Vol 1, No 24
6 December 1999

C Z E C H   R E P U B L I C:
If the Dinosaurs Leave

Andrew Stroehlein

(cesky preklad zde)

While the world's eyes were on the demonstrations in Seattle, Czech peepers focused on the impressive demonstrations in Prague. It's still hard to tell, of course, where this movement will lead, but if it is successful, one thing is for certain: those in the Czech media will not know what to do with themselves.

On the face of it, Friday's demonstrations were impressive. 50 to 70 thousand protesters crowded into Wenceslas Square and thousands more met in other cities across the Republic in support of the "Thank You, Now Leave" (Dekujeme, Odejdete) petition organised by several of the student leaders who were active in the 1989 push to topple Communism.

All this came as a bit of a surprise; the newest movement has gathered unusual momentum since the petition's release on 17 November.

Finally, some news, perhaps

I have to admit that I had not been keeping up with current events in the Czech Republic as well as I should recently. Really since my daughter was born ten weeks ago, the Czech newspapers I usually read have been sitting in a great big heap of electrons in my virtual inbox.

Sorting through it all has been something I have long been dreading. In any other country I would consider reading though a few weeks worth of newspapers to be great fun, but the miserable state of the Czech press and the pathetic comedy of Czech politics makes this only a chore.

And, as I began the task, it went much as suspected. I endured the daily game of "Mr Z said this about Mr K" and "Mr K said this about Mr Z" and all the other empty page-filler that passes for news-reporting in the Czech Republic. As usual, I searched in vain for any bit of meaningful discussion about important issues facing the country today. (And doing this on the Internet is even worse as you don't even get the pictures and adverts to enliven the page.)

Even news about the petition, "Thank You, Now Leave," did not strike me as very note-worthy at first. The country has been through this so many times before, after all.

Petition repetition

This latest petition drive seemed like just that - simply the latest petition drive. Just another petition to steal the tiny-print headlines on page eight from the last petition whose name escapes me at the moment - as it does most everyone else's.

Here was the same old lament about the lack of morals in politics (sic!); the call for a stronger civil society - all in all, the depressing sight of yet another micro-movement aiming to change the world with a few signatures.

And even after this movement has proven itself able to bring tens of thousands into the streets, the whole thing could be just as much of a flop as the other has-been petition movements in the Czech Republic. Until the leaders of one of these here-one-day-gone-the-next movements decide to stop mucking about with signatures and actually get down to forming a political party, the entrenched political establishment will be free to ignore them. Creating a new political party and threatening their power is the only way they will take notice.

Such a warped and naive view of politics on the part of the petition-lovers is, sadly, a legacy of Charter 77. But while a mild public petition in a closed society is a strong statement, and specifically declaring yourselves not to be a party is a shrewd move for a parallel political organisation in a totalitarian state, things should work differently in a democracy - even a flawed one such as that in the Czech Republic. When you have the freedom to form a political party and when thousands of people are basically begging you to form one, why play the petition game?

Becoming specific

However, even before the crowds started to gather, the "Thank You, Now Leave" petition did have one unique feature that set it apart from earlier efforts: this petition is more specific.

The most specific demand is for the leaders of the main political parties to step down. This call is primarily aimed at the leaders of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the Czech Social Democrats (CSSD), Vaclav Klaus and Milos Zeman respectively, partners in the irregular "Opposition Agreement" which allows for some power-sharing under a Social Democratic government and promises changes to the Constitution which will likely reduce the powers of the President and strengthen the tendency toward a two-party system.

There are also specific demands for the resignation of the entire government and a call for new elections, though Friday's demonstrators did pick out the two leaders in particular as the primary clogs in the Czech political plumbing. While few could say a list of two undesirable politicians was long enough to promise real change, it does seem a good idea to start at the top and to state specifically that those two should not hang around any longer.

Of course, the political party leaders are trying their best to ignore the crowds of the disaffected. And as public desperation boosts popular support for the generally unrepentant Communist Party, the arrogance of those in power is made even more plain: on Sunday 5 December, Vaclav Klaus, running unopposed, was re-elected leader of the his sycophantic party at the ODS conference.

Milos Zeman, Tweedle Dum to Klaus's Tweedle Dee in the widely despised "Opposition Agreement," flatly refused to resign, suggesting that the peaceful protesters were anarchists, skinheads and Communists and declaring that no demonstration, no matter its size or composition, could bring about a change of political leadership.

Funny about 1989 then, no?

The hapless Czech media

It is too early to tell whether these activists of 1989/99 will finally put their boots on, form a political party and be taken seriously. It is doubtful that Klaus and Zeman are just going to walk away without a fight, but pity the poor members of the Czech media if they do.

What would the Czech media do without Klaus and Zeman, after all? Where would they be without their bread-and-butter story of what Messrs K and Z said about each other yesterday?

And what if some of the other political goons, losers and hangers-on around Klaus and Zeman also heed the public's call for mass resignation? How would Czech journalists even know what to write about in the absence of vitriolic exchanges between the seasoned substance-evaders? What would Czech commentators comment on if not personalities and personal rivalries?

Heaven forbid the Czech media might actually have to discuss real issues.

Andrew Stroehlein, 5 December 1999

Andrew Stroehlein's past articles for CER can be found here.


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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Anglo-American College, Prague,   January 2000:
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