’, ‘Communism’, ‘Eastern Bloc’ are tossed around freely in the Anglo-Saxon media and pop culture. But to people who lived them rather than heard about them on TV, their significance is very different.
  • At the same time, there is a growing sense of fatigue among the Czech public about fixating on the Communist era that ended 20 years ago. Today’s university graduates would have been three years old at the time, and their mindset reflects that: in this week’s online poll by one of the leading national newspapers, when asked about a famous Czech celebrity’s freshly uncovered links to the pre-1989 secret police, two-thirds of readers (out of a 15,000-strong sample) claimed to be totally unaffected by the news.
  • Be careful about playing fast and loose with the word ‘Russian’/‘Russians’, which is what many Westerners like to do. It is a sure-fire way to earn the locals’ displeasure. Only talk about a Russian if you have a very specific and recent topic in mind.
  • Throwing Czech topics into an ‘East’/‘Eastern’ rubric won’t win you many friends, either. ‘Central Europe’ is a much more acceptable label. The Czechs, like the Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians, Slovenians and Croatians, use the Latin alphabet and look to Rome and to Protestant traditions in terms of religion. The Czech capital is hundreds of miles further to the West than many other ‘western European’ capital cities. Founded in 1348, Prague’s Charles University is by some accounts the oldest in the entire German-speaking region.
  • In May 2004, when the Czech Republic joined the EU, many Western managers greeted their Czech staff with a cheery “Welcome to Europe!”. Although well-meant, it left most Czechs in utter disbelief: Czech people see their culture and history as powerful building blocks in the European edifice – and the millions of foreign tourists marching every year through the many Czech sites of Gothic and Baroque splendour would surely agree. Referring to the Czechs as being somehow separate from ‘Europe’, or anxious to ‘join Europe’, only serves to broadcast the interlocutor’s perceived sense of prejudice.
  • The modern Czech self-perception is a work in progress. A prominent Czech politician had this to say in his recent book about the good rapport he had built with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel: “I don’t know whether it was because she was a woman, or because she was originally from East Germany, or because she was a fellow Conservative…” The country’s many intellectual publications are awash in articles like ‘Towards a Political Psychology of the Czech People’, or ‘Liberal Democracy, Twenty Years After’. Therefore, it is wise not to expect a coherent answer to every question.

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