Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 4
31 January 2000

Ivo Lukačovič C Z E C H   R E P U B L I C:
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Ivo Lukačovič on the
Czech Internet, media and politics

Andrew Stroehlein

I've no idea where this place is. But it seems pretty far out of the way.

The bus winds its way up the steep hill on the residential outskirts of a dark, depressing Prague; today's snow has already turned to ashen mud on the street. It's another bitterly windy evening in the capital, and I am getting the feeling I am somehow in the wrong place.

I've got the map folded out completely - much to the annoyance of my fellow strap-hangers on the crowded bus - and it seems like the street is the right one, so I push my way out at the next stop.

As the bus drives off, I am left alone in a Central European version of an Edward Scissorhands landscape: two-storey, red-roofed, grey suburban houses on my left; a dark, seemingly abandoned, six-storey factory/warehouse building on my right.

Lightening cracks ominously behind the mysterious castle.

No, not really, I'm just making that up.

But lightening SHOULD crack behind this place. And my car should have just broken down. And it should be raining heavily. And I should have momentarily seen a strange glow hovering above the building. And I should have an eerie feeling of being watched.

Maybe I am in the wrong place after all.

Somehow, I just know that I am not going to find what I am looking for to the left, amongst all those warm houses, in which families are enjoying their evening meals.

There are no signs for anything anywhere. I approach a gatehouse and ask a disinterested guard for directions. He makes a slow, sweeping arm-movement that tells me to walk the long way around.

Around a fenced-in parking lot. Up a dark, muddy drive. Over a ditch covered by a thick sheet of steel. And still no signs suggesting my goal might be near.

Along a slushy walk and finally a heavy door with a tiny sign informing me that, yes, indeed, I am in the right place.

Inside, the building looks even more empty and desolate than outside. Dusty and dark, its corridors and stairways speak of faded industrial glory.

A paper sign on the lift tells me to go to the fourth floor, and once there, I climb a set of stairs to yet another abandoned corridor.

I must be getting close, I think, because overhead I can see new holes in the wall and modern cables running through them, bringing life into this gasping dinosaur of a building.

Following this life-support system down the corridor, I come to a dusty and broken, five-foot high model of a lighthouse, and next to that is a single, plain door with a brass plaque on it.

I press the buzzer, and a hunch-backed, cross-eyed Igor opens the door and beckons me in, slamming the door and laughing menacingly...

No, I am making things up again.

Actually, a charming young girl opens the door and leads me into an unlit, empty room. Not really much of a reception area, I think, but at least it's carpeted. And at least the girl's better looking than Igor. And she offers me mineral water.

The next room in the boxcar office plan is a large area, a bit cluttered on one side and with a dozen or so computer-topped desks on the other. A handful of bright-looking, casually dressed graduate-student types take no notice of me as I hang up my coat and cross the entire length of this central room - at a leisurely pace, that takes about four seconds.

Then I walk through a doorway in a glass wall into the third room of this small workplace.

And thus I find myself in the office of one of the richest men in the Czech Republic.

I am not making that up.

Despite the peculiar nature of the post-industrial, hilltop castle where he works, Ivo Lukačovič is no mad scientist. He may have a geek streak, but as the founder and director of the most popular Czech Website, Seznam, Lukačovič is worth millions.

Seznam, at http://www.seznam.cz, is by far the Czech Internet user's best friend - consistently more popular than even the top Czech porn sites. More than just an effective search engine of Czech cyberspace, it is the best-known and most widely used portal site; Seznam is THE starting point for Czech Internet users.

Lukačovič's story would be familiar enough to most people who read the news these days, even to those still toiling away in pre-information-age misery: a bright young kid gets an idea for an Internet business; within a year or two, that bright young kid is a millionaire.

According to the Czech weekly Týden, as of last November, Lukačovič was the 47th richest man in the country. After selling off 30% of his creation to Spray Ventrues, a Swedish firm, at the end of last year, he now owns 70% of Seznam. Still considering whether to take his company public, Lukačovič very roughly estimates Seznam's value at between USD 5 and 15 million Strategie News, 17 November 1999), and its annual turnover is about USD half a million a year (Lidové noviny, 17 December 1999).

True, these numbers are not earth-shattering, but they're not bad for a 25-year-old who has been in business for just a couple of years.

Predictably, the Czech media like to refer to Lukačovič as the Bill Gates of the Czech Republic, but that mantle rests uneasily with the man sitting here with his slightly untidy hair and staring into his 174-inch monitor in his slightly untidy office of ten employees.

"I admire Microsoft as a company, how it grew and how it is able to respond relatively quickly to changing market needs. But when it comes to Microsoft's actual products, I think they are full of mistakes. Their software is badly written."

Lukačovič has another reason to dislike the world industry leader: Microsoft is also now backing one of Seznam's chief rivals, Atlas or "MSN.Atlas" as it is now known (http://www.atlas.cz).

Though calling him a Czech Gates is a bit over the top, Lukačovič certainly shares Gates's inclination for visionary thinking. When I tell him I am writing a PhD on
direct electronic democracy will happen - even in the Czech Republic
the role of the Internet in Czech politics and the media, he launches into a fervent, Negroponte-esque speech on the future of direct electronic democracy:

"The Internet will create a new version of democracy. It will be a total democracy.

Today, democracy means you have intermediary groups which carry out the functions of the legislature and government. The only reason for [the existence of] this intermediary group [of representatives] is because, from a practical standpoint, it's impossible for every individual to have the same amount of power to influence decision-making.

But new technologies like the Internet and WAP [Wireless Application Protocol, ie the Web in your mobile phone, ed] will allow every person to have something like a daily vote."

Is he really trying to say that direct, electronic democracy is the future of the Czech Republic?

"It is the future for all democratic countries. I mean, it won't start in the Czech Republic - it will start probably somewhere in Scandinavia or somewhere like that - but the Czech Republic will eventually copy the model of those countries."

This sounds pretty far from the Czech Republic of today, where people feel about as removed from their political leaders as anyone could imagine.

"Well, it won't start organically here, but we will copy an outside model once we see it working."

The Czech Republic following rather than leading, again.

"It's not always following; but in this field the barriers to the new model are greater than in other countries.

First, you have the current price barrier, which is keeping Internet access restricted to a small number of users. This will start to disappear in a year, when Czech Telecom loses its land-line telephone monopoly here; by 2002, I predict unlimited, high-speed Internet access will cost only 500 Czech crowns a month [USD 15, ed].

So, low access is currently a barrier to these changes I am describing, but it is not the most important one. That has to do with the politicians here...

People get into politics because they want to be famous, they want to have power, they like the money and so on - that's true everywhere, of course. But in other countries, there are other roads to fame, power and money, and people who seek these things can work in other fields.

In the Czech Republic, politics is one of the few ways to achieve fame, power and money. It's the only field where you can get that kind of satisfaction.

So, politicians are dug in here even deeper than they are elsewhere; they are fighting to keep these rare privileges. And they'll fight hard before they'll release their grip."

I begin to see this lonely castle as a fortress from which a new breed of warriors will emerge to smash the evil princes who rule the land - Lukačovič leading the charge.

OK, maybe not that, but, still, for the Czech Republic this is pretty revolutionary stuff that this young millionaire is preaching. Surely, with these attitudes I am speaking with someone who has a vision of change, the desire to implement it and the resolve to see it through.

However, long-term visions aside, Lukačovič, like so many in his generation in this country, is disinterested in the short-term details of politics.

"I don't have to follow the domestic political news too closely," he says when I ask him about his favourite sources for daily Czech news. "I am interested in new laws which may impact my business. For example, there was a new law recently on immigration, and this is important for me, because I have some people from Slovakia working here."

Admittedly, his not following the domestic political news too closely is somewhat justified by the fact that the Czech media stink.

"I read Hospodářské noviny for business news and for information about new legislation, but the other dailies are a waste of time. Mladá fronta Dnes is just a TV NOVA in print format." [of those Czech dailies with pretensions of being serious newspapers, Mladá fronta Dnes is the most popular, ed]

none of the Czech media are prepared for the Internet age
His visionary zeal returns, when I ask him how the Czech media are coping with the new information age.

"Well, Internet-only publications are forcing some improvements in the traditional media, and you can see this when you open a Czech newspaper: they are always citing some Internet source.

But when it comes to transforming themselves for the Internet age, none of the Czech newspapers are prepared for what is happening here. They know about the Internet and want to be on it simply because they fear their competition might get the jump on them.

They make the mistake of believing 'the Internet' is the goal in itself. They draw up a set of aims for the year, one of which is 'get on the Internet,' but they have no idea what they want to do with this technology once they have it.

They don't understand that the Internet is only a tool, not an end in itself. The Internet can be a tool to attract more business, it can be a tool for offering a new service or it can be a tool for influencing a new generation. The Czech media want this tool, but they don't have any idea how they want to use it. And so they have been losing money on their Internet projects."

And I suppose part of the result of this lack of planning is the strange situation - almost like a monopoly - whereby one server, Trafika, carries all the major dailies.

"But that's just the archives and is not really the biggest problem. If we are going to talk about information monopolies, we need to talk about the fact that there is only one domestic news agency, the Czech News Agency, ČTK."

So, could another news agency - perhaps one making better use of new technologies - rise up to challenge the monopoly of ČTK?

"I'd like to see that, actually. I think it's needed here."

Well, that's enough for me to turn off the Dictaphone for a while and start talking about how we could go about setting this up, how it would be run and where we would get financing. He's got the Internet expertise, and I know a few score disgruntled Czech journalists who'd work for peanuts to get something like this established.

In just a few short hours, we've got a project outlined that will break the Czech News Agency's stranglehold on information in this country. By midnight, we're up and running on the Web. And by sunrise, the people are liberated, and I am a multi-millionaire.

"I don't know if it would make money, though," says Lukačovič, jolting me back to the interview.

"There would be
Europe's cultural conservatism is delaying IT progress throughout the continent
too few users, right?" I add, so as not to let on I've been elsewhere for a moment. "So, we're back at this problem of access."

"But it's not just that," he says. "There is a serious delay in public acceptance of the Internet all over Europe, and Internet culture as a whole in the Czech Republic is three or four years behind the US. That has to do with European societies being more conservative than the Americans. E-commerce, for example, is taking much longer to catch on here, and besides the practical reasons such as low access figures, lack of good Internet shops and low penetration of credit card use, this social factor - this cultural barrier - plays an important role in that."

In the past half-hour or so, Lukačovič has painted a picture of his country as bleak as the outside appearance of the building we are sitting in. He has criticised Czech political leaders for their desperate, progress-impeding attempts to cling to power. He has scoffed at the inept Czech media and the monopoly on information held by the single news agency. He is now saying that his country is forced to play catch-up in Internet technologies due to old-fashioned attitudes.

But this is not just another disgruntled Czech, whining about the depressing state of affairs in his country. This is one of the richest men in the country, so surely he has some influence on the country's future development. Surely, with his sharp mind and with his money, he is involved in public affairs - if not for the benefit of his fellow citizens, at least for his own benefit and the benefit of his shooting star start-up of a company.

Surely not.

When I ask him how he views his own role in political affairs, he just chuckles.

"You know, about a year ago, I helped to organise the big Internet boycott with Ondřej Neff and Patrick Zandl [respectively, the publisher of the most popular Czech Web daily, Neviditelný pes, and the chief of Mobil server, a popular site dealing with mobile telecommunications and a big player in terms of Internet advertising revenues, ed]. We were protesting against Telecom's monopoly and its intended rate-hike. [see this author's articles about the boycott HERE and HERE]

At that time, we were lobbying strongly. We were talking with the government and Telecom and so on... We were in the news and such... But we were still trying to do our regular jobs. And I found myself doing nothing but answering reporters' questions and making statements; I had no time to do my normal work."

"But isn't that natural," I suggest. "Isn't that just natural for someone who's the head of an important business? Doesn't he normally gravitate
real political change in this country will not occur until the older generation of politicians dies
towards politics somewhat? Don't your public relations become part of your 'normal work'?"

"Yeah, but if you look at the politics in the news here... if, for example, you look at the material on (Prime Minister Miloš) Zeman, I'd bet only about 20% of those stories would be about his work - about his policies and actual decisions. The rest is just about various affairs and... and... Politicians are like small boys. To me, they are like small boys."

And do you think that will ever change?

"I think they will have to die first," he says, taking Central European fatalism to its logical conclusion.

What about the point we started with? What about the emergence of that direct electronic democracy? What about using the Internet to promote that change?

"Politicians here have absolutely no conception of the Internet and what it can do. They see it as another expense in their party budgets, but that's about it."

So, what would he like to see happen?

"Politicians and the government have to understand that computer and Internet literacy will, in a very short time, be as important as reading and writing. We need to have younger and younger kids learning on computers.

And the government needs to speed up the privatisation of the banks so that the market starts providing technology start-ups with the necessary capital. It's far too difficult for small IT firms to find any capital.

And more generally, I'd say the State has to be run more like a business - always striving to maximise efficiency. The State should outsource most of its major tasks. Why not use a company such as Microsoft - with its excellent intracompany communication, good response time and amazing profitability - as a model for how the State ought to be run?

I don't mean that the State will ever be profitable in the business sense; by 'profit' here, I simply mean getting the State's costs in line with its revenues, keeping to a budget and getting the most out of those funds.

Many companies used to be like the State is today: a lumbering mammoth. But they changed to become
I will try to stay politically neutral as long as possible.
leaner and more responsive to the public. We need to do that with the State and then integrate the reform with the methods of direct electronic democracy."

So, here are more ideas: specific policies Ivo Lukačovič would like to see enacted. What does he do to see them put into place? Does he involve himself personally in politics to forward this agenda?


Is he a member of a political party?


Has he ever donated money to a political party?


Now, that fascinates me. Here is one of the richest people in the country, and a person with a relatively clear vision of the future to boot, yet he doesn't want to use his wealth to influence the country's development. I put it to him that such a stance seems strange.

"But I want to remain politically neutral."

"Can you be neutral when you're that rich and have that much at stake?"

"I hope to be. I will try to stay politically neutral as long as possible."

"But don't you want to influence the country's development with your knowledge and vision."

"I could do that on an advisory level. If a party asked me for my advice on IT matters, that's how I could make my influence felt."

Has any political party ever asked him for such advice?


Has he ever offered to advise any political party on creating policies to prepare the country for the information age?


Has any party ever asked him for money?


Doesn't he find that strange?

"Yeah... maybe... Or maybe they know I would refuse?"

In other countries, political parties would seek out such a successful young person. Politicians would get themselves seen in public with him - have their photos taken with the youthful Midas.

Parties and governments would ask his advice on policy matters relating to his field of expertise.

At the very least, they would seek him out for his ability to write fat cheques.

I am shocked to hear no one has been knocking on his door. I am not sure I believe him, actually. But he explains...

"You see, political parties and politicians in this country are like a world unto themselves. There are people inside that world and outside that world, and the ones inside are only concerned with fighting each other."

And so, Ivo Lukačovič leaves them to quibble and back-stab amongst themselves. He tries to remain neutral...

...and he is kidding himself. He thinks that politics happens elsewhere and, worse, that politics can more or less be safely ignored.

Lukačovič is not alone in this type of thinking. Total frustration with political leaders has characterised the past few years in the Czech Republic. People are fed up and disgusted, and, in fact, back in November, they even poured out into the streets in the tens of thousands to demand that the old guard of politicians make way for a younger generation. [see this author's analysis of those events HERE]

However, complaining about it is not enough, and protests and petition-writing will get nowhere if strong-willed, intelligent people don't help to turn public dissatisfaction into a viable political movement. The country is crying out for change, but bright, potentially influential people refuse to get more deeply involved.

"We are iniciators, not politicians," says Igor Chaun, one of the leaders of those abortive November protests (13 December 1999, Právo), revealing how people here view politics as a job for politicians only.

People want political change, but they don't want to get involved in politics to bring about that change.

Much like the leaders of those November protests who didn't want to form a political party to force change on the entrenched political elites, Ivo Lukačovič refuses to get directly involved to influence Czech politics and society in a direction that he would find more favourable.

And much like those Czech newspaper publishers whom he criticises for failing to understand that the Internet is merely a tool for achieving a goal, Ivo Lukačovič apparently fails to understand that money is merely a tool for achieving other goals. He has written "make money" in his business plan, and he has clearly demonstrated the skill, drive and intelligence to successfully implement that plan. But now that he has money, he is not sure what to do with it.

The day after this interview, I found myself across the table from Petr Koubský, editor-in-chief of the leading IT industry magazines Softwarové noviny and Inside, and I asked him about Lukačovič's reluctance to become more involved in public affairs. Koubský put it down to Lukačovič's youth: "He's only really been wealthy for a few months. Give him a chance to get used to it, and I am sure he will eventually start to realise the importance and value of his influence."

Let's hope so, because whether or not one agrees with Lukačovič's political philosophy - a mix of Gates, Thatcher and Negroponte in roughly equal measure - one has to admit that the politically stagnant Czech Republic would benefit greatly from having more bright, young, successful people like Lukačovič involved in the public arena.

He has plenty of strong ideas about the way society ought to be run, and he has the drive and vigour to see big projects through. Rather than simply waiting for the old guard to die and for his vision of direct electronic democracy to magically appear, Lukačovič could use his motivation and his money to help make it happen.

But for the moment anyway, Lukačovič remains in his hilltop castle, content with dominating the virtual Czech world while trying to ignore the real one. He is squandering his potential influence, and like so many other intelligent and likeable people in this country, he does not yet seem to realise that politics is too important to be left to politicians.

Andrew Stroehlein, 27 January 2000

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