Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 12
13 September 1999

Scene from a Prague protest
Czechs face their environmental problems
E N V I R O N M E N T:
A Quiet Revolution
The influence of environmental organizations in the Czech Republic

Andreas Beckmann

The role and experience of environmental organizations in the recent debate over the Temelin nuclear power plant reflect the nature, challenges and growing strengths of the environmental movement in the Czech Republic. In the intense national debate that lead up to the Czech government's decision on the fate of the Temelin plant, the project quickly took on greater significance than a mere vote on the merits of nuclear power. A number of commentators noted that the issue reflected a struggle over the present and future shape of Czech society. At stake was not only whether or not the Czech Republic would rely on nuclear power to meet its future energy needs, but, more significantly, what role private citizens would play in making and controlling such decisions in the future - in other words, the size and shape of civil society in the Czech Republic.

Temelin showed how closely the two issues - environment and civil society - are connected in the Czech Republic and exposed how the prospects for environmental organizations are linked to the development of an open, engaged and vibrant public culture, and vice versa. The government's decision to complete the reactor and the steady support among the majority of Czechs for the project suggest that those prospects are dim, but such appearances may be deceiving.

High-noon over Temelin?

Temelin has long been a sore point not only for those against nuclear power but also for those in favor of civil society. It became a cardinal symbol of the authoritarian governing style of the government of Vaclav Klaus, which shrouded the project in secrecy throughout the 1990s, while it routinely approved further outlays to cover massive cost-overruns and delays. Attempts to gain information about the plant or public consultation on the project were denied, with the justification that work on the plant had been started before the Velvet Revolution, and thus recent legislation did not apply.

In the lead-up to the government's decision, a handful of environmental groups - primarily Hnuti DUHA (Rainbow Movement, the Czech chapter of Friends of the Earth), Calla, Jihoceske matky (South Bohemian Mothers), and Greenpeace - managed to initiate an often intense, nationwide debate on the future of the nuclear power plant, in which, for once, the powerful nuclear lobby appeared on the defensive.

Economic and technical arguments for the plant - which had been the basis of the the nuclear lobby's relative strength in past encounters - sagged when critics pointed out the long history of cost-overruns, fudging of numbers and outright lying committed by CEZ, the semi-state-owned power company developing the project, and its supporters. The traditional refrain of the nuclear lobby that the environmentalists were ignorant of the relevant economic and technical issues and that they were working against the national interest backfired; if anything, opponents countered, it was Temelin that was squandering the nation's wealth, and they were able to back up this accusation with substantial evidence.

Both within the government, where Environmental Minister Milos Kuzvart invested all his political capital in opposing Temelin, and outside, the environmentalists managed to cobble an impressive coalition of policymakers and opinion leaders against the project. Even President Vaclav Havel weighed in at the last moment, with a plea to vote down the measure. The issue split the government and the Social Democratic Party remarkably along generational lines into two broad camps with very different world views - a split starkly represented by the main protagonists on the issue: the young, former NGO activist and dissident Kuzvart versus the septuagenarian former member of the Communist Party Minister of Trade and Industry Miroslav Gregr.

Despite all the high-noon drama in the press, the final decision to complete Temelin did not particularly surprise anyone, especially given the composition of the Cabinet and the background of continuing political and economic stagnation, moral malaise and oft-cited "lousy mood" gripping Czech society. All of the evidence against Temelin, and particularly against those responsible for its management and construction, failed to substantially dent the support for completing the plant that 60 percent of Czechs expressed. It was a safe decision for a government not known for its inspired or inspiring leadership.

Not too many months earlier, the same government had approved a modest national energy conservation plan to pare some of the 30 percent of energy that could be cut relatively easily from the country's bloated energy bill (and would further reduce the need for Temelin) but did not allocate any funding for the plan.

Success in defeat

Far from a crushing defeat, many commentators saw the latest bout over Temelin as a considerable victory for environmental groups, when put into proper perspective. DUHA and others were certainly swimming upstream in a population generally still marked more by apathy than spirited engagement - obedience to authority rather than a healthy skepticism towards the powers that be. Criticism of the semi-state owned energy company developing the plant could not have been more bruising, but public opinion remained unfazed.

The performance of the environmentalists was particularly remarkable when one considers, for example, that Hnuti DUHA - considered by many to be the most powerful environmental organization in the country - has no more than a handful of full-time staff and a few dozen active volunteers nationwide, only some of whom were closely involved with the campaign against Temelin, which as always was run on a shoestring budget. Even in combination with other groups, a punier David would be difficult to imagine against the Goliath of the nuclear industry, with its billions of crowns and the political influence and marketing that such money can buy.

The manner in which DUHA and others accounted for themselves seems no less remarkable when set into historical perspective. "You have to realize," says Marek Svehla, a journalist for the Czech weekly Respekt, "that these organizations have been built more or less from scratch since the beginning of the 1990s."

The majority of the limited number of people that had been involved in the semi-legal environmental groups under Communism left these organizations en masse for politics right after 1989, leaving the next generation to create the organizations anew. They did so under particularly difficult conditions: in the face of intense persecution by the former government of Vaclav Klaus, who favored a centralized society run by technocrats without the meddlesome interference of civic initiatives, and who considered environmentalism a dangerous and misguided ideology. At one point, the Klaus campaign went so far as to place Hnuti DUHA and a few other groups on an official list of terrorist organizations.

From pariahs to heros

Following the darkest days of the Klaus era, the Czech environmental movement is coming into its own. Ironically, it was precisely the period of the worst persecution that contributed to the present strength of the movement. The attempt to brand the environmentalists as official enemies of the state backfired; the ragtag bands of young "radicals" suddenly gained respect and status among many of the leading policy- and opinionmakers.

"We suddenly became regarded as valuable partners in the effort to develop an open and civil society in the Czech Republic," says Jakub Patocka, former head of Hnuti DUHA and current editor-in-chief of Literarni noviny.

To a certain extent, the persecution of the Klaus government renewed previous relations that had existed between environmentalists and other political actors pushing for a civil society - ties that go back to the Velvet Revolution, when environmental destruction figured prominently in the protests against the Communist regime. Even before 1989, environmental groups and activities provided a semi-legal space for opposition to the Communist regime.

As civil society has become a political issue in its own right, courted by the smaller parties and factions within the Social Democratic Party, the stature and influence of DUHA and other environmental groups in political circles have been enhanced.

"The next elections will be important," says Patocka. "It is essential that the ODS and Social Democratic parties are prevented from changing the Constitution [essentially to create a two-party system, ed]."

"Forces for greater democracy will have to challenge the ODS and force the Social Democrats to cooperate," Patocka continues, adding that the environmental groups will have a valuable role to play in concert with human rights groups and other civil society activists in these efforts.

Partners on policy

Considerable inroads have also been made by environmental groups in their relations with various government and district authorities. Relations between environmental groups and the Ministry of Environment have been completely transformed from the days when Environment Minister Frantisek Benda sat in the Klaus cabinet (2 July 1992 to 4 July 1996). The Ministry now looks on environmental groups as partners - if at times impatient and critical ones - rather than as adversaries. A special liaison officer has been appointed to communicate with environmental groups and keep them abreast of developments within the Ministry, and Minister Milos Kuzvart has held regular forums with environmental groups to exchange views.

The new relationship of cooperation is a pragmatic one: as environmental challenges mount, the Ministry can make most effective use of its meager resources by working closely with environmental groups. These groups already play a vital role for the Ministry in environmental education and awareness raising, as well as in nature conservation.

The Ministry has also tapped the groups for special know-how. The Environmental Partnership's Right to Know program, for example, has been commissioned by the Ministry of Environment to draft a governmental proposal for a toxic release inventory, and appointed by the Ministry to chair an international taskforce on toxic release inventories. Econnect, the Czech nonprofit Internet service provider, has been helping the Ministry to improve the quality of its environmental information on the Web.

However, not all of the ministries and other state organs have been as eager as the Environmental Ministry to cooperate with NGOs, even though the nonprofit groups potentially have much to offer: to the Agricultural Ministry, for example, which holds responsibility for protection of forests and waterways, or to state authorities at the county level.

Many state bureaucrats have yet to overcome a deeply entrenched mindset - cultivated throughout decades of Communist rule as well as centuries of Hapsburg absolutism - in which they are the rulers rather than servants of the people, responsible for preserving their own power and control rather than accomplishing a certain objective (such as safeguarding a healthy environment). The contribution that environmental groups will be able to make in future will depend to great extent on changing this basic attitude.

Two forces are pushing hard to challenge and open these entrenched mindsets: the first is a battery of legal instruments, including rights of participation in decision making and recently passed legislation on Right to Information; the other is accession to the European Union.

Law and the environment

In 1997, in a precedent-setting decision, the High Court of the Czech Republic ruled in favor of a coalition of environmental and local community groups that accused state authorities of a large number of transgressions with regard to rights of the public to participate in decision making as well as requirements to conduct Environmental Impact Assessments. It marked the first time that public officials had been slapped on the wrist for not respecting the legislation and opened the way for a slew of similar cases.

Legislation mandating public participation in decision making and requiring Environmental Impact Assessments for larger projects - passed in the early 1990s before Klaus came to power - has proven to be one of the most effective instruments available to environmentalists. The Constitutional Court's decision has delayed, by a couple of years, state plans to develop a highway bypass around Plzen, which would have destroyed a valuable natural area. Officials will now have to start the planning process anew, this time, including genuine public consultations and a review of the project's potential impact on the environment. A similar case brought a halt to limestone quarrying near Tman.

While environmental lawyer Petr Kuzvart (brother of the current Environmental Minister, Milos) has been responsible for blazing much of the trail for environmental law in the courts, a group of young lawyers around the Ekologicky pravni servis (Environmental Law Service) have done much of the spade work of putting the law in the service of NGOs and ordinary citizens. The group provides free legal advice, publishes informative materials and runs training courses on environmental law for citizens and NGOs. It is planning to extend its activities to human rights issues - a natural step for an organization working to develop a civil society.

The success of environmental groups in the courts has, predictably, infuriated many public officials and even private citizens, who have accused the groups of manipulating legal mechanisms in opposition to the public interest. Politicians from Plzen who are connected to the delayed highway project are now trying to assemble support to roll back the "radical" environmental legislation of the early 1990s, though few give them much chance of success.

Such politicians are pointing in the wrong direction, remarks Svehla of Respekt. "The environmental groups are not doing anything bad or excessive - the fact is simply that [these politicians and bureaucrats] don't want to be held accountable or have someone else limiting their ability to make decisions." Of course, by giving people a chance to provide input at the beginning, these politicians would have avoided many of the current problems.

The court cases have already served a greater purpose - the ruling of the Constitutional Court and subsequent findings served as a rude awakening to developers and public officials, showing them they can no longer simply steamroll over citizens rights and the environment in order to get their projects completed. Since then, officials have become much more careful to provide openings for public input and environmental review.

The new law on Right to Environmental Information, passed in mid-1998, should have a similar effect. Providing information at present probably seems an unnecessary burden to bureaucrats unused to serving the general public. However, once filling the occasional information request becomes routine, so should the bureaucrats' realization of their accountability to the citizens that pay their salaries.

Ironically, environmental groups may well have the last laugh over Temelin - in the courts. Klaus's past contempt for Environmental Impact Assessments and citizens rights to participation in decision making may be coming back to haunt the project: environmental groups have promised to bring to court hundreds of transgressions related to individual construction projects at the nuclear power plant. Legal experts estimate that dealing with the cases could delay completion of the plant by years. Minister Gregr - who swore he would resign if the plant is not completed on time - may have to eat his words.

The road to Brussels

If the Czech Republic is seriously committed to joining the European Union (and there is still enough reason to doubt this), legislation mandating public participation will have to remain on the books - particularly with regard to matters affecting the environment. European environmental ministers meeting at Aarhus in the summer of 1998 put their signatures to a declaration - the so-called Aarhus Convention - which calls on private citizens and NGOs to play an active and integral role in environmental protection. Future members of the European Union are expected to adopt this declaration through practical implementation, including passing legislation on public access to information and decision making.

The Aarhus Declaration is only one expression of what is generally called the Partnership Principle, itself an expression of the gradual democratization of the European Union as it prepares to accept new members into its fold. Gabriel Chanon, of the Community Development Foundation in London, which often works for the European Union on civil society projects, has noted that the gradual transformation within the European Union has brought major respect for civil society in general and NGOs in particular - as social intermediaries, public representatives, and valuable partners.

Even among existing member states, the Partnership Principle is not yet clearly formulated or developed. This means that public involvement in environmental conservation is encouraged but not specifically mandated by Brussels. Ministries are encouraged to be open and work closely with citizens groups but are not required to do so.

Recently, this has been most clearly evident in the appointments to the regional planning commissions which are charged with creating the development plans that will serve as the basis for distributing billions of crowns in Structural Funds. Officials putting together the commissions have been encouraged, but not specifically required, by the European Commission to include NGOs. Nevertheless, in a few regions, well-organized coalitions of NGOs have managed to force their inclusion in the commissions. Environmental organizations have been prominent in these efforts and are currently involved in drafting the development plans for a number of geographic regions and sectors, including transportation.

A quiet revolution?

The environmental movement in the Czech Republic, as elsewhere, has one basic Achilles heel: every victory celebrated by environmentalists is potentially pyrrhic; no victory, however significant, is ever final. A forest saved today will be there to fell tomorrow.

To be of long-term success, environmental conservation needs to be embedded in the bedrock of popular culture and values. People need to care for their surroundings and the health of their environment - and to take responsibility and initiative for safeguarding them. These basic qualities - interest, a sense of responsibility, and initiative - are fundamental to the future of the Czech environment as much as to the long term health of Czech society and economy.

Ask people involved in the Czech environmental scene about their work, and you are likely to hear as much about democracy and active civic participation as about nature conservation. This applies to the well-known activist groups working on national or even global issues as well as to the many more lesser-known groups with a local focus or involved in less media-sexy activities. What these groups share, besides a general interest in the environment, is faith in the development of an active civil society. By fixating only on those organizations in the limelight of media attention, we may be overlooking a quiet revolution from below.

Perhaps "evolution" would be a more apt expression for the gradual change in thinking and behaviour that hundreds of small-scale, local environmental initiatives around the country are bringing about.

"These initiatives are about much more than the environment," says Miroslav Kundrata, director of the Environmental Partnership. "They are just as much about creating a civil society with an engaged and active citizenry."

The Environmental Partnership foundation was established in 1991 to provide small grants of around USD 2000 to 3000 to support environmental projects and encourage civic initiative. Since its establishment, the foundation has funded more than 500 individual projects and is currently the largest private source of funding (next to the Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Education) for environmental projects in the country.

It is clear, at least from Kundrata's vantage point, that such projects are making a difference: "In many cases, environmental groups have become leading forces of development in their communities and regions," says Kundrata. "One clear trend we have been seeing in the environmental movement is a blurring of lines between the environment and other areas of interest," he adds. "An increasing number of traditionally environmental groups are becoming involved in economic, social, and cultural activities."

The work of CSOP Kosenka, the chapter of the Czech Union of Nature Conservationists in Valasske Klobouky in eastern Moravia, is a case in point: from an original narrow interest in protecting several rare species of orchids, the organization has broadened its focus to become a leading force for regional development and cultural preservation in the region. As a reflection of this, a number of the organization's members were elected to the town council in the last elections.

"More and more 'environmental' projects are also being developed by traditionally non-environmental groups," Kundrata continues. In southern Moravia, for example, an association of 21 wine-growing communities are seeking to use sustainable tourism to support the local economy, while preserving the unique natural and cultural heritage of their communities.

This blurring of lines between environmental and other concerns is essential to considering the present significance of environmental organizations in Czech society. The influence of Czech environmental organizations is almost certainly greater today than it has been since the beginning of the 1990s.

But what exactly is the environmental movement, and what is an environmental organization? Even more fundamentally, what qualifies as "environmental"? At a time when the limits of the world's resources are quickly being realized around the globe, the environment has ceased to be a special-interest issue. It is of vital importance to all areas of human activity - from human health to economy, society, and even culture.

For the long term sustainability of Czech society, all Czechs will have to become "environmentalists" to a certain extent. At the very least, producers will have to produce with less resources and waste, and consumers will need to be sensitive to the environmental impact of their consumption. At the same time, in order to have a greater effect over the longer term, traditional environmentalists will have to consider economic, social and cultural factors in their work. On both counts, initiatives across the Czech Republic give reason for hope.


Faced with global warming, ozone holes and other increasingly dire and global environmental threats, most of the nations of the world assembled in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 to ponder how to put things right. Their answer, among all of the lofty and often hollow declarations, was Agenda 21. At the core of the Master Plan for Saving the World is civil society. In order to make the fundamental changes to human society that are necessary to push back the shadow of environmental disaster and achieve a sustainable future, everyone will have to do their part - from the lofty State and powerful industry on down to the lowliest of citizens. The Czech Republic signed up to the Rio Declaration and has put its signature to other similar documents - not least of which is its application to join the European Union.

However, the current malaise throughout Czech society is not particularly promising - neither for a vibrant civil society nor for the long-term health of the Czech environment. But amidst the storm clouds, there do appear to be some silver linings - and many of them are green.

Andreas Beckmann, 19 August 1999

Useful Links:

Czech Ministry of the Environment

Hnuti DUHA (Czech Friends of the Earth)

Calla: environmental organization

Czech Greenpeace

Econnect: Internet service provider for NGOs




Environmental Movements

Of Muck and Men
in Hungary

Czech Strengths

Good green money after bad?

Not-so-blue Danube

Receive Central Europe Review
free via e-mail
every week.


Jan Culik:
Battle at Nova TV Goes on

Mel Huang:
Estonians in Kilts?

Vaclav Pinkava:
Swim a Lifespan

Tomas Pecina:
Czechs versus Word-charm

Sam Vaknin:
Billions Wasted on Aid to the East

Readers' Choice:
The most popular article last week

Slovakia One Year after the Great Change


Jan Jakub Kolski's
Historia kina w Popielawach



Baltic States

Contact CER to find out more about our Virtual Internship Programme


The Media and the Yugoslav War


"Keep Out" Policies

NATO Bombing and Eco-disaster


Moravian Wine Festival


EMU and Central Europe (part 2)


The Czech Republic
1992 to 1999:

From unintentional political birth to prolonged political crisis

Warning: 200 Kb file! (big)


Book Review:
Mart Laar's War in the Woods

Book Shop


Music Shop


Central European
Culture in the UK


Transitions Online

Britske listy
(in Czech)

Domino Forum
(in Slovak)


Strong Centres, Weak Provinces

with your comments
and suggestions.

Receive Central Europe Review
free via e-mail
every week.


Copyright (c) 1999 - Central Europe Review and Internet servis, a.s.
All Rights Reserved