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

The town square of Havlickuv Brod in East Bohemia C E N T R E   V S   R E G I O N S:
The Big Yawn
Decentralization in the Czech Republic

Andreas Beckmann

The classic stereotypes of the excitable Poles, quick to mount the barricades, and passive and indifferent Czechs seem to be only underscored by current steps towards decentralisation in the two neighbouring countries. The regional governments, with their mini-sejms that were introduced in Poland at the beginning and this year and declared the culmination of the post-communist revolution, capped a period of intense political activity punctuated by more than a few strikes and demonstrations. The contrast south of the border couldn't be greater: decentralisation of state authority in the Czech Republic could be just as significant for the future of Czech society, but you wouldn't know it by gauging the pulse of the nation.

14 regions - for what?

One thing is (nearly) certain: Czechs will have the chance to go to the polls in November of next year to select delegates to sit in 14 regional assemblies that will formally open their doors on 1 January 2001. The 14 regional governments will add the third, intermediary tier of government called for by the 1992 Constitution between the local and national level. This could bring decision making a good deal closer to Czechs, who ten years after the fall of Communism are still largely at the mercy of bureaucrats in Prague. The Velvet Revolution gave Czechs the genuine opportunity to elect their representatives to municipal councils and the National Parliament, but so far has left the majority of decision making regarding peoples' lives - from schools to hospitals to economic development - in the purview of the centralised State Administration. The new regions could change all this and make government more responsive to citizens' needs. For now, though, the emphasis will have to remain on could, since it is still not clear what the regional assemblies will actually do.

Map of the new Czech regions
Map showing the new Czech regions
The constitutional amendment passed by Parliament in late 1997 calling for the establishment of the 14 new regions within three years made no mention of the actual responsibilities and competencies of the new bodies. The tough job of working out the extensive legislation that not only demarcates the regions' authorities but also redefines the powers of the central government as well as municipalities was tabled for later. Time is now quickly running out to pass the battery of laws needed to make the assemblies ready for business by 2001. The Ministry of Interior, in charge of the State Administration and overseeing the decentralisation process, is due to submit proposals for the necessary legislation to government by the end of this month.

The culmination of the Velvet Revolution?

Depending on the content of those proposals and the outcome of voting by Government and in Parliament, the changes proposed by this legislation could have far reaching consequences for Czech society, both at a very practical as well as an abstract level.

Regional decision makers will be closer and more accountable to citizens and more responsive to their needs. Even after four and a half decades during which the Communist regime attempted to create uniformity across the land, there are still significant differences in outlook, culture, and economy between different parts of the country. The new governments should be able to better respond to and express the specific needs of constituents in areas as different as the wine growing region of Southern Moravia or the industrial heartland in northern Bohemia. Regional economic development, for example, recently rediscovered after years of neglect, will presumably be more effectively managed from a regional capital than from Prague.

Of key importance will not only be the shape of the new regional governments but also the simultaneous reform and devolution of the State Administration to the regional and local level.

In end-effect, the power of self-government granted to municipalities by the Pithart government in 1990 was limited. The more than 6000 communities have been too weak to compete effectively with the greater power of the State Administration, which with some 380 district offices as well as specialised branches, has claimed responsibility for many of the services that elsewhere are shouldered by local government. The tens of thousands of state officials lord it over virtually every aspect of the lives of Czechs, from the schools, hospitals, theatres and museums they visit, to the businesses and births they register.

At present, even the best principal of a local elementary school can lose his job at the will of a bureaucrat in Prague; the most parents can do in response is to petition the Ministry of Education. The local hospital may be grossly mismanaged, but potential patients from the area have to suffer the incompetence of its administrator until Prague decides to replace him. Decisions to build a local service road in far off Horni Marsov must first pass through the hulking Ministry of Transportation on the banks of the Vltava in the nation's capital.

Planning to build a new house? Head to the district office for a construction permit. Need a new driver's license? If you live in small village, you will likely have to take half a day off work to make the trip to the district office that handles these matters. Anyone who has spent any time travelling the halls (and waiting in lines) of Czech bureaucracy knows that you will probably end up having to take the whole day off, since the relevant official on a whim will send you home for another slip of paper.

Poor service is possible everywhere. The difference is that an incompetent mayor or ineffective town council can be dumped at the next local elections. And however far the distance to Prague, at least every four years voters have the chance to make their voices felt at the national level. In contrast to the local mayor and members of Parliament, the state officials responsible for much of what goes on in the Czech Republic are not accountable to anyone but themselves and their superiors in Prague.

Such very practical issues have a direct impact on more abstract considerations, not only of political culture but also of social welfare and economic prosperity. Faced by the frustration of having to deal with an impersonal and unresponsive colossus in Prague, citizens have little impetus or encouragement to become actively involved in public affairs. Why take an interest in the quality of education your children receive or the future prosperity of your community if you have little power over these matters in the first place?

Extra padding for Czech bureaucracy?

The planned reforms could greatly improve the present state of affairs, or alternatively just add extra padding to the already over-stuffed Czech bureaucracy. The jury is out until after the Interior Ministry tables its proposals next week and Government and Parliament take their stands on the issues, but there is presently no special reason for optimism. The State Administration clearly favours retaining a strong presence alongside the new regional governments. The alternative favoured by the Ministry of Interior in a concept paper submitted to Government and Parliament this spring envisions a dual system, with new regional offices of the state administration established alongside and parallel to the regional governments. The concept sees "significant powers" being transferred to the regional bodies, but remains vague on what these will actually be. Although it specifically mentions education, social welfare, land planning, and environment, it says nothing, for example, about culture, health, unemployment, or agriculture. The 383 district offices currently in existence would, according to the Interior Ministry's plan, be distilled into about 200 new offices under the new regional bodies of state administration.

The chateau in the small town of Chotebor, East Bohemia
Relic of once strong regions
A continued strong presence of the state administration, says Yvonne Streckova, the deputy minister at the Interior Ministry in charge of decentralisation and reform of the state administration, is necessary to maintain the quality and impartiality of services currently provided. Only state officials, according to the deputy minister, have the special skills and experience for the job (though she also has admitted that the quality of the state administration is "not worth a Nobel Prize"), and are more objective and impartial in performing their duties than regional or local officials would be.

Not too surprisingly, the various ministries are reportedly loath to give up their present powers to the regional or local governments. In a PHARE-supported study on reform of public administration in the Czech Republic, Doctor Vidlakova writes: "[The central state organs] do not want to give up their authorities, but are rather clinging tenaciously to the centralised system and are unwilling to give up a single position...it seems that the favourable chance to decentralise the state administration and make the state leaner has been missed." Even deputy Streckova recently admitted that the ministries currently regard the new regions as primarily affecting their style of work and organisational structure rather than a significant devolution of their competencies.

Parliament lukewarm

Strong pressure will be needed to overcome such foot-dragging. Little can be expected from the Zeman government, which has supported the Interior Ministry's approach. The Social Democrats' enthusiasm for reform and devolution seems to have gone the way of other planks from the party's platform in the elections that brought them into power.

Parliament responded to the plans outlined by the Interior Ministry last spring by calling for greater devolution of power to the regional and local level. Still, Parliament has had an ambivalent relationship to the reforms. Even the communities and civil society advocates that figure strongly in a number of parties may be unable to raise the temperature of the current, lukewarm support high enough to attain significant reforms.

The main reason that it has taken so long - possibly too long - to get the regions in place and devolve power to them has been the lack of sufficient political interest or will. Member of Parliament Michal Prokop remarked in exasperation during debate over the long-suffering bill to introduce the regions in 1997: "It seems that the question is not that Parliament will decide whether to establish 13, 14, 9, 26, or however many administrative regions. The issue is constantly about the very character of the decision making processes in this democratic society. This has been the issue for the past 7 years... The issue here is whether we are willing to allow certain types of decisions to be transferred to self-government at levels that are affected by them."

Support and opposition to devolution runs straight across the political landscape. For those at the centre of power, devolution will make governing more difficult, at least until Czech politicians learn a new, more consensual style of leadership. Vaclav Klaus, Prime Minister from 1992 to 1997 and head of the ODS Party, has been among those most keen on frustrating any reforms that would decrease centralised control and has mixed apples and oranges to paint the new regions with the brush of anti-Communism: "After having successfully abolished regions in 1990, do we really want a new regional bureaucracy?" the Prime Minister remarked in 1996.

Klaus's opposition, and that of many of his supporters, comes as no surprise. But even declared advocates of reforms have been lacklustre in motivating support for the measures. The most compelling explanation for supporting the establishment of regions mustered by Milos Zeman (then Chair of Parliament) in 1997 was simply that a third tier of self-government was required for membership in the European Union. Not even Unie Svobody (The Freedom Union) and KDU-CSL (Christian Democrats), who both have profiled themselves in recent elections as advocates of a strong civil society, have managed to inspire much enthusiasm for the further democratisation of Czech society.

What public interest?

The Ministry of Interior has declared itself open to a national debate on the issue of devolution and reform and has established a special web site for this purpose. Despite such (for a Czech ministry still rather novel) openness, public interest in the work of the ministry has been flaccid. Coverage in the media has been largely limited to debates in Verejna Sprava (Public Administration), the Interior Ministry's bulletin, and an occasional sharp comment in Respekt. Chambers of Commerce have been slow to grasp the significance that devolution will have for economic policy and the prospects for small and medium-sized businesses in different regions. Civic groups and other non-profit organisations, which have a prime interest in strengthening civil society, have been slow off the blocks but are now becoming increasingly engaged in the issue.

True, it is hard to wax too enthusiastic about the regions in their present form. The 14 regions that were cobbled together in a political compromise have been the object of criticism since they were first unveiled in 1997. Critics have pointed out that the kraje (in ghastly officialese: Vyssi uzemnich samospravnych celku - VUSC, or Higher Territorial Self-Governing Units) are too small and numerous, that they have little historical foundation, and that their borders ride roughshod over traditional economic and cultural watersheds. Even the most pragmatic justification for their existence - to meet European Union requirements - holds little water since 9 of the 14 regions have less than 1 million inhabitants and thus are too small to serve as the basic territorial unit for distributing EU structural funds. (The typical, pragmatic solution of Czech officials negotiating with the European Union has been simply to clump the smaller regions into even more artificial larger ones).

Nevertheless, however awkward and unsightly they may be, the regions do at least exist, and there are still plenty of reasons to become excited about the fundamental implications that both they and reforms to the state administration can have for Czech society.

A wake-up call

Over the next few years Czech society will face fundamental changes and opportunities, not only with regard to devolution and decentralisation, but also, in a closely related issue, to the development of regional development plans that will form the basis for allocating billions of euros in structural funds from the European Union. But while the Velvet Revolution was supported by millions of Czechs who poured onto the streets of the nation's cities, the present, in many ways just as significant opportunity for democratic change seems scarcely to raise an eyebrow. Perhaps this very lack of interest is the sad irony that most underscores the need for the kind of jumpstart to civic society that devolution could bring.

Czechs risk missing their wake-up call, missing opportunities and leaving it to others - probably bureaucrats in Prague - to outline their futures. The decisions currently being made will decide in future who teaches our children, how our hospitals are run, what incentives are given to our businesses, how far we have to travel to get a birth certificate - and how we will be treated by the official we find across the counter; in short, how responsive government is to our needs. What is also being determined is how actively people can and will want to be involved in public affairs.

A foregone conclusion? At the present rate, there may not be much to get excited about in 2001. After a peaceful rest, Czechs may wake up, blink, and fall back to sleep.

Andreas Beckmann, 20 September 1999

Related web site:

Ministry of Interior, Department for the Reform of Public Administration (also in English): http://www.mvcr.cz/reforma/




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