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

Jan Culik C U L I K ' S  C Z E C H  R E P U B L I C:
Mixed Czech Nuts
Communist TV detectives, bank threats online and
the strange public view of rape

Jan Culik

The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia is relentlessly surging forward in popularity in the Czech Republic. Twenty per cent of the population of the Czech Republic now support the Communists, according to the latest opinion polls. The Communist Party is the second most popular party in the land. First place is still held by Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (24 per cent), and the ruling Social Democrats are lagging behind in third place with 17 per cent.

Mid-term crisis

No matter what the reality is, the current Czech Social Democratic government has acquired the reputation of incompetence. This is partially due to the relentless pressure of the right-wing press, which wields enormous influence in the Czech Republic, partially because the Social Democratic government is rather ham-fisted in dealing with the public and the media and partially due to the fact that some members of Zeman's government are not very competent.

Nevertheless, there are at least two ministers in Zeman's government who are intelligent, competent and working rather hard, against overwhelming odds. One of them is Pavel Mertlik, who has been recently elevated to the influential position of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, after Prime Minister Zeman sacked his corrupt predecessor Ivo Svoboda.

Mertlik is apparently working to help rejuvenate the flagging Czech economy and to bring transparency into business in the Czech Republic at the same time. Mertlik recently caused a major, although somewhat silent, revolution in the Czech Republic, when in the interest of openness he created a register of Czech companies, which he put on the Internet, thus making it freely available to anyone.

Members of the public can check details about company owners and all registered businesses in the Czech Republic. In the West, of course, such openness is normal; in the Czech Republic, the creation of this open register, is exposing many shady dealings.

It used to happen that a number of firms, all owned by the same person, took part in competitive bids for a government tender. Now, with Mertlik's new register, this is impossible. Mertlik is also planning to place the register of owners of land and property on the Internet.

Another worthy member of Zeman's government is the Secretary of State for Labour and Social Affairs Vladimir Spidla. He has produced a National Employment Plan, which, as much as it can within the conditions of the Czech Republic, is based on the guidelines of the European Union. The aim of the plan is to rejuvenate the economy, using some tried and tested West European methods.

The problem is that after nine years of rather idiosyncratic, laissez-faire government of Vaclav Klaus, the ground remains almost untouched. Appropriate legislation is missing, the civil service is barely capable of implementing a plan of economic renewal, liaison structures between the appropriate ministries and business managers are missing and it is impossible to communicate with people within the districts and regions. There is a lot of hard work to be done before the employment plan can even begin to produce any palpable results. In the meantime, unemployment in the Czech Republic, which reached nine per cent in August 1999, will probably continue rising.

One wild extreme or the other

There are hard divisions in the country along ideological lines. People define their policies according to what they experience in daily life. During phone-in programmes on Czech radio, many listeners spout out ideological rubbish, supporting either the left-wing or the right-wing. There is almost no middle ground where ordinary people could meet and actually talk to one another.

Twenty-four per cent of the population still support the Civic Democratic Party of Vaclav Klaus, in spite of its recent spectacular failure in the Senate by-election in the Prague 1 constituency (which is made up of the historic centre of the city). The ODS candidate, an aging, although relatively popular actress, was beaten by an independent millionaire, Vaclav Fischer, a former emigre and an owner of a highly successful travel agency.

The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia is quickly gaining ground among the disaffected, of which there are many, especially in the rust belt industrial areas where unemplyoment is nearing 20 per cent. It is perhaps quite understandable that people who have never known anything else but Communism and then Klaus's rather questionable "capitalism" should give their support to the Communists when they begin to experience the hardship of transition. Many large industrial enterprises in the Czech Republic are now in serious difficulty. The Russian malaise is drawing near: businesses are starting to be unable to pay people's wages. Thus, as the Pravo daily reported on 15 September 1999, "on 14 September 1999, for the first time in the 170-year old history of the famous Vitkovice ironworks in Northern Moravia, the employees of the firm went home without a paycheck."

Pravo continued by quoting a forty-year-old woman whom their reporter interviewed at a tram stop:

I want to cry, I do not know what we'll live off. My husband is unemployed, and we have had all our savings in the Moravia Bank [which went bankrupt the week before]. Since I could not withdraw any money from the bank, I was pinning all my hopes on my paycheck. Now - nothing. How will I pay for the food for the family, how will I pay the rent, gas and electricity? Nobody cares.

The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia has no solutions. It is an outdated organisation, which has developed from the old totalitarian ruling Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. The current members of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia have never condemned the totalitarian rule of its predecessor.

The Communist Party offers its supporters a mixture of social democratic ideology, old-time, pre-fall of Communism propaganda and Czech nationalism. If the other Czech political parties do not know very much about the real world at the end of the twentieth century, the Czech Communists know even less.

Red return

In the atmosphere of growing polarisation, the public service Czech Television, under the leadership of its not very forceful or imaginative chief executive, Jakub Puchalsky, has made an incomprehensible and controversial decision. Last week, it started broadcasting The Thirty Cases of Major Zeman, a popular television series made in the 1980s by the Communist regime as propaganda. Major Zeman is a Communist Party hero, a state security officer who fights Western subversion and hunts down people who stand up against the Communist regime or try to defect.

The reason why Czech public service television has made these ancient repeats from a bygone era the jewel of the crown of their 1999 autumn season remains unclear. Is it perhaps an expression of desperation on the part of the management of Czech Television, who has simply nothing new or original to broadcast? Cynics say that Czech Television has decided to repeat all this archive material because the makers of the series will be paid repeat fees, and the makers of the series are allegedly friends of those individuals who make up the broadcasting schedules.

Be that as it may, the issue has brought to the fore how much the experience of Communism in Czechoslovakia remains unanalysed and undigested and to what extent it is connected with the issue of consumerism. After the defeat of 1968, Czechoslovakia was turned into an occupied colony by the Russians. Consumerism was one of the main instruments of subjugation in the 1970s and 1980s. Czech public service television retained the escapist, tendencies long into the 1990s, preferring to broadcast popular entertainment rather than hard-hitting political analysis.

As it is, many people condemned the return of the outright Communist propaganda to Czech Television, but others have openly admitted that they will watch Major Zeman, the shining Communist hero, pursuing the baddies on their screens, with great relish. The return of Major Zeman to Czech Television has started a major debate. Should Czech public service television broadcast old-time Communist propaganda, even though it promised to counter it by accompanying documentaries, explaining "what really happened"?

Banking decay

The weakness of the current Czech social order is perhaps graphically symbolised by the shakiness of the Czech banking system. There have been several banking scandals over the past few days.

On 3 September 1999, the Czech National Bank took Moravia Bank out of its controversial three-year programme to save small Czech banks and started the procedures to take away the bank's trading licence. Moravia Bank had been in difficulties for quite some time. It closed its doors to customers on that very same day.

Moravia Bank is the sevententh Czech bank to go bust in the past few years. Luckily, many of its 118,000 account holders will eventually receive up to 90 per cent of their deposits, because the accounts were insured, but only up to 400,000 Kc (some USD 10,000). This penalises small- and medium-sized businesses. Even if some of them eventually receive their money, their assets are currently frozen, which will seriously increase their trading difficulties. Most of these businesses operate in an area of large unemployment. Owners of foreign currency accounts are also affected: they have been told that their accounts were not insured, so they will not get anything.

Another banking scandal is connected with the Deputy Prime Minister Egon Lansky. According to a Czech currency law from 1995, anyone who has permanent residence in the Czech Republic (including foreign nationals) is required within 30 days of assuming such permanent residence to close down all his or her bank accounts abroad and transfer all his or her funds to one of the Czech banks. Alternatively, people with good reasons may apply to the Czech central bank for permission to maintain an account abroad.

I do not wish to comment on to what extent such a currency law is realistic in the contemporary globalised world. I simply wonder how many of the tens of thousands of American citizens, currently living in Prague, have really closed down all their accounts in the United States and transferred all their money to the somewhat shaky and bureaucratic Czech banks. If they have not done this, the penalty for maintaining a bank account abroad without the permission of the Czech Savings Bank is a million Czech crowns (some USD 30,000 dollars).

The Czech Deputy Prime Minister Egon Lansky might just be liable to pay such a fine. It has transpired that Lansky has a bank account in Austria. And, what is more, in 1996, Lansky used this private account to accept (launder?) money from the Czech Minstry of Finance for his friend, a Luxembourg enterpreneur.

In 1996, a Luxembourg firm Hollanco won a case against the Czech Finance ministry, which was forced to pay out the sum of USD 290,000. There were delays in the Finance Ministry in forwarding the payment and so the owner of Hollanco asked his friend Egon Lansky, the then adviser to the Speaker of Czech Parliament Milos Zeman, to intercede at the Ministry so that the payment would be made.

Lansky helped. Moreover, he offered his private account in Austria for the transfer of the funds to his Western enterpreneurial friend. The Czech Finance Ministry authorised the Czech National Bank to transfer the money to the Austrian bank Sparkassen. The bank refused to accept it because the name of the owner of the account (Lansky) did not tally with the name of the designated addressee (Hollanco). Only after the CNB assured the Austrian bank that everything is in order, the funds were duly transferred into Lansky's private account. One wonders how many similar transfers from the Czech state authorities to private accounts in the West have taken place in the past.

Lansky seems to have confirmed that he then made the funds available to his Western friend, but refused to divulge any further information about the whole matter. Somewhat incredibly, he remains in post of the Czech Deputy Prime Minister.

Leaky net

The third banking "scandal" concerns the state-owned Ceska sporitelna (Czech Savings Bank), due to be privatised shortly. On Friday 10 September, an anonymous individual, advertising his wares on Yahoo web pages, offered to sell detailed information of about the two and a half million Giro accounts, held by Ceska sporitelna to anyone interested. The person offered samples of four individual entries, including their personal details, information about their employment, about their salary and the history of the account.

The scandal, revealed to the incredulous public by the Czech daily Mlada fronta Dnes four days after the police started investigating it, has shaken public confidence in Ceska sporitelna. However, some observers feel that the affair may be merely a provocation, designed artificially to lower the price of Ceska sporitelna shares before privatisation. Information about only four giro accounts has been made public and it is rather doubtful whether large numbers of personal banking files would really be available.

When is a rape not a rape?

Let us on the whole ignore the Prague "intellectual" daily Lidove noviny, in which Petr Zitek (LN, 11 September, 1999) waxes eloquent about the benefits of legalising polygamy ("The legalisation of polygamy will also have positive influence on the psychological state of individuals: adulterers will no longer need to lie at home. There will be no scandals caused by the fact that somebody has taken a lover.") Instead, let us consider how some Czech minds approach the issue of rape and sexual harassment.

On 8 September 1999, Mlada fronta Dnes rightly drew the public' s attention to the fact that according to Czech law, a rapist can be charged with the criminal offence of rape only if he forces his victim into traditional, penetrative sex. Oral or anal sex is not rape, says Czech law. Mlada fronta Dnes continues:

In April of this year, a 32-year-old man dragged a young woman into the bushes in Olomouc and forced her into oral and anal sex. When he was arrested, he was not charged with rape, but with blackmail. He was sentenced to three years imprisonment; had he been charged with rape, he could have been sentenced to up to eight years. The victim of the attack has still not overecome her shock. She is stil officially ill and receives regular counselling. A doctor's statement was presented to the court, saying that she is unable to testify as a result of her traumatic experience. "The sentence is appropriate," said Judge Petr Bednar. "The maximum sentence for blackmail is three years."

Assault and apathy

Another case of attempted rape, also in Olomouc, has been recently highlighted by Adela Knapova in Respekt, a Czech weekly. The article deserves quoting at some length, perhaps without further comment:

A year ago, Dagmar Frysakova, a student in her second year at the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Olomouc University, told the police that lecturer Jaroslav Svrcek sexually assaulted her at the university. This was the first case of sexual harassment ever dealt with by the Czech courts. After a year of interrogations, statements by psychiatrists and court proceedings Dr Svrcek was found quilty and given a suspended sentence of eight months imprisonment.

That was not the end of the troubles for the student who complained, however. Dr Svrcek has remained a lecturer at the university, and the student is afraid that his colleagues may try to force her to leave the university under some pretext or another. On legal advice she does not want to talk about the case. She admits only that had she known what was in store for her, she would not have gone to the police at all.

When the incident occured, Dagmar Frysakova's wedding was due to take place in a few days' time. Dr Svrcek and student Frysakova went together to a storeroom for some textbooks needed for Frysakova's seminar essay. In the storeroom, Svrcek threw himself on the girl and tried to force her to intercourse. He ejaculated his sperm on her skirt.

The frightened student ran home and, on the insistence of her fiance and her family, went to the police. Svrcek was detained and charged. He defended himself saying that the student had invented everything. While the student stuck to her original story, Svrcek changed his testimony several times, especially after analysis confirmed that the student's skirt did contain human sperm. The lecturer refused to provide blood for analysis to show whether or not it was his sperm. In the end, Svrcek was sentenced to a suspended sentence for blackmail.

Olomouc University left Svrcek in his original post until the beginning of the summer vacation, then he was moved to a job in the university's computing centre.

"People should be much more interested in murderers and thieves rather than me," says Svrcek, "the court has not banned me from doing my work."

Similar views are held by Svrcek's colleagues among the lecturers. Female member of the Academic Senate Dr Tesarikova says: "I feel that the whole matter should not have gone to court. Frysakova should have complained to her department or she should have solved the matter on the spot. She is a very pretty and intelligent young lady, she should have told him to back off it or to give him a slap. That would have been that. After all, Dr Svrcak was not even teaching her that year, so he could not have blackmailed her by refusing to pass her at the exams. She has only made enemies of her lecturers, and it all looks as though she just wanted to become famous."

"It was stupid to go to the police," says another female lecturer at Olomouc University. "Do you know how many times somebody has slapped my bottom here at the university? I have certainly not gone to complain about it. I am not stupid."

Jan Culik, 19 September 1999

The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britske listy.

Other Articles by Jan Culik in CER

Nova TV: The saga continues, 13 September 1999

UK: Central Europeans Keep Out!, 30 August 1999

Czech Public TV: The yellow-bellies, 23 August 1999

Zelezny Pulls the Plug on Czech TV Nova, 16 August 1999

Czech Media and Civil Society: A survey, 16 August 1999

Czech Revival: No Pulse 99, 9 August 1999

Princess Diana, Al Fayed, the CIA and a Czech Spook, 2 August 1999

Nova TV: Commercial success or embarrassing failure?, 2 August 1999

Book Review: Martin Fendrych's Jako ptak na drate, 26 July 1999

A Concrete Example of Muddy Thinking in the Czech Press, 19 July 1999

Press Freedom under Threat, 12 July 1999

Corruption at the Czech Law School, 5 July 1999

The Czech Malaise, 28 June 1999




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