Central Europe Review: politics,

society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 24
6 December 1999

Kazi Stastna C Z E C H  R E P U B L I C:
"Youth Biedermeier" It Ain't

Kazi Stastna

If I ignore the guesstimate of the first pair of police officers I asked - who were either putting me on or had never got the hang of basic math - then the number of people who gathered in Prague's Wenceslas square this past Friday to show their support for the "Thank you, Now Leave" (read petition here) initiative fell between 50,000 and 70,000. It is safe to say the numbers surprised all - organisers, participants, politicians and media.

While recent similar initiatives such as this summer's Impuls 99 petered out after an initial hurrah, this recent "appeal" seems to have struck a chord. Aside from the growing discontentment of the electorate, its success seems to be due to a combination of the attractiveness of the young initiators, untainted by the Communist past many members of the older generation feel - or have been convinced - they will never be able to shed, and the group's ability to mobilise support in the regions, hitting up centres such as Hradec Kralove, Plzen, Pardubice and Brno (all places in which several thousand demonstrators turned up for Friday's protest).

And while the pure numbers ensured that the square in Prague was teeming with all the ingredients of a "mass" demonstration, the gathering had very much a calm air of respectability rather than hysteria or disobedience. In fact, at times it came closer to a Christmas mass than a political protest. Appropriately beginning with the Choral of St Vaclav and even replete with a confessional. The latter came via one of the demonstration's main organisers and signatories of the appeal, Igor Chaun. The film director confessed to the crowd that he no longer felt the same way about the hero of his laudatory documentary of Civic Democratic Party (ODS) leader Vaclav Klaus, Lecba Klausem (Healing by Klaus), which he made at the beginning of the 1990s. And although he qualified his repentance by claiming the film was not a tribute to Klaus per se but to right-wing politics and the fight against Communism, he did admit that the Klaus of today was not the same person, that he had "changed incredibly." It was a cleansing and an admission - however slight - of error, which many in the crowd could surely relate to, remembering, and now regretting, their own premature and unquestioning faith in Klaus.

Following his confessional, Chaun read out a supposed "internal" memo sent by Klaus on the subject of the "Thank You. Now Leave" initiative, in which he described its initiators and supporters as "adversaries" and "apolitical politicians" and to which Chaun answered: "We are not your adversaries. We are free citizens expressing our opinion."

The religious air was strengthened by the appearance of popular Catholic priest and theologian Tomas Halik, who also called up the demon of Klaus, by recalling the huge looming billboard with the leader's face which hung ominously in the place where Stalin's statute once stood during the 1998 Senate election campaign.

There was no doubt that the gathering was clad in morality rather than rowdyism; the words "virtue" and "decency" were heard more often than revolution. At one point an appeal for "transparent and nice politics" even came from the stage. Only the young dishevelled youths standing behind me, clad in faded military greens - the uniform of rowdies the world over - yelling out "Long live Seeeetle" and "There is no democracy in capitalism," disrupted the dignified proceedings.

This prevailing rather civilised atmosphere seemed to clash slightly with the portrait of the "former student leaders of revolution" that had been dominating the media coverage of "Thank You, Now Leave." This coverage had defined the initiators primarily in terms of their past, with their current occupation rarely being mentioned at all. Yet as pointed out in article written by Jiri Penas in issue #48 (22 - 28 November 1999) of the weekly Respekt, this past was perhaps not as turbulent as the oft-repeated misnomer of "former student leaders" would imply.

Penas points out that the atmosphere at the universities in 1989 was more one of conformity and the apolitical rather than the revolutionary one evoked in the recent wave of admiration for the "student leaders." "Youth Biedermeier" is the term he uses to describe this atmosphere, in which disinterest in anything outside of the immediately private sphere predominated among the majority of students. Thus, the talk surrounding the "17 November generation" seems to be misguided, no matter on which side of the date one chooses to look, since the pre- 89 conformity described by Penas turned into the post-89 conformity predominant among the "Thank You, Now Leave" initiators' generation, where any one speaking out against the status quo of the "new right" is labelled an "anarchist," "leftist" or, god forbid, an "environmentalist."

It is perhaps on account of this rather ambiguous and perhaps not all that revolutionary past (and present) that the "former student leaders" have clung so strongly to a favourite and easy target - Communism.

In the days leading up to Friday's demonstration its organisers had shown a certain amount of paranoia in attempting to deflect any support coming their way from the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM). This paranoia was displayed in all its glory in the slogan found on the posters advertising the Prague demonstration, in which its organisers evoked the same rhetoric as their most-hated enemies: "Bring your Christmas bells - Communists stay home." The irony of using such language when calling for a more "decent" politics seems to have escaped both organisers and participants.

During the protest itself, they tempered their railings slightly and focused on the victimisation of the voters - pointing out that the politicians have forced the disconcerted voters to stray and vote KSCM. Although some organisers such as Monika Pajerova could not help but evoke the boogie man, announcing forebodingly that the country was at a crossroads that would decide whether the citizens of the Czech Republic "...go back to the East or together back to the West."

And although many a nasty word was found for the Communist Party, the organisers got squeamish at any talk of forming a political party themselves, choosing instead to put the focus on the citizen, imploring all citizens to visit their MPs, pose questions, air their concerns and start holding their political representatives accountable.

Somehow, however, this did not seem to be enough for the majority of voters assembled at the demonstration. Once the last strains of the national anthem ended - also a strange sign of protest - primarily members of the older generation stayed behind to hold impromptu discussions with the organisers, imploring them to form a political party and promising "We'll support you, and so will many others." Martin Mejstrik, one of the main initiators, shied away from any political responsibility and tried to counter people's "Finish what you started" sentiments by pointing out that by coming to the demonstration citizens have taken on just as much responsibility as the organisers.

Perhaps the civic initiatives mentioned so often throughout the demonstration will work, if at least some of the organisers and citizens present are willing to take up some of the more tedious work of lobbying MPs and watchdog legislation, budgets and other Parliamentary procedures. Whether Chaun, Mejstrik and their colleagues will give up their day jobs - which are as varied as filmmaker and entrepreneur - and devote themselves to the kind of ground-level democracy of which they speak remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, even if the civic initiatives do get off the ground and have some impact, there is still one question left unanswered: if in their appeal organisers call for early elections but claim to not want to form a political party, and if there is obviously no call for change of leadership within the parties themselves - as evidenced by Sunday's re-election of Vaclav Klaus as leader of the ODS, for example - then who are all these fed up and eager voters to vote for?

Kazi Stastna, 5 December 1999


Text of the movement: "Thank You, Now Leave"

One of the leaders of the current protest movement is Igor Chaun, who was interviewed by CER's Kazi Stastna last year. Click here to read that interview.



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