Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 23
29 November 1999

Jan Culik C U L I K ' S  C Z E C H  R E P U B L I C:
A Fistful of Impressions

Jan Culik

On a promotional tour for his new book, Jak Cesi mysli, Jan Culik spent the last ten days or so in the Czech Republic, giving talks and interviews. Here is a mixed bag of his impressions, ranging from the most recent political developments in the Czech Republic to insights he has gained from talking to his readers.

Thank you, please leave

As an expression of the overall popular frustration with the state of politics in the Czech Republic, and on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia, which was celebrated on 17 November, a group of six student leaders from the 1989 Czechoslovak Democratic Revolution published a declaration demanding that all the top politicians in the Czech political parties leave politics. The former revolutionary student leaders are horrified by the current state of Czech politics, and in particular by widespread fraudulent behaviour (including amongst enterpreneurs), and demand a return to honest morals in politics.

This is now about the third or fourth petition demanding improvements in public life in the Czech Republic, but this one seems to have caught the public imagination. Since 17 November, when it was published, it has been signed by more than 100,000 Czech citizens.

Manifestations of independent civic activity are to be applauded. And yet - the current petition raises misgivings.

Most wheeling and dealing in Czech politics takes place in the capital, Prague. Prague is a very small place where everyone knows everyone, and everyone has contacts with everyone else. The same things that applied to Impuls 99 (the last but one declaration demanding a return to public morals, published last summer) also applies to this student leader declaration: the problem is that the proclamation does not include any self-reflection by the authors themselves. It pretends that it has been produced by a group of morally pure individuals who have suddenly appeared on the Czech political scene and are now righteously demanding a return to an impeccably moral politics.

But all the six signatories of the new petitions have lived and acted in Czechoslovakia / Czech Republic over the past ten years. Perhaps the most important signatory, Vlastimil Jezek, was until recently Chief Executive of Czech Public Service radio - the vox populi accuses him of at least some questionable practices which took place in that institution under his management. For instance, Jezek is now calling for honesty and moral behaviour in Czech public life, yet he condoned illicit, informal product placement in the programmes on his radio station. Even now, Czech radio does not regard as advertising any product placement for which it has not received an official contract from the advertiser and for which it has not been officially paid.

Some cynics have expressed the view that all these petitions are really nothing more than attempts by supporters of Czech "right wing" parties to get rid of the current, unloved social democratic government by unconstitutional means. The supporters of smaller "right wing" political parties in particular are deeply disillusioned with the fact that the ruling Social Democrats have concluded a coalition "opposition agreement" with their "arch-enemies", Klaus's Civic Democratic Party.

Many years ago, Fred Eidlin, an American researcher looking into the events of the 1968 Prague Spring argued in his book The Logic of Normalisation that the popular petitions and resolutions with which the public repeatedly overwhelmed the Communist authorities during the 1968 period of liberalisation was basically a Stalinist practice. The habit of producing resolutions and demonstratively signing them in public originated in the early 1950s in Czechoslovakia, when hundreds of thousands of "employees" at workplaces sent open letters to the Party and Government demanding the execution of the unfortunates who had become victims of Stalinist show trials. I find it very difficult to suppress the feeling that many of the current Czech petitions are similarly manipulative. The authors of the "Thank you, please leave!" petition demand the departure of all major Czech politicians with the exception of Vaclav Havel. (Why should Havel be an exception?) Havel himself has supported the demand that the politicians leave, but at the same time he has expressed the view that it would be a bad idea to hold an early general election.

If this is the case, then how is the generational exchange of politicians to take place? Perhaps as a result of internal political haggling in the corridors of power? In my experience, if people are seriously dissatisfied with their politicians an early election takes place and the senior politicians in the defeated parties leave the political scene. At the moment, the "Thank you, please leave!" petition seems to be little more than political posturing. Critics have rightly said that there are very few concrete, constructive ideas in the petition: everything seems to be revolving around a negative emotional charge, an overall feeling of frustration. But intelligent politics cannot be based on emotional outbursts. It remains to be seen whether the petition will crystallise into a concrete political programme and if the six signatories will found (yet another) political party.

It is a problem: the Czech Republic uses the system of proportional representation for elections to the lower house of Parliament. This necessitates political wheeling and deeling amongst parties in the corridors of power. As a result, the concept of political party as such is in serious danger of being discredited. This means that it is very difficult for anyone who wants to introduce some fresh ideas into Czech politics to start out by founding a new political party as they are adhering to a discredited concept. But how else can one proceed in a democracy?

Czechs trust their media

The isolation of the Czechs within the rarified atmosphere of their own small Czech-language based community is a serious handicap, making it difficult for effective, professional and rationally functioning media to arise. The Czechs have very little opportunity to compare how the media function in other societies. This is why most of them regard the dross that is offered to them as media work of good quality. The Czech Institute for the Study of Public Opinion (IVVM) conducted an opinion poll at the beginning of November, according to which 66% of the Czech population thinks that the media broadcast factually correct information. Only 26 per cent think that this is not the case.

"How intelligent are the inhabitants of this Republic, if we accept that a basic pre-requisite of intelligence is the  capability to analyse critically what is on offer?" asks one Prague correspondent.

According to IVVM, 27% of Czechs follow only one particular medium - be it a newspaper or a television station - and form their views entirely on the basis of what they read or hear in that medium. 43% of Czechs compare information from various sources. Some 30% of Czechs assume a critical attitude towards the media.

It is mostly old-age pensioners who are stuck to one particular newspaper or station and allow it to shape their opinions. Younger or better educated Czechs tend to compare and contrast different media sources. However, the more the Czech citizen is educated, the more uncritically (!) is he or she likely to accept what he hears in the media. Only 17% of university educated people distrust the media; 39% of workers and 43% of poor people do not believe what they hear or read.

It would appear that the more successful members of Czech society feel that they have to conform to the establishment ethos of the Czech Republic and support it with all their might. The awareness that critical detachment and doubt, including self-doubt, is the engine of progress, seems to be missing in these people. Critical thinking apparently only appears in Czechs when they are given a jolt by finding themselves out of a job, or in an unpleasant job or in otherwise difficult circumstances. Only meeting with failure awakens critical faculties within them.

I create my own virtual reality and then I use it as a yardstick to measure everything around me

In connection with the publication of selections from the Czech-languge Internet daily, Britske listy, I've just completed a tour of the Czech Republic, where I gave a number of talks and interviews about the book. The most well-attended, the most dynamic and the most friendly was a gathering of some 60 students and lecturers at Ostrava University, which took place on Thursday 25 November. This large industrial city is situated in a region where three different cultures meet: Polish, Slovak and Czech. Perhaps this is why the participants of the Ostrava meeting understood very well when I argued how important it is to compare and contrast different views of reality, as they themselves exist amidst several different national cultures. It is the clash of views coming from different communities that reveals our blindspots.

Perhaps the most challenging and most revealing discussion was one which took place on Wednesday 24 November at the Department of Media Studies of Charles University in Prague. There, I was criticised for creating, in Britske listy, a "periodical for inveterate complainers", an irrelevant dissident ghetto of people who are on principle dissatisfied with everything.

According to this view, Britske listy was an illegitimate periodical because it was not quoted by the Czech media it criticised. "There are no links from Mlada fronta Dnes or Neviditelny pes internet pages to Britske listy," was one criticism levelled. Another was: "When discussing the Czech media, why are you so obsessed with the 'former people' such as Ivan Kytka and Jana Bobosikova?" (Both are highly professional Czech journalists who attempted to improve news and current affairs on Czech public service television, were forced to leave Czech TV and have apparently become, in the eyes of some, professional non-entities).

These reactions seemed to be symptomatic of a certain type of thinking, representative of the Czech establishment. It is, frankly, ludicrous, that the professionalism of people like Ivan Kytka or Jana Bobosikova should be measured by the failures at Czech public service television who have been instrumental in their removal from that station (Ivan Kytka now works for the BBC in London, Jana Bobosikova for Prima TV). As I tried to point out, there are general standards of professionalism which do transcend the narrow norms set by the provincial creatures that control public opinion in Prague.

The people who have raised these questions seem to be representative of those in the Czech Republic who do not feel able to stand on their own and adhere to their independent, individual judgment. There prevails an overall defensive attitude amongst many members of the Prague media establishment. The way they think seems to be as follows: "I do not dare to stand on my own, expressing my own independent judgment. Hence I have joined hands with some other timid creatures. Together we try to blot out reality which threatens to interfere from the outside world. We create a virtual, second-rate, simplified, stereotyped reality. We then strive hard for this virtual reality to be accepted as the only yardstick of what is going on around us. The integrity of anyone who does not subscribe to our virtual reality will be seriously questioned - because, in our small community where we rule, the second rate standards that the virtual reality has imposed on everyone is the ultimate yardstick."

Jan Culik, 14 November 1999

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

Archive of Jan Culik's articles in CER

Publication info: Jak Cesi mysli contains, in fifteen thematic sections, selections from the Czech internet daily Britske listy. The book is published by Millenium Publishers (Chomutov, 1999): 480 pp., ISBN 80-86201-14-7, cost 290 Kc. It can be obtained by sending an e-mail and your credit card number to this address)



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